BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 22, 2006
As both my husband and I scrambled to meet work deadlines last week--while simultaneously juggling multiple doctors' appointments and assuring our daughter's day care teachers that, yes, one of us would still be able to watch the class for an hour during the monthly staff meeting--it once again struck me: What most modern marriages really need is an extra wife.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately in response to all the buzz surrounding HBO's new polygamy-themed hit, "Big Love." Conservatives have taken to brandishing the show as Exhibit A in the fight against gay marriage. That is, once we breach that hard, bright line delineating marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the next thing you know, we'll all be living in multi-spouse chaos, with too many kids, credit card bills, pool toys, cat fights, complex copulation schedules, and Viagra prescriptions for any sane person to keep track of.
To a certain extent, I agree (with the criticism of polygamy, not of gay marriage), but largely because "Big Love"'s Henrickson clan has approached this whole multi-spouse business from exactly the wrong angle. As in real life, the show's polygamy--or, more specifically, its polygyny--is wrapped up in the biblical mandate to be fruitful and multiply. As soon as one wife gets too old and run down to breed efficiently, you bring in a new model. But let's face it: No matter how devoutly Pat Robertson wishes it were so, none of us is living in Old Testament times. And the major problem facing the American family today is not a shortage of children.
In far too many modern families, however, there is a corrosive shortage of support--of the physical, logistical, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional kinds--once consistently provided by your garden variety housewife. Just look at the ever-growing pile of articles, books, and polls pointing to how much stress and friction couples are suffering in their eternal struggle to balance conflicting work and family duties. Typically, the gist of these discussions is that, if only women could find a way to lighten the domestic load that still tends to fall disproportionately on their shoulders, marital bliss would follow.
Maybe. But probably not. Certainly, there's no question that having good child care and a husband who knows his way around the kitchen can make a gal's life easier. And, for those with the financial means, an army of highly competent domestic help can remove most of the sting of housekeeping. Still, no matter how many nannies or housekeepers or personal assistants the more affluent among us employ, at the end of a long day, most of us still won't come home to someone whose primary mission in life is to see to the well-being of our households. Even if the government began issuing every family its own Mary Poppins and men suddenly decided that they desperately wanted to spend their evenings folding laundry and frosting cupcakes for preschool, this still wouldn't address the emotional and spiritual void left by the disappearance of the traditional housewife about which Caitlin Flanagan writes so nostalgically in her recent book To Hell With All That.
With her unflinching focus on what we lost with the women's movement, Flanagan has drawn heavy fire from many working mommies and their ilk. But the book is so inflammatory in part because of its uncomfortable-but-tough-to-dispute observations. For instance, at the end of a chapter examining our tendency to farm out domestic chores once handled by housewives, Flanagan notes: "What's missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can't buy: the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it."
Of course, it's not only affluent households missing this nurturing figure. Moving down the income ladder, the issue of moms working may be more about economic need than personal fulfillment, but the result is the same. And, before we blame this entire mess on mom's selfish insistence on a career, keep in mind that even today's full-time mommies bear little resemblance to the housewives of yore. As Flanagan points out, just note the difference in nomenclature. A huge chunk of today's "stay-at-home moms" are home because they are utterly devoted to raising perfect, perfectly adjusted children; but, with all the music lessons, soccer practices, and tumbling camps for the kids, they often have as little (maybe even less) time to devote to their houses and marriages as do their working counterparts. In these households, as surely as in those of hard-charging careerist mommies, gone is the kind of woman who greeted her husband at the door each evening with a kiss and a cold martini, assured him that the homefront was under control, and insisted that he tell her all about his day in the trenches.
It is into this breach that an extra wife could step. Better still, since the kind of multi-spouse arrangement I'm envisioning isn't about maximizing the number of offspring, one could just as easily have a household with two husbands. Indeed, the key to this brand of polygamy would be to make clear up front that the second-spouse slot was for a woman or man specifically not interested in procreating. After all, how could you save labor with two full families' worth of kids but not two full families' worth of parents?
Obviously, this kind of life wouldn't be for everyone. The search for a less self-abnegating existence is, after all, what destroyed the institution of housewifery to begin with. But maybe with a bit of clever marketing, you could appeal to men and women looking to indulge their inner domestic goddess--or simply to find stable companionship--without the strain of bearing all the responsibilities of spousehood alone.
Despite the obvious advantages of an extra spouse, some couples might be a tad skittish about jumping into anything so permanent as a second marriage. Never fear: For them, I have an alternative solution proffered by a Georgetown student responding to a blog item I recently wrote on this subject. What I seemed to be advocating, noted the student, wasn't a full-fledged second spouse so much as a marital intern--unpaid, naturally, as all good interns are. Now that is exactly the kind of outside-the-box thinking my husband and I could use at our house. Just give us a call, kid. We've got a pile of laundry and a defrosted pork roast awaiting your tender ministrations. And we both like our martinis made with gin, not vodka. We're traditional that way.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.