leah mc­fall

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

Once, self-help was about chang­ing your own be­hav­iour. To­day, you must also ma­nip­u­late your hus­band and im­prove your kids.

Oh, you’re go­ing to love this li­brary book I’m read­ing. It’s called How Not to Hate Your Hus­band Af­ter Kids. I’m hooked. I carry it ev­ery­where, like a rab­bit’s foot or some­thing. If I read it in pub­lic, I hide the spine. If I read it at home, I hide the cover. The ti­tle im­plies I’m as an­gry as a squashed wasp, and that my anger might be catch­ing. It feels so­cially un­ac­cept­able to even be hold­ing this book, as if it be­trays some­thing dark at the heart of our cul­ture. It could be the self-help equiv­a­lent of Mein Kampf.

“It’s a book of funny es­says,” I tell the man I mar­ried, when he no­tices it be­side the bed. But it isn’t. It’s about how a neu­rotic white New Yorker uses talk­ing ther­a­pies, rit­u­alised in­ti­macy and – at one point – FBI hostage-cri­sis ne­go­ti­a­tion tech­niques to get her slob of a hus­band to do more around the house.

I bor­row quite a few books like this, or down­load them. They usu­ally have a car­toon woman on the cover, com­edy-multi-task­ing (speak­ing into a mo­bile phone at the same time as wear­ing a baby, drink­ing a cup of cof­fee, balanc­ing a lap­top and run­ning on a tread­mill, in heels).

I like to take the cul­tural tem­per­a­ture with th­ese books; they re­veal what so­ci­ety ex­pects of women like me. Also, they’re easy to read be­cause they’re printed in big girl­ish fonts and are all ex­actly the same.

The writer is al­ways mired in an ex­is­ten­tial prob­lem. She re­alises the power to change the way she feels is within her own grasp, and so dis­cov­ers a shin­ing path. For ex­am­ple, Marie Kondo be­gins sushi-rolling her knicker drawer and joy stirs within her. There­fore the shin­ing path to joy is to or­gan­ise your smalls.

Ev­ery book has the same jour­ney; only the reme­dies dif­fer. You can Lean In like Sheryl or Eat Pray Love like El­iz­a­beth. In the past you might have fol­lowed The Rules to find a hus­band; then, once you’d mar­ried him, sub­mit­ted to him like The Sur­ren­dered Wife. Th­ese ti­tles seem out­dated now be­cause back in the Noughties your re­spon­si­bil­ity was merely to change your own be­hav­iour. To­day, you must also ma­nip­u­late your hus­band and im­prove your kids. A woman’s work is never done!

Still, it’s hard to ar­gue with the premise of this book I’m read­ing. Most men aren’t do­ing their share of work in the home – a big sur­prise to Gen X women, who were get­ting ac­cus­tomed to fair­ness in other places. It’s the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance of our lives; the rug we keep trip­ping on. We need books with big type to help solve our prob­lem.

The fact is, if you give a mid-life mar­ried straight woman enough su­per­mar­ket chardon­nay, even the most loved-up will ad­mit that yes, some­times she loathes her hus­band with the in­ten­sity of a welder’s blow­torch; usu­ally when he scrunches up yes­ter­day’s grunds, aims them at the laun­dry ham­per in the style of Steven Adams, misses and leaves them on the floor. With all the oth­ers. For a week.

When you think about it, you can chart your growth as a straight woman by the ex­pec­ta­tions you have of your per­fect guy.

As a teenager, you have fan­tasy stan­dards: you could only marry a pop star. In your early 20s, you re­vise this. For­get pop star­dom, you say; it’s too com­mer­cial. He must be a poet, and his po­ems will be about me.

In your late 20s you’re like: “For­get the po­ems. Does he still sleep on a mat­tress on the floor? Be­cause no.” In your 30s you tell friends: “Look, I don’t ask for much. He just has to be funny.” In your 40s, your dream man no­tices an empty toi­let roll, and then re­places it. ( Hot.)

By your 50s, be­fore agree­ing to a date, you toss up peanuts and catch them in your teeth. “Is he will­ing to have a prostate exam?” you ask, crunch­ing. “Be­cause I’m not go­ing through all that again.” In your 60s, you’ll want proof of a pen­sion fund (you’d like to do a cruise in Scan­di­navia). In your 70s you ask the nurse: “Is there brain func­tion? Be­cause that’s go­ing to be the deal-breaker.” Your ro­man­tic life is a slow de­flat­ing of your ex­pec­ta­tions, like a party bal­loon with a prick.

In this book, I like the bit about FBI tac­tics. Still, it does im­ply that if you want your hus­band to scrub the bath, you must talk to him care­fully and de­lib­er­ately, as if he’s hold­ing a gun to some­one’s head.

“Put down the re­mote, nice and easy,” you might tell him, “and pick up the Jif. That’s right! You’re do­ing just fine.”

“Pass me more peanuts,” you whis­per to the other cops. “This is go­ing to take a while.”

If you want your hus­band to scrub the bath, you must talk to him care­fully, as if he’s hold­ing a gun to some­one’s head.

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