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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Is It Time To Retire The Word 'Wife'?

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On Facebook recently, the writer Amy Tan wrote of a war of wills (and words) that she was having with her new word-processing software. "It admonishes me with editing remarks, like, "Gender specific term, consider using 'spouse' instead of 'wife,' " she wrote.

Tan didn't think too much of that particular suggestion, but perhaps her Pages program is onto something. What, nowadays, is the meaning of the word wife? It certainly is not what it used to be -- but it hasn't yet come to mean something new, either.

Many centuries ago, "wife" was synonymous with "woman." You can still find remnants of that in the construct of "midwife" or "fishwife". (Hey, it could have been worse; in Japanese, the symbols for Oku-san, or wife, also translate loosely to "person in the back.") The word didn't take on its meaning as "a married woman" until sometime between the third and twelfth centuries, give or take, and it took several centuries more to romanticize the job description to include keeper of heart, hearth and home.

Then, with a sentence, came the beginning of what might well turn out to be the end.

"I need a wife," wrote Judy Syfers in an essay in the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1971. In the tart paragraphs that followed she removed centuries of gauzy build-up:

I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and hten do the cleaning up ...

My God, who wouldn't want a wife?

Yes, and given that definition, who in their right mind would want to be one?

The women's movement was not the only thing to muddle the word. Pretty much every social trend in the past 50 years has left its own ding, from the drop in the marriage rate to the rise in the divorce rate, to the upward creep in the age of first-time brides and the major leap in the percentage of mothers who are not married when they give birth.

There are the paradigm shifts created by the weakness of the economy (making it the exception rather than the norm to have one spouse at home) and by the strength of the same-sex marriage debate (what does it mean to be a wife when there are two in a marriage? Or none?). And let's not forget the fact that while women were changing, men were too. Now that more men stay home, and increasing numbers of women earn more than their spouses, the meaning of the word husband isn't exactly as it used to be, either. (Breadwinner? Protector? Man of the House? Please...)

None of these, though, is the biggest reason that married women today don't spend much time thinking of themselves as wives -- why you don't hear the phrase "a good wife" anymore, unless it's said ironically or in relation to a TV character who probably won't remain a wife much longer. (And you NEVER hear the word "housewife" unless it refers to a woman from Orange County or Atlanta, who is certainly not "real" and nothing at all like a "housewife".)

This non-identity might be a victory if it meant that women have stopped defining themselves in terms of their external relationships rather than internal compasses, or that they have stopped setting impossible standards for themselves, or they have ceased comparing themselves to others. But actually, they have merely found another measuring stick, another dominant identity. The role of wife has been eclipsed by the role of mother. Women no longer define themselves by the happiness of their husbands, but by that of their children.

On the website Momversation.com not long ago, several parenting bloggers discussed the question "What's more difficult, marriage or motherhood?"

Of the three, the only vote that marriage was easier came from Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com. "Our mothers spent more of their time working on being better wives as opposed to better mothers," she says. "Whereas, for our generation it seems like it's kind of the opposite, that we concentrate more on being better mothers than better wives." We do this, she concluded, because parenting is harder and needs more of our attention.

But Alice Bradley from Finslippy.com found Armstrong's reasoning to be exactly backward. Motherhood is easier, Bradley said, which is why we give it more attention -- it's so much more rewarding to tackle the challenges you can win.

"What does it mean to be a good wife?" she asked. "I don't know what that means. I know what it means to be a good mother. When you have a baby, it's very clear what you have to do -- you have to keep the baby alive and love it ... It's hard to neglect a baby, if you're not crazy and evil. It's easy to neglect a marriage; you have to work at it and it's easier to forget that you have to work at it."

What I find most interesting is that both women reach the same conclusion for opposite reasons; today's wives, they agree, are less defined by the role than were their mothers. In fact, we are barely defined by the role of wife at all. (It may or may not be relevant that Armstrong announced a trial separation from her husband last month.) We've quite rightly erased most vestiges of what the word used to mean, but have not found a vibrant, robust definition of what should come to mean instead.

Do we need two words, different ones for different sexes? Will they go the way of other gender-specific terms like "stewardess"? Is there actually any difference now between the role of husband and wife? Do we want there to be?

Is "partner" the word we are looking for, perhaps? The one that same-sex couples considered a consolation prize for so many years, and that sounds a little like a business arrangement? Or maybe "spouse" is the obvious answer?

Having raised these questions, I'd like to suggest that the answers don't lie in a word or its definition. Wife, spouse, partner -- what they mean depends on what we mean when we use them. Too many women throughout history became trapped in a usage that did not do them justice nor serve them well. But in diminishing the word (and, therefore, the role), by pouring energies into children that once was spent on the relationship that created those children, we have clearly swung too far the other way.

So it's time to recorrect. To pay attention. To define ourselves not as someone's wife, or someone's mother, but as women who have embraced these relationships, and others, as parts of our larger whole.

Then maybe Amy Tan's autocorrect will start to offer suggestions that evoke what the word should mean. Lover. Equal. Soul Mate. Life Mate. Companion. Most Trusted Friend. Partner. Spouse. Wife.