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").

Of course, Bitch's essayists include a heavy sampling of women from the top echelons of publishing: the executive editors of both Elle and Glamour contributed, as did highly placed staffers at Random House, W. W. Norton, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. This is one reason the writing is so consistently revealing and fine. Consider the lyrical ending to the then Glamour chief Kristin van Ogtrop's "Attila the Honey I'm Home."

I will never be able to share the surprise [my kids] feel when they find a cicada in the grass, because stopping to marvel at the cicada means I will miss my morning train … I will long for a time when I will never yell at my kids just because I am late … Because before I know it, my boys will be grown … Four little feet jumping on the bed will be a distant memory. And things like cicadas will have lost their magic, and my children will be gone for good.

However, cutting back at work is never considered an option—even if the work schedule requires leaving home at 5:30 a.m. and getting back after seven at night. (In an eerie, fascinating comment on our times, Van Ogtrop is now the managing editor of Real Simple magazine.) God may strike me dead (particularly if God is a she), but by the end of Bitch and Bastard I had the nagging feeling that if these books are any indication, today's post-feminist women could learn a thing or two from today's post-feminist men, not the other way around. I mean, in Bitch, "Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines!" is the ever present and unquestioned backbeat that drives much of the domestic conflict, scattering husbands, children, and pets. With New York women this extraordinarily industrious (I picture rumpled Jil Sander jackets, feverish typing, a massive digital clock ticking down the seconds), it seems like eons ago (well, the 1970s) that the female Manhattanite Fran Lebowitz lay around her apartment and penned her immortal—and, come to think of it, not all that rageful—"My Life: An Introduction of Sorts" (sample entry: "3:40 p.m. I consider getting out of bed. I reject the notion as being unduly vigorous. I read and smoke a bit more").

Of course, I realize it's fine for me—the Bitch on the Futon—to carp away long after the fact from my remote post in California; amazingly disciplined editrix supermom or no, Hanauer was limited to publishing the essays of writers who actually wrote them. (Listen to me, shrilling faintly in the background: "But who will speak for the women too lazy to write?") So, having in effect missed my deadline by several years now, but having at least slept a few nights, let me add my own small footnote to the Bitch in the House discussion. In her "Memoirs of an Ex-Bride," Daphne Merkin, while describing her disappointment in the institution of marriage, writes, "Oh, I imagine once upon a time I had an honest-to-goodness Marriage Fantasy, just as I had a Wedding Fantasy, in which I featured as a tiny-waisted Barbie doll-bride, standing on top of a lacy white cake: true love anointed in a swirl of buttercream frosting and candied violets." Yes, after the wedding comes marriage and then babies and then motherhood—easy as that. Such rosy ideals of femalehood are a sham, post-feminist women agree; they do little to prepare us for the hours, the tedium, and the exhaustion, not to mention the wave of useless men.

But what I'd like to know is, aren't there women out there who've ever been disappointed by work? Just as Merkin had her Wedding Fantasy, I have always secretly nurtured an Overnight Success Fantasy, which typically involves winning a MacArthur genius grant at age twenty-five (that would have been seventeen years ago now), my version of Woolf's fortuitous £500 a year. Not stopping with a simple room of my own, in my fantasy I, too, see a frosted cake with candied violets: on top is a perfect, tiny-waisted doll who looks suspiciously like Amy Tan clutching a Barbie-size National Book Award. Fawning critics surround her in a sugary clamshell, fringed by manicured rose beds bulging with dollars, and perhaps a camera crew from some admiring PBS documentary!

I compare that with what the freelance writer's life really feels like to me, at forty-two: less creamy cake top and more skanky roadhouse, where a haggard, friendless, not-so-tiny-waisted woman in a too tight pleather skirt is constantly jilted by a series of faithless lovers and left showering in the motel. I could open my address book and show you the trail of phone numbers—oh, look, here's the number of a powerful Condé Nast editor who actually contributed an essay to Bitch! She complains of child-care problems! Housework problems! Perhaps that's what was irritating her when she brutally killed my piece! As a post-feminist working mother parsing the chaos midway through the dark forest of her life, I realize that work has felt less the thing that continually built my self-esteem than that which continually called it into question. For me, not family but work has been the uncontrollable emotional seesaw: one day you're as swollen as a tick with your genius, the next day you're humiliated by the spectacle of your ludicrous flailings. When you do publish a book, what you thought would be your fabulous coming-out party feels instead like being shot by firing squad over and over again.

