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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Good Wife or Good Mother?

Which is more important? Which should be your priority? Do children matter above all else, or does solidifying your relationship by working at perfect spousedom mean that children will be guaranteed security and contentment regardless? Should your partner come always first? I have been muddling this question around in my mind ever since I was seduced by a pretty blue gingham cover, into buying The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands shortly after Finley was born and shortly before Quazi-Husband went walkies with a Wiganer, never to be seen playing the part of practiced upon perfect spouse thereafter. Did he go because after fifteen years together my priorites had changed dramatically following the birth of a child who in the second year of his life nearly died of mal-nutrition owing to a harrowing case of undiagnosed Coeliacs Disease? Should I have been performing sexual gymnastics inbetween changing the twenty four stinky nappies a day Finley was then producing? Was my failure to support his change in career at that time not simply down to the fact that as a Mother I was absolutely bloody terrified and that in the aftermath of the babies not very life threatening after all diagnosis, I simply glad he was still alive and thus temporarily lost in a talcum powder cloud of God forsaken gratitude?? Hells bells. Aren't we glad I got that little lot off my chest? This isn't bitterness talking. Mark and I are now good friends to the degree that we have been more than able to look at what happened from every which way and downright ugly angle without coming to any conclusions at all, apart from that had he not left it would not have been too long before one of us was buried under the patio. He knows and regrets the devastation he caused but we remain head over heels in love with what we created regardless and so we move forward in a relationship based on utter respect for each others parenting skills without the complication or competition posed by romantic entanglement: but still I wonder... I wonder what kind of Mother I would be if I also had to be a wife. What the synergy of those two roles would create in me. Whether once we had adjusted to Finn's Coeliacs as of course we all did, I would have been capable of being the kind of woman able to differentiate between being a Mother and being a wife, or whether, as I suspect, life would have been the gently blissful mash of family life I always imagined it to be, with my favorite partner in crime along for the ride? In December, however, Vogue writer Alice Thomspon put paid to the myth that putting Motherhood before wifely duty is either acceptable or even particularly desirable. Comparing the Fifties wife and Mother: "Then women were perfectly groomed, managed a limited household budget welcomed their husbands home in the evening and settled him into his armchair, while her two well-disciplined children curled up at his feet..." with her modern day equivalent: "By the time we've finished work, put the children to bed and crawled under the kitchen table for the Lego, we've barely got the energy to text our husbands to buy some milk before we flop in front of the television..." ..she comes to the conlusion that it is because "those brought up on feminism are embarrased to admit we may want to nurture our husbands the way we nurture our children" that we throw all our energy into lining the family coffers and being maternal Goddesses instead and that ultimately it is because we now expect too much of our husbands, and consider ourselves rather too precious indeed, that marriages are suffering and divorce is now rife: "He must be the perfect Father, he must cook, shop, and probably clean up afterwards, too. He must be the breadwinner (most wives, even if they work, do not really entertain the idea of a househusband), provide sex on tap (even if we won't), remember anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine's Day, do the school run, buy flowers on a regular basis, deal with the car, pay the bills, do the gardening and provide us with a stream of compliments." Ah diddums. But yes I agree that more is now expected of husbands and indeed men in general: but it is only because societies expectations of both women and what constitutes a healthy marriage has changed. A society in which, as an article in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago put it, the bar has been raised and a good wife must now "have a job of her own (or at least some serious charity commitments), be able to raise a family and keep house, plus be arm candy when required, smart enough to step in and give a strategic fillip to her husband's career, publicly attentive and privately supportive-and that's just at the entry level." Heckity pie. What happened to mutual support? Teamwork for the common good of the beloved family? And ye gads hold on a minute- arm candy?? Even the language used in the discourse of modern day marriage is somewhat abhorrent, let alone the flurry of raised expectation, especially when it is all too easy both, morally and legally for said husbands to bale, or perhaps even worse, stay and wear a badge of indifference towards the woman who senses her failure and his consequent distaste on a daily basis and is often no more capable of re-inventing herself as arm candy than he is of running for President. Well whatever.That's what I say. This my Darlings, is just one more reason to feel guilty, in a media-driven world that consistently fails to acknowledge the contribution good mothering makes to society and undermines it at every turn, and that more than that still objects to women being first and foremost themselves undefined by whatever role they may or may not be playing. Moreover the modern women doesn't have to feel at odds with feminism when she nurtures her husband: she does it because grown up human beings needs nurturing as much as children do; because in decent marriage she is just as likely to experience what it is to be nurtured; and because nurture itself is implicit to all the ties that bind us. Women who expect less do themselves an injustice. Adoration of our children, even at the risk of everything else in our lives, is never squandered and we have every right to expect a partner equal in emotional intelligence to ourselves.


miss*R said...

ooh lots of answers and questions.. but here is my take on how i have done it or rather what I believe is right for me.

