Book Review: The Bitch in the House

I remember when The Bitch in the House was first published.

I had three energetic boys in our house, ages six to ten, and I didn’t have much energy to read about other bitches at the end of the day. We had recently moved for the fifth or so time in the last ten years, and yet again we were trying to fit into a new community. I was prematurely perimenopausal. I spent my days shuttling the kids to school, sports, and scout events, volunteering in each of their three classrooms, walking the dog, and trying to keep myself fit, while keeping the house under some semblance of control. I spent my evenings wrestling the boys to their desks for homework, preparing meals for a family with a diverse set of taste buds, and chastising myself over a glass (or two or three) of wine for not being an on-call romantic for my husband and/or not loving every waking moment of my stay-at-home mom’s life. When I heard about The Bitch in the House, I thought someone had probably written a biography about me.

Finally, after nearly fourteen years, several more moves, and my youngest son’s exodus from our house, I got around to reading it. Now that the house has grown quiet. Now that I’ve been able to pursue my writing career and begun to discover the sorts of themes I write about. And now that I have a much different perspective about myself, the relationship between men and women, and the world than I did back when it was first released. It was probably good I waited so long.

This collection of 26 essays by women about sex, solitude, work, motherhood, and marriage opens with an excerpt quoted from Virginia Woolf’s paper, “Professions for Women,” which alone is worth the price of the collection.

“You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her–you may not know what I mean by The Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.

I think Virginia would have assumed that, by the time the collection was published in 2002, The Angel in the House no longer existed, having surely gone by the wayside by the turn of the 21st century. But in fact, the Angel appears to be very much alive and well, except perhaps for the part about her not having a mind or a wish of her own. Today, we women are often still angelically making sacrifices for our families, but in so doing we’re sometimes discovering that our behaviors are in direct conflict with who we really want to be.

(Disclaimer: before I go on, let me say that my use of the term “we” is generic. I’m a woman. And I’ve experienced some shall-we-say identity issues along the way. But the comments I make, or the quotes I offer, from this point forth are not intended to represent any sort of reflection upon my personal experience. Rather, they represent my observations about the way things are in general. If you’re my husband or a family member and are reading this, this is not intended to be about you. And if you know my husband or family members, please do not draw any conclusions that this is about them. Okay? Now, back to what I was saying.)

Editor Cathi Hanauer hypothesizes, in the Introduction, that we women are struggling to find happiness these days because, in our quest to have it all, there is:

  • Too much work to be done, with too little time;
  • Not enough help from [male] partners and/or extended family;
  • Too much technology invading our lives; and
  • Pressure to be financially responsible.

Also, although we grew up hearing we could have it all, we didn’t exactly get a rule book on how to do this (nor did the men in our lives), and there are few role models from earlier generations to show us how to do it. Furthermore, living in a society obsessed with beauty and materialism makes it that much more difficult for us to be content, and if we don’t achieve it all, we think there’s something wrong with us. (This wasn’t discussed in the collection, but I would add that social media can make us feel all the more incompetent.)

One of the things I appreciate about this collection is that it looks at the woman’s dilemma from a variety of perspectives. For example, some of the essays address the first and foremost question of whether a woman even wants to go into a committed relationship at all, fearing it may cost her a sense of self.

“Why…hadn’t I been warned of this–the loss of identity, the potential claustrophobia, the feeling of being utterly trapped–by those who had gone before me?”  ~Daphne Merkin

Other essayists discuss what type of relationship they’re looking for, and what can happen after vows are exchanged.

“It was short and uninspired, and was more the kind of lovemaking where you are checking in to make sure someone is at home.” ~Jill Bialosky

Some of the writers reveal their secret guilt, doubts, and resentment toward their partners, or their children, or both, and one of the recurring themes involves the notion that many men still treat their wives/female partners, albeit subtly and unconsciously, as possessions.

