Review: The Bitch in the House

the bitch in the houseName of Book: The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
Edited By: Cathi Hanauer
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
Copyright Date: 2002
Number of Pages: 304 pages
Format: nonfiction, essays
Reason for Reading: APW bookclub
Rating: B+

This collection of essays tackles the struggles of trying to juggle marriage, motherhood, and career or a combination thereof. Many of the women identify as feminists. And many of these women are angry.

While this anger may permeate the tone of several of the essays, it doesn’t affect them all. There is a great deal of humor along with the bitchiness. Personally, I don’t mind a little bitchiness and quite frankly, some of these women have a great deal to feel bitchy about.

In this era of whatever-wave-of-feminism we are on, women have grown up hearing that we can have it all. We can grow up and be anything we want to be. We can have a family if we want. Or not have a family. We can have high-powered careers and be mothers and have fulfilling marriages. We are basically bred to be more, to do more, and to expect more.

However, once we grow up and try to live out career dreams and family dreams, we crash into a very different reality.  There is a strong disconnect with how we envision it will be and how it actually is. Sure we can be mothers with high-powered careers, but we are still expected to pick up the slack at home and are judged harshly from our peers and society for every parenting decision we* make and for how tidy we keep our home.

Women have made great strides in our efforts for equal rights, (although we still aren’t done and still have a ways to go.) But while we are growing up with all of these empowering, you go, girl! messages, no one ever tells you HOW you are supposed to actually accomplish this elusive ‘have it all’ concept.

It is precisely this disconnect that breeds the strong anger that fuels these essays.

Reading this book was more than a little scary, but it was also very enlightening, thought-provoking, and downright fascinating. I am very interested in the many different ways that people live, especially those that make unconventional decisions.

Essay Highlights:

Excuse Me While I Explode: My Mother, Myself, My Anger by E.S. Maduro

I found the author of this particular essay to be the angriest. Her rage practically flew off the page and was quite tangible. From a very young age she observed the inequity that she perceived between her parents. She saw her mother as a martyr, doing everything for the family, working and managing the household with no free time for herself. She also views her father as having all of the fun.

“I became angry at both my parents: at my father that his chores (take apart and reassemble the kitchen sink, work in the garden, snow-blow the driveway) seemed more interesting and challenging and were always impressive to friends and relatives, while my mother’s endless chores seemed layered in routine and monotony. Both my parents had careers now, but it fell to my mother to do every trivial and mindless thing that needed to be done, and I was frustrated with her for never seeming to mind this or to demand more help from my father.

What’s more, I believed myself to be a feminist, and I vowed never to fall into the same trap of domestic boredom and servitude that I saw my mother as being fully entrenched in; never to settle for a life that was, as I saw it, lacking independence, authority, and respect.”

The author proceeds to choose a boyfriend she sees as the exact opposite of her father (at least in domestic behavior). He was sweet and kind and helped cook and do the dishes. Eventually they move in together, after which she slowly finds herself morphing into her mother.  Yet instead of asking for help, she shirks off her boyfriend’s offers and consistently martyrs herself to the throne of domesticity. The author is acutely aware of her behavior.  During a  weekend of babysitting neighbor kids with her boyfriend she realizes the other side of this angry coin: pride.

“I returned home from the weekend of babysitting exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. . . But as my anger waned, I realized I was feeling something else, too: a sense of power and pride in knowing I had been the supermom for the weekend. I was the one who kept everything under control. It was I who’d made sure the kids were picked up on time, took showers each night, ate a vegetable at dinner. I felt as though I could have done the whole thing myself. The package was complete: anger and pride.

The author seems to cling to this pride. She knows she should ask for help. She knows she is living what she said she never would. And yet she can’t seem to stop herself. She is too damn mad. She is mad that she grew up acutely aware of such responsibilities. She is mad her husband didn’t. She is mad that she should have to show him in the first place.

By the end of the essay, the author acknowledges that at twenty-four she still has “years to figure things out; to try to learn how to feel pride and even power without running myself ragged; to be with a man without being angry for the rest of my life. I hope I can.”

Man, I hope she does too.  I also wonder if Paul will be around by the time she gets there.  