I come first. hasn't always been like this but as I get older, I come first. my sanity, my comfort.. me. selfish? I don;t think so, because if I don;t look after myself, I am no good to anyone.
I think when the children are little it is a mothers duty (yes, duty) to look after the little souls that have been entrusted to them... and as they grow, they find their wings and fly.. then comes the time that the partner can come 'first' again.. the partner who hopefully will be there in sickness and all that comes with old age.. sadly, some men just don't get it. they still want to be first, transferring their dependence from mummy to wife.. but you know, there is no one answer.. we all just puddle along hoping in hell we are doing it 'right'
of course, this is just my opinion and what has worked for me.. I haven't worked outside the home since I had my first baby 34 yrs ago.. not sure how I would go if I had to hold a job down too. probably would go insane.

miss*R said...

on reading my comment.. I am not even sure if duty is the right word.. looking after the babies is not duty I guess but more a job of love.

Amy said...

I think there has to be a balance, in saying that if we don't look after ourselves we can't look after everyone else.

LexyB said...

Great post. I, too, have a husband that went walking (but with Destiny's Mother not a Wiganer) and think tis much better to be lying on deathbed proud of your mothering skills rather than wifely skills.
I also think husbands would rarely, if ever ponder: should I be a better father or a better husband? It's perhaps something we guilt-loving women like to think about ...

Jayne said...

A fascinating article Alison. Here's my ha'peth worth and I'll try to be brief.

Firstly, can I just say that I'm sure things weren't quite as hunky dorey in the 1950s as we all think. Remember, what most of us see of this decade are the scrubbed, primped and preened images from advertising. It wasn't all tea and roses and divorce wasn't as accessible or readily available.

That being said however, the role of women in a relationship was far, far easier. I don't know how we backed ourselves into the corner we're now in but it is unacceptable now *not* to have a job. I am in the generation where it first became the norm for both partners to work outside the home (and, hey, how did it ever come about that we positively *needed* two incomes to hold house and home together anyway)? When I took the traditional path of being a SAHM my compatriots looked at me askance and often asked 'God, what do you *do* all day?' as though child care, good home cooking, tending a third acre garden and running up and down ladders for home maintenance was a mere bagatelle.

It's no wonder to me that there is the potential for marriages to break down and children grow up with all kinds of emotional problems when, frankly, both partners are totally knackered after a day's work.

As for nurturing? It's in our natures as women and, your penultimate paragraph sums it up. It isn't mutually exclusive to our children it is something that ideally we do for *everyone* around us. We're the glue that holds society together and I have the awful feeling that we've been trying to spread ourselves too thinly. Something's got to give - and it has.

Sorry I wrote a blog post within your comments. As you may have gathered this is something that I feel very strongly about and if I really let rip I'd be writing a whole essay about it.

lazy h said...

What an interesting point, LexyB, about men not pondering!

I haven't read any of the articles Alison's referred to here, but like Jayne, I'm a bit suspicious of this view of the 1950s as some sort of golden era that seems to be gaining currency. I'm also a bit worried about some women's tendency to berate feminism (not, I stress, that anyone's doing that here) - the foundation of which surely was to create equality for women with men.

I wonder who is creating all these expectations to which we're supposed to aspire, and why? I don't know, but it seems often to be other women. Why is that? And why do we allow ourselves to buy into it? That wife/mother figure doesn't exist in reality, why do we all create her?

Thank you Alison, for starting this discussion and providing so much food for thought.

minervabird said...

If women go to work and put their children in care, they are portrayed by the media as too careerist and risking their children's emotional health.

If women stay home and raise their children, they are portrayed by the media as lazy and unambitious.

If they work a part-time job, they are underpaid, underemployed, and underappreciated, with few of the rights full-time employees enjoy and expect.