It could just be my generation of women, our mouths open in a neurotic howl of Who is my self? What is my identity? Me me me! Who who who? Why why why?—what I like to call sharp attacks of keening Po Bronsonalia. But Virginia Woolf, the patron saint of modern literary women (and, of course, another woman in publishing), wasn't much calmer. Although she lived—lucky her—before the age of instant Amazon.com ratings and the once ever hovering million-dollar lottery ticket of Oprah's Book Club, when you read Woolf's diaries, you see her, too, fretting about her career's grinding mechanics: the rising and falling book sales, the eternal pounding-out of income from her articles, the wavering esteem of olde frostykins T. S. Eliot, the irritating rejections (even from—yes, and thanks a lot—The Atlantic). Woolf devours every new review, feels subsequent triumph or defeat, and loathes herself for being so vulnerable. (I couldn't help noticing that the back of my edition of her diaries is topped, without irony, by a large, buoyant quotation: "I get courage by reading Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary. You must read this diary.—Sylvia Plath.") In one of Woolf's last diary entries, three weeks before she put a stone in her pocket and disappeared into the River Ouse, the thing she was most looking forward to was cooking dinner.

Which is to say that for me, at this point in my life, the Woolf-as-artist legacy is complex. Since the 1960s Woolf has been the you-go girl for aspiring women writers ("A Room of One's Own" has long been a popular name for feminist bookstores). And yet, in a very unfeminist way, work did not positively build up her self-esteem or even make her life worth living. Woolf clearly felt the misery of writing as much as the joy—and for documenting that reality, too, we owe her.

I'm not suggesting that women shouldn't write, of course. It's just that work, along with wifehood, motherhood, and all the rest, should be a Barbie we occasionally take down off her glittering pedestal and smash. By the way, have you noticed how women writers (Woolf, several of the Bitches, yours truly)—when ostensibly speaking for and about independent working women—often end up talking almost exclusively about women writers … that is, about themselves? As if the truest form of female expression, professionally speaking (if not in general), were a solitary self-consciousness put to page? One of the legacies of Woolf's "Room"—which by now hums as large and powerfully enigmatic as the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith—is, I think, that we women tend to regard the activity of our writing with a hushed-voice reverence I'm not sure it always deserves. How refreshing if we occasionally gestured at a sheaf of papers, cackled broadly, and said, "Look at what I wrote yesterday! Well, that was crap! Obviously I should have just … sat down and folded the laundry!" Two thirds of the books on the shelves of any given Barnes & Noble end up in the wood chipper anyway. Is it really such a great loss to cut back on the writing for a few years and just … get those kids into kindergarten? After all, not all prose is deathless; some of it is terminally ill.

And thus endeth my manifesto: "A Couch of One's Own."

(P.S. I don't mean to imply that male writers can't quit too, if family responsibilities call. I'm thinking of those who write vague, NPR-type essays involving childhood memories of going with one's mournful, alcoholic father to wordlessly watch unwinnable baseball games played out by the dad's favorite losing team. I say any man uses the Cubs ever again as a metaphor for futility and it's straight to diaper-genie duty with him.)

In this already too frantic era, particularly for creatively inclined women trying to run on twelve different treadmills at once, it is perhaps best not to try to live up to the modernist (in more ways than one) Woolf but, rather, to slow down to the pace of Ellen Gilchrist. (Idea for a new women's button: Instead of "You GO, Girl!," "You STOP, Girl!") In her soothing "The Middle Way," near the end of Bitch, Gilchrist sounds a rare note of tranquillity. Bearing an unimpeachable mixture of age, achievement, and contentment, she writes, with endearing deprecation,

One of the reasons I am happy now is that I did the work I had always dreamed of doing. But I didn't start doing it seriously and professionally until I was forty years old. I have always loved books and always thought of myself as a writer but didn't have an overwhelming desire to write and publish things until my children were almost grown. I had published things off and on during my life and I enjoyed the process but I had no sustained desire to be a writer. It was just something I knew I could do if I wanted to. I was busy falling in love and getting married to three different men (I married the father of my children twice), and having babies and buying clothes and getting my hair fixed and running in the park and playing tennis. During those years my desire for literature was satisfied by reading. If there was something that needed writing, like the minutes for a PTA meeting or a play for my husband's law firm's dinner party, I wrote it and everyone liked it but I didn't want to keep on writing. To tell the truth, I was forty years old before I had enough experience to be a writer. I barely knew what I thought, much less what anything meant.

