My wife and I know one another for 48 years. I know her to never having been sick enough for hospitalization. She looks out for me during the periods when I have not been so blessed, sleeping in hospital chairs, bringing me kosher food, pressing attendants, doctors and nurses for information and more attentive care when I was hospitalized for stupid sports injuries and the unexpected. Now it’s my turn to fend for her following a severe medical crisis. I sleep in hospital chairs trying to ensure her best interests.
Practically speaking, we led separate lives for most of those years. She worked from home and raised the children. I worked in government and community organizing, eventually moving to the private sector building a business employing more than 70 people working six days a week.
There is a lighter side to all this, but no less full of surprises and no less impactful. I was an avid anthropology student in my undergraduate years. The hobby gives me some perspective now on how little I appreciated my wife’s role in our family and home, and how I might have treated her with more dignity for it. Anthropologist Wednesday Martin writes a fascinating piece in The New York Times (May 16, 2015) that in these latter years looking back, gives me perspective and brings home the reality about the lifestyle of stay-at-home moms.
From the works of Tzipora Heller, Martin, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, I understand why my wife is a better CEO than I ever was in my careers and business. I am learning through doing, juggling tasks around the house, since her hospital stays.
Anthropologists point to the importance of language in societies as “culturally loaded and dense with meaning.” I find myself incorporating new expressions I never before uttered. No doubt other husbands, including some of my best friends, are better true partners in sharing home chores, cooking and cleaning. But I never did.
Here are some phrases worming their way into my lexicon since my wife’s medical episodes.
I find myself saying, “I changed the lint filter in the dryer,” and “I’m in the laundry room (once I found it) changing machines.” I never knew where we keep the milk, but the other day, remembering my mother’s kitchen, I asked, “Do I have to kasher the chickens I bought on sale?”
That was a really stupid question, because I have no clue how to kasher a chicken.
She sternly warned me from her resting place, “Are you kidding? Don’t touch anything.”
Which are the fleischig (meat) and milchig (dairy) pots? In America I vacuumed the carpets on occasion, but in Israel we have marble floors. I have to ask, “How do you wash floors with this squeegee?”
At our children’s day schools many years ago, my wife voluntarily served lunches, drove car pools, and chaperoned on class trips. I, like a peacock, was a Board member, chaired the teachers’ salary committee, and assisted in the building fund. My wife was a classic “class Mom” in the schools. She was what Martin describes “an unremunerated social and communications hub for all the other mothers,” our friends, gardener, house repair handymen.
I always loved, was always proud of and attracted to my wife, because of her temperament and success as an artist and businesswoman. I now realize how she is indispensable, underpaid, and under-appreciated in Mommynomics. She is training me to shop for value rather than desire
Benedict teaches the value lesson of cultural relativism, i.e., not to diminish the customs and values of a culture different from one’s own. My wife and I grew over the years to live in two cultures. My culture was moored in the world ”outside” the home. I treated hers, “inside” the home, with short shrift. Mead makes me realize our early life together was but a “student marriage.”
Martin points out that anthropology teaches us to recognize the long and comparative view of situations. Author Tzipora Heller teaches that Jewish culture is built on the value of husband and wife complementing one another. This is something my formal education never taught me to appreciate, but her time of need made me realize.
My value to the marriage, I anxiously believed, was providing shelter and sustenance. Now I realize it has been my wife who was providing shelter for me from the outside world and the emotional sustenance to survive in it. She mastered the universe, while I desperately tried to maintain my equilibrium.
George Burns recorded a song in his 80’s with a wonderful refrain, “I love life. I’d like to do it again, but I might not be much more than I’ve ever been.” Next time round I’m going to take the kids’ car pools and the comforts of home more seriously and meaningfully.
Dr. Harold Goldmeier is a former Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard University, where he received his doctorate. He served in the administrations of three US Governors, is a business management consultant with a personal interest in education and NGOs. He is also a regular Arutz Sheva columnist, and his articles can be read here.