I've come to the conclusion being a "modern woman" is a no-win situation if you run your life afraid of what others think. The misogyny is still there, but just of a different flavor. The simple solution is that you have to do what you think best, and to heck with what others think. It is your life, your destiny, and you have to live with your choices. Do what pleases you; you'll often find your happiness leads to the happiness of others as a by-product. If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!


The Machinist's Wife said...

Good wife .... makes a good mother.

feistyrallygirl said...

Alison, such a wonderfully thoughtful post filled with possibilities. I think the fascinating woman would agree that there is a natural urging in women to nurture and care for those around us.

I don't have a child yet, but I can imagine that with my coeliac disease, I may be a frightfully obsessive mother. I worry about it already.

Fortunately, my darling husband does watch out for me as much as I watch out for him. Not by doing laundry or dishes but by standing up for me, supporting my creativity and career choices and watching what I order when we trot out for dinner!

Don't get too bogged down in the what-ifs of the past possibilities. You're doing a lovely job with Finn!

Elaine said...

The comments herein are as interesting as the original posting. I really enjoyed this one, if not for the splaying open of Alison's inner demons then, for the mirror to my soul.

Anonymous said...
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Karla said...

I don't think there is a pat answer that applies to everyone, do you? I think each of our situations is so different that it depends on us to decide which is more important. In my case, being a good wife goes hand in hand with being a good mother - but even in my own situation there is no answer that applies to every situation and is correct all of the time. Some days, when my husband is being a twit, it's more important to be a good mother and protect my girls from his maleness. LOL Most days my husband comes first, within reason - but it's always been that way and our girls know that.

These answers here truly are interesting - the thoughts on being a modern woman really are profound and provocative - it leaves me wondering why and when we decided that "they" get to decide what makes us important and significant, or not.

Sorry I deleted my other comment - I hit the button accidentally. It was the same as this one. LOL

Flossy said...

My take on this is that as women, we need to stop worrying so much about whateveryone thinks and get on with whatever stage of our lives we are in.

I stayed at home as much as I possibly could with my children when they were young. As much as I tried to be a good wife as well, it wasn't enough for him - c'est la vie. There was nothing wrong with me - I often think divorce is two good people who just can't get a long anymore. We grow, particularly as women, we tend to look at ourselves more, we want to impprove ourselves - which is great! But men usually aren't like that.

Now my kids are older and more independant - and I'm a single parent - I have to work. I would rather not,because I love being domestic and making my home cosy, but there's no choice in the matter.

It's now my time too - I can do things for me, it's not all about the children anymore (although they would disagree!. Now I get to look after myself, and nurture the woman I truly am.

Life is all about stages...

Dinah Soar said...

When your baby boy came into your life you did what any mother would do..loved him like crazy.

Your husband left you emotionally/spiritually/mentally long before he left you physically.

And whether or not you had shortcomings is not the issue.

Love suffers 'sticks' doesn't quit. Love never fails.

Your husband may have felt neglected..he may have felt ignored..and a lot of other stuff.

But the bottom line is that he was selfish...more concerned about his own personal wants, needs, and comfort than that of his son and wife.

Being a Christian, I believe the analogy that as Christ is to the church--(he's called the husband and the church is called the bride of Christ in Scripture) so must a husband be to his wife.

The Scripture says "husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church". It goes on to say that he, Christ, died for the church.

It follows then that God's command is that a husband must lay down his very life--he must die to self--for that wife. Anything less is a failure.

So..while you may have contributed to the problems and could have done better, ultimately he left you...he forsook you. And in so doing he indirectly left his child. Granted he may love that boy, but I do believe he loves himself more.

I'm sure if he has any decency at all he regrets his failure. And perhaps there is a chance God could restore your marriage. With God nothing is impossible.

Pamela said...

Personally for me, the person that comes first is the one who needs me the most. If my child has a fever and hubs wants a cuddle, then it's the child. If the child wants to show me his/her 200th picture that day of a blue duck and hubs is home from a hard day at work and needs his shoulders rubbed then hubs gets the attention. If I'm fed up with the whole lot of them and need to go to the gym and soak in the hot tub then off I go, cuz after all, if mama goes bonkers trying to care for them then nobody wins.

But if there is a conflict of interest, say everybody has a fever, then adults must behave as adults and take care of the children.

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