Thursday, May 28, 2009

I need a drink, and possibly a hug

This week, I had a freak-out, and I think I need to write about it.

This year has been a very busy one for Econo Boy – he’s been job-hunting and teaching a fairly heavy course load. As a result, I’ve been taking on a larger share of the household chores every now and then. More of the meal planning, more of the shopping, more of the cleaning, and almost all of the cooking. I was happy to do it – he was busy and I wanted to support him, since the outcome of his job hunt was huge for us as a couple.

But this week, as Econo Boy buried himself in a giant pile of final exams to grade and I buried myself in a stack of dirty dishes, I started to wonder if this was a pattern, if I had inadvertently become the “little woman,” cooking and cleaning and being sweetly non-demanding because her man has big important work-type things to do. All of this built up to a panic attack, in which I saw myself in 20 years, earning $2000 a course in a crappy part-time adjunct position that I’d accepted in order to be the one responsible for doing all the cooking and shopping and chauffeuring the kids to and from school, piano lessons, and sports practice, while Econo Boy basked in his tenured glory, came home at 6:30 to dinner on the table, and never noticed that I was pulling the day-to-day weight of keeping the family fed and organized. In other words, the same pattern from my parents’ marriage (although my mom actually did like her job) – the pattern that led my father to idiotically declare that my mom "never did anything to help this family" because her job wasn't a major source of income. (I know. Don’t even get me started. That’s a whole other post.)

That scenario terrifies me, and not just because my parents' marriage ended in a very bitter divorce. I like my work and I think I’m good at it, and I want to be in a job where the work I do is valued and compensated appropriately (i.e. not adjunct teaching). I’m willing to make career sacrifices, or even change jobs for our relationship and for our family, but I’m not willing to give up working, or to take a job that makes me miserable just because that’s easier for everyone else in the family. Whatever my future career and future household responsibilities look like, I want my role to be a choice I made, a choice I was happy to make, rather than something I slowly slid into without even realizing it until I resented it.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one having a bit of a freak-out about marriage and the future at the two-month mark (Meg, thanks for another spot-on post!), which makes me feel much less crazy. And I’ve talked to Econo Boy about my frustrations and we’ve both talked about how to avoid falling into gender traps in our relationship. Unfortunately I think it’s really easy for even the most driven women in heterosexual relationships to accidentally find themselves taking the supporting role, because that was the model a lot of us grew up with, the model that Western society still sells us, ever so subtly, every day.

I don’t have any easy answers for how to avoid it, except this: avoid it. Every single day, avoid it. Pay attention to the choices we make, and make them deliberately and consciously, knowing the implications for our careers, our family, and our future happiness. Appreciate each others' contributions, no matter how day-to-day and mundane. And above all, avoid becoming my parents!


Color Me Green said...

this is a tough one. i myself have fallen into a relationship with very traditional gender roles, partly because i love cooking, but it does also come from following after our parents inadvertently, and from him having the highpaying important job and me having a job i don't really care about. but unlike you i don't even want a career, i'd just like to have some part time job or run a small business i love, so i guess for me these are choices i'm happy making, but sometimes i still feel resentful because we are in this modern era where household equality is touted as how it should be. making sure we take the time to appreciate each other's contributions is key.

CaitStClair | A Peachy Bride said...

I've definitely had similar freak outs, so I'm with you there and I think it very unlikely that you would fall into that sort of trap. Just being aware of the situation makes it much easier to avoid.

The funny thing for me is that I had those freakouts but now I'm realizing that maybe what I actually DO want is to take care of our home and just have a part time job that I enjoy.
And I thought I freaked out before? Hah! Realizing that you're maybe a little more traditional than you thought is even scarier.

Anonymous said...

I have the exact same fears except that thankfully (I weirdly am happy about this) my mister is not an academic. My boss and his wife have this kind of marriage--both were very up and coming in their fields a few years ago. Then they had kids. She now has a very unglamorous assistant professorship where she does the minimum, so that she can deal with their home life, and he is a big big hotshot. The worst part is that he claims that their marriage is totally egalitarian because they are weirdly bureaucratic about how they divide their childcare duties, but in real life, it's bullshit.

I think the only way to deal with this, as always, is to be self-aware, and keep the communication going re: how it's going and who is feeling ok and who is feeling thrust aside. Easier said than done of course!

LPC said...

I recommend you look this one square in the face. First of all, get really clear on what you want. Don't think you want a job just because. Work can really suck. Don't think you need to stay home just because. Staying home can really suck. And I recommend looking at this in the face now, since if you plan to have children the issues only escalate.

Feel strongly about that, do you, LPC?

elizabeth said...

oh my, you've hit my sore spot, exactly. we have quite the same issues, too: he's a professor, makes (many times) more money; i'm a grad student, finishing up, will be a prof in the fall, but still at a fraction of his salary. my career & my research are *really* important to me, but will probably never bring in a lot of money.

right now, i have the more flexible schedule - i'm *just* supposed to be writing all day - and tend to notice the errands and chores that need to be done. to be fair, he's offered to keep me fed (eg. cook or bring takeout every night) if i would just -finish- the damn dissertation already. but balancing the household tasks requires constant negotiation, and i find myself doing a lot more than when i lived with a female roommate. i'm constantly amazed as how deeply the social conditioning runs on both sides. male privilege is an interesting beast.

