Bitch in the House

Bitch in the House

I read a book review of Bitch in the House last year and thought ‘That is spot on’. The review spoke of women with careers, children and partners who were calm and unflappable in work but when they arrived home they turned into raving sergeant majors, roaring at children and partner alike.

At the time, I was also feeling angry. Having role reversed with my husband some five years, I was suddenly struck with the awful thought I could not retire at 40. Not that I wanted to retire in the traditional sense but I wanted to change careers, play at being a full time writer, and enjoy the freedom of working without having to financially support the family at the same time.

It was not until nearly a year later that I finally got my hands on the book and I found it quite different from what I imagined. However, this was not only due to the actual content but my own personal circumstances. No, I hadn’t won the lottery and retired from commercial activities – far from it I am crazier than ever – but I had managed to take on some of my dreams within my working career with the result that a lot of my personal anger had significantly dissipated.

Bitch in the House is a collection of essays by writers (predominantly Jewish but probably due to the editor’s circle of friends) who have written about the modern woman’s condition. Themes explored in the book range from losing an identity when first living or marrying a partner, dealing with relationships, copying with said career, children and partners, and relationships with parents.

Reading the essays, it is interesting to note that the personal condition of the reader is as important as the context of each essay.

One of the earlier essays looked at the difficulties of adapting to being a couple; the lack of independence, the compromises that must be made. Managing a relationship is a challenge. Any relationship is an ongoing dynamic situation, for people change over time as much as relationships, and I found I identified with much of the author said. There is much more to adjust to than squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom or folding the towels in the bathroom. The sense of self must also be maintained while allowing for new grooves to be made with your partner. However, thirteen years into my own relationship this adjustment does not surprise me. Sometimes I work it better than others, but I know what needs to be done in the main. Sometimes apathy, lethargy or sheer bloody mindedness ensures that I do not make the necessary adjustments or request the same from my partner. Typically, each miss-adjustment runs it course until too exhausted to fight each corner, we acquiesce or accommodate the changes required. Sometimes with good humour, sometimes with bad, we both know what has to be done and negotiate as best we can to achieve the best result. The difference thirteen years on is that we know it has to be done and are not surprised when conflict rears its ugly head.

Another essay looked at the ‘sandwich’ phenomenon. Driven by rising careers and delayed childbirth, modern career women can find their parents too old to be of much assistance with the grandchildren and often requiring significant support themselves. Reading the crucial line about leaving childbirth too late – ie well into the thirties – I smugly thought I had my first child in my late twenties. Smug, despite the fact that I am one of the younger children of a large family and have parents considerably older than my peers. In my case, a large supportive family of siblings and even older nieces and nephews, has created a buffer that largely alleviates this condition. So while I appreciate the essay I am not agitated by it.

Which brings me to the core essay I had read about in the book review. ‘ ‘ had captured my imagination last year when in the throes of financial handcuffs, balancing acts and juggling the transition from primary care giver for the children to secondary. Role reversal is a difficult thing to achieve. The old adage that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus is true. I didn’t like to believe this in my twenties but well into my thirties I fully subscribe to this viewpoint.

Mind you, it’s not a realisation that women rule okay, far from up. Rather it is a realisation that nurture has a lot do with the way we act. For example, in my twenties when I was working and also had children, I found it exasperating that any night time dramas with the children were largely my responsibility. I still had to get up in the morning and go to work but I was expected to also get up during the night. But I also enjoyed many perks, notably when I was maternity leave with my second child. I found myself in the position of having both a full time nanny and cleaner. And I didn’t do the cooking – that was my husband’s role when he came home from work! Not did he complain about this state of affairs. I was supposed to be setting up my own business while on maternity leave but somehow time eluded me. A new baby and a toddler are time consuming but I also had lots of help. I didn’t ‘lunch’ with the ladies but nor did I advance my business plan any. It was only when I returned to the workforce that significant moves were made.

But fast forward to ten years later where my husband looks after the children. Much older now, the role of the primary care giver is not so much the midnight wakes and nappies but more the myriad of collections and activities. It has taken us approximately five years to make the transition with the children now of the opinion that Mummies go to meetings and Daddies take them horse riding and do the shopping and the cooking. On the rare occasions I do cook (pizza!) I get lots of compliments but it is only because of the unusual occurrence than due to any natural ability to heat up frozen food.

Making that transition I found myself very critical of the time my husband spent at home. I expected him to not only look after the children, do the shopping, cook the meals, organise the garden, but also to think up and implement major new business ideas. I would quiz him on his day, trying to establish that he had not left a moment wasted. It is only five years on that I have, largely, stopped this constant nagging. One writer in the book (name) commented that men should not be left at home because they will only get into slovenly ways. Another advocated (name) that men should not earn less than their partners as it will only lead to disharmony.

While all the above may have some merit, there are only part of the greater picture. Why, I found myself asking recently, am I so critical of the time that my husband spends. It is not just that I work in a very busy stressful work environment, why do I want him to feel the same way – with the children for goodness sake!

There wasn’t a comparable experience in the contributions which echoes my current position, but there are many elements that I have passed through, will no doubt return to, or will face in the future. Bitch in the House made me look at the way I felt before, now and perhaps glimpse a view of how I will feel in the future. What was fascinating was the way I nodded my head vigorously when reading certain parts, shock it equally vigorously in others and failed the grasp the anger felt in yet other sections.

This is a book that will provoke thought. I compare the sensations when reading it to the famous women’s book, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. I read it first when in my early twenties. I found it incredibly depressing and could not understand why the women characters were so downtrodden or unhappy. I then read it again in my early thirties and found it a totally different book. The ten years gap had taught me that I was not indestructible, that life could be hard and I found instead their courage, not their weakness, caught my attention.

So, I look forward to reading this book again in another couple if years. I wonder if my personal barometer will have swung again to produce another set of reactions and identifications with different contributions.

And on a humorous closing note. My six year old was fascinated that I was reading this book. She would ask me in false sotto voce if I had finished The Bitch in the House – typically in earshot of other parents. What can I say? I think I’ll never be finished with it!