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Get A Wife

Confessions Of A Slob

By Faulkner Fox

April 2003

We had rats once. Well, twice. Not the New York City kind that come because you are living in unclean circumstances, although that kind would probably feel pretty comfy chez nous. No, we live in Texas, and we got infested with Texas tree rats. Big ol' things that jump down on your roof from trees, bite holes through the shingles, then set up housekeeping inside. With you.

My husband first discovered the problem. He smelled something funky near the stove, thought it must be a dead mouse, and did exactly what I would have done: turned the oven up to 500 and figured he'd broil the hell out of whatever it was. This is kind of our housekeeping style--wait until something stinks, then do something drastic and inappropriate and hope the whole thing goes away. In the case of the rats, it didn't go away, and we ended up hiring expensive, orange-suited rodent experts.

My husband is a professor, and he is absent-minded, but he doesn't reap the main benefit of this stereotype--unfettered thought on higher matters. If he smells a rat, he deals with it. If he can't find his glasses--a typical predicament for spacey, professorial types--he can't find his glasses. No dainty woman in an ironed apron says, "Here honey. My goodness, you're silly! They were right on the bathroom cabinet."

I'm not unusually cruel, and I do help my husband if I know where his glasses are, but I rarely do since our house is, basically, a sty, and he puts his glasses in totally bizarre places--between the links in our chain fence outside, halfway through a huge stack of magazines, under our son's rocking horse. I am slightly more organized than my husband, but I am a slob, a packrat, and, perhaps most important to me, I am completely adamant in my refusal to be the single-handed grand orchestrator of our household.

I've heard several of my harried friends, male and female, say something like: "what we need is a wife."

Yeah, us too. An unresentful wife. An unaspiring wife. Someone who is truly fulfilled by doing housework. But then someone would have to talk to her. I bet she's boring.

This is kind of my dream (and I think it might be my husband's dream too): writing all day with healthy and delicious meals magically and silently arriving at appointed hours in a house that neatens, cleans, then organically disinfects itself without bothering us.

Not possible? Okay then, let's say my husband and I do find a wife, and he doesn't have sex with her (that would upset me), and I don't have to talk to her. Or maybe we just have a cheerful housekeeper like Alice on "The Brady Bunch," and we don't have to talk to her either. Here's the sticky part: what will the kids (we have a baby and a three-year-old) be doing while we write all day, and all night if the muse so moves us?

I don't want to shunt off all of the childcare--just the icky and boring parts. Maybe I could pop in and out like Mary Poppins on speed. In for the first step, out for the messy poop. In for the story and kiss good-night, out for the 2 a.m. wake-up call. Trouble is, I know this doesn't work. I know the good moments don't make sense, and possibly don't even happen, without the bad, perhaps more kindly referred to as "the challenging."

I think quality time is a crock of bull. You can't "get more" in terms of your relationship with your kids by parenting intensely for fifteen minute chunks. Parenting is a hands-on enterprise. You can't step out because it's messy or boring or irritating and expect to be welcomed back in for the high moments. Generations worth of workaholic Dads who paused to toss a ball directively with junior on Saturday morning have proven that quality time, in and of itself, is not enough.

How about the house? Can you at least contract out all that work without ill effect? There does seem to be a proliferation of household management services, and oh, are they pricey--children's birthday planners, closet reorganizers, professional bill payers. Living in a reasonably-sized city in the year 2000 with completely unlimited income, you could probably pay someone to do literally everything in your house. But if you're a slob like me, one kitchen reorganization won't hold you long. I'd need those people, those domestic managers, to move in.

I have a confession to make. I could manage a house quite well. I have the skills. I'm not a born slob, I certainly wasn't trained by my mother to be a slob--just the opposite. I'm a self-made slob. An aggressive slob. I slob on purpose. I slob to say fuck the Betty Crocker crap.

It's an adolescent stance, I admit, and it leads to utter chaos and, on occasion, deeper challenges to hygiene, decency, and safety. I am trying to stop, I truly am, but I'm angry. I want a life of the mind--it's what I've always wanted in a way. Are there those who dream of cooking a perfect pot roast? Or is everyone who prides herself on her domestic skills settling for less than what she feels she has a right to want? I don't know, and I'm aware that it will piss a lot of women off to ask this question. For myself, a very significant part of me wants to be the absent-minded writer, the privileged man of letters.

Were there ever guys like this? Men who got to live out some fey, aristocratic life of intellectual excitement and complete freedom from domestic responsibilities? I just finished Ernest Hemingway's autobiography, and while not all of it sounds enviable in the least, I did notice that he didn't mention a lot of time spent sweeping up Cheerios. Sometimes, I want to be Ernest Hemingway. Not when he shot himself. But the other times, the writing times at cafes in Paris and Madrid.

In David Mamet's essay, "The Diner," he says: "Writing, in my experience, consists of long periods of hanging out...To hang out is to proclaim and endorse our need for leisure and autonomy." Leisure and autonomy seem to me the most taboo qualities imaginable for a mother of young kids. You might as well go around saying: "I want to have sex with a cat." And yet I agree with Mamet that leisure and autonomy are essential for good writing. And for healthy living.
While lamenting the paucity of good diners--Mamet's preferred place to write--he says: "one cannot write at home, for those we love might there confound our occupation with Sitting Around and suggest we fix the shower rod." For me, the one--and surely, Mamet envisions a woman here--who nags me to fix the shower rod is in my own head. I'm supposed to be queen of the domestic arena, keeper of the hearth, nurturer of the kids, scheduler of car tune-ups, dental work, violin lessons, and here I am wanting a life of the mind. An unencumbered life, a life with leisure and autonomy, time to think and then time to truly hang out with the kids instead of keeping one furtive, unfocused eye on them while I microwave dinner, throw in a load of laundry, and scrub two-day-old oatmeal off a pot.