Crossing to Safety by Jen Marshall

“All my life, I had been taught that a romance headed for Weddingville was the Holy Grail, the answer to every question. My adolescence had been a jumble of breathless conversations about boys and what they did and who they liked and how my nerdy friends and I could ever induce any of them to fall in love with us. Rather than rerouting this inane chatter into more productive channels, my parents reinforced it, wondering aloud if the reason why I didn’t have a prom date was that I spent too much time alone, reading.  Eventually most of my friends found willing boys to kiss in the Burger King parking lot on Friday nights. But I didn’t. Instead, I had nightmares that I was twenty-five and had still never been on a date.

Matters weren’t helped when, my senior year in high school, my dad ‘jokingly’ wondered if I wasn’t bringing home boys because I was a lesbian. When I assured him that I did like boys-they just didn’t seem to like me, so far-I saw in his face for the first time how relief can utterly transform someone’s features. It’s understandable that I came to believe that finding the right man was the central goal in life. And now that I had Doug, I expected that everything else would naturally fall into place.”

This is one of essays I found the most fascinating. A woman moves in with her college boyfriend post-graduation and finds cohabitation to be absolutely stifling. It doesn’t help that she moved to a tiny little town that he found a job in but holds absolutely no prospects for her. She ends up finding a job at a head shop, while Doug is off working the job of his dreams. The author finds herself falling in a deep depression. This just isn’t the life she had imagined for herself.

“Doug always smiled when he walked through the door, happy to see me, and all I could think was ‘Is this it?’ And this was it, apparently, and that made me so sad and at the same time so ashamed of my sadness, and the two feelings together choked me.

Why did I feel like a hornet trapped under a drinking glass, frantically dreaming of escape? Wasn’t cohabitational bliss the jackpot I was supposed to spend my twenties desperately pursuing? And I had it now, at twenty-two, eight years ahead of schedule! How could I possibly be less than thrilled?”

After a while, the author has had enough of her “inexplicable disappointment with her life.” She decides to take matters into her own hands. She finds a publishing job in New York City and promptly moves there. She and Doug stay together. It doesn’t even to occur to them that because she is moving to another city that means they should break up.

The pair go on to enjoy a thriving, if unorthodox, relationship. He in New Jersey, she in New York. They spend their weeks apart and the weekends together.  This arrangement works for them and neither of them are in any hurry to get married or shack up, to the chagrin of their families. (At essay’s end, they have been living separately for five years.)

“Living full-time with a romantic partner involved compromise on many levels. How could I unreservedly give large parts of myself to someone else when I hardly knew who I was or what I wanted to become? New York, exploring a publishing career, and time alone suddenly seemed obvious rather than ridiculous.”

This idea of living two separate lives while still being very much together and a part of each other’s lives really captured my attention. Partly because I used to wonder about this on my own and think that this was how I would do it. I co-habitated once (and briefly) when I was twenty and I never wanted to do it again. In subsequent relationships I used to imagine if we committed to each other in a permanent way that we would reside side by side but never actually sharing the same space.  Maybe this could be attributed to being young, but all the same, I identify with this story in a way. Yeah, I ended up getting married and I live with my partner, but for the longest time, I never saw those things happening. This essay was refreshing and honest and  full of wisdom.

There were plenty of other notable essays, but too many to go into great detail here.  I can’t help but mention the essay about the woman who is super poised at the office, but a raging bitch as soon as she stepped foot into her chaotic home. (You may remember her from Teaser Tuesday.) There  were also essays about women who didn’t feel their husbands helped enough with the kids, but the one that intrigued me was the one where the woman’s husband was truly an equal in the childcare department and she saw him as her competition.

This book gave me pause. Of course, I have ideas of what I want out of life, what I am striving for. This book made me dig deeper and really crystallized certain things for me.

I am still chewing on many thoughts and ideas this book stirred up. Not all 0f the essays are necessarily palatable, but they stick in your craw and provoke intense thought, which is one of the reasons we read, right?

These essays make a strong case that we can’t have it all and we will exhaust ourselves trying. We don’t need to stop encouraging girls to reach for the sky; however, we do need to stop propagating this myth that we can have it all at the same time. We can’t. Rather we can have some things at different times and we need to prioritize our needs and desires. We also need to stop judging  women for how the decisions they make and the states of their household. The only place for a perfect household is on tv.

