Dear Imprudence: A “Tired Wife” Strikes Back?
The hits just keep on comin’, thanks to Slate. Earlier this month in Dear Prudence, we got to read this winner:
My husband had a stroke 18 months ago. At first he was unable to speak and his right side was paralyzed. He regained his speech and, with a lot of work, got full use of his arm and leg. But the stroke made it impossible for him to practice his profession, and he continues to have short-term memory problems. He’s home on extended leave. My problem is that he is obsessed with what he has lost and how bad things are. When I come home from work—I have to keep us fed and housed—all I hear about is what a terrible state he’s in. I’ve tried various things: We’ve gone to a counselor, his doctor has given him anti-depressants, I’ve encouraged him to go back to his hobbies. I try to plan things that will be enjoyable for him. Nothing is working. He won’t take up his hobbies or socialize, and he dwells so completely on the negative that even his closest friends are getting weary. It seems to me that he should be grateful he survived and regained so much. I am so exhausted by his negativity that sometimes I just wish I could leave him, but I would never do that. Is this the way it’s going to be forever? –Tired Wife
First, something tangential: Is this not THE perfect mishmash of weird disability-related hangups from an abled person plus some lovely Feminine Mystique-era gender(ed) expectations? It’s like it was made for a takedown on this site.
Moving on: On one hand, I can certainly see why this woman is frustrated. Adjusting to newly-acquired disability can be an extremely difficult process — not only for the person with the disability, but for their relatives and loved ones as well. However, there are a ton of stereotypes made explicit in this woman’s letter, not least of which is the “he’s just so NEGATIVE!” and the related expectation that her actions and her efforts will somehow make him become a happy, compliant Good Cripple. I have to wonder, has she stopped to consider that adjustment to disability is a long process? Or that having to go on leave from one’s job due to a newly acquired disability might, in fact, be extremely taxing on one’s self-image? Apparently not — all that matters is that he show proper gratitude (and non-“negativity”!) for all of her efforts, and not trouble her with his “dwell[ing] completely on the negative.” I am sure that many of us would find it hard to be “grateful,” too, if we had someone treating us this way due to our disability (or disabilities). Once again, a disabled person’s feelings and experiences are steamrolled over in favor of those of a person who is not disabled, and this is apparently acceptable because they are in a relationship.
The gender question, too, is worth a look; while it’s pretty common knowledge that women, on average, do much more “caretaking” work inside the home than men (at least in the U.S.), there are a few things that stick out, mostly based on what the letter writer does not mention. Was she primarily responsible for managing her husband’s schedule and social life before his stroke? If “nothing is working,” has she spoken with him about it? Please understand that I am not trying to blame her for larger sexist patterns of who tends to do the home-related care-taking and who does not; it does, however, seem odd that she has not (as far as we know) attempted to speak with her husband about this — his “negativity” nonwithstanding.
The sense that I get from this letter, overall, is that this woman has spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to fulfill the role of the “perfect” wife, and now that her husband cannot fulfill the complimentary “perfect husband”/breadwinner role, her resentment is close to bubbling over. Add to this much of mainstream white, abled feminism’s emphasis on “independence” — which seems to exist in a magical land where no one is (or should be) dependent on anyone else — it is not terribly surprising that she feels that her only option would be to leave her “negative,” disabled partner. That these seemingly opposing tendencies could show up in one letter is not surprising, either.
So, what do you think, commenters?