by Jess Burnquist
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an article titled, "A Letter to My... Wife, Who Won't Get a Job While I Work Myself to Death," for its ongoing series, "The Letter You Always Wanted to Write," in which people anonymously pen and publish the things they've always wanted to say but couldn't to someone in their lives. It's like that therapy exercise where you pop off in writing but instead of burning your passionate commentary, you publish it in an international journal with hundreds of thousands of readers and then bravely sign your letter, Anonymous.
All day after I read this man's letter to his wife my family caught me staring into space with a perplexed look on my face. My husband asked me what I was thinking about as he unloaded the dishwasher. I proceeded to share the letter with him, and then, he too shared that he was incredulous over some of this author's claims.
The letter began innocently enough as Anonymous described spotting his wife at law school orientation. He stated that she was, "...radiant in a sea of dour nervous faces." And he went on to describe her as, "kind, down-to-earth, engaging, loyal to family and friends." How lovely. Also, how does this letter rank in the category of loyalty? In any case, Anonymous wasted no time getting to the heart of his discontent. After describing the pressures of his "grueling hours and high stress" fresh-out-of-law school job, he bemoaned the fact that his wife ignored his "gentle pressure" and wrote, "...you puttered around in some non-legal positions more suited for someone with half your education and intelligence and which offered commensurately low pay."
Hold up, Buttercup. Was that a compliment? I can't tell. Also, I wonder about that "gentle pressure." When my husband or I feel financially pinched, we don't typically apply a "gentle pressure" like a masseuse might. Instead, one of us usually either says loudly and with force, or by way of yelling, "Hey, I love you but we need more money." Sometimes that comes out like, "Stop spending money, dumbass." In any case, after 21 years of marriage, this method usually works. Gentle pressure wouldn't because it would feel condescending and probably also passive-aggressive. Like this letter.
The reader is left to wonder why his wife opted to avoid a higher paying position. Perhaps she felt that their marriage would fare better if one of them had more flexibility. In any case, as he noted in the following paragraph of his letter, she left that job due to pregnancy, "...something we both wanted," he wrote. Then he noted that after their second child was born, "You have never returned to work, although both kids have been at school full-time for years, and our firstborn is heading to college soon."
Upon my first reading of this letter, especially as a working mother, I found myself empathizing with the notion that his wife could certainly work if the kids were both in school. And then I thought about that for a bit longer, hence my aforementioned perplexed wonderment. I realized a few things. To begin with, at no time thus far in his letter, or in the rest of it, did he acknowledge that raising two children and running a household is work. And then I felt dumb. I felt dumb because immediately after my daughter was born, I left my teaching job to stay home with her and my toddler son. This lasted about one year. The reason it lasted only about one year is because to this day, I have never worked so hard in my life nor in more isolated conditions. I am a high school teacher and it is a take-home job. The hours and personalities can be challenging, but they still don't compare to the challenges I felt as a stay-at-home mom. When I was a stay-at-home mother, my personhood was replaced with diaper changes, meal preparation, cleaning up an area only to return an hour later to clean it up again, and again. I answered toddler questions all day long. I took my children to the park and held a screaming infant while my son demanded one more trip down the slide day after day. I ran load after load of infinite amounts of laundry. I took my children to their pediatrician appointments — scheduled, or otherwise. I took my children to their playdates, to the library, to youth hours at our synagogue. I drove around the entire city praying for them to sleep. I counted the hours until my husband would come home so that I could shower and converse with another adult.
And when he did come home, he willingly took over the childcare and prepared meals so that I could steal a few minutes to myself. And I remember something else. My husband thanked me constantly for the work I was doing — for the financial safety I was providing because childcare costs were, and still are, outrageous. He thanked me for doing the work of maintaining our household and bemoaned the fact that I wasn't getting payment for my work.
Anonymous, however, bemoans the toll his lifestyle and work are taking on his health and appearance.
"We have the trappings of middle-class success — a nice house in a safe, quiet neighborhood; annual holidays; happy, healthy children; money saved for their college years... but it has come at enormous personal cost to me. My stress level has increased dramatically... and my health has deteriorated. People who haven't seen me for years flinch when we meet again... I have overheard someone remarking on how much I have aged."
