The Bitch in the House
excerpted from The Bitch in the House, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2002
This book was born out of anger—specifically, my own domestic anger, which stemmed from a combination of guilt, resentment, exhaustion, naivety, and the chaos of my life at the time. But ultimately it is not an angry book. It's a book that shows us that the trials and tribulations of our work and relationships, children and homes and sex lives—complete with their passions, dysfunctions, and frustrations--are not ours alone but the same or similar struggles of so many others. It's a book that reveals that, if the grass sometimes seems greener, sometimes it is. And sometimes, it's decidedly not.
The book began, two years ago, after my family—my husband, Dan, and our two children, ages four and one—had just left New York City to move to a small town in Massachusetts where the kids could each have a room and Dan could work part-time from home instead of full-time from an office, enabling him to write his second novel and do his part of the co-parenting arrangement we'd both always (if vaguely) envisioned. The move came, for me, after an autonomous decade in my twenties indulging in all the things I had come to value--a rewarding, lucrative career combined with exercise, romance, solitude, good friends—followed by six whirlwind years that included marrying, moving three times, and birthing and nursing two children, all while contributing my necessary share of the family income by writing a monthly magazine column, publishing a novel, and completing a second novel under contract. By the end, I'd worked my way up to roughly two-thirds time childcare, much of it taking place in our apartment (in which I also worked). Our final year in New York had been a veritable marathon: nursing a baby at the computer while typing to make a deadline; sprinting home from my daughter's nursery school, both kids in tow, to return phone calls; handing the children off to Dan the instant he walked in at night so I could rush out to get my work done. When we moved, I expected things to finally be different. I'd be able to work purely and efficiently—to focus as I had years ago—knowing Dan was on during those times. We'd be calm, we'd take family bike rides...our New Lives would begin.
Instead, my life, my marriage, my schedule felt more overwhelming than ever. The phones rang nonstop. (We had three different "distinctive rings" –Dan's work line, my work line, and the family line. Total nightmare.) Fed Ex packages and cartons of books I was supposed to be reading--I was writing Mademoiselle's monthly books page at the time--arrived by the week, to be added to the still unpacked boxes that rimmed every room, dust bunnies breeding around them. I rarely managed to cook a good dinner, as my own mother had virtually every night, and I rushed my children through the hours so I could get to all the things I had to do, furious when they wouldn't go to bed, when they were up calling me in the night. Dan was doing more parenting than he ever had (and feeling, I imagined, like a better father than those of previous generations simply by virtue of being around), yet I still felt I was the one who managed and was responsible for the kids—from their meals to their clothing, activities, schoolwork, babysitters, birthday parties—as well as handling all the "domestic" things I'd always done (grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, school and social responsibilities, and so on). I still had the same work—my income now even more important—and, it seemed, less time than ever to do it. My days were nonstop at high speed, my brain flooded with lists and obligations.
All day long, I stomped around barking orders, irritable and stressed out. I was angry at the cat for waking me, at the car for having no gas when I got in it (late for something—always late), at the toy I'd just tripped on...and at Dan. Because he'd used up the coffee filters or Cascade without putting them on the list; because he'd finished his work and had time to check out The New York Times and Salon while I struggled to find time for mine; because I was always more stressed out and frantic than he was. Of course, I'd fallen in love with him partly because of this very calm, but now his ability to relax when I never seemed to felt unfair, oblivious, even rude. I resented him and this chaos I found myself in—even as I never stopped being grateful for the elements that created it. Two healthy children, a nice home, an interesting job...what could I possibly be mad about? And yet, mad I was.
So, night after night, once the kids were asleep (sort of), I left laundry unfolded, phone calls unreturned, school forms unfilled out, and my own work undone to go online and fire furious e-mails to my friends to try to figure it out. And I began to realize something. A lot of these women—particularly those who, like me, were ambitious women (often writers) juggling jobs and marriages and, sometimes, small children—also were resentful, guilty, stressed-out. "I want a partner in my husband, not another child," one fired back at me. "I told him if something doesn't change, I'm leaving, even though we just got married," said another, adding, "Yesterday I actually had a fantasy that we got a divorce, moved back into our separate apartments, and just dated each other again." "I'm fine all day at work, but as soon as I get home, I'm a horror," said a third. "I'm the bitch in the house."
The bitch in the house. That's exactly how I felt. The opposite of what Virginia Woolf called The Angel in the House—but with anger to boot. Sometimes, my friends and I would get on the topic of our sex lives, or--in the case of the married ones, it seemed--lack thereof. "Put me anywhere near a bed and I just want to sleep," said one mother. The recently wed woman mourned the loss of the 'hot sex' she'd had with her husband before they'd tied the proverbial knot. One young single friend who'd just moved in with her boyfriend already felt the waning of her desire. (In the same breath, she spoke of how it scared and amazed her how angry she got at him sometimes—how she'd walk in from work and see a sink full of dishes and explode with rage, while her poor boyfriend watched, baffled, from the couch, beer in hand, newspaper spread before him, stereo blaring Dave Matthews Band.)
