A sister-wife is one who cares about your life, children as much as you do
KNN News Serivce
(This article was originally written in The Chicago Tribune (June 10, 2007) Title: “Big Love’ in a Michigan Cul-De-Sac:” :Section 2: 1, 5)
Like most people, I was a stranger to the term “sister-wife” until I heard it on “Big Love,” an HBO drama about a polygamous family living on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.
Now, as “Big Love” enters its second season on Monday, the sister-wife concept has taken root on my own cul-de-sac in southwest Michigan. We sister-wives of Lynwood Drive use the term and live the life — only without the shared husband.
As with most well-written dramas concerning the private lives of marginal groups, “Big Love” had a way of creating a new normal. The premise that had first seemed outrageous — a man having up to a back yard full of wives — soon became mundane. Not that we would do it, but we could understand how the characters could.
We found ourselves confessing that plural marriage didn’t look so terrible, even in a drama filled with suffering and intrigue.
It was kind of like the Waltons, what with the big family and the red-state setting. One always had company. There was help with the children. And though the three or more women married to one man didn’t seem so great, it seemed a small point.
Within a few episodes, it dawned on my friends and me: We were envious.
We liked the way the sister-wives’ doors opened onto a common patio, how they wandered in and out of each other’s living rooms, how they dined at one giant table. Alone in her part of the house, a single wife looked lonely. In the kitchen together, even in moments of high tension, they looked cozy.
Halfway into the “Big Love” season, we discussed whether we could be sister-wives, though we did not share a husband and had no intention of making that part of the bargain.
The conversation went well. It seemed like that’s how we were living already anyway, only without a name for it. Our children roam from one house to another and are fed wherever they appear, and the space between our houses feels more like a patio than a street.
Besides, what woman couldn’t use a little more help without having to pay for it? What woman doesn’t occasionally long for a larger family without having to give birth? What woman doesn’t get bored doing the same essential chores alone at home? Who couldn’t use a little more company?
My friends and I first used the word as a joke, then as a term of affection, and finally as a salutation, as in, “Hey, sister-wife, how about dinner tonight?” It felt thrilling to speak it aloud. The word spread through the cul-de-sac.
It was a declaration, a call to solidarity. We took it into the public sphere: the playgrounds, the waiting room at the dance academy, the checkout line at Target. We were testing the market.
We knew that at the very least, this worked for us. Being a sister-wife was kind of like belonging to a women’s union. If you were there for them, they were there for you.
Over dinner we wondered aloud what made a sister-wife. Why did the term stick?
We liked the medieval ring of it, but was there more? We parsed the term. “Sister” wasn’t enough. A sister (real or figurative) could be fickle. “Wife” — with our platonic twist — suggested fidelity.
A sister-wife is one who cares about your life, children and appliances almost as much as you do. She will not drop your baby. She will make your child a sandwich he will like.
We took stock of our daily lives. Like our mothers before us, we feed, comfort and scold one another’s children. We are the baby-sitters when there is no baby-sitter. We give each other clothes. We gaze unself-consciously into each other’s refrigerators when ours no longer look interesting.
More often than not we eat together, and the more we’re at it, the more seamlessly it works. Instead of buying six ears of corn, we buy two dozen. We call up our neighbors and, voila: The corn gets shucked and the corn gets eaten. Sickness, health, richer, poorer, we’re there for all of it. The absent sexual component notwithstanding, we feel as if we are married.
I have five sister-wives now, four in my neighborhood and one married to my brother. So far, so good. When “Big Love” starts up again, we will renew our vows. And we will remind each other that as long as we each shall live in this neighborhood, we are — as our forebears put it — sealed for all eternity.