 

“For any number of reasons, from the sociocultural to the evolutionary and biological, women and men are locked in a push-me-pull-you struggle for control over the keys to the future, which, for a sexually reproducing mammal, amounts to an ongoing struggle over the female body, female sexuality, and female behavior.”  ~Natalie Angier

 

Finally, some of the writers opine on what they have learned along the way, especially on matters of happiness and independence.

“I think I am happy because I have quit trying to find happiness through other people.”  ~Ellen Gilchrist

While the essays cover a lot of ground, there are some obvious omissions. First, Hanauer’s primary focus on the conflicts between a woman’s “biological” need to be a good mother and her personal ambitions to satisfy career goals and desires seemed limiting. Second, although some of the writers in the collection were seasoned warriors, many of them were in their early twenties or thirties when they submitted their pieces and just didn’t have the wise perspective that older writers would. As an older reader, I had difficulty buying into their so-called resolutions, which felt a bit preachy or pat–or dare I say maybe even a bit whiny–given how young the writers were. Third, although one or two of the writers mentioned experience with bisexuality at some point in their lives, there was no substantive LGBT discussion–possibly appropriate in 2002 but not today. Likewise, technology, which has evolved at an exponential pace since the book was published, was noticeably not a factor. And finally, what struck me most of all was the lack of conversation about women living in a household with teens–when multigenerational hormones might be flaring and a woman is entering into her own midlife crisis; this is a time that is often one of the most stressful periods of all, for reasons far too plentiful to go into here, and I would have appreciated at least one essay about that.

But taken as a whole, these essays have a lot of good and worthwhile stuff to say.

In the Afterword, Hanauer acknowledges that some have criticized the collection as being a bunch of essays by women with what we would currently call first world problems. But here’s my take on that subject: these are high-stakes first world problems, worthy of attention. Here’s why:

A woman who isn’t happy and strong in her own universe isn’t going to be able to contribute nearly as much to the world–whether we’re talking about her family, her community, or the greater society–as she otherwise might.

And given that women represent more than 50% of our population, and given the overwhelming world issues of the day (which have largely been generated and/or unresolved by men), it seems to me our planet needs a lot more women contributing. So, yes, it’s a first world problem–one that can have remarkable snowball effects on the entire globe.

Now let me be clear here. Even though I do, indeed, blame many of our world issues on men because men have been pretty much sitting in the control tower since the beginning of time, I’m not saying this issue of women’s identity is the fault of male human beings. We are evolving together along this line, like it or not. One of my favorite concepts in the collection was proposed by Vivian Gornick, who says that facing our various identity crises is a matter of “becoming.” Because this whole idea of equality between the sexes is still so new, relatively speaking when compared to how long humans have been wandering the earth, we (both women and men) are individually and collectively still becoming. In other words, we’re all in this together trying to figure out what this all means.

My generation, in particular, has been bumbling along since the second wave of feminism in the 1960-70’s (the days of Ms. Magazine, the ERA, Roe v Wade, and NOW), to define our roles and responsibilities and to recognize what impact this has on our personal relationships. And although we’ve gotten a lot right, we still have a long way to go. I’m predicting it will take several more decades (at least) for the kinks to be worked out and equality to become de rigeur here in the USA. And then we still have to help the women in third world countries come along. Lots of work ahead. My only-slightly-apologetic-hope is that men don’t destroy the world in the meantime.

The Bitch in the House isn’t a man-basher. But it also isn’t, unfortunately, a roadmap for how to get from here to there. Rather, Hanauer considers it part of ongoing conversation, in which we women can “share our lives and dilemmas and frustrations, to tell the truth whenever and wherever we can–even if it means contradicting each other, even if it means being called difficult or demanding or bitchy.” That’s all we can ask for, really, isn’t it? Conversation. But conversation, whether within the home or across the ocean, can be awesomely powerful.

Soooooo…if you are, or know, someone who is struggling with her role in life–or if you have any interest in the struggles that women continue to face as our place in society continues to evolve–this book’s for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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