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 These titles seem outdated now because back in the Noughties your responsibility was merely to change your own behaviour.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.