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What Lurks Behind the Word 'Wife'?

08/14/2014 12:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2014
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For TueNight.com by Jennifer Ha

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The meaning of wife? (Photo courtesy Jennifer Ha)

My young son recently asked me why some words are "bad." He's at the age where saying an illicit word brings a certain measure of delight and thrill due to the reaction of others, namely me, his Mom. He lets a naughty word slip, I admonish him, and we do it all over again. My daughter has a workaround. "I may think those words, Mom, but I just don't say them aloud."

So when he asked me: "What makes a word bad, Mom?" I had to think about it. We, the users of language, assign meaning to words. If a society agrees on a meaning, it sticks. But language is a living thing. It changes. The meanings of words that have been around for thousands of years often transform, over time, into different meanings. So while I've been busy correcting his language for polite company, I've also been thinking about my own "bad" words.

I surprised myself with the revelation that there has always been something about the word "wife" that bothered me deep down. It felt unequal. As a child, I'd hear women reference Judy Syfers' famous Ms. Magazine essay, by saying, "I need a wife," while staring down an ignominious pile of laundry, cooking dinner, or just catching up with extra ironing on a weekend. It didn't look like fun. It just looked like hard work that never ended. It represented the work that most women did as wives, not so much the status of one who has a husband.

When I first got engaged, I was so enamored of my ring that I walked into a tree while looking at it. A few passersby laughed, and so did I, despite the embarrassment. At that point in my life, I wasn't thinking so much about the role of a wife, but more of the romantic commitment I would be making.

Things seem to get much more real when children come along. A lot has been written about how children change everything in a marriage, and they do. I can't imagine life any other way, but -- and there's a big "but" attached here -- whatever practical responsibilities one has as a wife increase a zillionfold as a mother. And "husband," no matter what anyone says to me, does not conjure images of laundry and dishes the way the word "wife" does.

A few years back, Lisa Belkin wrote an essay for the Huffington Post, "Is It Time To Retire The Word 'Wife'?" She quotes Syfers and argues that married women don't think of themselves so much as wives anymore, but something else: mother. "This non-identity might be a victory," writes Belkin, "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."

Do you have to be married to be a wife? In Sweden and Finland, for example, couples often have children together before tying the knot, and the word "sambo" in Swedish, and "avoliitto" in Finnish neatly puts a word to this specific type of relationship. I spent a lot of time in Finland, when one of my dear friends was expecting her first child. We were at her mother's house, and her grandmother had come over to visit. Her grandmother inquired after the father of my friend's child, referring to him as her "husband." Someone pointed out that they weren't married, but instead were an "avoliitto" couple. Her grandmother just shrugged and said, "Same thing."

No matter what word one uses, it is still often the women in relationships who assume much of the domestic chores, and at this point, isn't there something that we should do about that? By continuing to do most of the work, aren't we just training our sons to expect their wives to do it all, as well? For stay-at-home moms, being a wife and mother is a job that doesn't have a quitting time. Even for women who do work, household chores are still not always evenly divided. Bryce Covert's excellent essay "Why It Matters That Women Do Most of the Housework," covers the topic nicely. "...there's no biological determinant for housework. No gender is physically predisposed to want to do the dishes or take out the trash. This drudgery is necessary -- at least if you like eating off of dishes that don't have old food on them or living in a house that doesn't smell like the dump."

She argues that this behavior starts young, in the ways we teach our boys. If they learn that a woman will always pick up after them, the lesson sticks. No one wants to be the kind of wife that Syfers described in 1971: A maid with privileges. And we, the women, the wives, the mothers, are the only ones who can make it change. Transforming the word "wife" to mean something more than its past may be a challenge, but a worthy one.

The 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics study that Covert cites also finds that women "on an average day," spend two times the time caring for children, and that "19 percent of men did housework -- such as cleaning or doing laundry -- compared with 49 percent of women." Forty-two percent of men have cooked or cleaned up after meals, compared with 68 percent of women. I thought about my own habits, and I realized that even though I incessantly ask my son to pick up after himself, there is a fail rate of probably 50 percent. My daughter, by contrast, will most times do it on her own.

So what am I doing wrong? Kids imitate what they see. What they see is me, cleaning, picking up, doing dishes, etc. So just as I correct my son, over and over when he lets a bad word fly, I have to try, maybe 10 times as hard, to make him pick up after himself. And maybe let my daughter get away with it a little more.

You can find Jennifer on Twitter @dupkaspike. Read more of her posts on TueNight:

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