Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prologue: the Modern Marriage

We got married on a Monday, then spent two days of bliss curled up in a hotel room before returning home. And so it was that Wednesday, when the dust settled, was the day that I began to feel weird.

I found myself staring at Brian and saying in my head, “Husband”. I would then look down at myself and think, “Wife”. I would look back at Brian, saying it again: husband…and back at me: wife. Brian was of course eating his oatmeal, or picking at his toenails, or doing the dishes, oblivious to the turmoil going on inside me, as I would sit there, sizing him up, feeling queasy. It wasn’t long before I broke and told him it felt weird, this husband-wife thing. He agreed, though I suspect for simpler reasons: the fact that we’d done something considered very ‘grown-up’, or the fact that it was (our intention, anyway) a permanent arrangement.

My concerns were deeper, more philosophical…and therefore, I’ll admit, less vital. But for me, they were crucial. Unsure of exactly what was worrying me, I tried to find a simple solution that would staunch the flow of nausea: I proposed we not use the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Brian, looking confused but catching on to the wild look in my eyes, agreed. Then I said, wait: I like husband, so I’ll call you that, but you can’t call me wife. This was a little more perplexing, and Brian wanted to know what he could call me. We threw words around and ended up with ‘wench’; which was funny and cute when we were with intimates but turns out, some strangers don’t think that’s a very funny name at all.

Through this process of talking about these labels, I figured out why I was so reluctant to use them. There are words in our lives that, when we hear them, immediately conjure up certain images. ‘Cheese’, for example: you may picture a red wax round, or a skinny orange brick, or a pie-piece wedge of bubbly swiss. ‘German shepherd’ is another good one: you can picture a police dog, a guard dog, or the Littlest Hobo. Now, what do you think of when you hear ‘husband’? How about ‘wife’? I pictured:

-coming home in a three-piece suit
-a brief case and a pipe
-sweater vests
-an armchair
-lawn mowing
-partner in a law firm
-carving a turkey
…and on the less idealized side…
-dirty undershirt
-beer cans everywhere
-yelling and insulting
-pickup trucks
-cheating, strippers, prostitutes
-a hound dog with fleas as his BFF.

-baker and cook
-oven mitts
-always smiling, submissive
-pinch-waisted circle dress
-arts & crafts
-childrearing (eep)
…and less ideally…
-working woman who loses all connection to her spouse
-smoking, drinking, and botox.

I think it’s pretty obvious that my paradigms have been constructed through decades of pop culture exposure, so please believe me when I say that, as I read through these lists, I know they are insane. But emotions are irrational, and these images are strong, ingrained into (many of us, I daresay) over a lifetime. Like most young adults, I cannot look to the previous generation for role modelling of spousal archetypes, though my own parents are still together after thirty years—but I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think they’re both insane and have no idea how they put up with each other, let alone do I think they have a sure-fire marital model worthy of emulating. My parents, two of the strongest Alpha personalities I’ve ever met, have managed to stay together (without homicide attempts), but it’s a mystery to me how they haven’t taken each other out in a Spy Vs Spy-style assassination scheme. More power to them, of course; I’m glad they’ve survived and thrived in each other’s care. But they are not television's embodiment of an idyllic husband/wife archetype.

I asked myself, would these silly Donna Reid-era gender roles play through my head if Brian was a woman? Did these roles worry me when I was in my previous long-term relationship, that happened to be same-sex? My internal TV screen went snowy as I tried to picture Brian as ‘Brianna’; no, there was simply no examples, good or evil, to conjure up of same-sex matrimony. Well, with one exception: two female friends of ours got married a few years back, and their twitter accounts read like Martha Stewart magazine headlines: “Baked the most delectable risotto tonight, paired it with perfect Chardonnay, and cuddled with my wife in a giant duvet made of sustainably-plucked organic goose feathers.” Blech. No, this couple does only two things for me:
a) reaffirms that I am too neurotic to ever have a life that serene,
b) reaffirms that my McCain pizza with one of those bottles of cat-shaped wine, followed by arguing over who’s got whose pillow…is not tweet-worthy.

