It had been a bad month. I walked into a bookstore for a cup of coffee and time to myself. There, right in front, was a book whose title screamed out—The Bitch in the House. I started reading and couldn't put it down. Here were women experiencing the same post second-wave feminist angst I was enduring, and who were trying to juggle it all while wondering why it was so difficult. I wasn't alone.
"This book was born out of anger," begins editor Cathi Hanuaer. It started when her husband and she moved from New York to a small Massachusetts town to begin less frantic schedules, sharing dual careers as writers and parents. "Instead," she confesses, "my life, my marriage, my schedule, felt more overwhelming than ever." Though her husband was doing more parenting than previous generations of fathers, she resented what was still an unfair division of labor.
She emailed her friends and found her complaints were far from unique. One complained, "I'm fine all day at work, but as soon as I get home I'm a horror. I'm the bitch in the house." That was just how Hanauer felt. "The opposite of what Virginia Wolf called the angel in the house—but with anger to boot." It seemed that though modern women had more choices than ever, and more sensitive partners, many were still conflicted, exhausted, overwhelmed and angry.
She approached the most interesting and eloquent women she knew and asked them to contribute an essay about a choice they'd made, their life situation, and any anger they felt about it. The result is a wonderfully honest collection by authors ranging from ages 24 to 64. Here are real women. They are married, single, divorced or cohabitating, with and without children. One is in an "open" marriage. One is having a baby that resulted from a liaison with a married man.
This diversity of women's voices is one of the book's great strengths. Another is the power and raw honesty with which they speak. Even when I didn't agree with their choices, I couldn't help admiring their courage. Each sought to be as true as possible to her own beliefs, needs and ideals. The essays that spoke most earnestly to me, not surprisingly, were those of women in my own situation—heterosexual, feminist, married or living with a man, and trying to both have a career and raise a child.
In "Excuse Me While I Explode", E.S. Maduro talks about her epiphany in high school when she realized how unfair the division of labor seemed in her parents' marriage: "I became angry at both of my parents: at my father that his chores (take apart and reassemble the kitchen sink, work in the garden, snow-blow the driveway) seemed interesting and challenging and were always impressive to friends and relatives, while my mother's endless chores seemed layered in routine and monotony." She chose her college boyfriend because he seemed like the kind of man who would "know how to cook dinner and clean house, would offer to do the dishes, would fold the laundry without being asked." But after moving in together, they fell into the same pattern as her parents. She raged at being the only one who seemed to know how to manage a home, though she understood that her boyfriend's laid-back style was part of what had attracted her in the first place.
In "How We Became Strangers", Jill Bialosky confesses the anger and grief she experienced when her sexual desire waned after her son's birth. Working through the pain, and choosing consciously not to have an affair, she realized that she still loved her husband. "I had entered a phase in my marriage that was about reinforcing a commitment to what we had built. I realized, for the first time, really, what it meant to be in it for the long haul, and that part of that commitment had to do with understanding how passion changes."
The essays are often humorous. Kristin van Ogtrop writes in "Attila the Honey I'm Home", "I crawl under the covers like a woman who has walked forty miles through a snowstorm, and remember all over again that—pathetic or not—this really is my favorite moment of the day."
In a more biting example, Catherine Newman imagines a response when confronted at a wedding with questions about why she hasn't married the man with whom she lives and has a child. "'Um, maybe because marriage is a tool of the patriarchy?' I could say, and smile and take another bite of the poached salmon and wink across the table at the bride and groom."
There is great wisdom in this book. The voices of the older women especially make me hopeful about what will follow my present stage of life.
"I think I am happy because I have quit trying to find happiness through other people. No one else can give you happiness after you become an adult. Happiness is self-derived and self-created. I derive happiness from the fact that my children and grandchildren are alive and breathing and that I am here to watch their lives unfold. Aside from that it's up to me."- Ellen Gilchrist
"So, putting down my coffee cup at the window of the apartment that's mine and mine alone, I come to my conclusion, or at least one of them: I am, simply, a person living a life partly that I chose and partly that chose me, a life that, though filled with friends and family and colleagues, is primarily one of solitude, one lived autonomously. And though this is far from ideal at all times—and though some days loneliness plagues me—for the most part, this is a life, my life, that I have come to embrace and appreciate." —Vivian Gornick
Reading The Bitch in the House certainly helped me to appreciate and embrace my own life. It will help you, whoever you are, embrace yours as well.
Cathi Hanauer has published articles, essays, reviews and fiction for Elle, Mirabella, Self, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Parenting, and other magazines. She has been the monthly books columnist for Glamour and Mademoiselle, and the relationship-advice columnist for Seventeen magazine. Her first novel, My Sister's Bones, was published in 1997 by Dell. She lives and works in Massachusetts with her husband and two children.
Authors/Publicists: For promotion purposes, you may quote excerpts of up to 200 words from our reviews, with a link to the page on which the review is posted. ©Copyright to the review is held by the writer (review posting date appears on the review page). If you wish to reprint the full review, you may do so ONLY with her written permission, and with a link to http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org. Contact our Book Review Editor (bookreviews at storycirclebookreviews.org) with your request and she will forward it to the appropriate person.