19 June 2009

The Meaning of Wife

Recently, The Times, and especially The Sunday Times, has been positively obsessed with “wifedom.” Over the past several months there has been article upon article in the TimesStyle magazine wherein writers have actively pondered on the page the concept of “the wife.”

Even the chatty and ever-entertaining Shane Watson has joined the fray, declaring her opinion that what men really want in a wife is: “a woman [they] can believe in.”  Very heady stuff, indeed, particularly from a writer known primarily for celebrity-jabbing.

Another writer in the same publication set about outlining what she believed were the current wifely archetypes in contemporary society, along with some real life examples for readers to emulate or to be admonished by.

My personal favorites (no surprises, here) were: “The Goddess Wife” - personified by Nigella Lawson, and “The Inspiring Wife” – personified by Michelle Obama.

Let’s face it, Nigella Lawson is a modern-day, brunette, Marilyn Monroe - who can cook. But, despite her sometimes over-obvious sex appeal, her hyper-confidence, and sexy smarts (she has an M.A. in medieval and modern languages), ever so often viewers can catch a glimpse of the other side of Nigella, the besotted schoolgirl underneath it all, who still gets weak in the knees at the very thought of “that sweet man of mine.”

“The Goddess Wife” is all about hearth and home, care and comfort. Everything she does, and everything she is, is about sensuousness, deliciousness, warmth, scrumptious indulgence, and ample luxury. She’s can’t help it, she’s just built that way.

“The Inspiring Wife” comes at caring from a different, though no less valuable, perspective. Michelle Obama is the perfect example of the “Inspiring Wife.” She is her husband’s equal (intellectually, socially, professionally, &etc.) and his champion.

But, she is no mere cheerleader encouraging him from the sidelines, nor is she his coach. What she is, as the article writer put so beautifully, “[Michelle Obama] is the reason Barack Obama gets up in the morning.”  She is his sunshine.

As “The Inspiring Wife,” she enkindles his greatness. The concept of “Ihe Inspiring Wife” is not a new one. My chief bridesmaid, Sarah, gave me a lovely gift the day before our wedding: a copy of A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom. In it, one of the countless relationships Yalom details is the remarkable marriage of John and Abigail Adams.

After Abigail had accepted John’s proposal, he wrote to her, thanking her and expressing his belief that by knowing and loving her, he would “Gain some of your sweet grace, My Dearest Friend, that will perfect my many Imperfections.”

Shane Watson’s comment touches upon this very idea: the wife as source of grace, a figure to be ‘believed in’. There is no doubt, upon reading the love letters of John and Abigail Adams, that John viewed his wife as clearly the very best part of himself.

I devoured Yalom’s book while lounging and sleeping by the pool in Tunisia. And contemplated what kind of a wife I would like to be. From the title, it may sound uber-academic and dry as toast, but is really a super, super read. So fascinating to consider the twists, turns and changes that have happened in relation to wifedom over the centuries.

In the past, being a Wife was considered a vocation, a privilege, an honour, an occupation and a gift. I think it is still all of these things today, though I think we are uncomfortable using such florid language.

There was a time when being a wife was considered a great calling, and women proudly defined themselves by the distinction: “I am a wife.” I believe we have lost that, and with it perhaps a great possibility for feminine pride and expression.

When I was growing up, and especially when I was in university, the notion of “just being a wife” was completely alien and abhorrent. We were encouraged/taught/urged to look disdainfully upon young women who “lacked ambition and brains,” who had come to university only to find a husband, and obtain their “Mrs. degree,” and little else.

In this same vein, India Knight did a piece recently where she, too, was thinking through some of these post-feminist issues. She interviewed several high-powered professional women who were attempting, as so many women do, to “have it all” (career, family, kids, life).

The general consensus amongst the women interviewed was that they would not wish their life choices on their daughters. They hoped that their daughters’ lives would be better, different and freer than their own. That their daughters would choose to have lives that were more centred on creating a family, building a home and serving their community, than their lives had been.