I don’t think I’m the only one struggling to picture what exactly modern-day marriage is supposed to be. Immersed as we are in baby boomers, who caught the tail-end of that idyllic Leave it to Beaver world, matrimony indeed seems to be rife with gender stereotypes, sex-specific jobs, and dirty socks and nagging. No wonder so many divorces happen these days: the 80s developed the female power-executive, who crushed out any hopes of daily homemade casseroles; the failing economy and changing technology made it unlikely that men would be able to maintain their simple 9-to-5’s, with enough money coming in to support 3-5 humans and a mortgage. Our poor parents were left with an image of family life that they simply couldn’t fulfill…or didn’t want to. Now, the new generation has the dirty job of figuring out what exactly husbands and wives are and do, when both people work, men are allowed to like cooking, and women are allowed to use power tools. In fact, we live in a time when we couldn’t return to the Cleavers-esque lifestyle, even if we really really wanted to; yet those old-school stereotypes still linger in the air, with those of us unable to fulfill them feeling almost apologetic about it.

After our week of honeymoon-staycation, I sent Brian off to work on the Tuesday morning with hugs and kisses. I was actually pondering my new title of ‘wife’ when I got a text from him that he was coming home again, less than an hour after he’d left. When he got in the door and told me he no longer had a job, I was floored. I’ve been laid off and unemployed many times, and I know that a job search in this market is never fast. My brain, master coordinator and planner that it is, started strategizing about how to spread my income out over the expenses of two people and an apartment. After we held each other for a while, letting the waves of financial worry wash over us, Brian swore he’d be super useful around the house, doing all sorts of chores and odd jobs. My head swirled as I realized: I had suddenly become the 1950s husband, and Brian the 50s wife. Sure, it would be temporary, but there it was: an image in my head of myself, coming home, dressed in a tie and carrying a briefcase, to find my sweetie making mac & cheese casserole.

I knew then a valuable truth about the modern spousal model: that our strength would come from the fact that we can be flexible now, with our gender roles and our familial duties. That, while we have no easy blueprints for wifedom nor husbandhood to follow, we are well-versed on all the duties inherent in a relationship: practicalities like cleaning, cooking, working, and providing…and the intimacies like listening, holding, supporting, and loving. Yes, we were going to have to carve out exactly what our roles were; but most importantly, I think I knew then that our roles would need to be forever fluid. Being married to each other wasn’t about filling out a dress or suit; it was about this moment, on the couch, holding each other as our world fell apart. And, doing it again when the world got better.

I’m letting Brian call me ‘wife’ now. I like the way he says it, with the reverence reserved for words like  ‘goddess’ and ‘empress’ and ‘tiger’ and ‘ninja’. I call him husband, and to me it means everything from teddy bear to Spartan. Yes, there are people who throw the titles—especially ‘wife’—at us like it’s a swear word, but I’ve remembered that I’ve never been a good conformist, so if these nasty people think that ‘wife’ is a bad word, I plan to show them what an awesome one it can be. Our ceremony pronounced us ‘partners in life’, and that’s what we’ll be, gender roles aside and with a flexible job description. And anyway, Brian is the one with the apron collection. No joke.



  1. I couldn't agree with you more. I still get the occasional snide comment about why I don't have dinner cooked for Chris when he gets home at night. "Well he works so hard all day, he deserves a cool drink and dinner ready". Really? Now take those feelings you feel and imagine if you were home all day, raising a kid. How much MORE pressure there is to be Holly Housewife. Society has such a skewed view when it comes to traditional gender roles, and even though they can't be supported by any other than the very rich, they keep being passed down. Why?? Gah!

  2. How many others will read this with the pangs of familiarity?! Your post conjures up so many various conversations I used to have and I can completely relate to the comments Lily made. Remembering that day when those small yet powerful words come into play. In a past life chapter for me, I remember that internal debate that went on in my head, and really, never ended. All of my defenses kicked in and the visuals of husband and wife agreed with me perhaps just as well as spoiled milk. I chose not to use "wife" and "husband", rather, we would introduce each other as partner. Some friends when introducing or talking about me to others would revert back saying that others just "didn't understand", "it sounded as if we were gay" or "we're old-fashioned and it's just confusing". My response was always leaning towards the whole...if you don't respect these requests, you don't respect me. Anyway, they were long and drawn out discussions that I fought right up to the end. Even now....he is my ex-partner; my ex-partner in crime, my ex-partner in life, my ex-partner in whatever life had in store.

    As you continue to navigate this amazing chapter in your grand life adventure together, things will start clicking and working together. We are the generation that needs to recreate these words, it has to start somewhere!