The pandemic has turned a lot of our lives upside down, but has it actually turned us into different people? That’s what Montreal’s Wendy Reichental began to wonder.
I remember watching The Stepford Wives, the 1975 version, now considered a cult classic. I was absolutely obsessed with it. So was much of America, because the phrase “Stepford wife” has become part of our vernacular.
The movie starred Katharine Ross as the doe-eyed, intuitive, and devoted Mrs. Joanna Eberhart. Its plot line follows Joanna as a budding photographer, wife, and mother, who at her husband’s insistence agrees to uproot their family from the grime and grind of big city life to a Norman Rockwell-style Utopian suburb called Stepford, Connecticut. As first impressions are paramount, it’s not long before Joanna suspects that something is amiss among these beguiling, housecleaning-haunted, robot-like women of Stepford.
“Stepford wife” epitomizes somebody with a perfect facade who obediently follows the accepted rules of society. Since being recently retired, I have slipped into a similar mechanical role. I had a second act planned but put it on hold with the onset of the pandemic. Instead, I focused on things I could control, like maintaining the household chores and being supportive of my still gainfully and thankfully employed husband. I kept myself busy with online workshops, webinars, and talks, and interspersed that with a few virtual wellness and fitness classes to improve my mood and my growing girth. The highlight of my day was welcoming my husband home from his extended commute— up from his basement makeshift office.
He traded in his modern office amenities, like high-speed internet, high-tech computer equipment, and face-to-face connections with long-time trusted colleagues, for menacing squirrels that approach the sliding glass door of his office and stare at him inquisitively. To circumvent his lack of social interaction and the cacophony of water cooler breaks, I placed a pair of decorative stuffed animals on a chair facing his cluttered desk, so they could look like clients. Heighten feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety have all been on the rise and spreading as indiscriminately as the virus itself. Despite my humble retired lifestyle, and my many attempts at being fully engaged through FaceTime and Zooms, I have been experiencing bouts of loss of identity, and functioning on autopilot— cook, clean, wash, fold, dust, rinse… and repeat.
So there I was one day, dutifully preparing my husband’s noontime lunch: chicken strips on top of a chef’s salad. Once I had cut the skinless chicken into the desired slices, instead of pouring them into the frying pan on the stove, I added the uncooked chicken to the salad bowl, and continued to toss all the ingredients together. Realizing what I had done, I immediately threw out the contents and scrambled to rethink what else I could serve, worried that this wasn’t my first blunder or malfunction. Is it the result of the pandemic, or my newfound “housewife” routine?
In the movie The Stepford Wives, Joanna uncovers the truth about the women of Stepford and their metamorphosis into compliant robots but a bit too late, as she succumbs to her own demise. Suddenly, we see Joanna with all the other 2.0 robot wives, dawning floppy straw hats, long skirts, walking up and down the supermarket aisles with vacant eyes and smiles. While I share some things in common with a Stepford wife, like my cozy suburb with its manicured lawns and my willingness to forge a loving, happy, clean home, as far as I know my husband is not attending any Stepford Men’s Association gatherings, trying to figure out how to recreate a fuller-breasted younger-looking android Stepford clone.
While I might be grappling with some existential depression and questioning my future journey, especially as I navigate these uncharted pandemic days, I know how fortunate I am. So, if you see me at the grocery store absentmindedly pushing my cart, do not fear I have not morphed into a Stepford wife. Despite my docile veneer I am fabulously flawed, reliably raw, and very much real.
Wendy is an essayist in the new book, “Chronicling the Days: Dispatches from a Pandemic (15) (Essential Anthologies Series).”