I just finished reading Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t know until after I finished reading it that it’s actually the second half of Little Women, first published in the UK as a separate book. I found it in an antique store and was thrilled to get it. This copy could be a hundred years old. There’s nothing printed in its pages to tell me, but it is definitely older than my mother’s 1930s editions of Little Women and Little Men.
Today, when we hear “Good Wives,” we think of the American TV show “The Good Wife,” starring Juliana Margulies, but that’s a whole other story. Alcott’s tale is about Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March in their teens and early 20s when they were looking for husbands and preparing to start their own families. Jo, if you recall, wanted to be a writer and was stubbornly independent. For a while it looked as if she would never marry. She turned down her friend Laurie, saying she didn’t love him in a romantic way. He took his disappointment to Europe, where he ran into Jo’s sister Amy. Romance ensued and they were married.
Back home, Meg had married John and produced twins, a boy and a girl named Demi and Daisy. Amy had a girl she named Beth after her sister who died. Jo, seeking adventure, went off to be a governess in New York. There, she met Professor Fritz Baehr, who was a bit old and had no money but was so darned loveable. After much back and forthing, they married, started a school for boys, and had two sons of their own. As for her writing, Jo might get back to it later. As the book ends, the family is all together, the March parents surrounded by their wonderful grandchildren.
Did anyone ever say, “Nope, I’d rather not have children”? Not a hint of it. Did anyone suffer from infertility? If so, no one spoke of it. There was a line that may have been trying to subtly indicate that after the twins, Meg had a miscarriage. But one did not even use the word pregnant in those days, so it’s not clear. Also, we don’t know why Amy and Laurie only have one child.
Alcott was writing in Massachusetts shortly after the Civil War. Was it a simpler time, or was it just a time when more was hidden? Birth control and abortion were not something families like the Marches discussed or considered using. Papa March was a preacher after all. We have to assume that these fictional characters did not have sex outside of marriage, although people in the 1800s had the same biological urges as we do.
I suspect the challenges we deal with now were the same then except no one was allowed to talk about it. What if Laurie or John or Fritz said, no, I really don’t want to be bothered with children? What if Jo had stuck to her writing and said I don’t have time be a mom?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Jo so bad. I tried to dress like her and speak like her, or at least how I imagined she would dress or speak. I hadn’t seen any of the Little Women movies. I walked around with my little notebook scribbling stories and poems all day long. As for my future as a possible wife and mother, a “good wife,” I wasn’t there yet. A few years on, I discovered the attraction of boys and assumed the rest would follow. Ha. Here I am by myself in a motel in Yreka, California with no companion, no children left behind or to visit when I arrive in the Bay Area, no grandchildren to swarm around me as they did around Marmee.
I used birth control throughout my first marriage because my husband wasn’t ready. My second husband had had a vasectomy because he had already had his children. Again, what if Fritz had said no to Jo? What if he had his own children and insisted those would have to be enough?
What is a good wife? In the world of Little Women, it was a woman who devoted herself to husband, home, and children while the husband provided financial support. And sperm. Today, there are many other variations of the husband-wife relationship that can also be called good. It should be noted that Louisa May Alcott herself never married or had children.
Think about how very recent our childless-by-marriage situation really is. Birth control was not available to everyone until the 1970s. Abortion was illegal in most of the U.S. until 1973. Back then, out-of-wedlock pregnancies were a huge scandal. Pregnant girls were hidden away and forced to give their babies up for adoption. Things have changed over the last 50 years, which is not so long a span of time, a time when women like me grew up reading Little Women and grew old streaming “Sex and the City” over HBOMax. I think we are still figuring it all out. In the future, perhaps a whole new definition of family, marriage and “good wives” or “good husbands” will develop. Community parenting perhaps or more people not getting married? What do you think it will be like in 2070?
Meanwhile, what do we do now? How do we balance our varying wants and needs? If this were a church blog, I’d say pray. But I know we all have different beliefs. Search your hearts and minds to find the answer to “What should I do about marriage and children?” and ask yourself, “Can I live with things the way they are? If not, what should I do?”
When you read old books or watch shows set in earlier times, do you think about their views about marriage and children? Does it look easier or not so easy at all?
A reader emailed me recently suggesting that we host a Zoom meeting so we can talk about childlessness more spontaneously and get to know each other. I know many of you need to be anonymous, but what do you think? Would you like to Zoom with us sometime this summer?