The Head Of The House - Who Is It?
( Originally Published 1904 )
HUSBAND or wife—which is head of the house; supreme authority in affairs domestic? Well, we know the proverb, that the really clever one is he or she who can have things their own way, while outwardly seeming to acknowledge the authority of the other. There are husbands who congratulate themselves in private on their complete control of the rudder of the family ship. There are wives who frankly concede masculine predominance in the partnership. Yet the self-satisfied spouse is often dwelling in a mental " fools' paradise "; while his better half does the governing almost without his knowing it; and, on the other hand, we could name a good many scores of wives who, in spite of their seeming submission to marital authority, still contrive to " boss " the situation most effectively.
An English domestic doggerel, supposed to be written by a very diplomatic wife, takes a terse turn in one of its verses, concluding thus:
"Serene, he thinks he rules the nest; But I know better—that's the test; I rule as hostess, he as guest."
That would seem to be an ideal arrangement, from the standpoint of domestic or marital felicity: The husband is quite happy, convinced of his exercise of autocratic authority; the wife disputes nothing, soothing him by her amiable deference, and all the time wielding the practical sceptre of the home kingdom.
In one way it is fair enough that the money-winner should wield the authority. He has to find the means; it ,is equitable that he should insist upon its wise and profitable disbursement. Certainly he can fairly claim to be given a satisfactory return in the form of board and lodging. Provided he does provide adequately, none can blame him if he protests against inferior culinary results, uneatable meals, or extravagance in whatever direction; none can deny his claim to the .privilege of pointedly objecting to obvious mismanagement, or demanding needed re-form. Yet he is also bound to recognize his wife's authority in her own domain, and to ac-knowledge her status as the natural director of the housekeeping department. Marriage is largely a business agreement; she has her side of the contract to keep, as he has his. Each is properly a distinct branch of administration.
He should not forget that she is, his business associate, not in the least an employe.
A true recognition of that important fact will do much to prevent misunderstandings and bickerings in wedded life: admitted equality in the contract is the source of peace, the prime eliminator of strife.
The competent wife—even she who is fairly competent—is worthy of her hire. And that hire she should ungrudgingly be given, even if it amounts to nothing more than just appreciation of her merit. If her husband lowers him-self so far as to supervise and personally interfere in her own special province, inspecting her- ways of working, it becomes a question' whether, in thus seeking to humiliate his wife by placing her on a par with an unreliable servant, he does not at the same time himself incur the disgrace of being called a " milksop," or having similarly appropriate epithets applied to him. For that is what he lays himself open to.
How men can lose caste by this sort of mean intermeddling is shown by remarks one some-times overhears. Even other men do not respect him. For instance, let me tell this little incident. It was a conversation between two men anent a mutual acquaintance.
" My wife says that V. employs, an expert accountant to audit Mrs. V.'s housekeeping bills."
Yes," said the other, " I can quite credit it. His wife's sister told my wife that he, ` takes stock ' regularly of all the domestic stores and checks them off with the bills of the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker."
That is a good case in point. He had become an object of contempt and ridicule even to his own sex.
No woman wants to have a husband who makes an amateur housewife of himself. - She does not want to have to admit that he is that sort of man, even to herself; and suppose she is goaded into confiding to her feminine friends over the shortcomings of her husband,—no mat-ter how unwise such a course may be,—she would hate to hear him canvassed by others in the way I have mentioned. Let him, indeed, commit faults of temper, and 'even be some-times something of a " bear '.' she can make . allowance for his churlishness by, reflecting that he ihas business worries of which he never openly speaks, yet' which he may involuntarily vent upon. her in such moments of 'irritation; but the one thing she cannot, and can scarcely be expected to, forgive, is any tendency to invade the precincts of those housekeeping pre-serves which acknowledge her as sole lawful sovereign.
The spectacle of a married man treating his wife's pantries and storerooms as if they were a grocery concern of which he was the proprietor, and she a .clerk on wages; and sifting her stock and accounts to assure himself that no peculation was in progress, and that the cash was all right, may be a sight for the gods, but it is not one for the painter of domestic bliss or the dignity of the " dominant " sex.
And however difficult the domestic servant problem may already be, it is pretty sure to be badly complicated by this type of husband, for I know of more than one instance where excellent and satisfactory servants, who had been' hard to find, and were cherished by the house-wife as jewels of great price, could not be induced to remain because of the " head of the house " being one of those unsexed men who imagine it to be a part of their duty as husbands to investigate in person every detail of the kitchen economy.
What man would stand tamely by and permit incursions of his wife into his place of business, to overhaul and audit his stock-in-trade, his books, and criticise his commercial or professional methods? How would he feel before his subordinates, who saw his wife doing this? Yet, whenever he stoops to an invasion of her kitchen or storerooms, he puts her, in just a similar position before the eyes of her servant or servants. And even if it should be 'a ease where she acts as her own servant, think of the humiliation, purely personal to herself, to which he subjects her!
The average wife believes in her husband, and is capable of sacrifices for his sake. Suppose you undertake to abuse him in her presence! She will promptly defend him to the last ditch. His faults may be virtues in her eyes—as you will soon learn—but then they must be faults peculiarly appertaining to manhood.
It is quite another matter if his failings be a super-sensitiveness, to the deficiencies of his wife's methods as regards the storing of house-hold supplies, the government of the kitchen, the replenishment of the larder, the hanging of pictures, or the grouping of furniture in rooms. The instant he displays a desire to intrude his views in any of these directions, her wifely solicitude and sympathy are forthwith alienated.
The servants, their duties and their sphere of work, are matters for her alone. Though, after all, she will spontaneously confide her woes in connection with these same matters to him if occasion arise. He is expected to condole with her if the good servant, whom the household could so ill afford to lose, suddenly kicks over the traces and deserts the service. How often do just such trials of his wife's make evening hideous to the man who has come back to the domestic hearth after a day of business stress and impending professional anxieties? He must not, in short, be a critic of either her or the servants,—unless at the times duly appointed by her. Nor, when he is appealed to for sympathy in the case of a servant's shortcomings, dare he attempt to excuse the offender, even ,though, on some former and different occasion, he was equally prohibited from finding the least fault with the domestic who, at that time, was " just perfect " in his wife's estimation.
Well, this is a world of contradictions and in-consistencies; and all that can be said is, that as husband and wife are infallibly bound to display their individual possession of human failings and weaknesses, on one occasion or another, the best guarantee of a harmonious domestic menage is for each to do their allotted part with reasonable respect for the official rights and recognized authority of the other over his or her respective sphere of action. For in that way lies peace.