A caveat: Yes, there isn’t a great diversity in the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup in the contributors.  For me, personally, that didn’t affect my reading experience. They are all successful writers so I didn’t expect them to be riding the poverty line. Although, the some of the essays did speak on earlier, less abundant periods of the writer’s life. For other book club readers, it was bothersome.

the spread

the book club spread

The Book Club: A Practical Wedding hosts a book club every few months. Readers all of over the world organize themselves to read the book that Meg picks and meet up on the same day to discuss. This round was the first time I was able to gather fellow Phoenix readers together. There don’t seem to be many or they are under a rock, hiding out. There were supposed to be three of us, but in the end there were two of us. We had great food and spent four hours talking about ideas and topics spurred by the book. It was a fun time and I look forward to the next one.

APW Phoenix book club

Tina and me at our two person meeting

*the royal we, as I myself am not actually a mother

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This entry was posted in Essays, Nonfiction, Posts by Jehara and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Review: The Bitch in the House

  1. Sounds fascinating. I never have subscribed to the “you can have it all” theory. You can have a lot of it, depending on your definition of “it,” but while you may excel in one area, you may totally suck in other areas. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to be super heroes (says the woman who refers to herself as Wonder Woman).

  2. Kimberly says:

    There were supposed to be three and ended up just being two in Toronto as well! But a good time was had indeed.

    I loved this book. I could identify with some of the anger, and some things with which I didn’t identify I could still understand. I also appreciate that it was written in different phases . . . relationship with your partner, relationship with your children, relationship with yourself. Different things to think about at different points in our lives.

    I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

  3. izzybella says:

    This sounds really interesting. I kind of liked the point about the woman getting what she thought she wanted and then finding maybe it wasn’t as great as she thought it would be. I can identify with that.

    • jehara says:

      I think there were a few like that. There was some good variety in the experiences of the women. I found it to be pretty fascinating and thought-provoking overall.

  4. Heather says:

    I’ve gotta pick me up this book! Sounds absolutely fascinating! Great review.

  5. Margot says:

    I represent the generation who loudly proclaimed we can have it all. I/We strongly believed this back in the sixties and seventies. I determined to raise my daughters with that mantra. That mantra had to be adjusted as my career (and my husbands) ramped up to 60+ hours a week, our children became active in school, sports, scouts, and so forth. I began to see that “all” was not desirable at the expense of three beautiful little human beings. I still regret some of my decisions made during those years, but we all survived. The children are now loving, responsible adults and my husband and I are about to celebrate our 47th anniversary. That might sound easy but it wasn’t easy at all. No ones life is smooth and easy. It’s all in the choices we make. My husband and I both had to give up some things in order to choose to be good parents. We could not have it all.

    My daughters, now 40 and 37, have discussed these issues often. They know their mother’s bent toward the old feminism. I suspect the three of us should read this book. It seems to be written by the next generation below my daughters. I think we will find it interesting to see the changes between the generations. Thanks, Soleil, for your good review and for recommending this book to us. I wish I’d known about your book club earlier. I would have joined you – maybe not in Phoenix, but at least in spirit and online.

    • jehara says:

      Margot, I would love to be a fly on a wall for that roundtable discussion!

      One thing I thought that was really cool was the mother of the author of the first essay (Excuse Me While I Explode). It was really interesting to get her mother’s perspective on her life and marriage.

      Next time Meg at APW announces a book club meetup I’ll let you know. That way you can participate in the discussion when she puts up the discussion post after everyone meets up.

  6. Bumbles says:

    I don’t know what to think of the emotions from this book. I suppose I find it refreshing that they are being expressed. But I don’t really share any of the ones that were highlighted. I do think that the role of martyr is one that women embrace when it is least healthy for them. And when they do that, those in their lives who could/want to help are shunned for it. To this I say you get what you deserve. No one can do everything and be happy. It isn’t worth it. Do what you love the most and appreciate the fact that there are people who love you enough to want to help you reach it. When you push people away due to pride or whatever the reason, you get back resentment and that will never land you in a happy place.

    • jehara says:

      To be honest, Molly, I had a few other essays to highlight, but I ran out of time. Besides the review was getting on in length. I didn’t relate to the first essay in a personal way, but it left a strong impression. I was really struck by her level of anger. However, I have known debilitating anger, just not for those reasons, so perhaps I could relate personally.
      Overall, the authors were very honest and open in their essays. It was fascinating and enlightening and gave much to think about.

  7. Pingback: Analysis of Books Read in 2011 + A Survey |

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