In an earlier post I wrote about the basic requirements of being a Doctor’s Wife*. This is all well and good in my case – I happily conform to these requirements in the interest of caring for my partner. Their emotional labour, physical exertion, and committing to a career that will require a lifetime of scholarship and risk is something which merits a little extra effort on my part.
I make sure to remind my partner on semi-regular occasions of this extra effort, as part of my desire to remain a positive role-model for young women who abhor the idea of marriage being a state of romantic servitude.
Yet, aside from the basic expectation of ‘love your partner enough to commit yourself to being by their side, ’til death‘, what else is involved and why?
In my social circle I was among the first ‘wave’ of my peers to get married. Myself, and two other classmates from my graduating class, all got married within the same 12 month period. We are considered the ‘young’ brides. People occasionally ‘tutted’ at us, assuming we made the commitment under a blanket of naivete and ignorance. A lifetime of commitment to one guy? I recall a friend saying after I announced my engagement, Isn’t that like leaving the Party at 9pm?
What the friend meant, in context, was that they couldn’t fathom my desire to ‘settle down’ so early. Monogamy had massive drawbacks for a young 20-something woman in Australia, such as the inability to freely go to clubs and choose the best-looking person on the dance floor to flirt with. I was no longer free to ‘play the field’, and was understandably tethering myself to a contract of ‘good behaviour’ far earlier than my peers. I can’t just take my things and leave for a foreign country without first consulting my partner and their ability to take holiday leave… and the decision of where I wanted to live and work have to take into account the preferences of my partner.
Sure, I saw my friends’ point of view. Yet my friends couldn’t comprehend my point of view, or the fact that we had all been raised with antiquated expectations for marriage. After all, ‘Wifehood’ is readily portrayed in the media as a stodgy requirement that you fulfil as you approached 30 and lost a conventional sense of attractiveness. The wedding was glamorous, yes, but the life ever after?
There’s a reason most Disney movies end after the bride and groom ride off into the sunset.
Novels like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was hardly my first experience with the sexist requirements often imposed on women during their marriage. The book emphasised this point, by literally sitting the Mary-Sue main character in her Husband’s lap – nameless, ambition-less, and firmly terrified of her husband’s disapproval. Disagree with me if you want, but I have an entire arsenal of analysis from my High School English class to dump on my readers in support of this argument.
How about something a little more familiar to Australian readers – Neighbours. A long-running character Susan Kennedy was perhaps the most visible ‘wife’ I was ever exposed to, the TV-Soap portrayed Mrs Kennedy as the most repressed Doctor’s Wife I’ve ever witnessed. Cheated on, isolated, and left to spiral into destructive behaviour unchecked by her loved ones, Susan Kennedy has portrayed everything wrong with the concept of suburban wifehood. Stuck in a box of conformity and only ‘permitted’ to branch out in socially acceptable, small doses; being a wife in suburbia appeared to me as a fresh kind of hell. Sure, this was in the setting of a TV drama with occasionally ridiculous plot lines, but I digress.
Alright, back to literature. Charlotte Lucas, anyone? The ‘perfect wife’ who settled for an otherwise odious man because he had property and social standing? Or how about Amy from Little Women, who agrees to marry the boy who spent most of his time trying to catch the attention of her older sister (only to describe her courtship as learning to ‘manage’ him)?
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was sexist enough in its premise without actually watching the movie and discovering the manner in which the First Wife – Milly – ‘handled’ her new in-laws. Her ‘job’ was to cook and clean for her husband and all six of his brothers. Hooray?
Naturally, 20-year-old-me was desperate to find any evidence of a positive portrayal of ‘wifehood’ in media. Was there anyone worth referencing as a ‘good role model’ for what I wanted to portray?
Naturally, discovering characters like Joyce Barnaby was one of the many reasons why I adore Midsomer Murders. A supportive wife, loving mother and active member of the community, Joyce Barnaby is clearly her own woman and very much a strong influence on her partner despite her clear lack of qualifications to solve murders. Joyce is everywhere and everything to her husband. The wiki page simply doesn’t do her justice – Joyce pieces bits of evidence together and asks the real questions whenever she’s presented the opportunity. She’s hardly surprised by anything towards her husband’s retirement; him constantly leaving dates and social events to ‘close the case’, walking out on his daughter’s events when his phone rings or he has a ‘lightbulb’ moment, or even his violent hypothetical question of ‘if you were to murder someone, how would you go about it?’ over after-dinner cups of tea. Her husband is obsessed with his work, and Joyce takes it in her tolerant stride. She occasionally calls him out on his poor behaviour, and refuses to let his obsessions interfere with his duties at home. She still expects him to interact with his child, do the dishes, and be in bed at a reasonable hour. Joyce is one of the unsung heroes of Midsomer Murders for keeping the Inspector running; I firmly believe it’s due to her influence that Barnaby didn’t burn out of his job decades ago. How else does Barnaby manage to continue solving so many murders in such rapid succession? A good night’s sleep, a hearty meal, and a supportive wife, that’s how.
When I watch characters like Joyce Barnaby, I see a small mirror of my life at home. My partner, too, comes home from a long day and ruminates tirelessly on difficult cases. I, too, have to put my foot down and make sure my husband sleeps and eats at reasonable intervals. More importantly, both Joyce Barnaby and I lead independent lives that occasionally intersect with our partners’ challenges. Sometimes my knowledge of management helps my husband solve a medical issue, much in the same way that Joyce uses her knowledge of literature and the Arts to help her husband close a case.
