Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Wifely Expectations

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Another quick post as the children are restless. When I hear about writers making 'great sacrifices' for their art such as up holing up in cabins in the woods or hotels while they churn out their novels, I must say it irritates me a little; the real test is trying to write while rocking the baby in one arm and swatting the pre-schooler away from the Delete key with the other.

But something is bothering me and I think that it warrants mention even though I feel a little like a one-note drummer. It's the Housewife thing again. Like a wasp at a picnic, it's annoying and it won't go away. It also seems innocuous enough until it stings.

Yesterday, I had Dr. Phil on as I tried to decide which box to thaw out for dinner. His program was on Wifestyles and was a follow-up to an earlier show featuring a guest named Wayne who had suggested his spouse needed "wife lessons" because she was unable to follow his long list of requirements for wives.

I turned up the volume, because someone had just forwarded to me The Smoking Gun article on the crazy guy facing criminal charged in Iowa for attempting to kidnap his wife (among other things) who had drafted a very disturbing "Contract of Wifely Expectations".

"That must be the guy!" I thought as Phil reintroduced us to Grant and his 75-point list of requirements which included: "organizing closets; organizing hallway closet; keep the car clean; grocery shopping; cook efficiently; use the oven; use the stove; get rid of the stuff you don't use or need; sew; mend; wash; load and use the washing machine properly; basic routine maintenance on washer, dryer, oven, dishwasher, fridge, freezer, toaster; decorate windows; weekly and monthly cleaning; positioning of furniture; organize videos and DVDs; organize CDs; organize the linen; stock the linen; sanitize the bathrooms; cook Mexican food; get country dance lessons, Latin dance lessons, hip-hop dance lessons; and do preventative maintenance relating to common household items." Grant wanted his wife to dress sexier and had suggested that she wash his truck in her bathing suit and have breast augmentation surgery. He graded her cooking abilities. And not only did Grant feel that his wife should do all 75 things on his list (in addition to caring for their three children), but that all wives should be subjected to the same expectations: "those are just things I thought that a wife in general would need to know. . . . A wife staying at home [with children] ought to be able to handle those things." Scary.

But the really scary part was that Phil's guest was not the crazy Iowa guy. In fact, there was no mention of the crazy Iowa guy; the timing, so it seemed, was pure coincidence. Phil had done a follow-up show because "When Grant and Kelly were on the show, they ignited a huge debate over the topic of what defines a good wife." Debate? What exactly was there to debate?

There was, of course, the view that Grant was wrong. That expecting his partner to do all of the cooking and cleaning and dress up in sexy little numbers and take hip hop lessons after caring for their three children all day was ridiculous. But then a viewer named Amy voiced her opinion (as did thousands of others) that Grant's wife was indeed shirking her responsibilities and not doing her "job": "I think that what happens a lot of times in marriages is you come to an agreement of one person staying at home and one person taking on that responsibility, then the stay-at-home person, whether it's the mom or the dad, gets into the situation, realizes it's a lot harder than what they expected, and then doesn't want to be held accountable for their choices of being responsible in that role."

Ugh. And here we go again. That role. When exactly did the role of full-time, at-home caregiver morph into that of "housewife"? Why is it that there is an assumption that the person looking after the children is responsible for absolutely everything having to do with running a household? Sure, when grape juice gets spilled, it makes sense for the person there to wipe it up before it dries into a sticky mess. And, with a baby, laundry must be done. Frequently. But this notion that if someone is at home, everyone else in the family is "off the hook" when it comes to domestic activities seems so strange. And the expectation that the person at home will do all of this work with a smile while wearing sexy clothes is unsettling.

It is especially unsettling when we hear it from other women. On the original "wifestyles" show, one of the guests offered the following advice to "other stay-at-home moms": “Be the woman your husband wants you to be. Before he comes home: dress up, clean up, have a hot meal waiting for him when he gets home. Have a shoe basket by the door to keep the floor clean, so you don’t busy yourself mopping and sweeping, so you’re with him. If your husband reaches for you, grab tighter. If he kisses you, kiss longer. If your husband loves you, love him more. There’s nothing more a husband wants than a loving wife and a good meal.” Be a Total Woman. Be a Happy Housewife. Surrender to marriage. Biology is destiny.

On the face of it, perhaps it doesn't seem harmful. You are a woman. A mom. Look after the kids. Vacuum the drapes. Look pretty. You man doesn't want to come home to a mess at the end of a hard day. What's the big deal? And if everyone were smart and rational and reasonable and well-intentioned, perhaps it would be fine. But we live in a world with Grant and with the creepy Iowa guy. And women supporting -- trumpeting -- the message that motherhood somehow equals servitude isn't fine at all.


Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.


