Retro wife at midlife

October 23, 2013
A tool I've never mastered.

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStay 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.

Retro-Wife-BedI 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.

screen-shot-2012-06-13-at-7-21-30-pm1Our 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.


14 comments on “Retro wife at midlife
  1. Pamela Mason says:

    And so you see, I think you reveal what true feminism is: the freedom to be who you are and true to your own role in your marriage /partnership.
    For me, that means traditional SAHM. I worked part time to be near them and to raise them – that is the career I chose for myself. My only regret is that so far, I (and of course my husband their dad – ours is the fast disappearing traditional setup) raised them to be well adjusted, self supporting, independent young men. Which means I don’t hear from them very often, because they are off to live their own lives.
    Now I am in an adjustment phase. And it brings with it the older parent from that generation (thank you Tom Brokaw) that thinks they’re indestructible and can drive blind.
    Okay — now I am speaking too much of my mind here.
    Anyway, I love your post and I think it should be sent to Leslie Stahl so that she can hear from a peer that it’s not always about going off to work for life, but about making life work for you.

    I think that should be a t-shirt. ^

  2. Valerie says:

    I think I would feel the same way about buying clothes, etc. if it were coming from my husband’s paycheck. I’m even more intriqued about how you and your ex got back together after 27 years!!

  3. I love what Pamela said about being who you are. Staying at home, managing the household, blogging and other social media work has helped my life feel balanced. I still miss some of the people I worked with in the corporate world, but I don’t miss the desk job or the stress. I am being a strong partner and mother to my children, who are still young enough to need me even though I am 45. Thanks for sharing this insightful post.

  4. What a fascinating story, Carol. You are blessed to know yourself well enough to say when you’ve had enough and need something more. Not everyone can do that.

    Being a housewife or a career women or both, we, as women, need to decide what we feel best with and just do it.

    You go, girl!

  5. That’s what’s so great about being this age–the confidence to do what we feel most comfortable with!

  6. I don’t care about an equal distribution of earning potential now either. I’ve earned the right to a dinner out now and again. Well written Carol. Just great.

  7. I gave up my career to stay at home with the kids when they were young..then I segued into community activist and a part-time job. I’ve had various jobs in my life, all supported by the knowledge of a spouse with a larger, more stable income. I loved being at home with the kids but always felt there was more to me that needed to be fulfilled. As a single woman–these past 10 years, basically, I’ve had no one to assist or partner with around finances. It’s been tough at times, but through all these phases, I’ve always felt that my choices were based on my skills and needs… Adjusting to a traditional role would be difficult for me now and it’s probably one of the reasons I don’t see marriage as an option.

    • admin says:

      Interesting. Well, I’m not so sure it has to be a one or the other scenario. Although I never set out to be even the slightest bit a traditional homemaker and I’m still not, I never set out to have a househusband, either, and that was the case with my last marriage. So the great thing about today is that we can make our own model and shape it to our needs.

  8. b says:

    I actually loved the “partner” part of my marriage. From my perspective the beauty and comfort of our home, the time I spent working along side my husband even in projects around the home and the companionship we shared was worth more than money could ever buy. In fact, replacing me would be very expensive!

    As a feminist myself, I understand the image of the “homemaker” has a negative connotation but as women we need to be free to make our own vision of ourselves and not follow a path some other woman has told us is correct. That is not any better than following a man’s idea of what we should and should not do.

    I love the article so much. I would like to meet your ex/new husband. You did make me smile.

    b+ (retireinstyleblog)

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