Anyone else? Well…not that I’ve come across, unfortunately. TV shows, when they do portray wives, don’t always do it so well.
Everybody Loves Raymond portrayed multiple versions of dissatisfied spouses dealing with their family’s awfulness. The Big Bang Theory has multiple transgressions across issues of sexism, bullying, and bigotry. Once Upon A Time displays one of the most dysfunctional marriages I’ve ever seen between Snow White and Prince Charming, both withholding information from the other and making exceedingly poor decisions that negatively impact their loves ones (and Snow being regularly ignored and played as the ‘helpless maiden’ far too regularly for my liking). And, at the very worst end of the scale, Happy Days is the TV show I regularly use to exhibit precisely what a modern wife should not be; Mrs Cunningham treated as a total doormat by both her husband and her son to trigger a laugh track.
When it comes to good examples, there are some sources that come relatively close to my approval of Joyce.
Modern Family made a reasonable attempt to show a more realistic portrayal of adult relationships, which I valued, as did Parks and Recreation. I was interested in the early relationship between Ragnar and Lagertha in BBC’s Vikings, only for Ragnar to come along and be an ass about…a lot of things. The relationship in the ITV show Victoria was one I was happy to see, as the titular character’s fight for equality covered both her monarchy and her marriage. Steven Universe has a worrying lack of ‘wives’ portrayed despite its female-friendly cast, however the best example I can identify was Connie’s Mother, Dr. Priyanka Maheswaran. The no-nonsense, go-getter character of the supportive yet successful and independent partner was also portrayed in Legend of Korra as Tenzin’s wife Pema, who didn’t shy away from her own badassery when her time came. The Addams Family is sweet and down-to-earth, with Morticia Addams free to express her individuality throughout her home and lifestyle with earnest support from Gomez. Malcolm in the Middle portrays Lois as a resourceful, imaginative woman dealing with the challenges inherent in raising four boys – one of which is imprisoned as a convicted criminal – while balancing her marriage and career. Finally, in Scrubs, Turk’s wife Carla juggles her own career as Head Nurse with her marriage and parenthood in the most enigmatic and dynamic way I’ve ever seen.
There are so many examples for ‘pro’ and ‘con’ that it would take me days to list every one. But here’s the crux of my post’s point;
What does Wifehood look like to me?
It looks like the freedom to be who I am, in the comfort of my home. It looks like a partner who appreciates me for all that I am – when I’m silly, frustrated, short-tempered, creative, joyous, emotional and hungry. It looks like being able to dress for an evening on the town, and dressing entirely in my partner’s oversized clothes as I please. It looks like a complete test of my capacity for patience as I encounter living with another human being with different habits and routines. It looks like multiple attempts to learn to cook, so that my partner and I can eat healthy, balanced meals. It looks like me putting in an effort so that the home is tidy and clean, and finishing my work at the same time as my partner so that we can spend our free time in each other’s company.
To me, Wifehood is keeping track of my partner’s health so that Dental appointments, Doctor’s appointments, medications, and nightly walks are not missed. Wifehood is popping into my husband’s workplace with a snack or a coffee to brighten up his day, and remembering his favourite dinner to lighten a heavy working week. It means singing my partner’s praises at public events, and divulging charming anecdotes disguised as complaints. It means staying up past the point of exhaustion to comfort my partner when they’re upset or unwell, ‘calling in sick’ on his behalf when he can’t talk on the phone, and going out of my way to pick up bits and pieces for his convenience. It means proudly adopting the name of my partner’s family and representing their interests.
Of course, my Husband has duties and responsibilities as well. To not act in such a way as to cause me or the family embarrassment, to apologise when he makes a mess in my tidy home, and to take out the rubbish every weekend. He has learned to attend the appointments I’ve booked for him without complaint, and to be vocal about his compliments in public. It means walking to the store when I’m sick and getting me snacks, meeting me at the bus stop late at night so I can walk home safely, and calling my mobile phone when one of us is away from home. His ‘duties’ as a husband include accompanying me to the occasional outing even if he doesn’t want to go, because it would make me happy. It means doing the dishes after I’ve cooked dinner, and occasionally cooking dinner for me instead. Husband-hood for my partner means conceding that I’m his mother’s favourite, understanding that I always want to get his parents gifts on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day even if they don’t care, and sampling my food even if it’s poorly made.
For me, getting married before the age of 25 isn’t ‘leaving the party early’. A more accurate metaphor would be like having the choice between going to a party full of strangers, or staying home with someone whose company I thoroughly enjoy. Personally, I always choose the latter.
Too Long, Didn’t Read?
Most importantly, for me, Wifehood is acknowledgement of the fact that we are two whole, individual people that have teamed up for life, and thus participate in our home life equally as per our professional commitments. My peers and I may have been raised with outdated concepts of what ‘wifehood’ is meant to look like, and I provide my rebuttal.
Wifehood is whatever you want it to be, and the above post is what I’ve made of it.
*Again, I write ‘wife’ because I identify as female and I am a female partner in a heterosexual relationship. There’s little sense in labelling myself anything else, unless we want to be gender-neutral and be ‘partners’. As for the female-expected standard of a marriage…that could certainly do with some improvement.