Bride in Exile said...

Thanks for your comments, you guys! Figuring out these kinds of issues in 2009 isn't easy. But at the very least, I take comfort in knowing I have options and that Econo Boy and my family will support me in exercising them -- 50 years ago, it would have been "it's cute that you went to college, but now that you're married, you stay home."

LPC, the kids issue is what scares me the most. We both want kids -- we established that early on in the relationship. But let's face it, having a baby is going to be way more demanding for me, physically speaking, than it will be for him. Giving birth is the great unequalizer of heterosexual relationships! Which is not to say it can't be done; we have two terrific friends with a newborn who seem to really be dealing with things as a team. I have hope that if we talk about these things and make our wishes and expectations clear, and don't get locked into ideas of what we "have" to do ("I HAVE to stay home" or "I HAVE to work full-time") we can make it work.

Elizabeth, having a more flexible schedule than your partner can sometimes be a curse when it comes to this sort of stuff. I'm lucky to have a fairly cushy fellowship that doesn't require much teaching, so I'm often the one who looks around the apartment while Econo Boy is in class and thinks, "gee, that toilet could use a good scrubbing" or "gosh, we're almost out of milk, I'd better go get some." Housework as procrastination can be deadly, both for one's dissertation and for the chore equality in a relationship.

Anonymous said...

I hear you. When Mr. P visits me on the weekends, it's a LOT more work for me, and I get a lot less reading and work done. He doesn't do it intentionally; he volunteers to wash the dishes, etc, but it's pretty clear to me that cooking and shopping for two is a LOT more work for me than it is to wash dishes for two.

So I have taken to banishing him from my apartment every couple of weekends or so in order to get stuff done. He's become a lot better about it over time. We'll make it work :)

It was refreshing to hear that other women deal with this. And for academic women in particular; it seems like we should be able to carry the load more easily, precisely because OF the cushy fellowships, right? We have all that free time in the apartment, because we're not at work, right? BLAH!

Bride in Exile said...

Apricot, do you find that you do more elaborate cooking when you're eating with Mr. P? When I was single I'd happily eat cereal for dinner. But when I eat with Econo Boy, even on a night when we're both exhausted and don't want to cook, somehow we both feel like cereal is unacceptable. (Frozen pizza, on the other hand, is a life-saver!)

The difficulties that arise from working at home are a major reason why I'm resistant to the idea of being an independent scholar or freelance writer. Deep down I suspect that I'll feel obligated to do all of the household stuff because, well, I'm at home, aren't I? Damn, I want a real office. Not an ugly desk in the basement of the library that I share with another cranky grad student. A real, honest-to-goodness office. A girl can dream.

Anonymous said...

Ooo, yes, I've been having office fantasies since I've started graduate school. Sometimes ikea catalogs can provoke such longings in me...

Yes I totally agree with the elaborate meals thing. This past weekend, for example, I cooked two different types of curries and a pulao that took about 3 hours total, plus shopping time. But this weekend, I'm by myself, and I'm planning to eat a lot of bagged salad.

Also, I have to say, men seem to associate food with love. This seems to be the case with many men I know. They're enormously appreciative when you cook something, especially if it's particularly tasty, but then you feel that when you don't cook, you're depriving them of love? In a way? That's probably just me being paranoid.

class-factotum said...

When I met my husband, I had just been laid off from my job. I had 20 years in the corporate world, grad school, and the Peace Corps. I had never been married before.

I sort of looked for another job, but for it to be worthwhile financially, I would need another corporate job, which would mean 60 hours a week, plus travel, which would mean more drycleaning, takeout meals, weekends spent cleaning the house and yardwork or outsourcing. Either way, we wouldn't see each other much, as my husband travels 60-70% of the time.

We decided I wouldn't work, which was totally fine with me. You mean all I have to do is clean the house, cook, cut the grass, do the laundry and the grocery shopping, which is all the stuff I did before plus going to work? (Yes, I know all that stuff is "work," but you know what I mean.)


I am retired. I go to the gym, meet friends for coffee, watch movies, garden, read, go to book club, cook (which I love), waste way too much time online. I do do some part-time web work for a friend from home, but financially, it's not that big a deal because of SE taxes and marriage penalty. It pays for my pedicures.

Anyhow, this works for us. Working is nice for the money, but that's all I miss about it.

Ellie said...

Oh so true! I'm a student right now, so I spend more time at home and get home first, and since I'm always hungry, I make dinner pretty early in the day, so I pretty much always cook unless my FI asks me not to so that he can cook. Usually then, he does the dishes, but sometimes his workload gets heavier or he has stuff to do so I end up doing the dishes too and then I freak out.
But then things happen like I got a summer job in MI and my FI was totally thrilled for me and encouraged me to take it - and everyone I talked to was like "and he's okay with you just moving?" as if it was the most selfish thing I could do.
I think the answer is awareness and openness. Days I feel particularly housewifey, when he comes home, I say "I feel like a housewife." It's not an insult or an accusation; it's just the way things are that day, and the sooner I acknowledge it, the sooner we can do something about it and move on.