Newspaper and magazine stories appeared regularly to echo our feelings. "Why Women Hate Their Husbands," screamed a cover line on TALK magazine. (The article's subtitle: "Love, sex, family, career—it was all supposed to be so easy for the modern woman. Then why are this therapist's patients so furious?") In a piece in The New York Times Magazine, a modern working couple visited the Love Lab (a Family Research Lab in Seattle that, after watching a couple interact, predicts whether they will divorce), and, the male half of the couple reported, "In ten minutes, my wife chalked up 130 moments of criticism. I displayed 132 moments of defensiveness." (His wife, he went on to add, "was a keep critic of an institution into which she had twice been recruited. Marriage, she said, was advertised falsely—the myth of enduring romantic love—and its responsibilities sharply limited a woman's growth.)
Women's number one issue in sex therapy had shifted from not being orgasmic to lack of desire; a doctor friend in California confided to me that the top two complaints of her female patients were lack of libido and "inexplicable rage." One friend (full-time working mother, two small kids) told me: "Every woman I know is mad at her husband, just mad mad mad at everything. Every time I bring it up to a woman like me, she just goes bananas.... R and I had a fight the other night that involved him saying he feels like I resent him all the time and I feel like he's always failing me.... We have that fight about once a month."
Naturally, this outpouring of anger interested me. I began to ask these women about their thoughts and experiences—to dig deeper—and to consider and compare potential reasons for this seeming epidemic of female rage. 1 At the same time, I started reading a new book called Flux, in which journalist Peggy Orenstein, after interviewing 200 women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, concludes that "Women's lives have become a complex web of economic, psychological, and social contradictions, with opportunities so intimately linked to constraints that a choice in one realm can have unexpected consequences (or benefits) ten years later in another." Orenstein calls the modern world a "half-changed" one, in which "old patterns and expectations have broken down, but new ideas seem fragmentary, unrealistic, and often contradictory." And I began to wonder if, far from being irrational (or me just being a spoiled brat), my anger—and that of my friends—had clear-cut wellsprings, sources that didn't go away because we had more choices than other generations of women or because we had loving, sensitive partners or even because we led full, privileged lives.
At the end of Flux, Orenstein offers suggestions for women, one of which is to share their experience with one another, to "talk across lines of age and circumstance." As I read those words, I realized this is what I was already doing: gleaning comfort and advice, sympathy and wisdom, from friends of all ages in all situations. The more women I spoke to—whether they were angry or not—the better I felt, and the more insight I gained into my own life and the lives of other women also struggling, with whatever their issues happened to be. And I saw that I could expand this correspondence I'd been having and ask many more women to join in the sharing and revelations: women who'd grown up in homes like mine and in less traditional or middleclass ones; women who'd chosen to marry but not to have children, or to have children but not to marry; women who'd divorced, sometimes twice or more. Women who'd remained single and childless. Women with "unusual" arrangements—open marriage, for example, or becoming someone's mistress. To name a few.
1 A few that came to mind: 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, thanks to a society obsessed with appearance combined with growth in the plastic surgery, cosmetic, and weight-loss industries, 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. (At my age, my mother was in the midst of a fifteen-year interruption of her career in order to cheerfully raise four children, head the PTA and the Brownie troop, and serve our family three homecooked meals a day, plus meet my father's every demand; my mother-in-law had mostly given up her career to aid my father-in-law's career and raise their two boys.) Lack of help from our extended families. (My mother had now resumed that interrupted career, and, at 63, was at its pinnacle, working full-time while overseeing the care of my 92-year-old grandmother and nursing home-confined younger brother--not to mention still waiting on my father, who, conveniently for him, was stuck back in the '50s.) The ideas and belief--courtesy of a culture ever more mired in materialism, consumerism, and false advertising--that we should have it all, do it all, and be it all, and be Happy. And if we're not, by God, something is wrong.
Ask I did: the most interesting, eloquent women I knew and knew of. I approached mostly novelists and professional writers, but also a handful of other smart, thinking women who I knew had a story to tell. I requested of these potential contributors that they explore a choice they'd made, or their life situation—or their anger, if they felt it—in an essay; that they offer an interesting glimpse into their private life, as if they were talking to a friend at a café. One after another agreed to do it. And this book was launched.
By the time I sat down to put it together, I had much more than I had ever hoped for. The authors range in age from 24 to 66; their topics and experience incorporate a great breadth and range. Anger, domestic and otherwise, is covered in many incarnations, particularly in the book's third section, "Mommy Maddest": one writer, Hope Edelman, furious because her husband wasn't present enough when their baby was young; another, Laurie Abraham, because hers was so present it made her feel threatened and competitive as a mother. Novelist Helen Schulman describes being overwhelmed by simultaneously caring for her ailing, aging parents and her two young kids, not to mention her marriage and her career. And two women, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier and novelist Elissa Schappell, both write candidly about their own long-time anger and what it means—and what they hope for—when it comes to their children.
