As a 22-year-old, I didn’t know who I would end up dating or marrying, but I felt sure there would be no fellow writer, especially not a fiction writer. There was something intrinsically off-putting about the thought of getting close to someone who might use my life and quirks to tell my story their way. And what if things soured? I assumed I really wouldn’t like what I read.
So I can only imagine what it’s like to read about yourself in a non-fictional account, particularly when your spouse is putting you on blast in a major national newspaper. If this were a one-time thing, I might shake my head. But after reading the latest installment in the “my husband disappoints me” genre in The New York Times last weekend — this one penned by a clinical psychologist — I’d say we have a trend. And America, we need to talk.
Darcy Lockman, whose editors sneeringly titled her opinion article, “What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With,” opens by telling us, “When my husband and I became parents a decade ago, we were not prepared for the ways in which sexism was about to express itself in our relationship.” She proceeds to describe her husband’s cluelessness and lack of engagement, as well as their disagreement about whether she frequently noted his (perceived) failings.
As I read this, I suspected I was supposed to identify with the writer and cackle about what a jerk her husband is. Yet my sympathies were with him. How did he feel reading about himself in The Times and having countless people read this unflattering account? Did his wife bother to run a draft of this article by him before publication? And would there be more unfortunate details in his wife’s forthcoming book, entitled “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership?”
I know the answers to none of those questions. However, I do know that if someone wants me to change the way I’m doing something, the most effective strategy is to speak directly to me. Not starting from the assumption that I’m doing things a certain way to be annoying, or that I’m driven by malice, laziness, or sexism. Not attacking me, and definitely not savaging me in front of a crowd.
I presume this describes most people, including most men. So, why are a growing number of women publicly criticizing their husbands?
Women have probably vented about marital frustrations since men and women started pairing off. Yet it’s one thing to confide in a trusted friend or relative who knows both players and supports the continued existence of the marriage. It’s an entirely different kettle of fish to gripe publicly or commit those complaints to print, where they can be read by friends, relatives, colleagues, and endless strangers.
It’s hard to pinpoint when this trend erupted, although looking at the widely admired Michelle Obama might be a worthwhile starting point. In 2007, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about wincing “when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal.” In Michelle’s words, “‘For some reason this guy still can’t manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale, and his 5-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is.’” Oh, and Barack didn’t put his dirty socks in the laundry.
Now, I shared Michelle’s distaste for the messianic tone some of her husband’s supporters used when discussing him. I still don’t know that I would have said the above about him. But we were all able to evaluate Barack Obama on his own. We knew both halves of the couple (from a distance), and the American people had an independent relationship with each spouse.
That can’t be said about most other men in America. Most husbands are not public figures, nor are their wives. When one half of a couple takes to print and chides the other for personal failings, it’s like being asked to play back-up in a stranger’s marital squabble. One or both parties may be justified in their dissatisfaction with the status quo, but the public can’t judge fairly, because we typically hear only one side.
Nor should we necessarily hear both sides. These disagreements are inherently about private matters. The question is whether it’s appropriate to take a spouse to task publicly. The spouse doing the writing may find the experience cathartic and delight in the subsequent online affirmation, but does the silent spouse ever appreciate facing a digital mob?
Did Victoria Bissell Brown’s “husband of 50 years” appreciate her “30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling” when she decided she “hate[d] all men and wish[ed] all men were dead” last October? Was it even better to relive when all of America read about it in The Washington Post?
When Gemma Hartley wrote in Harper’s Bazaar about her husband’s messing up her Mother’s Day gift, because he cleaned their bathroom himself rather than hiring a maid service, she earned a book deal. But did her husband gain anything from the world’s hearing his wife’s exasperated internal monologue?
Now, I get it. The clean bathroom wasn’t really the gift in Hartley’s mind; she wanted her husband to vet and manage such a company’s visit (and is fortunate they can afford that). I also understand full well how unpleasant it can be to do housework. But let’s note that we’re not the first generation to notice that. Comedic actress Carol Channing had a whole spoken ode to sharing housework on “Free to Be You and Me” almost 50 years ago.
There is wisdom is dividing household chores, because it is largely a parade of drudgery. And in homes where wives do the lion’s share of these unglamorous but highly necessary tasks, sage husbands will appreciate and acknowledge that effort year-round, but perhaps especially this Mother’s Day weekend.
By contrast, there is no obvious wisdom in publicly shaming your husband. What does that win you at home? What does that do to your marriage?
One of the best bits of advice I ever read was in a parenting book: “What’s obvious to you is obvious to you.” In other words, ladies, if you’re unhappy with your situation, speak to your husband about it. He loves you and cares about your happiness. You’re more likely to resolve whatever’s troubling you if you’re clear about what you’d like to change. But please, for the sake of your marriage and any children, do it privately.