A woman's work is never done

When the feminist author Susan Maushart got married, she began to cook and clean for her husband. What had gone wrong? Lena Corner talks to her about the crisis of 'wifework'
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The Independent Online

When the 27-year-old Susan Maushart arrived at her marital home with her new husband after their honeymoon night in a swanky hotel, she found herself suddenly acting very strangely. She proceeded directly to the bathroom and started cleaning and didn't stop until it had been scrubbed, scoured and polished from top to bottom.

When that was done, she moved to the kitchen, pulled out a recipe book and started work on a casserole. Normal behaviour for some blushing brides maybe, but for Maushart, an ardent feminist and hardened New Yorker who'd previously existed on fast food, this was decidedly out of character.

"It was like some weird way of marking out female territory," she says. "A reverse form of weeing in every corner perhaps? All I knew for sure was that scrubbing the bathroom felt good. Wifely, even. I don't even remember what he was doing. Something husbandly, probably, like reading the paper."

What Maushart had unwittingly found herself doing was participating in what she now terms "wifework" – that is the extra, unpaid labour that a woman takes on when she ties the knot. "I thought I was the last person it would happen to," she says. "But when I got married a metamorphosis happened to me, it was bizarre,"

In her book, entitled Wifework, Maushart sets out to explain why an intelligent PhD student like herself should suddenly regress into archetypal Fifties housewife mode. And by contemplating marriage in terms of a simple calculation – a balance sheet, if you like, of the cost of getting hitched weighed up against the benefits – Maushart draws some disturbing conclusions. Marriage, she concludes, is far more than a piece of paper – especially if you're female.

"The moment a man gets married," Maushart says, "his domestic workload almost disappears. He immediately gets about 70 per cent less cleaning, 50 per cent less cooking and 90 per cent less laundry. There are nowhere near these benefits for a woman when she gets married. And these days you're at pains to deny that you're doing it, because apart from being exhausted by it, you're ashamed of yourself."

And it's not just the obvious household chores that come under Maushart's "wifework" tag. There's the broader task of general husband maintenance. "There is the more subtle, emotional care-taking work," she says. "Things like organising and masterminding the whole family enterprise and taking responsibility for the way relationships pan out – and those aren't just husband and wife, but the in-laws, the extended family and parenting."

And crucial to this, of course, is the "sex work" that the wife, often unconsciously, finds herself partaking in. "That is, the way a woman subtly adjusts her dance sexually to the man's rhythm, men calling the shots and leaving women wondering why they're so strung out and fantasising about being single again."

Maushart's motivation comes directly from her own marital experiences. Perhaps the alarm bells should have started ringing prior to tying the knot on her own happy day. "I remember being surprised when he requested, rather firmly, that I refrain from smoking during our outdoor wedding reception," she writes of her husband-to-be in the book. "As a heavy pipe-smoker, he was hardly in a position to get all holier than thou on me. 'But why now?' I wanted to know. 'My cigarettes have never bothered you before. And everybody else will be smoking'. 'I'd just prefer that you didn't,' he replied evenly."

Things quickly went from bad to worse. "The first day he grumbled about the lack of clean jocks in his underwear drawer, I honestly thought it was a joke," she says. "The day I started lying to him about line-drying his shirts, I knew it had gotten way beyond one."

Within three years, the marriage had broken down and they went their separate ways. But just two years later, Maushart found herself right back where she started, with a new man and, this time, a baby. But again, two years down the line, and with two more children, this marriage had broken down as well.

Married and divorced twice in one decade, Maushart started asking questions. And one of the most surprising things she noticed was that, despite single-handedly raising three children under the age of five, she seemed to have so much free time. "Compared with being a wife," she says, "being a single parent was easy."

At around this time, Maushart published her first book, called The Mask of Motherhood. "I read voraciously when I got pregnant," she says "And 99 per cent of it was irrelevant." So she sat down and wrote the book she would have wanted to read at the time of her first child. "It was about how becoming a mother changes everything, and why we pretend it doesn't. An exposé of the darker side of motherhood that you don't read in all those stupid 'how to' books."

In Wifework Maushart takes a similarly no-nonsense approach, drawing together research from the UK, America and Australia where is she is now based, to demonstrate her point. As such, Wifework is littered with some highly revealing nuggets of information. That two thirds to three-quarters of divorces are initiated by women, that ex-wives are much slower to re-marry than husbands, and that wives reported levels of depression two or three times higher than unmarried women. Perhaps it's not surprising to hear that the British Office for National Statistics forecasts that a quarter of all women will be single by the year 2020.

One woman in the book, an ex-wife, summed it up neatly. "It just got too tiresome. I woke up one day and decided I'd rather keep my money for myself. I had a good job, I really reared the kids... I did all the housework. For God's sake, I even mowed the lawns. And I just decided that the husband had to go. There was no advantage in keeping him."

Instead of the seven-year itch, Maushart points out how the four-year mark is actually far more common these days. Along with that, we're now starting to see the rise of the "mini-marriage" – the one that doesn't even last a year.

This may make for depressing reading, but Maushart says it's not. She believes marriage is an institution that is simply in a state of flux. Our attitudes towards it may have changed massively compared to those of our mothers and grandmothers, but the reality of it, or the division of labour within it, hasn't caught up.

As a result, there is a mismatch, and it is this that Maushart believes is causing our spiralling divorce rate. "We are so much out of tune with our changing environment, what else can we expect?"

Maushart claims that by spelling out a few truths and letting women off the hook, her ideas have, in fact, saved some marriages. "Looking at it from this perspective makes you realise there's only so much you can do to influence a marriage. Given that marriage is terribly important for children, women can weigh up the odds. They may decide the sacrifices are worth it for the sake of their children, so instead of ending up with angst as to why our marriage is not perfect, they could look at it and say, 'Well, no wonder', and congratulate themselves."

Ultimately, however, if the institution of marriage is worth saving, and for the sake of children Maushart thinks it is, then wifework simply has to go. In some ways, Maushart admits that there are parallels between her ideas and those of the "Surrendered Wife", Laura Doyle. "She looks at a situation and says, 'here's how you can make it a success'," Maushart explains. "I look at a situation and recoil in total disgust. But I do think that if you follow her instructions you probably would have a very happy marriage. It's incredibly demeaning but up to a certain point she's right. Part of the reason her book struck a chord with me is that she has called a spade a spade, and I don't think there are many women who are brave enough to do that."

With two failed marriages behind her, could Maushart be tempted down the aisle again? "The logic in my book would suggest I should say no," she says. "I've had my kids, tried to make a go of it with the biological father and failed. Research says no – that I have very little to gain and an awful lot to lose. But, as a person, I know myself to be highly irrational. Hopefully, I would make an informed choice based on the research. But I would never be so foolish as to say I would never get married again. It's this non-rational stuff that is so important. We're a species made to bond."


'Wifework' by Susan Maushart is published by Bloomsbury, £10.99