Literary Wives: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

literarywives2Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

25472765American Housewife by Helen Ellis

I don’t know if, by writing American Housewife, Ellis was trying to make a statement or if she was just having some fun (or both). But it did raise some questions for me, and this is my attempt to talk about them. (Warning: It’s possible that what I have to say has nothing whatsoever to do with the book.)

American Housewife is a short story collection that is at times entertaining and clever, and at other times a bit silly. To figure out what she was trying to say about the experience of being a wife wasn’t easy. Some of the stories lend themselves better to this theme than others, but after reading a review of the book at Pickle Me This, I realized that the one thing they all have in common is that the wives in the stories are all childless.

My entire experience of being a housewife (not sure I like that term, but I’ll go with it for now) has been one of also being a mother. And everyone I (personally) know who stays home also has children. So, this is new territory for me. What do I know about being a housewife who doesn’t have children? For me, taking care of my children is the main part (by far) of my job as a ‘housewife’, and the most rewarding.

On the other hand, even without kids there are lots of things that need to get done; so many possibilities. How do I know this? Because these are all the things I never seem to be able to get to because I’m too busy doing the child-related things and keeping up with the basics. However, one person’s idea of ‘things to do’ might be very different from another person’s. Ellis explores this a little in “The Wainscoting War” where decorating the house becomes too important in the woman’s life, and eventually comes between her and her husband. Picking up some kind of a hobby, though, might have been beneficial to the housewife in “Dead Doormen” (and to the doormen).

In some of the stories, like “What I Do All Day” and Hello! Welcome To Book Club“, she almost seems to be making fun of being a housewife (in an affectionate kind of way). The wife in “What I Do All Day” weeps because she is lucky enough to have a drawer full of glitter. And, the women in the book club all have secret book club names (“as long as you take care of book club, book club takes care of you”).

In “Dumpster Diving With the Stars” and “How To Be A Patron of the Arts” the wives, who are writers, seem to be wrestling with the decision to stay home as a writer, even when not getting published, rather than working outside the house. In “How To Be A Patron of the Arts” the wife is burning herself out writing on weekends with a full-time job during the week, so that she has something ‘to fall back on’ that’s not her husband. When he suggests to her that she stay home and write, she cries. Relief? Failure? Gratitude? Is that not what partners are for – to support each other? That’s my official standpoint, but I’m as guilty as the next person for doubting myself. No one likes to feel dependent on another person, but we are also not meant to do everything on our own.

I think the hardest thing about being a housewife is feeling proud of what you do. I dread the question: What do you do for a living? because I know people have strong opinions on it, and that many people don’t value domestic work. Next, I dread the question: So, what do you do all day? When I answer this, I always feel defensive. (Is this not a rude question?) So many things! And every one of them is valuable to me and to my family. So valuable that I choose to do them even though I don’t get paid.

Every couple finds what works for them, and there are no right or wrong answers (as long as everyone is happy with their choices). But domestic roles are still undervalued.* Which means that housewives are still doubting their decision to stay home, even if that’s what works best for them. It almost seems worse now that women have so many more options open to them; like if we still choose to stay home we’re turning our backs on progress. And often, we are our own worst enemy; doubting ourselves and criticizing others.

In “How To Be A Grown-Ass Lady” and “Take It From Cats“, I found some helpful hints for anyone: “Don’t sit on a toilet in front of anyone, ever”, “Forget thongs”, “Listen to erotic audiobooks when you scrub the bathroom floor”, and “Even though you can take care of yourself, it’s okay to let someone be nice to you.

Best line: I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.

*Child care is undervalued as well, but that’s a rant for another time, since there are no children in this book.

Don’t forget to see what the other Literary Wives thought of the book! Next we’ll be reading Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Join us if you can!


49 thoughts on “Literary Wives: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

  1. whatmeread says:

    Of course, she is poking fun at this kind of housewife who has so little to do that she gets involved in wars about the decor, but then again the stories about women who are writers don’t seem to be much better. Those women are all blocked and are doing anything except writing.

    And yes, those people who ask you what you do all day are being rude. I don’t have kids and have worked all my life, but I know that being a mother is a lot of work.

    • Naomi says:

      The frustrating thing about these stories, is that there are so many useful and meaningful things that the ‘housewives’ could be doing! I know it’s supposed to be funny and satirical, but, for the most part, I think it makes housewives look bad.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I never knew what you did. You always sound both busy and fulfilled. I can imagine that the work is never ending with three children!

