The Myth of the “Perfect Wife”


Last night, I was huddled under a blanket, shivering with a high fever brought on by the arch nemesis of nursing moms everywhere: mastitis. Simultaneously, I was texting my husband, trying to keep the three older kids corralled, and bouncing the baby to keep her happy.

I was absolutely miserable and couldn’t wait for my husband to come home to help me (why do I always think of it that way no matter how many feminist flags I fly?) And yet when he finally did — of course it was his night to work super late — I was overcome with guilt about letting him take over.

Guilt! In the midst of being completely ill, I felt guilt.

Guilt for asking him to cook dinner, guilt for letting him clean up dinner, guilt for him handling bedtimes alone, guilt for tucking myself into bed at the unheard-of hour of 10pm, guilt when I woke up this morning, still feeling like death, whereupon I sheepishly uttered the words “Thank you.”

I felt even more guilt when he looked back at me quizzically and said, “Thank you? For what? You were sick …”

And intellectually I knew he was right. Having him help when I’m sick is a no-brainer. `Cuz when you’re sick, you’re sick.

But it’s not that simple — not for moms anyways. When we’re sick, it feels like a luxury to actually have another body in the house to take care of the kids and give us any time to rest.

Being sick when you’re a mom is never a no-brainer.

Sometimes I feel like I am living in two different worlds — the world where I extoll the virtues of an equal marriage, one in which my husband would think nothing of me “clocking out” for a night because I’m sick and the real world, where it’s an unspoken rule in marriage that there’s nothing at all equal about the fact that getting sick makes me feel guilty.

It’s like in my head, I know there’s no such thing as a perfect wife — but in my reality, I still feel like I should be one.

But where did this image of the “perfect wife,” the one so ingrained into my subconscious that I would feel badly for skipping the dishes one measly night come from?

“Not as tenaciously embedded in women’s unconsciousness as Donna Reed, she is a model of womanhood neither defined by man nor assessed solely through a patriarchal gaze,” writes Dalma Heyn in the Erotic Silence of The American Wife.

Or, in other words, women are as much as to blame for the image of the “perfect wife” as men.

My own image of The Perfect Wife certainly did not come from my own mother, a woman ahead of her time in balancing work and family, a woman who has always worked full-time, brings home the bacon, but yet most definitely does not cook it up. It’s certainly not in any literature I have gorged myself on over the years, beginning with my earliest introduction to the feminine mystique of Nancy Drew. It could be from some deep-seeded insecurity in comparison to my mother-in-law, a woman who is the quintessential “perfect wife” in every way, but I’m pretty sure I had the idea of what the “perfect wife” was long before I met her and experienced her home-cooked meals.

She could be traced back to the Biblical ideal of the perfect, virtuous wife, to the very real “Angel” wife of Victorian times that Victoria Woolf longed to kill off, or perhaps to our modern image of the ideal female mate.

But one way or the other, we know a few things about our image of the “Perfect Wife”—

She is a domestic goddess, an image of peace and calm, ever-loving and tireless, beautiful, even in that after-birth blissful way that so few achieve, selfless to a fault, probably someone who doesn’t get sick but if she does, in a cute flannel pj’s and sniffles kind of way, flawless and funny, adventurous in the bedroom, the perfect hostess, and the kind of person who genuinely enjoys doing the dishes —

Oh, and one more —

Also completely unrealistic.

Image via j&j brusie photography

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