Hitched: What Does It Mean To Be A Wife?
I’ve been putting off making the trip to the county clerk’s office to see about getting Patrick and I common-law married. In order for me to be enrolled on his health insurance, Patrick’s employers need some kind of governmentally sanctioned proof that we’re not just total liars. The process in Texas for proving you’re not a total liar is pretty simple: you tell the government that you’re not a total liar, sign a piece of paper, and they believe you. Suddenly, marriage!
This one little trip that I can’t seem to make is probably one of the most important things I could be doing just about now. And yet here I sit in my lacy black silk pajamas (Fancy Lady Obsessed With “Downton Abbey” So She Bought Some Nice Underthings Alert!), drinking coffee and fending off keyboard-fascinated cats instead of achieving the twofer of making my relationship more legitimate in the eyes of the government and ensuring that I have proper health coverage.
Though to be fair, I also buy extra underwear so that I can go a month without hitting the laundromat, so know that I am a world-class procrastinator of some renown. It’s not that I have apprehensions about becoming a wife.
What does that even mean? “Wife” is easily the wedding-related word I’ve thought about least since getting engaged in September. And yet, when we’re married in April, a wife is what I’ll be.
The word itself doesn’t have immediately positive connotations for me. You say “wife,” and what I imagine is a long-suffering Alice Kramden or permanently put-upon June Cleaver. A string of women in skirt-suits standing stoically next to their husbands during embarrassing adultery-related press conferences. I think of bland casseroles in the oven. I think of screaming kids in the yard. Picket fences and that kind of shit.
You say wife? I don’t think of Andrea Grimes, freelance journalist, Scramble with Friends champion and cat lady, sipping Knob Creek over ice at the end of a long day before settling into an “Antiques Roadshow” marathon. I don’t think of Andrea Grimes, happily partnered feminist who loves to make party snacks on sticks and go to mid-day yoga. I don’t even think of Andrea Grimes, a woman in love with a man she’s marrying in two-and-a-half months.
In their most damning pop culture iteration (which, if you’ve got a free weekend, check out The Meaning Of Wife for a fantastic background thereon) wives are, first, white ladies. Women of color have been classically cast, in real life and in media, as sexually loose and then by definition, unwifely. And these white wives? They’re asexual, unappreciated domestic workers whose whole existence centers on tasks that begin, grudgingly, in the bedroom and end at the mailbox at the end of the front walk. They are tied down by child-rearing and housework, but simultaneously supposed to want nothing more than to do only those things.
So, who is Wife? She’s Betty Draper (“Mad Men”), Laura Petrie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”), Carmela Soprano (“The Sopranos”). She’s Skyler White (“Breaking Bad”). In more encouraging portrayals, she’s Tami Taylor (“Friday Night Lights”) and Roseanne. And she’s almost always the answer to the question, “Hey, who was the mom in that?”
Which is where I tend to get hung up on the whole future-wife fantasy thing, even with pop culture wives I love, like Tami and Roseanne. I have no intention of becoming a mother. So what does that mean for me as a wife? Pop culture certainly doesn’t have a lot of answers, but neither does real life.
It’s difficult to write about wifedom without talking about motherhood. And no, I’m not going to go into some long explanation and justification for why I don’t want to have children. I’m simply not interested in it, and if you don’t believe me, I sure don’t give a fuck.
One of the things that brought me to feminism was the movement’s refusal to accept scripts and social prescriptions. And one of the things I love about feminism is the ability to participate in paradigm shifts simply by living your life, because (let’s all say it together now!) the personal is political. I’m excited about being a new kind of wife, a wife who doesn’t automatically belong alongside the words “and mother.”
Because if I can do it, somebody else can do it, too. And if a bunch of us do it, and we all navigate a new kind of lady-life, maybe more women will feel comfortable following new or different paths. If there’s one thing scripts can do, it’s make people who don’t or can’t fit in feel awful. And there are few paths more prescriptive than that of traditional heterosexual marriage — just have a look at the wedding website The Knot. Pass your wedding date and welcome emails from: home decorating web site The Nest and pregnancy web site The Bump. I hope no one joins before they discover they are The Broke or The Infertile.
In my experience, having children is the standard choice and desire of most people, and there are a number of available scripts, most of them culturally positive, for those who choose to do so. And it’s exciting to see moms and dads (and moms and moms and dads and dads!) creating new parenting and family paradigms as more couples share domestic and professional responsibilities instead of relegating Mom/Wife to one space and Dad/Husband to another.
But what if we become more familiar with wives-not-moms? What if we become more comfortable with husbands-not-dads? What if they are more happy as aunties? More doting as uncles? And less pressure on anyone to do anything, reproductively speaking, that they’re not totally jazzed about? What if child-free people weren’t looked at with confusion or pity or derision? I’m not arguing for a permanent adult-swim wherein the parents of America have to serve me whiskey shots while I masturbate in public and shoot guns and cuss. I just don’t want to have kids, y’all. It’s that simple. So what does that mean for me, as a future wife? What does it mean for my relationship with Patrick? What will it mean for us to be married, but to opt out of one of marriage’s classic tenets?
I know some people would say we’re just eating from the buffet of patriarchal pressure, sampling as it suits us, and the righteous thing to do would be to refuse marriage and be radically together-but-not-married if the real goal is to help create a new world of partnerships.
And that’s a fair criticism, and it might be true. I don’t know. Maybe you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Audre Lorde is pretty fucking righteous, y’all. But I also know there’s some real power in just acting like your shit is as normal as anyone else’s, which forces haters to explain themselves while you just do whatever it was you were doing, no big deal. It’s not like what Patrick and I are doing is actually weird or crazy. In fact, it’s terribly boring and normal, when you take the whole no-kids thing out of it. But when a lot of people do something like marriage on their own terms, I think the sum of the effort really does make a difference.
When I look at my friends who are wives, I see so many different people doing so many different things. I see breadwinner wives. I see wives raising beautiful kids. I see wives married to wives. I see wives with impeccable domestic skills and wives who leave the bathrooms to their husbands. I see wives who would totally kill me for calling them a wife, and wives who would get “wife” tattooed on their foreheads if they could. Though I would probably caution them against it or at least try to steer them toward something more tasteful, like a neck tattoo.
I think the married people I know really are figuring out something new. So it’s exciting to get married in a time when, at least in my own family and social circle, I think I will get to help expand the definition of — and for me, rehabilitate — the term “wife.”
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