    Coming from the other side a bit…though I work from home, I always resent people thinking that means I must take care of everything like the cooking, house cleaning, etc. In fact, I hate housework and only do it reluctantly, and my husband does all the cooking (lucky me!). I think we are all sensitive about what we do because in some ways it does define us in our own eyes and others’, sometimes in ways we don’t appreciate.

    I think I may well enjoy these stories and find some that resonate with my situation. Thanks for your review!

    • Naomi says:

      And I have always thought that if only I could call myself a writer or free-lance editor or something, maybe I wouldn’t feel so insecure about telling people that I’m a stay-at-home mother. If only I could tack my educational credentials on the end I might feel better – just to make it obvious that this is the path I have chosen rather than one that was thrust upon me.

      I can totally see why you’d feel resentful about people thinking you do the housework. I don’t actually like cleaning either (at all! although I know people who do), but I do like to cook and bake and I get a lot of satisfaction from doing things from scratch. But these things take time, and if we were both working outside the home, a lot of things would be different around here. (I’m mostly home because of the kids, but since I’m here it makes sense for me to take on the other chores around the house.) I have done other things over the years to bring in some extra income (mostly caring for other people’s children in my home), which is actually why I started my blog -after all those years of being at home with young children, I got desperate for something else to think about. What a help it’s been! I love children, but they can’t talk to me about my books. 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rebecca!

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    It most certainly is a rude question! Like Whatmeread, I don’t have children but it’s perfectly obvious that bringing up three of them would keep you more than a little busy. I’d also echo Rebecca’s comment. It took me some time to convince a few of my friends that working from home did not mean that I was free for lunch/coffee or whatever if they happened to have the day off. As for the book, I’m not at all sure it’s for me.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s interesting to hear about it from the point of view of working *from* home, rather than working *in* the home. I can see how that would be a problem. Even for us stay-at-home moms, it’s not always easy to plan a time to meet for tea or (when the kids were younger) a playdate. Everyone’s schedules are so different.
      I appreciate your comments about the rude question. 🙂

  4. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    Wow – whatever about the book…you pretty much nailed my feelings about being a “housewife” (but I always use the term “stay-at-home mom”, because I essentially do nothing housewife-y and 90% of what I do is kids related) with this:

    “I think the hardest thing about being a housewife is feeling proud of what you do. I dread the question: What do you do for a living? because I know people have strong opinions on it, and that many people don’t value domestic work. Next, I dread the question: So, what do you do all day? When I answer this, I always feel defensive. (Is this not a rude question?) So many things! And every one of them is valuable to me and to my family. So valuable that I choose to do them even though I don’t get paid.”

    YES YES YES a million times!! Try making a phone call with 2 (or 3, in your case) screaming toddlers in the background and/or yelling at you to get off the phone and pay attention to them.

    And – one of the big reasons I write my blog is so I do have something for myself (i.e. that I “do” something even if it’s not technically “for a living”)…and have an answer to that question and have something fulfilling going on in my brain. As important as child-rearing is, it’s hard to be fulfilled by successfully serving lunch, cleaning up kids’ messes, etc on a daily basis. It’s fulfilling in a broader sense, but I found I needed something else to feel a sense of accomplishment on a day to day basis.

    • Naomi says:

      Yay! I’m so happy to hear that it’s not just me who feels that way sometimes. And that it’s not just me who gets asked questions about what I do all day.

      When my kids were toddlers, I don’t think I even knew what blogging was, but that was when I discovered Facebook, and although it’s not the same, it still allowed me to feel more connected to the rest of the world when I was so focused most of the time on my kids. But blogging has been so much more rewarding, and I’m so glad I decided to give it a try!

      I also call myself a stay-at-home mom for the same reason as you, but was going with the term ‘housewife’ because of the book, and the fact that the women in the book didn’t have kids. I had never really thought before about what it would be like to stay home without having kids.

  5. yourdaughtersbookshelf says:

    I love this review and the questions and discussion it raised! I’m a stay-at-home mom with no outside job, but I have a friend that works from home and has a son, and the schools and clubs put so much expectation on her, because she is “home.” She works 9-4, no break, and as soon as her son comes home she is mom again, driving and organizing etc.

    I find the question “what do you do all day” SO rude. I don’t ask people who work in an office how their time is filled, and I expect the same respect. When my children were small and I was getting used to being at home, the question used to bother me and I would try to list everything that went on in the day (I think the difficulty for me was going from supporting myself for 15 years to not bringing in a paycheque at all – difficult when you’ve been independent for so long). Now that my kids are all older (10, 12 and 14) I have found my balance, and usually just answer “eat bonbons, drink wine and watch Oprah, doesn’t everyone?” Guaranteed to get you a blank stare and NO response! 😀 No one needs me to list the daily joys of laundry, etc!