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Well said, I totally agree. And you didn't even touch on the part about how a "good" housewife is supposed to do all this for FREE. I wish someone would grade these men on how well they are in their role... how good a monetary provider are you? Do you take an active part in society, a leadership role in furthering civilization? I could go on but my head hurts now.
My question is: whatever happened to the kids in these discussions? One of the many, many issues I have with "wifely expectations" is that it not only makes the wife into basically her husband's servant (and yeah, you bet I'd love to have one of those too, but good help is soooo hard to find), it makes her into her children's servant too. The kids in these households are going to grow up into slobs--rotten roomates and worse spouses, people who have no idea of how to scrub a toilet or even why toilets need to be scrubbed, spending a small fortune on clothes because they won't know how to take care of the clothes they have. Even toddlers can sort socks (and they like doing it). Show those 9 year olds a broom and how to use it! Explain how the iron works! Teach them to cook simple meals! Clearly, if you are married to a man who thinks like this, you have a great deal of educating to do (assuming you stick around to do it). But children can be taught. Just because dad is a lost cause is no reason to ruin the next generation, too. Besides, after the divorce, you're probably gonna have to let the cleaning service go anyway.--tracy thompson
Let the women willing to be servants-go right ahead. As long as there are woman that are comfortable with that type of relationship-there will always be men to make contracts for them. I want to know how these dudes got dates, let alone a spouse.
I think we sjould be able to find a middle ground somewhere! I am a "housewife". I am because I want to be. I look on it as my job to look after the house - and it's also my job to teach my 3 kids how to look after the house too. They live here too. the flow on effect is that by doing it all willingly (yes, with a smile) my husband is more inclined to help out. If I don't complain about my day, he doesn't complain about his day. All in all, we have a happier, more peaceful household since I came to the conclusion that it was time for me to be a happy housewife. I am lucky, I get to look after my family and I still have plenty of time to pursue my hobbies, and maintain my friendships. It's all about balance. But I think that if you want to be a stay at home mom, then you have to take some responsibility for the home that you are bringing your children up in.
I don't suppose Dr. Phil told Grant to "get real." Someone should. Ladies, perhaps we should present Grant with a 75-point list of expectations for husbands? Let's start with: - Shower and shave every day. Rinse your whiskers down the drain. - Stop wearing underwear with holes in it -- take some pride, for God's sake. - Take your wife out for dinner every Saturday night. Someplace nice -- McDonald's and Denney's don't count. - When your wife prepares that Mexican meal for you, don't snarf it down in three bites. Display some couth while eating, even in your own home. - Look your wife in the eye over the dinner table, ask how her day was, and listen to the answer. Every night. - Keep all electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems in the home in good working order at all times. - Play with the kids after work. Help them with their homework on the weekends. - Put your socks in the dirty-clothes hamper. - Clean out the garage twice a year. Who else would like to add to the list?
I don't think I've ever heard that point before, that choosing to be a primary caregiver for children should not automatically require being a full-time housekeeper as well. In fact, professional nannies do not do housework except, as mentioned above, those spot tasks that are incidental to caring for children. Sad that all the media coverage is once again about exactly how much and which kinds of servitude should be expected from women, rather than questioning the underlying idea that all un(der)valued labour should be performed by only half of the population.
Hey, I'd love to get some of that "oh, poor dear, you were working hard in the office all day - let me take care of all the housework" action. Seriously, I honestly can't figure out how these attitudes are not only surviving but proliferating into the 21st century...
As a SAHM... I say Up yours Grant! I'm lucky if I get the laundry done and the dishes in the dishes washer and a meal cooked. AND if the so called head of household ain't home at 6 to eat it...nuke it buddy, we're eating. As for dressing sexy take me some plcae once and awhile and I might dress up. Not sexy but nice. Lucky my husband is not like that. I guess I'm lucky! SIGH..Slap him.
Don't we ever get tired of grousing around about housework? I think it is shameful that a man was reduced to going on national tv to try to persuade his wife to perform those little tasks that make all our lives easier. If she wasn't married and had to support herself all those jobs that were listed would be hers in addition to working at an outside job. She would have to schedule her life around what her boss (that didn't love nor care personally for her) wanted. When I worked full time, I did not have a beautiful work environment ( I worked in a hospital), I regularly did NOT receive a break during my 12 hour shift(as shift super I covered for others during their breaks), I performed the work that was required by my department head and the doctors and made sure my shift workers did as well, I was not allowed to leave until my replacement came( which put me at the mercy of my not-so-punctual coworker), I had to eat when time allowed( not when I was hungry) and what was available at work( if I didn't bring leftovers from home). On my days off I completed everything that this man had on his list (okay, I didn't have the breast augmentation). My life (free time) revolved around my job. Meaning, I scheduled all my free time around when I was told I needed to be at work. So now I have a new job, I only have to do half the work I did before. I still do all the cooking, cleaning, and organizing, but I don't have to work outside the home. The biggest benefit is that my job is doing the work of living I would have to do anyway. In essence, I'm killing two birds with one stone. By my doing these jobs, my husband and I can each have more time to enjoy our free time.
