What may have appeared perfect from the outside was just one big mess on the inside.
From the moment I got engaged to be married for the first time, I waged a ridiculous—and tyrannical—battle for domestic supremacy. Once my then-husband and I crossed the threshold into our rented one-bedroom apartment after our wedding in March 1982, the honeymoon was over in terms of who would carry out the tasks related to that space.
We had a clear division of labor. But like the second George Bush (or maybe Mussolini), when it came to household chores, I was the decider, not he.
In an evil plan completely orchestrated by me, everything inside the house—mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets, dusting the furniture, doing the laundry, cooking nightly dinners, and cleaning up—was mine to take care of. Everything outside the house—basically the yard and the garage—was his. And I’m embarrassed to say the trajectory of my obsession only grew over the years, along with the square footage of the homes we owned.
Sure, I noticed that my older sister and her husband were going more the 50-50 route: He made supper once in a while, while she pushed the lawn mower, and each was responsible for one of the two bathrooms in their one-level ranch-style house in the suburbs of Portland. Jenny was always the gender equity standard-bearer in our family, after all. Things had to be equal.
In my youthful self-righteousness and naivete, though, I figured I was better than that. I wasn’t going to make my husband swish Ty-D-Bol around in a commode if he didn’t want to. What self-respecting bride would inflict that indignity on her groom?
But the truth was, I didn’t give him a choice—I took over, making the various rooms in which I wielded my formidable womanly power my exclusive territory. And so began a two-decades-long dedication to the misguided idea that if something domestic needed doing, I was the one who had to do it.
Today, though, from the vantage point of a much more open and egalitarian second marriage—and the confines of the couch from which I’m resting a badly-broken ankle—I look awfully silly in hindsight.
In my current condition, with doctor’s orders not to put weight on my right leg for at least eight weeks and dependent on a walker to help me hobble to the bathroom and back, I’m very grateful to be doted on by my husband of nearly 12 years. He seems thrilled to be able to fill in the fissures of my new limited-mobility life by bringing me plates of fruit, tossing a load into the washing machine, and fixing our clogged-up kitchen plumbing as I while away the day plotting ways to run marathons once more.
OK, “thrilled” might be an exaggeration, but “pleased” works, too. The point is, he’s getting the chance to help me. I didn’t give my first husband a gift by scrubbing all those sinks and making all those meals; I stole away his opportunity to care for me on many occasions and in myriad ways. It must have been an emasculating experience to be told what to do, rather than being invited to decide together.
Before our first baby was born in 1986, we both worked, he as a marketing assistant for an Oregon wool products company and I as a community newspaper reporter. We were both bushed at the end of each day, but like the soap-scum ring around our bathtub, I stubbornly clung to the maxim that a cared-for man was a happy man. Slap a medium-rare steak, a baked potato and a green salad on a Wedgewood china plate in the evening, I calculated, and he’d be as content as could be. Another generation back, I might even have fetched him his pipe and slippers, except he didn’t smoke and mostly went barefoot, because I didn’t allow our linoleum floors to get dirty.
It was all about sacrificing for the greater good, being the ideal wife so as to shape myself into the ideal wife-mother combo later on. I was hooked on the idea that if I handled everything at home, it would set my husband free to whistle the same carefree tune as the father of my best college friend: “I make the living, and she makes the living worthwhile.” It didn’t help that my mother-in-law was a June Cleaver clone, with her perfect meals set on perfectly-decorated dining room table, her perfectly-coiffed hair looking resplendent atop a perfectly-tailored outfit that always complemented her perfect petite figure.
After our second and third children came along and I became a full-time stay-at-home mother, I continued to embrace that rigid role. In fact, I became even more vehemently territorial, shooing their daddy out of the nursery when it was time to change a diaper, claiming baby-bathing time as my duty, rocking and reading to them so consistently I barely gave him a chance to tuck one of them in at night.
I’m sure he began to resent it, but I was on a tear. It’s not as if I granted him no time at all with the kids—he got to take them trick-or-treating on Halloween and always did all the toy shopping for their stockings at Christmas—but I commandeered all the caretaking I could. And what eventually happened was, my husband spent more time outside in the back yard, raking and trimming and setting down slug bait—the only acreage I allowed him—and less time inside the kids’ bedrooms (and ours). He wasn’t welcome, because I was so busy being a Good Wife and Mother.
Twelve years after our divorce, I regret that. Funny I didn’t recognize sooner that most post-modern men would rather have a wife who can manage the family finances than one who can bake a proper pineapple upside-down cake. They’re more impressed by a woman who helps them remember their mother’s birthday than a wife who knows what “first-and-ten” means on the football field. And they’d certainly rather be invited to a raucous roll in the hay when they hit the door after work than hear a beleaguered wife tick off a list of the day’s housekeeping accomplishments. Of all the oppressive, abhorrent rules in the 1955 Good Wives Guide (yes, there was such a document), in fact, I’d wager only a fraction truly apply 58 years later. “Listen to him, and be happy to see him,” are among those.
Oh yeah, and a good steak never hurt.
Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two community newspapers, the Hillsboro Tribune and the Forest Grove News-Times. Her work has most recently been published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), the River Magazine, runnersworld.com, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives in St. Helens, Oregon.