    I’m not sure of this book will fit in with your these, but have you read The Wives by Alexandra Popoff? It’s non-fiction, about the wives and their roles in the lives of six great Russian writers (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn etc…) It is fascinating.

    • Naomi says:

      I love your response to that question! That’s the approach I’m going to take from now on. It’s less rude than “none of your business”, but gets the same point across. (Not that I ever say “none of your business”, but I always think it.) I’ve also had people say “You must be so bored” – in every case, it was a man.
      Our kids are almost the same age – mine are 11, 13, and 15!

      I haven’t read The Wives, but it sounds good – I’ll put it on my list! Thanks for the suggestion!

      • yourdaughtersbookshelf says:

        I ALWAYS think “none of your business”! We all do, but are too polite to ever say it, unlike the people who ask the question… 😉 And I LOVE hearing “you must be so bored.” Um, nope.

        Have you noticed as the kids get older, we become chauffeurs? “Mom, can you drive me…?” It’s the second most common sentence in my house, after “Mom, is there anything to eat?” 😀

      • Naomi says:

        Yes!! I spend most of my life buying food, making food, serving food, and cleaning up after food. 🙂
        My parents had 6 of us – I don’t know how they did it!

  6. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    I never will forget attending a party thrown by a couple who were our family doctor and his wife who was the local librarian. Hence I knew both of them very well. My ex-husband had never met either of them. Of course! That might be a clue why he is the ex! 😉 ALL the other women were “professionals” and one was a rather nasty individual who after the first few minutes following our arrival, asked in a very loud voice, “So what do YOU do, Lynn?” I was shocked that someone would be so heartless, cruel, and really really rude! But I pulled myself up straight and replied that I was busier than any women who worked outside the home, ’cause I gardened, processed food, and took care of three humans ranging in age from less than 1 to 4 years old. I finished with, “I dare you to follow me around for a day! I bet it will make your job seem a breeze in comparison.” I mean…what else can you do, but stand up for yourself. I got to the point where I would say “I work AT home doing a million things each day. For no pay.” 🙂

    I was thinking of this, but as you mentioned, being a “housewife” (I, too, despise that term.) without children is very different depending mainly upon financial circumstances, in my opinion. Even as a “stay-at-home” mom I was an avid volunteer, so once my oldest started school, I was often gone at least 3-4 times per week for various meetings, events, etc. I also read when I could, mostly nonfiction, of course, and mostly related to child-rearing, nutrition, etc. We each are different and that’s what makes life so interesting!

    Stand up to ’em, Naomi. The majority of women I know very well in my age cohort wouldn’t have stayed home to raise their children, so I always felt “different,” but then, as you see in the comments, don’t we all? 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Lynn!
      I do know quite a few women who stay home (although, we’re still the minority), but I know very few who feel really good about it. I actually do feel good about it most of the time, but I think that’s why it bothers me so much when people come along and wreck that for me.
      Not everyone is rude, though. There have been many supportive comments, too. 🙂

  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I don’t think this book is for me. I think you might have touched a point though when you said that things have not necessarily gotten easier for women now that there are so many choices for them. We are still being judged by different standards, and sadly, it is often us or other women who judge. Hardly anyone ever questions the decisions that the husbands and fathers are making. I have worked hard to just shrug off rude questions about why I decided to have kids, have so many kids, go back to work, do too much of this or not enough of that. It’s nobody’s business but mine. As long as I can say that I am doing the best I could possibly do, I’m happy.
    I have to tell you, though, I will find out now if the author has children. Because if you have little children, it is practically impossible to not have company in the bathroom at some point…

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! That’s so true! Even the little ones I have taken care of over the years have accompanied me to the bathroom (partly because when you’re the only one in the house with them, you can’t leave them alone, even long enough to go to the bathroom!). In this case, I assumed she was talking about partners. 🙂

      And, yes, good point about people not questioning what the father/husband is doing. I find that even the stay-at-home fathers get lots of support. (Which they should, of course.)
      And, no matter what we do, people are going to think they know better, or that we should have done something different. So, thick skin is what we all need!

