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As a Wife, My Family Treats Me Like an Extension of Their Home. I’m Tired of It.

I work hard, but as a mom and spouse, I’m fighting unfair expectations

Nami Thompson
Jan 4 · 7 min read
Photo: Mimi Thian/Unsplash

My office is the far corner of the couch. Sometimes it’s my side of the bed. My work hours are usually between whenever everyone stops making noise in the evening and 4:30 a.m. With my husband in coding school in order to increase his earning potential and job prospects — and a daughter in preschool to increase her coloring potential and jumping-around prospects — I’m the only source of family income right now.

I work freelance to pay our bills, but I’m also in the middle of a big project. After over a year of developing, implementing, and researching plans for a community initiative, my project summary earned me an invitation to apply for a fellowship so prestigious even my mother is proud of me. I was told 12 percent of last year’s applicants were advanced to this stage. It’s only going to get harder from here on out, and I have a lot of research to submit.

My husband and daughter have been on winter break all month, and I’m more aware now than ever of how my family sees me. In their eyes, I am domicile. It’s not that I am at home; I am what makes home. I am not mother; I am the motherland. They see me as a what and not who.

When they’re both home all day, I still try to work while shifting in and out of coherent patterns of thought through the sounds of someone getting crushed ice from the fridge, turning on the TV, spilling something, crying, or asking to make paper crowns for the cats. My three-year-old chats about how the new kid at school says the f-word a lot and another one hits and another one eats food off her plate. My husband will walk in and out of the field of vision during my video calls in his underwear, and he’ll interrupt my train of thought about urban planning in relation to public health — as if I’m not at work — to let me know I need to keep an eye on the kiddo because he’s going to go take a shit. (I’m tempted to show up at his school one day in my panties, hand our child over, and do the same back to him.)

This week, my husband went back to school, but my daughter doesn’t start until next week. Nobody asked me if I was free to watch her. I was awake, she was awake, and suddenly her dad was leaving for school, so — shrug — instead of getting out my computer, I got out the finger paint. When my husband was late coming home, I turned on a show for my daughter to watch and tried to work from the couch-that-is-my-office. But when she was confused about the difference between a hippogriff and a hippopotamus, I stopped working to discuss.

As the weight of all my then-pushed-off responsibilities hit me, I realized my unemployed husband thinks I don’t have a job. He actually thought it was okay to leave the house without arranging for child care. Because he has a wife.

I felt bitter about the whole day. My freelance career is my full-time job; it’s what I want to do, and it’s our income. I work best in a space that’s well-lit, free of chatter, free of clutter, and in a position that won’t exacerbate an old spinal injury. Couch-corner meets none of those conditions.

Someone who has a wife, tell me what success is. I would like to teach my daughter all about what’s possible for the men in her life if she works hard.

I posted about my frustration on Facebook — I mostly use Facebook to blurt — that culminated in “What is success, anyway? Pfffttt.” Seriously. Someone who has a wife, tell me what success is. I would like to teach my daughter all about what’s possible for the men in her life if she works hard.

Thankfully, my people on Facebook also speak in “blurt.” A friend commented and reminded me of this past summer when I walked away from gender imbalances in my parenting relationship and left it to my husband to learn about motherhood. The comment had me feeling an old and familiar constriction. I hadn’t un-grown from the summer. I now have even greater expectations of everyone around me.

I thought back to when my husband moved in with me so many years ago. We had plans to find a bigger place soon, so we made short-term compromises over space. He decided to put his video game stuff on my desk; it was the only rational choice, he’d said. That choice could have predicted everything about where we are today in terms of gender parity. I wasn’t working exclusively from home then, but I was working toward that goal, and still, he chose my workspace to plop his expensive hobby. He wasn’t conscious of it, but in terms of spatial and gender politics, it means something that he claimed my safe and comfortable work area as his recreational space, leaving me a bathroom, a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen.

