Updating Marriage from 1950s Idealism to 1990s Realism

When four black professional women gather for a birthday party in the movie ''Waiting to Exhale,'' they commiserate about the sorry state of their relationships with men.

''Whatever happened to the good old days...'' one says sadly, referring to a supposedly bygone time ''...when men asked you for a date?'' On another occasion, when a male friend asks one of the four what she wants from a man, she sounds equally wistful as she ticks off a list that seems unattainable: She wants to get married, own a house, have children, and eat out two or three times a week. She adds, ''I want to have a family - be happy.''

Yet for all their traditional longings, the thoroughly modern women in this foursome might want to choose carefully just which parts of the good old days they seek to preserve or reinstate.

The same week that American women of all races were making ''Waiting to Exhale'' the top box-office draw, supposedly identifying heavily with the very 1990s problems these fictional characters face with men, the text of a home-economics guide from the 1950s was making the rounds of the Internet, drawing equal parts of laughter and incredulity from those who read it.

Titled ''The Fascinating Womanhood Way to Welcome a Man When He Comes Home From Work,'' the manual serves as a cultural relic, a reminder of just how dramatically roles and expectations have changed for both men and women.

It begins by advising wives to ''plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal, on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.''

The guide suggests taking 15 minutes to rest ''so you will be refreshed when he arrives. This will also make you happy to see him instead of too tired to care. Turn off the worry and be glad to be alive and grateful for the man who is going to walk in.'' Reminding women to ''take care of your appearance,'' it adds, ''Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair, and be fresh looking.''

Then there is the house to clean. ''Clear away the clutter,'' the manual advises. ''Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. in a bucket or wastebasket and put them in the back bedroom for sorting later.''

The manual also suggests that a mother take a few minutes to wash children's hands and faces, comb their hair, and perhaps change their clothes. ''They are little treasures, and he would like to see them look the part.''

A dutiful wife should ''minimize the noise'' from appliances such as washers, dryers, and vacuums and ''try to encourage the children to be quiet at the time of their father's arrival.''

In addition, she should ''make him comfortable. Have him lean back into a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Arrange his pillow.... Turn on music if it is one of his pleasures.''

Some don'ts: ''Don't greet him with problems and complaints.''

''Don't complain if he is late for dinner.''

And: ''Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment.'' So much for the '90s desire to eat out a few times a week.

Finally, the guide says, ''Let him talk first, then he will be a more responsive listener later.''

One male reader on the Internet appended his own wishful, humorous note to the home-economics guide, writing, ''Wouldn't we all like a wife like that!''

Well, sure. But ''a wife like that,'' however appealing she might be in theory, has become an economic impossibility in families for whom two incomes are a necessity.

In an age of widespread divorce, that role also carries an economic risk. As one of the characters in ''Waiting to Exhale,'' newly single after her husband leaves her for another woman, says, ''I didn't have Plan B. My marriage was supposed to last.''

As more women work, they are as likely as men to come home at the end of a long day eager for a calm, well-ordered home, a hot meal on the table, a listening ear, and someone to pamper them.

But who in the '90s can fulfill those '50s ideals for either partner when everyone walks in the door at 6 p.m., or later?

Any review of now and then makes obvious that no neat pattern can be synthesized between the old-model relationships and the new. The equations of what is fair and what is loving between women and men are constantly evolving in ways that are complicated and unpredictable.

Every effort to work out new reciprocities remains part of the unfinished domestic revolution of the '90s, which will not be solved either by the male-bashing of movies like ''Waiting to Exhale'' or by the romanticized longing for ''good-old-days'' subservient roles that probably never worked very successfully even way back when.

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