  8. FictionFan says:

    Yep, I’m another who has “worked from home” and discovered that everyone assumes that means sitting around in pjs till noon, and then having a busy afternoon of toe-nail painting! I wish! I have no idea how women cope with children and a home – my home is never under control! I have considered once or twice buying a few children and making them clean the house… 😉

    • Naomi says:

      My Dad always used to say that was the whole reason they had children – to do the chores! But, it’s usually way more work to get kids to do the chores than to just do them yourself. Unless you use a whip (not allowed) or a huge bribe (can’t afford it). 🙂
      (Not that my kids don’t have to do chores – just that it’s for their own good – not mine!)

  9. The Paperback Princess says:

    WOOOO Naomi! I can FEEL your frustration! I love this post.

    “It almost seems worse now that women have so many more options open to them; like if we still choose to stay home we’re turning our backs on progress.” I think you really hit the nail on the head with this. Did you ever read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business? A huge part of the book talks about care and how we don’t value it enough in the world. She actually talks about NOT asking people “what do you do?” when you first meet them because it’s valuing what they do above who they are. How when women choose to stay home, whether to care for children or the home, it’s like they are just not trying, like there is potential they are just not tapping into. When in reality, there is a lot that goes into keeping a household running and those that work and do that, either have people that help or are constantly going. Let me tell you, I do not have children and there is so much that needs doing all the time. I think the difference is that when it’s just you and your partner, you have the luxury of letting it go because no one’s watching.

    I echo what you said on my post – let’s just all let each other be.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Eva!
      That book sounds perfect. I should get my hands on it.
      I don’t think people would know how to start a conversation anymore if they didn’t ask :”what do you do?”. I make a point of not asking that question – maybe that’s why I’m not good at small talk. My idea of starting a conversation is asking people if they’ve read anything good lately. But then I worry that I’ll make them feel bad if they don’t read. 🙂

  10. Carolyn O says:

    I love this post too, Naomi. I come from a family where my parents (mom and dad) switched off being the at-home parent (which I prefer to the term “stay-at-home” because “stay” sounds judgmental to begin with—one thing parents rarely do is “stay” in one place, between chasing kids and errands and chores and what-not). When my dad quit his job (this was in the mid-90s) to be at home, he took an unbelievable amount of flak, which still makes me angry.

    And I echo what Rebecca said about working from home—when I’m doing that, I really can’t just pop out for coffee! And like you, when I don’t have an active project (a paid one, that is–I’m always writing on the side) it’s still hard to juggle schedules in our (small) family.

    I’ve wanted to read Slaughter’s book(s) for awhile now, because I do think we need a revolution in the way we think about care-work.

    • Naomi says:

      We do!
      And, I like that – “at-home”. Your Dad must have gotten a lot of flak for you to have noticed (because we don’t always notice what’s going on with our parents).
      I also come from a home where there was always one parent at home (my mother), and I loved it so much. I wouldn’t have thought about it this way at the time, but looking back, I think it made us feel safe, knowing that she was always there. The funny thing is she always, always made us promise not to just stay home – she wanted to make sure we all got an education. So I got one, then I stayed home. 🙂
      After we were all grown (there are 6 of us), she went back to school and became a librarian. So, she’s my hero for many reasons. 🙂
      I’m glad you (and others) like my post. I was nervous about publishing this one since it’s more personal than usual, and a sensitive topic.

      • Carolyn O says:

        I love that! My parents were like your mom–it was assumed that we would all get an education (which we did). And my mom, after being at home for about 7 years, went back to school too–like my dad, she’s a lawyer–and they made the switch when she finished law school 🙂

        Also, I agree with you—it was always safe that one of them was there with us. Probably kept us out of at least some trouble, too.

      • Naomi says:

        So similar! 🙂
        I didn’t even think of the trouble we might have got into, but you’re right, another good reason to stay home. So far, I have always known exactly where all my kids are at all times!

  11. JacquiWine says:

    I like the way you’ve reflected on your own experiences of being a ‘housewife’ and a mother as it adds another dimension to your response to the book. It’s the sharing of the personal that makes these posts so interesting.

  12. Sarah says:

    Your post has dredged up so many issues for me! I, too, am a stay-at-home mum. That seemed socially acceptable when my children were small, but less so over time. My oldest has now left home for college, but my youngest is 11, and while she’s now started ‘big’ school, she still needs a lot of support and I can’t bear the thought of me not being around for her if I can be. While I think what I do is valuable, and think my children have benefited from my being around, I feel under pressure to justify my life choices, to earn, and have not only been asked that ‘What do you do all day?’ question, but have also been criticised for being ‘too’ available for my children, that somehow that will make them soft. I’ve also been told that I’m letting the side down by not choosing to work. As women, we can’t win, can we? There’s so much pressure to ‘do it all’ and that just can’t be done well. I think our guilt, and feelings of failure in our varied attempts at trying to juggle family life and careers makes it tempting to find fault with each other when actually we’re all trying to do our best, in the best ways we know how.

