A tool I’ve never mastered.
Although my mother was a stay-at-home wife, I always worked. Had a career. A big career, too. One that kept me busy 12 hours a day, took me to foreign lands and allowed me to own two homes on different coasts simultaneously.
When my first husband returned to my life after a 27-year absence, I was in the 13th year of a job I’d once loved but had lost its lustre. That place put the DYS in dysfunction and I hoped to be able to retire from it in a few years.
As we made plans to remarry, my husband said in the most offhand of manners, “You know, you don’t have to work.”
What? Say that again?
I’d always made my own way. It was part of who I was. The idea that I could actually quit my job before retirement had never occurred to me, even though I knew that my (old-ex-husband but) new husband-to-be was financially secure.
“I can see how much you love teaching college, why don’t you quit your consulting job and just do that?” my husband asked. At the time, I was an adjunct at a Florida university in my “spare time” and loved it, despite the miniscule paycheck.
I was out of my consulting job so fast the door didn’t have a chance of hitting me in the ass. My days became my own, except for my teaching gig. Sweeeet!
Stay at home models were all around me. My mother, grandmother, aunts. Between our two marriages, M. had a stay-at-home wife. As for me? I had never considered being a stay-at-home wife. In my longest relationship/marriage, my husband was retired and he stayed at home. Cooking was his hobby and since he was organized and tidy, he did the housework and was happy to do it. Since my last relationship was bi-coastal, I never had permanent mate duties. Never gave it a thought. In this new scenario, I assumed my life would go on as before, just without the hassles of my job.
I was wrong.
It was the first time I’d ever been “supported” by a man. Oh, I brought my savings and retirement accounts into the marriage, along with my two properties. But my adjunct paycheck barely covered the cost of utilities. I was being supported, all right, and I was … uncomfortable. Surprisingly uncomfortable.
Decisions about buying clothes, electronics, jewelry had been mine alone in the past. After all, it was my money. It had always been my money.
Now, I felt guilty if I had a shopping spree at Macy’s. If I bought things for myself. When the thought that I should hide my shopping booty from my husband popped into my head, I was shocked. What was happening to me?
M. never objected or said anything at all–this was all me. And there was more:
I felt obligated to cook every day. In fact, when we first remarried, I prepared three meals a day. Just like a homemaker. Pretty soon my entire day was taken up with planning and preparing meals. He cleaned up afterwards, but breakfast, lunch and dinner? It was time-consuming. And yet, I reasoned, he provided us with a fabulous lifestyle. I, too, needed to participate. Was it too much to ask that I prepare meals? After all, I didn’t have to clean house, we had a service for that.
What was missing? “Me” time.
After a while, I realized that the impossible had happened: I’d fallen into a very traditional gender role and it had crept in without announcing itself. That traditional role of “wife,” the one I’d seen growing up? It was a sneaky little thing, like a disease that lurked inside my brain just waiting for an opportunity to come out.
There was no time to write or do the things I wanted to do.
I knew I had to set limits.
I cut back to preparing one meal a day (mostly.) M. assumed we’d sit down for all three meals. But I didn’t want to take time from my writing and other things to do that. Sitting down once, for whatever meal I prepared, seemed enough. He agreed to be responsible for two meals a week, although after a few months, that routine went by the wayside. I still cook and he still cleans up.
For the first time I saw just how much freedom my life had afforded me. I’d had few, if any, obligations to anyone besides myself. Because I didn’t have the joys of children, I faced no significant responsibilities besides my job. This new arrangement required more from me and it was an uneasy fit.
I didn’t feel comfortable again until I had a more significant part-time job and salary teaching college. Equilibrium set in once I was contributing income. In fact, we paid our monthly expenses from my salary. It felt good. Natural.
Remember, this is all in my head. M. never once said a word about it.
This year, I’m not teaching, I’m writing, trying to finish the memoir I started two years ago. No more regular paychecks.
This time, though, I’m aware of my own dynamic.
As an ardent feminist, I never envisioned myself in the traditional role I saw growing up. And yet, how quickly I defaulted to it. But when I dug deeper, I saw that my knee-jerk response wasn’t so much about taking on that role, but about my desire to contribute and be a good partner. The self-centered professional woman of the past was gone and for the first time, I was a real partner. If I was going to spend money, I felt a responsibility to contribute to our family income. But if I wasn’t going to bring in money, I needed to find other ways to pull my weight. Ways that felt more comfortable to me than preparing three meals a day.
We’d been talking about replacing the 35 year old guest bedroom furniture that’s beginning to fall apart and I found a dresser and a chest I liked on Overstock for an incredibly low price. While they aren’t the most fabulous pieces in the world, they work well in the room, which is only used by our petsitter and the occasional guest.
Our status as “seniors” and our budget priorities played into that decision–the rest of our lives looks different now than it did 25 years ago. Shorter, to be blunt. We want to save our extravagances for our vacations. Guest room furniture? Not same priority.
Over the next few years, we’ll be buying other furniture. The family room needs to be furnished and eventually, the living room may need new pieces.
I’m probably not going to bring in a regular salary again, so one of my contributions is the sweat equity it takes to find the very best deal for major purchases.
For the first time, I’m a real partner. And while it’s taken some adjustment, I like it.