We’ve since gotten married, had a child, and moved into a slightly bigger rental, and my husband has a makeshift office in our unfinished basement. It’s nothing beautiful, but he has plenty of space: a desk chair, a rocking chair, a filing cabinet, two desks, and a few different screens and keyboards. When he started coding school, he wanted a change of scenery and began to work upstairs at the dining room table. His computers and clutter have made the table un-dineable, so the family now eats at the-couch-that-is-my-office.

For a second time, my spouse made a subconscious choice that encroached on my work — and now, my child is learning from him. She will play almost anywhere but especially likes to play on the couch, and she is happy to play independently except when I’m working.

All of this brought to mind manslamming. The theory is simple: Men feel entitled to walk around without thinking of how much physical space they take up, and women are socialized to move out of their way. When we consciously don’t, men usually just walk right into us. Sometimes it’s that they don’t even see us, and sometimes they just expect we will move. When we don’t, their responses range from surprise to outright anger. I’m only five feet tall, and when I’ve tried this experiment, more than one man has sort of picked me up under the armpits and deposited me to the side and out of his way.

I thought about this and my predicament at home. I decided against organizing my own personal workarounds to achieve what I’m asking for:

  • My husband to find a fix on his own for his snoring
  • The ability to sleep at night next to my spouse and in my bed if I want to
  • Quiet comfortable space and time to work during the day
  • Child care while I work

Nothing about those desires justifies me changing my lifestyle whatsoever. Even if all of those needs are taken care of, I’m not going to have it all. I’ll just be living in a marginally less abusive and farcical society, one in which I have the opportunity to meet my basic needs.

Our culture of “So, what do you do?” denigrates my “frivolous” freelance life. But every time I’ve settled for less than what I give my spouse in pursuit of his career — using a less than ideal computer, working in whatever corner of the house doesn’t have a person or crumbs in it, holding off on professional development, or giving up sleep — I have reinforced diminishment of my work.

I have been moving out of the way to avoid being manslammed even in my own home.

As I look at the legal and symbolic entanglements of wife-ness, I’m realizing it has robbed me of consent in ways I didn’t realize.

We have a cishet relationship, and becoming a wife was voluntary. Our relationship itself feels no different than before we were married. But as I look at the legal and symbolic entanglements of wife-ness, I’m realizing marriage has robbed me of consent in ways I didn’t realize. Wife-ness implies I am a mechanism for reproduction, and it has turned me into a nonhuman extension of the home. Wife-ness has used me as a tool for reinforcing a gender binary based in false biology. Wife-ness as an ideological construct has cheapened me, resulting in the subordination of myself — and all the world — to cishet men.

I’m not going to do what I did with motherhood by redefining the role. I want the idea of “being a wife” and its exploitative legacy gone. I’m certainly not contorting anymore, manslams be damned. I don’t want to sleep somewhere else, research solutions to help someone else treat me considerately, do my work at coffee shops all day, be in pain because of how I have to sit, or spend money on anything extra just for the sake of accommodating this absurd world.

Schools don’t see a problem with their scheduling practices or the fact that they email and call me rather than my spouse about our child. Coding camp won’t offer flexibility or support to low-income parents. My husband himself doesn’t realize he has wifed me. The entire state and federal government can’t be bothered to provide child care. So what do I do when everyone with institutional power is wrong? As a rule, I don’t spend my time fighting people and institutions who don’t believe me the first time I tell them something’s not working. If they don’t get it or won’t fix it, they can just deal with how I proceed to live my life — very inconveniently most of the time.

Anybody else who also believes in what I believe and is able to live inconveniently is welcome to join me. Power doesn’t come from appealing to institutions nor from resisting them. Power is people connecting with people in order to autonomously build what we need.

So I’ve decided I don’t want chewing gum filling the patches in the walls to get me through the day. Some things should be torn down, if only to reveal how flimsy they were to begin with. Even when I accomplish something big, it feels like I’ve been tied down and made to sit in front of a wide open door. But perhaps for the first time in my life, I have the ability to rattle these chains hard enough to shatter this chair and bring down all the walls around me.

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