    • Naomi says:

      So well said, Sarah! I agree that sometimes I think we criticize others to help justify our own choices. How awful.
      And I have also been accused of “coddling” my children! I prefer to think of it as love. 🙂
      And, if it makes you feel better (cause it does for me) I’ve read that the more secure they feel as children, the more confident they will be when they’re ready to go out into the world. I hope it’s true!

    • Naomi says:

      It *is* good, especially if you like a variety of forms of short stories. Some of the other reviews make it sound even more interesting – I took a bit of a tangent in my review.

  13. Kate Rae Davis says:

    I’m noticing a lot of the comments are about the “What do you do all day” question. I work in the church, and have learned to ask people “What fills your days?” Asking about work can ostracize people who are unemployed (for whatever reason or length of time), and some people don’t want to be defined by their work. I find the question is usually met with a bemused smile, and I think people appreciate having to think through what their life actually consists of — and whether they want to portray themselves the way society does (whether that’s as a professional or a stay-at-home parent).

    I recognize my syntax is different, but — am I way off on my feelings about this? Is there a chance that the “rude” question is just a poorly phrased question from a person who is genuinely curious about you and seeking out a way to make a connection when there aren’t obvious intersecting points in your lives?

    • Naomi says:

      There are definitely people who are genuinely curious, yes. Or who already know what it’s like and just want to compare notes. It is easy to tell the genuine questions from the “rude” ones. I find the rude ones often come from men whose wives work outside the house.
      Personally, I would prefer the question: what do you love to do/ what are your interests? Because what I love to do and what fills my days are sometimes very different things. 🙂

  14. Emily J. says:

    I love your take on this, Naomi. I hadn’t made the connection that none of these women had children, which to me is a huge part of being a “wife,” and I think where the term “housewife” often gets used. I agree with you that it is rude to ask a wife/mother, “What do you do all day?” I also wonder if the author was making a statement about the term “wife” by pointing out that their identities may have been subsumed in that role or the expectations rather than opening up space for them to pursue other dreams and goals. Great review!

    • Naomi says:

      I agree. I also noticed, after reading the other reviews and thinking about it more, that most of the wives in this book seem to be severely lacking in relationship connections, which would contribute to their discontent and focus on material things.

  15. Cecilia says:

    I have this book at home – if my work hadn’t been so busy these last couple of months (;-) ha!) I would’ve joined you all…

    Such an interesting discussion, and I really appreciate hearing what it’s been like for you to get those questions. I “work from home” but in my mind I see myself as a SAHM because that is my priority. I do remember attending a college alumnae event and asking one of the women what she did, and she responded defensively. I felt badly that my question had made her feel that way, when actually we were in the same boat! But I understand that happens because many SAHMs have gotten enough judgmental reactions…and I agree about the rudeness of the “What do you do all day” question! My version of it is the same as what a couple of posters wrote above; some people tend to think that because I work at home I am available to do the emergency pick-ups and drop-offs for their children, perform random favors throughout the day, etc. I’ve learned to draw the line and I no longer take social calls or respond to chatty texts during work hours.

    • Naomi says:

      Being able to draw the line without alienating yourself is an art form! It took me a long time to find the right balance for myself. (It still might not be considered the right balance by others, but at some point I had to stop worrying about that.)

  16. DoingDewey says:

    I’m not the biggest short story fan, but this is a collection I definitely want to get to. I’ve had several friends recommend it and the themes you mention sound fascinating.

  17. Read Diverse Books says:

    The stories of childless “housewives” certainly deserve to be told, especially in the 21st century when more women may be leading that kind of life than in previous decades. You said some of the stories were “silly.” If not handled correctly, satire can easily become offensive. I hope that wasn’t the case for this collection.
    This was one of my favorite reviews/book club posts you’ve done, Naomi. It was personal and I feel I got to know you a little better.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Naz! It was also the hardest one to write and to press the ‘publish’ button for that same reason. 🙂 I was also very worried that I’d say something to offend someone else. I really hope I didn’t.

  18. buriedinprint says:

    I wasn’t sure this one would appeal, but I think I would like to read it after all. And I absolutely love the hot chocolate quote (but you probably knew that I would say that). Great post and great conversation to follow too!

    • Naomi says:

      This whole post still makes me cringe just a little bit. 🙂
      It’s a quick read, and I think you would get a kick out of some of the stories!

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