When I was the parent of a toddler and pregnant, I had a friend who also was a mom and expecting. It was at a time I really needed a good, solid friend and I hope that I was a good friend to her as well.
One day when we were having coffee and were watching the kids play, I lamented that I felt trapped and lonely and that I felt resentful of my husband who was nicely playing golf that morning.
She said to me, “you have it all, you are lucky”, and of course, I scoffed at that. So, she continued by stating that I could be the wife of a happy husband (it is the title of a book) and that did not sit well with me either. She elaborated on this and indeed it took me a while to understand what she really meant. As a matter of fact, it took me more than 20 years!
What she tried to tell me is that she was very aware that women were stronger and as smart as men or even smarter, but that by keeping them happy, women like herself could do all the groundwork and therefore making sure they had the life they wanted, as long as the women let the men believe it was their doing, all was well. The men could take the credit for having it all together, get the promotions and the pay-raises at work, with the accompanying praise. In short, he is happy, and so, she is happy.
And yes, this works, permitting my friend did not wish for a career, and the man in question, remains loyal. After all, a man like that feels on top of the world, as he has it all, and it was all due to his brilliancy and therefore, he has all the rights to look around for something younger, or different (but never better), when reaching middle age and life becomes a bore.
It is rumoured that the famous chef Julia Child, who had no children and a supportive husband, said that as long as you give men f..k, food and flattery, you can keep them happy. Julia might not have said this at all, but the comment is pretty similar to the philosophy of my friend years ago.
Putting all the scoffing aside, as the following explains, I really thought that I, the emancipated, liberal thinker would have the life I anticipated. Little did I know…and definitely not that I, and women like me were part of the problem.
Going back in time a bit more, when I was in my twenties, I fully believed that women and men were well on their way to have accepted that they were equal. I anticipated that I could finish university and get a job and work on my career. I also made the assumption that I could have a relationship and two children and a decent lifestyle as in my mind I visioned it as an equal relationship where we both would take charge of all there is to do when you have a family.
How naïve I was! It was not just that I did most of it all, it was also that by taking that on, I was automatically demoted to a person of a lower status. Despite the reassurance that we were equal, I was not treated as such. Despite the reassurance that his money was our money, it never felt like this and that is not how others perceived it. Despite the reassurance that in “these days”, divorce is not disproportionately financially damaging women (mothers), the reality is very different. It comes as no surprise that many women nowadays opt out to have children. They have seen the sacrifices their mothers made.
The consequences of taking up the role of housewife, homemaker, home-organizer, stay at home parent, whatever you want to call it, means so much more than temporarily choosing to take on the important job to look after the children and everything that goes with it. Whether I saw it at the time, or not, it meant an acceptance of the societal view of being less important. It is not for nothing that “housewife” became a derogatory term.
I, however, was in the fortunate position that I managed to finish all university studies, but what is also true is that I had limited options for work as I had to maneuver myself around the little that was possible with a partner who consumed all. Not only did I allow this to happen, I saw it as my duty to accept this.
Thinking about my friend, I could have had some peace with playing second fiddle. Let them, all the peers at my husband’s work perceive me as “the supporting wife” who receives the predictable “thank you” at the yearly Christmas dinner. I know better and I know who I am, and I know that, I did all the groundwork. I kept the home in top condition, made sure my kids were looked after. I attended all the school meetings, did the baking for the fundraisers and my fair share of volunteer work while I also finished my studies, and managed to be employed…and Oh My, I did become the wife who was keeping her husband happy!
And now, I am angry! I am angry because it is not enough for me to be the supportive person in the background. I am angry as hell as despite my knowledge that I worked hard, and did nearly the impossible, I realized that nothing has changed when the outside world does not acknowledge this!!!
And why does this matter?
It matters because systemically nothing has changed. I can be advocating for equality, doing more than my share of work inside and outside the home, and I will never be perceived as equal as people do not know what I have done to get where I am, and no one knows how hard this has been. They will perceive me as the “lucky wife” who had a husband who made money and as long as women like me stay quiet, we not only support the inequality, we are protecting it.
An example: When we are with company and I make a comment, it has way less of an impact than when the same comment is made by my husband. Let me be very clear: When we do exactly the same, whatever it is, he receives more positive feedback. Even when he does way less than me, he gets the praise, and God knows I don’t need the praise! I just want to have the acknowledgment that women like me did the far majority of all the work that went into this so-called great home where we can retire when the time comes…and wither away.
I want to see what I expected to see in my twenties, that the next generations have achieved this level of equality and that we as women no longer must play along, but that we really have the part! I want to see that the next generation feels that they have choices and that they matter equally, whether they are female or male or non-binary. I thought that I was part of a team, but apparently, I had to do it alone and by doing that (and doing it successfully), I perpetuated the myth of the “happy husband and the happy wife”. It does not work and the lack of acknowledgment fosters resentment. No one can do it alone and if we truly want systemic changes, we have to do it together.