There's something missing here. Those healthy, happy children didn't just happen. Someone tended to their needs even after they began to go to school full time. In fact, there is research to suggest that it is more valuable for a parent to be in the home during their children's teen years. There lacks any acknowledgement on behalf of Anonymous of the labor that went into the planning of said vacations, the maintenance of a lovely home and the success of two children. That's troubling to me. I can't help but wonder what the personal costs were to his wife. We never find out, but readers are informed about his unrealized dreams, "I often dream of leaving my firm for a less demanding position, with you making up any financial deficit with a job — even a modest one — of your own." I wonder how easy that would have been for his wife. If she's been out of the workforce for a long time, perhaps her skill sets are outdated or maybe her confidence levels are low.
Also, what would the expectations be in the household if she were to get a job? Would he pick up the household tasks her job might take her away from? Something tells me no — and that something has to do with his tone in the next section of his letter in which he states, "It has become clear that you are OK with my working myself to death at a high stress career that I increasingly hate, as long as you don't have to return to the workforce... I've asked, sometimes pleaded for years for you to get a job, any job."
Here he is claiming that his previously-described "kind and down-to-earth wife" won't respond to his asking and pleading? He is doing so in a letter that should have been given to her, preferably in the presence of a marriage counselor. The fact that he sent detailed descriptions of his pain to The Guardian leads me to wonder if in fact he has diminished his own suffering in the space of their marriage so much that he feels this forum is his only way to be heard.
What he writes next is even more telling. "You keep busy volunteering, exercising, and pursuing a variety of hobbies. You socialize with with similarly situated women who also choose to remain outside the paid workforce. You all complain about various financial pressures, but never once consider, at least audibly, that you could alleviate the stress on both your budgets and your burnt-out husbands by earning some money yourselves."
This is terribly insulting. Anonymous suggests that his wife hasn't earned the right to socialize. He negates the labor involved in volunteering and then he essentially writes off his wife and her friends as shrews unwilling to share a burden. Again, why isn't domestic labor considered work? If his job is causing such detrimental effects to his health and well being, he would do better to cut back on many of the "trappings of middle-class success" then to scapegoat his wife and punish her for creating meaning in her day. Frankly, I wonder what kind of letter we would be reading if she didn't make time to exercise.
Unfortunately, Anonymous is unwilling to cut back on his standard of living, one that I am increasingly more certain his wife manages quite well. He writes, "But I don't want you to work so I can buy a Jaguar or a holiday home. I want you to work so I can get a different position and we can still maintain a similar standard of living." Sometimes we can't have it both ways, bruh. Sometimes we just have to adjust our standards in order to live well.
Anonymous goes on to deliver a couple more daggers. He writes that he wants his wife to work "...so our marriage can feel more like a partnership and I can feel less like your financial beast of burden." This statement absolutely and completely manages to ignore the work she does in the home — work I imagine she believes to be in partnership to the work he does outside of the home. Not nice. And then he throws this curve, "I want our daughter to see you in the workforce and I want her to pursue a career so she is never as dependent on a man as you are on me." This isn't an unreasonable request, but he is in effect belittling his wife as an example of who their daughter should not aspire to become. That's just cruel.
The last line of this letter speaks volumes, "But mostly I want you to get a job because I want to feel loved." And there it is. Anonymous feels unloved, unsupported, unseen, and unfulfilled. I simply can't believe that his wife getting a job will repair all that "un." His resentment for her seemingly carefree days is only dampered by his unwillingness to acknowledge the work that she already does. His complete devaluation of homemaking is the glaring takeaway from this bitter manifesto along with a sense of entitlement in terms of adjusting his living standards. This really seems like an exercise in validating his entry into a mid-life cliche. Still, he shouldn't have to put his health at risk, nor watch life from the career sidelines. Perhaps channeling his frustrations into positive communication with his wife as well as some hearty self evaluation would be a better option than spouting off in The Guardian.
Jess Burnquist teaches high school English and Creative Writing in Arizona. Because she has a teenage son and daughter, she is literally surrounded by adolescents 24/7. Sit with that for a minute. Her writings and teaching blog can be found at www.jessburnquist.com.