But as the book evolved, anger turned out to be only one small part of a much greater picture. Many of these women weren't enraged, in some cases because earlier discontent had led them to pursue a less traditional road, challenges notwithstanding. In the first section, "Me, Myself, and I," Kerry Herlihy tells of finding herself pregnant by a married man—after once being betrayed by another married man—and deciding to have the baby on her own, asking for and expecting nothing from the father (though also welcoming whatever he wanted to give); later in the book, Pam Houston details her chosen path—one of autonomy and adventure—and her own debate, at age 39, about whether or not to have a baby. Jen Marshall shares her story of moving into a Massachusetts apartment with her long-time boyfriend, quickly finding herself stifled and depressed, and ultimately moving back out—and then to New York—opting instead for long-distance romance with the man she continues to love faithfully.
In the book's second section, "For Better and Worse," Catherine Newman—bisexual in her twenties—ruminates about how and why, finding the institution of marriage politically and socially offensive if not downright absurd, she now lives with her lover (and the father of her son) without becoming his lawfully wedded wife. Novelist Hannah Pine unveils her choice of open marriage: how it came to be, how it works, what she gets out of it, and how she deals with the inevitable jealousy of being alone and awake at five o'clock in the morning knowing her husband is out with another woman.
Many other authors—in this section and in the book's final one, "Look at Me Now"—also raise the shade on their own marriage or sex life (or both) to show us their passions and processes of enlightenment. Cynthia Kling reveals how she learned to use her imagination—and to maintain her creative and "forbidden" side—in her current marriage in order to keep it sexy and sexual; novelist Kate Christensen offers some similar sentiments in presenting her struggle, at age 35 and as the daughter of a mother who ended three marriages, to learn how to be a wife—something she initially found almost unbearable. Novelist and poet Jill Bialosky confesses to a loss of intimacy and sexual desire in her marriage after her son was born, while Hazel McClay contemplates why she ultimately chose a man she loves over men with whom she's had passionate sex, even though her current and true love "has never wrapped me in his arms, never covered my mouth with his and kissed me until I gasped for breath."
Daphne Merkin's piece about her ill-conceived wedding—the uncomfortable if perhaps appropriate prelude to her equally ill-conceived marriage—reiterates that divorce, idealized fantasy though it might be for most married women at one time or another (and valid and necessary solution that it is for many a bad marriage), is hardly nirvana, particularly as one gets into middle age, when, as she puts it, "everyone else suddenly seems to be married—safely tucked in for the night in their tidy Noah's Ark of coupledom—while you're out in the lonely forest scavenging for a warm body to huddle up against." Memoirist Natalie Kusz depicts a different kind of loneliness—and victory—in her essay about being an overweight woman in an unsympathetic and insensitive society.
That's just a sampling of the words and topics that make up this book, subjects covered with grace, wit, humor, depth, irony, sadness, and striking candor. Many of the 26 contributors contemplate decisions and aspects of their life that they've never explored publicly before; they get down and dirty in ways that may shock and titillate. Their pieces reflect, in a chorus of different voices, the elations and disappointments of our lives as fervent and ambitious women today.
As for me, my life, and the anger that spawned this book, I conclude it, thankfully, from a somewhat less pissed-off place, partly because my family and I have settled into this town (found babysitters, a housecleaning service, out-of-home office space for Dan) and our children have aged from four and one to six and three (more sleep, less physically exhausting/all-consuming care), and partly because, with practice, we've gotten better at co-parenting: I've learned to ask for the things I need (rather than doing them myself while seething in silent resentment), Dan to carry out his share regularly and efficiently. Though as the mother I'll probably always feel I bear the main responsibility for my children's care and upkeep (as Daphne Merkin once put it, feminism can come and go, and egalitarian fashions can prevail or not prevail, but it's the rare household where the brunt of the solicitude and concern for the children— and, I would add, for the community—falls on the father)—and though this will continue to infuriate me at times when my life feels overcrammed--I also relish the sense of importance being a mother brings to my life, as much as I thrive on the satisfaction that comes with my career. I am not willing to give up any of it, even if the price is exhaustion. And reminding myself of that, as often as I have to, is calming and liberating.
In fact, in many ways--at least during the good months (enough income, absence of overwhelming deadlines, no one down with the flu)—my life now is probably as close to what I envisioned, moving here, as it'll ever be. Which is not to say I don't find plenty to be furious about. The claustrophobia of marriage—even with its security and coziness. The chaos of raising children—despite their funny sayings and sweet little breath. The stress of combining a career with both of the above—a career that keeps me vital and self-possessed. And so on. In considering it all, I can't help thinking of a T-shirt I once saw, touting a white-water river known for its currents, that read, "This place sucks. Let's stay." I've chosen this life, and I'd chose it again in a heartbeat, but, like many of the women in this book, I'm a perfectionist and a malcontent with a too-full schedule, eager to reap every morsel I can from my brief time on this earth. And if that means I'll never be The Angel in the House—and it does, as I've learned—may my family forgive me.But enough about that. I turn you over to 26 other women: provocative, intriguing, deeply contemplative women, gloriously exposed. May they move, amuse, and enlighten you, as they did me.