Bad wife or just a busy one?
I wondered if my wife had a kind of Joan Crawford thing going on when she told me, about six years into our marriage, that she could not live with the idea of my taking my shirts to a professional laundry.
"What is it?" I asked. "The plastic bags? We can tie them in knots so the kids can never play with them."
"It's not the plastic bags!" Kristine looked so miserable. I decided to cheer her up with humor.
"The wire hangers?" I asked, pointedly.
Since this was only a few years after Mommy Dearest, she got the joke. It didn't cheer her up at all. "You think I'm some kind of monster."
"No," I said. "I don't. I think you're a very busy woman, doing things that the whole family needs you to do."
The list of what she was doing really was quite remarkable. Our then-youngest child was born with cerebral palsy, and Kristine was taking care of him along with our other two children -- and handling the family finances, and dealing with scheduling and transportation, and anything that required making a list and remembering ten minutes later that there was such a list and where it had been put.
The traditional division of labor was not for us. I had vowed to myself before I even proposed to her that there would never be a job so loathsome, tedious, or difficult that my wife could do it and I couldn't. I could clean a toilet, wash and dry dishes, cook a meal, and vacuum a floor (not in that order, of course).
When she handled the check-writing, the checks went where they were supposed to go and did what they were supposed to do. When I wrote checks, they often found their way to the Great Banking Trampoline. Our lives became so much better when I no longer carried the checkbook. Ever.
And while our firstborn loved the lullabies his mommy sang to him, when it came to seriously trying to go to sleep, that was daddy's job. From infancy on, he needed a deep baritone voice to fall asleep to. (In my years of teaching, I've found that many children and adults share this trait. I'm always happy to oblige.)
In my son's case, getting him to sleep was a long, long labor. I spent years lying on the floor of his room every night, with a little slant of light from the hall letting me see and grade student papers or stories that I was going to review, and all the while, hour after hour, I'm singing the only song that he'd accept, "Away in a Manger," over and over, in every season of the year. All versions, all verses.
It was my job because he would accept no substitutes. He has no memory of this, though it persisted till he was five. But I still dream it.
We divided the labor according to my mom's and dad's old slogan: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." (None of us knew that it was an old Communist precept.)
When it came to my shirts, though, I ran into a wall of irrationality.
Because, you see, my wife had internalized the idea that a good Mormon wife irons her husband's shirts.
"So let me see if I understand this," I said. "You can't let me take my shirts to the cleaners, even though we can easily afford it, because if I do, it will mean you're a bad wife."
"Yes," she said unhappily.
"So the shirts pile up in the laundry room until there are thirty shirts there and I have to buy a new one. Or iron them myself. My mother taught me how. I have the skill. Only I don't want to iron them, I want to take them to the cleaner. Why won't you let me?"
"But if you take your shirts to the cleaner, it will mean that I've failed as a wife!"
"To whom will it mean this?" I asked. "Not to me. Not to the kids. Who else will know?"
"It'll mean that to me!" she wailed. "I know I'm being irrational, but that's how it feels."
"It also feels like a colossal waste of your time to iron them, and that's why you don't do it," I said, "because at any given moment on any day of any week of any year, you have something better to do than iron any shirts of mine."
"But if the other women in the ward found out that I ..."
And in that moment, she knew and I knew that I had won. I gloated immediately. "I thought we prided ourselves on making our own division of labor based on what worked in our marriage."
Glumly she nodded.
"Right now I own thirty shirts, all of which are in the laundry room, most of them clean and waiting to be ironed. Other men don't have to own thirty shirts in order to have a hope of a clean, ironed shirt to wear."
"Go," she said. "Take the shirts. Have them washed and pressed by the pros."
You'd have thought it was 1870 and she was giving me permission to take a plural wife.
Skip a few years. Now we shall talk about bread.
I grew up on homemade bread. There was no better food in all the world -- no, not even a spice cake with penuche icing for my birthday, not even pistachio ice cream in Brazil or France or Italy -- than my mother's bread, white or wheat, when it was still so fresh out of the oven you could barely slice it, eaten in thick slabs full of melting butter.
If they don't serve that in the celestial kingdom, I'm not going. Not that I expect my mother to bake bread every day in heaven. Once a week will do.
My wife knew this. But she is not a bread baker.
Don't misunderstand. Kristine is a great cook. She makes perfect pie crust every time. Her gravy always tastes perfect and never has lumps. And she never serves me Jell-O or anything involving Cool Whip. But for one reason or another, she never learned to make bread.
So when, in the late 1980s, I turned up with a breadmaker, she didn't view it as a cool piece of cutting edge technology. She saw it as an insult to her Mormon wifehood.
Because, just as Mormon wives had to iron their husband's shirts, they apparently also had to bake bread for their families.
"But you don't bake bread," I pointed out helpfully.
"Because I'm a terrible wife!"
"You're a wonderful wife who doesn't bake bread. Every now and then I'd like a loaf of hot fresh bread. Making bread is a lot of work and neither of us has time to do it or even time to learn. But this machine already knows how. Let's let the machine bake bread for us."
I think the machine has made two loaves of bread since 1989. Why? Because we both know that when the breadmaker comes out of the corner of the kitchen counter, my wife feels like a failure.
So we buy all our bread at Great Harvest Bread Company. It's almost as good as my mother's. If you toast it or nuke it, you can get butter to melt on it.
Somehow buying good healthy bread from a bakery is something a good Mormon wife can tolerate. But at least one good Mormon wife can't let a machine bake bread for her.
O my fellow Saints, ye males and ye females! Hearken to my voice!
There are so many ways to be a good Mormon wife. They involve taking all the talents and all the time and all the means that God has given you and using them to serve others, especially your family.
The key phrase is that you use the talents God has given you. And you use the time that you actually have.
1. Not everybody is good at everything. I can't manage money. Kristine can't write novels. So I write the books and she pays the bills.
2. Not every possible use of your time is as important as every other use. Kristine didn't have time to take care of our kids' needs (including the handicapped one), do her church callings, run our business, and learn to make bread and iron my stupid shirts.
Here's what a good Mormon wife does: Whatever must be done for the good of her family.
Here's what a good Mormon wife does not do: Beat herself up because she can't do every good thing that she's seen other Mormon wives do. There is no article of faith or temple recommend interview question dealing with shirt-ironing or bread-baking or even money-managing.
We all have our own marriages, our own talents, our own lives. Keep the commandments, be kind to each other and provident and wise with your children.
After that, whatever you do is what Good Mormon Wives and Husbands do; and whatever you don't do is obviously something that you don't have to do to be a Good Mormon Spouse.
Copyright © 2008 by Orson Scott Card
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