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.