I think a better way to handle it would be "what do we all want, as a family" - make a list - and then "what will all our parts be." Sometimes that may break down along traditional lines - i.e. caregiver does lots of household maintenance - and sometimes not. I am currently at home with our first child (on mat leave) and I don't mind picking up the housework. But I expect that if I suddenly did, or if we had more children, or any number of things, that we would renegotiate.
The men and women who advocate this sort of servile role for wives seem to value only the employment that actually pays cash, instead of viewing their family as a unit in which one member works outside the home, another works inside it and both take an equal role in maintaining the family unit. The employed husband of a stay-at-home mom is not hiring her to take care of his children and his home, he is performing one vital task (bringing in money) and she is performing another (caring for children/acting as the manager of a household(as a rule)), both roles are necessary in this arrangement. Sure, if a woman and her husband who do not have children agree that she will care for the home and take care of the details of his life while he brings home the money, then he has a right to expect her to keep her end of the bargain. If that is what they have explicitly agreed. If the couple has children, and she is primarily responsible for them, then childcare is her primary job and aside from household tasks associated with that childcare (wiping up spills, making lunches etc), the rest of the housework needs to be negotiated and fit in around the TWO full time jobs in that household (paid and unpaid). It is just so irritating to me that after all this time it still comes down to who does the dishes, that there are still so many women asking 'what's the big deal?', that there are so many men who feel entitled to full-time, unpaid, bikini-clad labour from their wives. By the way, Mrs. N - No, we will never get tired of grousing about housework because many men seem to feel that they have a 'right' to avoid the maintenance work for their own lives, that clean socks and hot dinners should appear without any thought or effort on their part. The difference in a married woman and a single woman performing these tasks is that a single woman is doing the housework for herself whereas married women are often expected to do the housework for herself and her husband. Why should he get to avoid the dirty work?
I'm new to this; please have patience with my faux pas when they come. I've been reading Jen's comments on housewifing and Flossy's on accepting responsibility. I don't want to go in circles but there was no statement in Jen's posting that even suggested the person staying home shouldn't be responsible. But let's face it: the person staying at home isn't the only one living in the house, so why should she (or he in some cases) be solely responsible for its upkeep? Wy does work get to stop for some at 5.00 p.m. but a housewife is supposed to work until she drops? And that's what she will do if she is actually expected to keep up with all these things. Imagine what would happen if thousands of housewives across the country clocked out at 5 and refused to return until 8 the next morning...The sad thing is that in reality many people would probably have lots to say about her "turning her back on her family"--why is it that those husbands who do the same thing every day never hear the same criticism?
This is one of the most disturbing things I have read in a long time. Are we in the U.S.? Is this the 50's? This man is not talking about his partner as a human, he is talking about her as a servant, fantasy, slave and slut. He is teaching his children to objectify her as well and by her acceptance of this objectification, she is teaching them the same. A woman, as a mother, must make some the hardest choices in her life, especially in a situation like this. If one accepts standards that lower her to object in front of children, she has created a legacy that will live far beyond the lifetime of her partner. It is a matter of intelligent contemplation and long term cause and effect. Make a man 'happy' now but create long term habits in humans, who go on to treat others in this way, or stand up for what is right now (making one man unhappy in the process)? When we look at the situation from the view of long term benefits, choices are easier to make. Mothers are key, through them all life originates. A society that does not get this (and honor it) is a society fast on the demise. Each woman must face these truths and act with courage. This is not the 50's and this is the U.S., we have freedom and power, this is the time to use it and then help others do the same.
This is one of the many reasons I will never get married again. I was married for 8 years and despite my best intentions, becoming a "wife" made me feel I had a responsibility to play the role. There were many reasons my marriage ended, but I am convinced one of them was my inability to take care of myself and be my true self as a result of wifely expectations - mine and his. I am in a long-term relationship now with a wonderful man that I call my partner. Neither of us has expectations about the role we are "supposed" to play, and we like it that way.
Mrs. N said: "I think it is shameful that a man was reduced to going on national tv to try to persuade his wife to perform those little tasks that make all our lives easier." I saw both shows. Actually, his wife did perform all those "little tasks" -- no small feat, considering she had three kids under the age of 3 or four. It was the "way" she did those tasks -- he wanted her to do them HIS way, as if his was the only way to do it. He was demeaning and disrespectful to his wife. I'm surprised they're still married, frankly. When he had to take care of the kids for a day, he acted like a grown baby about how hard it was. I'm with you, other poster, I don't know how this guy even got a date with this woman, much less convinced her to marry him.
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