A dear friend of mine, wrote me recently from Dubai to congratulate me on getting married. Along with her good wishes and advice, she expressed her own sense of being at a crossroads:

Being married teaches you how to be a wife.                                                                      ...In my neck of the woods…all I have been doing for the past month, going on two months is move, organize, decorate, shop, mother, mother sick children and eat like crap. I read an email today about a novel about Hemingway's wife selling for half a million and wept. It wasn't the money, really. I just got my first check for my book by the way. It was about the fact that I miss writing, I need it as much as I need my kids. Anyway, when are you getting back to work?

This is how I began my reply to her:

I am happier now than I have ever been in my life, and I am more lost than I have ever been. I feel and am more centred, grounded, and anchored as I have never been, nor ever imagined. Anchored, and yet I also feel frighteningly adrift.

In the past, I have always defined myself by what I do, and not by who I love or, who I am in relation to someone else. All of that has changed. And I feel/know that it has changed for the better. And what of work? Ugh. I just wasted a colossal amount of time applying for two jobs I don’t even want, one of them in London, how would that even work? Why did I bother? The problem is that is muscle-memory and the force of habit. I have spent my life applying for jobs, that’s what I know how to do. Facing myself and a blank computer screen? Yikes!

As I embark on this new journey into wifedom, I am searching for examples, and trying to embrace my own uncertainties. For years my life has been guided by the mantra: “Career first, career first.” Now, I feel the sand shifting beneath me, and the turning of a tide. Could the new mantra be: “Family first?”

While she was still here, my friend, Sarah and I shared our mutual admiration for that wonderful HBO series, John Adams. I remember telling her that one of the things I loved most about that series (apart from Laura Linney’s fabulous portrayal of Abigail Adams) was very real sense that one had while watching it, that the Founding Fathers, those great men of history, had no idea what they were doing at the time. The founding of America was not some grand design enacted with stealth and precision, they were making it all up as they went along!

And perhaps, that is the answer, the best notion toward a vision of marriage and wifedom, we are all making this stuff up as we go along. We can only do our best and try.

Unless, of course, your goal is to be “The Slacker Wife” (sadly exampled in The Times by Madonna Ritchie). “The Slacker Wife,” as the name suggestions, does “bugger all,” and causes those around her no end of grief.


Spike said...

It has been my experience of being a wife now for 15 years officially, although I still count the 3 years prior as the only thing that changed was the addition of a new surname. Anywho...

Wife... mother... we are making it up as we go along and we all pray that no one loses a limb or such as we get through each day. All those preconceived notions of what we are supposed to be fly out the window when faced with the realities of each day (dirty diapers, dirty socks, dirty dishes, a pattern here???.)

I am a woman who loves and supports her family. I am a cook, driver, cheerleader, shopper, teacher, lover, enemy (teenager...ugh!), friend, banker, etc. Whatever the days calls for that is what I am. A chameleon, I suppose.

But above all else, I am me. Someone who needs those exact same things I give to my family and I am blessed enough to have found someone who can be all of those things and more on any given day.

Be blessed and don't sweat the small stuff!

Anonymous said...

Assuming she went to Oxbridge, Nigella Lawson only has a Bachelor's degree that is earned. Oxbridge graduates are given an MA a few years after graduating for no real reason, and certainly no further academic achievement. It's a common mistake to think that a person has a graduate degree when really they just have a silly Oxbridge tradition!

Expat mum said...

I'm with Spike - just be yourself. There are no (good) manuals so if you're not being yourself it's a house of cards anyway.
The thing to remember about Nigella and India is that they were both born into families with gobs of money (well documented) and had that to fall back on - of course they could be the wives that they are.
One thing I would say is not to lose yourself. When and if you have children, while you are a wife and mother, it serves no one if you lose your own persona. There's a joke that when you are this wife and mother, no one uses your name - you're introduced as so and so's wife, or so and so's mother, which can be thrilling for about 5 seconds, then not so much.

sarahbear said...

I hope that you will start to define yourself in the way others have defined you - by relationship! You are (to name only a few) a wife, mentor, friend, valued daughter and sister, sistah-from-anothuh-muthah, teacher, inspiration, woman of strength and fortitude, student of the universe, and God's beloved child. At the end of the day, it all boils down to who you have...not what you have accomplished. XO