I've read about a billion books on mothers who work, how it's okay--good, actually--for mother and child, but I still feel guilty. Every mother I know feels guilty. Here's why I feel particularly guilty: some days I'm home, my kids are not, and what I'm doing looks like Sitting Around. And yet I don't sit around nearly as much as I think would be good for my writing. I'm scared the Bad Mommy Patrol might drive by, see me without a pen in my hand and turn me in: "That woman's not a writer, she hasn't written a word in five minutes, and her kids are in daycare! She's just a bad mother."

A friend of mine has just completed an impressive 900-page manuscript over the past three and a half years. She has a four-year-old daughter. When I saw her last week, she asked how I deal with the issue of productivity. I mumbled something like, "not well," and she said, "Writing for me has become like hammering nails. I feel I have to write a certain amount every day. Otherwise, I feel too guilty having my daughter in daycare."

I think there are relatively few types of people prone to write 900-page books. Perhaps it will surprise some, but I think women who have just had a child are a very likely group. It is absolutely terrifying to be a woman and have a child. What will happen to you? Will you ever think again? Will you ever, ever, have autonomy and leisure again? Will anyone ever take you seriously as an individual again? It is a hideous thing our culture does to mothers--erasure is how I would sum it up in a word--erasure and assumed, prescribed domestication. Although I did not just write a 900-page manuscript, I kind of wish I did, and I can totally see the appeal in doing it.

Let me assure you that my friend's manuscript is not some crazy rant. It is meticulously researched analysis, written to be irrefutable and exhaustive. I think this is how mothers feel we have to be in order to have a shot in hell at being taken seriously. This is how women in general often feel--the work-twice-as-hard-to-be-seen-as-half-as-good deal--and this is hiked up exponentially for mothers of young children. Everyone assumes, in a sick, clucking sort of way, that you now have diaper brain, couldn't keep a real thought in your head if someone paid you. Conveniently (or so they think), some employers will actually offer to stop paying you, to "let you go," now that they assume you "want more time at home." More time to clean? To create the hearth we are all programmed to feel our children need?

Right after our second son was born, we hired a well-meaning, yet terrifying born-again woman as a "doula" (mother's helper) for a few days. She basically shopped, cooked, and cleaned while I breast-fed, ate, and cried, and my husband comforted me, changed diapers, and took care of our toddler. The first day, she brought me a lovely, nourishing meal on a white bedtray with a note, scrawled in her shockingly childish hand that read: "If You Don't Know What Day It Is, Your Mind Is Where It Should Be. On Baby."

Did I really want this woman in my house, especially when I was suffering from intense perineal pain, postpartum depression, and overwhelming exhaustion? Yes, I realized I did. I was really hungry--starving, in fact--and, as usual, our house was a sty. I thought the baby deserved something better for his entrance into the world, so I had hired a Christian to clean our house. Now, I was paying the price.

The doula's note haunts me even now, more than a year later. Is it so bad to want to know what day it is, maybe even glance at the paper, for God's sake, when you have a newborn? Falling into some morass of undifferentiated Mommydom has always terrified me. And it is most terrifying with a newborn, when you might as well be a cow for most of the day. Many intellectuals aren't used to living consciously in their bodies. So pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can be potentially positive and counterbalancing experiences for thinking women. But also totally terrifying--at least for me.

I'm willing to entertain the possibility that I could just be some kind of pessimistic, enraged nutcase. I'm aware that I'm fairly neurotic, perhaps out of step with a majority of mothers. Here's an example: the parents of our son's best friend just had a new baby, and three days after the baby was born, they invited the kids and me out to play putt-putt. The father began playing intently and seemed disappointed that I was his only lackluster competition since his wife was carrying the newborn in a Snugli. As he and I played and the older kids raced around, the husband would periodically yell to his wife over the sound of an irritatingly loud leafblower: "2 for me and 4 for Faulkner!" She would dutifully record our score, reaching deftly over the newborn's tiny head to write it down. (I had offered to alternate shots with her, but she was afraid she'd hit the baby in the head if she tried to putt.) I was totally amazed by this situation. I knew for sure that if my husband had told me to keep score while he played putt-putt and I carried our three-day-old baby, I would have told him where to stuff the putter.

Would this have been ill-placed anger? Am I wrong to want equity at every instant with my "domestic partner?" What's wrong with a little putt-putt?

I admit, I could be more flexible. The putt-putting incident took place on the man's birthday, and I don't think his wife felt particularly deprived not to be playing. (It is a relatively silly sport.) Still, I’m afraid--at least now--to let go of my anti-domestic, anti-I'll-stand-on-the-sidelines-with-the-baby-while-you-engage-in-the-game-of-life stance. It feels like I could slide all too easily, too unwittingly, into something hideous, something about much more than who golfs when. So we live in relative chaos at my house, and my husband doesn’t play sports with clubs.

I'd like a calmer, less embattled solution. Sometimes I think science fiction might have an answer: time travel, another dimension, a wife who can morph into my body (my husband would still not have sex with her.) If they can clone a sheep, why not a wife named Dolly? Some days, motherhood already seems like a sci-fi flick--invasion of the body (or mind) snatchers where plenty of new moms have already been abducted. I've had my struggles with the aliens, but they haven't taken me yet. I'm pretty much the self I've always been: I live in a sty, and I spend time writing. This will have to do, for now.

mmo : march 2003

Get A Wife: Confessions Of A Slob first appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Brain, Child Magazine (

Faulkner Fox teaches creative writing at Duke University. Her book on motherhood and domestic life, "Dispatches From A Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned To Love The House, The Man, The Child," is coming out from Random House in January. She lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and their two sons.

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