Review: Wifework


by Susan Maushart


2003 (originally published 2002) • 270 pages • Bloomsbury

One of the most amazing things that happened on the Internet in 2015 was the epic conversation about gender and emotional labor on Metafilter in July. And when I say epic, I don’t say that carelessly—it boasts over two thousand comments, ran for a month, and took me nearly three whole days to get through. (Touchingly, several of the last comments are commenters essentially raising a glass to how much the thread meant to them). It really changed the way I think about emotional labor and helped me identify my own problems with identifying and articulating my emotional needs.

Naturally, a lot of the discussion in the thread is about different-sex marriage by married women, and several of them mentioned Susan Maushart’s 2001 book, Wifework, as a text they’d read and found useful in the context of this discussion. Eager to continue the discussion after the thread closed, I sought it out.

I myself have a very medieval view of marriage—marriage is about pooling resources or, to put it slightly more romantically, heaving together in this strange thing we call life. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to escape internalizing a lot of the social narratives of marriage flying about Western culture, but I imagine it has plenty to do with being queer and being an introvert who doesn’t like to share. (I’d need to get to a point where I’m willing to share my pizza before considering a lady wife.)

Wifework does end up reading a lot like a less sweary Cliff Notes version of that Metafilter thread. (Alas that Maushart had no concept of Crone Island at the time!) Baffled by the inequity in her marriages despite being a card-carrying feminist, American expat Maushart explores the theory of wifework—the vast, interconnected list of things that a wife is expected to do for her husband. This ranges from everything to putting a hearty dinner on the table when he comes home from work (regardless of her schedule or the kids) to heavy emotional labor (like being the one to remember the important dates of his family members) to putting his needs first at all times almost instinctively. Maushart lays it all down in her accessible but workmanlike prose, occasionally interjecting personal stories when they’re relevant. None of this is new territory if you’ve done any reading on emotional labor, but if you haven’t? This can be world-changing.

The tragedy of wifework, of course, is while it benefits married men in the short-term (thus giving them no personal reason to give up this privilege), it hurts them in the long-term. For instance, the idea that a woman cares for her children but that their father can only “babysit” is beyond insulting to men. And the fact that wives are expected to and often do a lot of the interpersonal work for their husbands means that men don’t learn those skills and have a rougher time of it socially when divorce or death intervenes. (I have a personal theory that this is why I so often see grumpy old men who nonetheless treat their dogs like princesses; in our culture, dogs are often the only creatures men can “appropriately” express really gooey love and affection towards without threatening their masculinity.)

Ultimately, Maushart says, we need to come up with a new conception of marriage and alternative family structures. Unfortunately, she never gets around to sketching out what that might look like, which gives the false impression that isolated two-person marriages that develop into nuclear families is the only family structure humans have managed to come with up so far.

Which is absolutely bosh. I feel like the isolated two-person marriage is such a product of midcentury America and the diminishing guarantee that extended families will live near each other. I’m particularly sensitive to it, because, growing up in the South without extended family for miles, I was, demographically speaking, the odd one out who couldn’t go see her grandmother on the weekends or get kicked over to her aunt’s if my parents needed to go out of town. And, since my large French Catholic family would have behaved like that decades ago, I understood that there was something artificial, constructed, and new about that setup.

Throughout human history, people of all genders have created family setups that look nothing like the nuclear family, from confrerement to extended families living together to entire communities taking responsibility for some level of childrearing. If Maushart argues that marriage exists largely for the generation of progeny, then any setup concerning the raising of children is fair game. The alternatives don’t have to be dreamed up; they exist.

Some of this might be the frustration of someone revisiting introductory material again; obviously, Wifework serves its purpose if it introduces a reader to the concept of emotional labor. Some of this might be the book’s age; it’s fourteen (almost fifteen!) years old. And some of this might be because Maushart is very, very enamored of biological essentialism—see her argument that marriage is inherently meant to generate and raise children above. None of this necessarily undercuts her arguments, but it does make you realize just how far we’ve come in feminist discourse.

But not, sadly, in our culture’s recognition of emotional labor.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Wifework

  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. I might have to check it out…maybe even give it to my mom. I remember her talking about some of the points you mentioned in your review. Especially the “baby-sitting” thing. I grew up listening to her correct fathers when she heard them say they had to babysit their kid, “Is that your child? Then you’re not ‘babysitting’. You’re being a parent and taking care of your kid.”

    • Because our culture thinks that girl children will just naturally exhibit these traits (instead of being socialized towards them), we never actually teach these skills in a more overt way. There’s wifework/emotional labor that I learned because my mother was very clear about how much she didn’t like performing them but felt that they were necessary, and there’s emotional labor that my mother performs—like running interference between people—that I never learned because she made it “invisible”. Valuing emotional labor is the first step towards codifying it.

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