Books October 2004

A Gloom of One's Own

Demanding women with demanding lives, and the men who love them
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Full disclosure: I was asked to submit material for The Bitch in the House, a 2002 essay collection on female domestic rage. But Ideclined, because in my house I felt I was already too bitchy. An old new mother (I had my first of two babies at thirty-eight), I was then battling my musician husband—both of us as grim as Survivor finalists yanking on the last scrawny chicken leg—over the matter of time, ever shrinking time. How to steal yet more time to type away madly into the night about how angry I was that I never had enough time? Not that I wasn't on edge (in two years I hadn't slept through the night); not that I didn't have material. Indeed, the record shows I'd already penned several furious missives to my husband at 3:00 a.m. (one was sixteen pages long) that—here's the catch—I do not remember writing. In short, immortalizing my rage in hardcover? It didn't seem the best choice for my family, my loved ones, my body, my self.

Now, of course, I'm slapping my forehead with a Homer Simpson "Doh!," because The Bitch in the House went on to become not just a lively, thought-provoking, well-edited book but also a New York Times best seller. So what can one say but "Hats off" to its editor, Cathi Hanauer, a fellow frantic working mother who still found time to elegantly plumb the rage—but also the contradictions, vulnerabilities, and foibles—of hard-driven post-feminist women. Hats off also to her husband, Daniel Jones, who has now compiled the knowingly titled The Bastard on the Couch, a men's answer to The Bitch in the House. Hanauer and Jones: they're probably team-editing, even as we speak, an extraordinary third volume, full of fresh, provocative writing that will keenly trace my ambivalent feelings about smart, engaging New York couples like themselves (never mind that a despairing squint into their bios reveals Massachusetts), who even with small children continue to be ferociously effective.

But until that book comes out, let non-contributing me slink to my sagging Los Angeles futon with a sixteen-ounce mug of lukewarm coffee and recap for you the report, as I see it, from the front lines of the gender wars encapsulated by these two volumes. "The Bitch in the House" is Hanauer's catchphrase for an ambitious professional woman like herself, who struggles through what Peggy Orenstein, the author of Flux (2000), calls a "half-changed world." The good news is that after feminism, women are no longer expected to ape a 1950s-era June Cleaver—or, more literarily, a nineteenth-century Angel in the House. Penned in 1854 by a fantastically unenlightened Victorian named Coventry Patmore (in his portrait Patmore bears a striking resemblance to a high-collared Victorian poodle), The Angel in the House, an ode to Patmore's perfect wife, Emily, offered such a repressive—and potent—female ideal that it drove Virginia Woolf to groan in her essays,

She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.

From this Woolf famously concluded, in A Room of One's Own, that succeeding as a woman writer required—aside from an annual income of £500 sterling and one's own inviolable space—no less than killing one's inner self-effacing, overly family-needs-focused Angel in the House.

Of course the question today, Hanauer observes, is that if we modern women have everything (careers, money, family, and all the choices that go therewith), why are so many of us—particularly the most privileged among us, she's clear about saying—so full of rage? (Or, to track the metaphor here, now that we've killed the Angel in the House, why is the person who remains so often the Bitch?)

In furious e-mails zigzagging late into the night, Hanauer's female colleagues cited a familiar list of stresses:

Too much to do in too few hours. Not enough help from society and, sometimes, spouses. Invasion of technology into our lives, further accelerating our already fragmented time. Financial responsibility combined with the responsibility and inherent desires of motherhood. The wish, regardless of financial responsibility, to have a fulfilling career, for which we've prepared all our lives. Pressure … to look not only flawless but younger than we actually are. Lack of role models in our lives for what we're trying to do … The ideas and belief …that we should have it all, do it all, be it all, and be Happy. And if we're not, by God, something is wrong.

But let's get back to the men—what's wrong with the men. Never mind the whipsaw effects of society, technology, and culture. At home the mystery for progressive-minded women continues to be "Why, even when we make a point of marrying Coventry Patmore's polar opposite (that card-carrying post-feminist good guy who cheerfully agrees to do 50 percent of the housework), is the result still a war zone of bitterness, chaos, and strife?" Mundanely enough, as most of the fifty-three embedded journalists in Bitch and Bastard testify, the problem is often that even the most well-intentioned men and women seem all but biologically unable to agree on what 50 percent of the labor actually is. This is a problem above and beyond, say, the eternal conflict between those who soak their dishes overnight and those who'd sooner jump off a cliff than wake up to a dirty kitchen (never mind the Talmudic debate in our household over knife points up or down in the dishwasher). Bountiful anecdotal evidence describes a dashing-off-to-work wife giving her lazy Bastard what she considers half a to-do list, whereas by the husband's calculation the "half" the Bitch gave him represents what's needed times four (a gender imbalance perhaps most hilariously described by the happily shirking, CNN-watching Christopher Russell in "My List of Chores").

Which is not to say that the men don't admire (sort of) the ridiculously high standards the women cleave to. In "Why My Kids Like Me," Steven Rinehart comments on how low he has set his own bar: "I mostly practice my parenting out of my wife's earshot, similar to the way I practiced trombone in junior high." He continues,

Just about every one of [the women] could use a personal assistant to help them run their lives, and you can't really say that about the men, even the ones who, like me, bust their asses with a forty-plus-hour workweek, do most of the cooking, and have forsaken the Dagwood Sunday-morning nap on the couch as a quaint custom in the same league as whittling. We don't need assistants; when push comes to shove, we just become the weak link. Our wives can fume and fret about the details; we buy the kids junk food and take them to Adam Sandler movies. Someone has to stop and smell the rose-scented Hello Kitty lip gloss and ogle the ninety-five-dollar Yu-Gi-Oh cards behind the glass of the display case, and we're just the guys to do it.

Indeed, to hear them tell it, the Bastards don't just stop to smell the lip gloss; they play guitar, drink gin, chop wood, listen to the blues, and wax poetic about lovable dogs they have known (lovable, underachieving dogs). Compared with their frantic, trying-to-have-it-all wives (several of the essayists are husbands of contributing Bitches), the Bastards swing more yin than yang, defiantly celebrating the couch (see Ron Carlson's lovely essay, "Men in Houses"), the overall vibe becoming by the end, yes, just a little bit groovy, just a little bit shaggy-haired, just a little bit Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Driving obediently to the supermarket, to-do lists in hand, the Bastards meditate—hard—on the difficult but necessary art of surrendering power (Fred Leebron's "I Am Man, Hear Me Bleat," Manny Howard's "Embracing the Little Steering Wheel"). From a metaphorical—or sometimes not so metaphorical—cabin in the woods they contemplate, with some awe and no little affection, the brilliant urban women they've known, both wives and exes. Never mind that these women come across largely as type-A control freaks who, given a minute, would rather read a book than have sex (as in Sean Elder's "The Lock Box").

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