In contrast, in the same section, is Vivian Gornick's extraordinary "What Independence Has Come to Mean to Me." After decades of fighting on the front lines of feminism Gornick at sixty-five stands holding a coffee cup and staring out the window at the same New York street she has lived on for twenty-five years … alone. In pondering this solitude she startlingly writes,

The reality was that I was alone not because of my politics but because I did not know how to live in a decent way with another human being. In the name of equality I tormented every man who'd ever loved me until he left me: I called them on everything, never let anything go, held them up to accountability in ways that wearied us both. There was, of course, more than a grain of truth in everything I said, but those grains, no matter how numerous, need not have become the sandpile that crushed the life out of love.

"Love": the demon word, the lie, the myth, the enslaver, promising so much and delivering so little. "Just once I'd like to walk into the house and dinner is made!" railed a fortysomething friend of mine recently. She and her husband, child-free, both get home at seven. The deus ex machina that saves her from being a Bitch at such moments comes in the form of a small Thai man who delivers takeout. For two-career parents the solution is more complicated. In "The Myth of Co-Parenting," Hope Edelman writes that when her supposedly co-parenting husband suggested they hire a nanny, she shouted, "I don't need a nanny, I need a husband!"

The point being that as the forces of free enterprise drive up both men's and women's work hours, leaving no one at home, gone is the invisible hand that used to gas up the car, pair the socks, restock the fridge. Domestic help can be hired, but something deeper than the service this represents has been lost: the magical sensation of being cared for, of feeling comfort at the hearth and in the family, of having one's quotidian life—yes, are you ready?—touched by an angel. Because any way you slice it, there is a hole where Mother used to be. Under the rage lies sadness. But of course, those Bastards argue, it doesn't have to be this way. Instead of the now worrisomely capitalistic Having It All, we can Make Do With Less. That way one partner can stay home (perhaps in a sign of the times, the only writer of the fifty-three who describes currently living as a full-time nurturer is a man: Rob Jackson, in "My Life as a Housewife"). Alternatively, as Rob Spillman suggests in "Ward and June R Us" (you've got to love those optimistic, solution-oriented men), why not trade off who plays Ward and who plays June week by week? This eliminates snarling over territorial control (and for me, happily, would mean knife points down in the dishwasher all week long) and ensures that by day's end someone's going to have dinner on the table.

The fact is, someone has to be June Cleaver some of the time. Otherwise we've got an unloved nation of Wards. And for what? As Kevin Canty writes, in "The Dog in Me,"

We have been approaching this idea of who does what and where we all fit in terms of ideology and emotion, in terms of feminism and equality and injury and lovingness. I wonder, though, if it would not be better approached in terms of political economy. What I'm getting at is, how did we get priced out of the market for our own lives? … Many of us had cars and trips and nice clothes and spending money in high school and college. Not only do we want the same things for our children, but the prospect of living worse in midlife than we did in high school seems completely strange and unacceptable. Maybe it's as simple as that: maybe it's not our lives we can't afford but our aspirations, the things we were brought up to believe we could get from life.

Of course, trying to reach connubial consensus on where "lives" let off and mere "aspirations" begin will make determining the fifty-fifty chore split seem as easy as saying an insincere "Yes, dear" before hitting the couch for a little CNN. And yet if all this marital disagreement and deceit seems to make for an unbelievably poor existence, consider as an alternative Vivian Gornick's cautionary vision of total independence: a pristine pile of sandy regret, on which she sits alone. Perhaps the final word should go to Woolf, whose biographical axiom was "There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation."

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and a performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.
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