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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Life In Exile: Hitch Your Wagon

You know, I hate to be cynical, but when one has been reared by sarcasm, it’s hard not to be. I say this because what I am about to say may sound to some of you rather negative. But here goes.

Not that much has changed for women in marriage since the women’s revolution. The division of labor is largely the same as it has always been and women are still defined by the man they have married. I can hear the empirical evidence pouring in already: “My marriage isn’t like that! My husband stays home with the baby!” But I’m here to say, I think not so much.

I have noticed, in the last several years, articles and studies popping up about how, shockingly, marriage is not so great for women. Has it ever been? Ladies, who does most of the housework and childcare? We are freer now only to have two jobs, instead of just one. The balance is tipping certainly towards more women earning more money than their husbands, but until there is wage parity, clearly this perk will hit a ceiling. And despite who makes the money, as with housework, there are still divisions of spending labor. We will, I will venture to guess, see our husbands in our golden years be the ones to put gas in the car just as we now see our grandfathers, fathers, uncles on Sunday mornings at Costco filling up the tank. And I’ve no doubt most women, barring a few rogue and foodie men, will continue to do the grocery shopping and cooking. Or microwaving, as the case may be.

Natural affinity for certain things? Social pressure? Probably both, and the fact that social change just takes bloody time. There are things that, generally speaking, men do, and things that women generally do. Lines are being crossed all the time, I’ve no doubt. But if I can make a gigantic gross generalization - boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Even when they are all grown up.

What comes to my mind foremost in marriage, however, is the buy in, the basket that all the eggs are now in. By definition marriage is all in. When you get hitched you must take all that is in the package. When you marry a man, you not only ‘marry’ his family, his friends, his social status, his wealth, but you also acquire a new public persona. No longer will your self be defined by yourself alone.

I just heard on the radio an interview of a blogger, who lost her husband in Afghanistan, ask (out loud!) of her place in the world, “Am I still a Marine wife?” Who you are as a woman is, in no small part, defined by who you marry. Because you marry a particular man, you marry his particular habits and routines. You go full hog into where he is willing to live, what he wants to do with his spare time. How your lives will be arranged socially, financially, emotionally. You marry in to how many children he is willing to rear and who he is willing to spend time with. If you are ‘lucky’ you will have an ‘understanding/kind/loving’ husband who is willing to take your opinion into consideration.

My husband asked me the other day in the middle of an argument why I didn’t move to LA when I was younger (it was a ridiculous question in context but it started me to thinking about this subject now). Without going into immense detail about that time, simply, I was married to a man who had no interest in living in LA or NY or anywhere I might have made a go at a career in acting. I did go against the marriage grain by enrolling in graduate school in San Diego (a city he seemed moveable towards, though clearly he was not immediately convinced as he did not move until I had already lived there 8 months) – without him. We were still married but I wanted something different, so I moved alone without him. As I now know, had we had children it would not have been the same. I probably would have made do with a program in commutable proximity.

Once my, then, husband moved to San Diego I was no longer the same person as I had been. Time constraints, surely (you do have to spend time with a spouse to keep being married to them, of course) but there was also the matter of how friends and colleagues perceived me. There was a discernable difference. When my husband was still in the Bay Area I was not seen as ‘really’ married – evidenced by the number of times I was hit on. Once he moved to San Diego I was seen as more ‘married’ but also, as a sort of extension of him. Parts of his personality were attributed to me without my permission or knowing, let alone control. People treated me differently. This had been true where we lived before as well, but it was in the relief of being alone and then him being there, that I really took it in.

There is this idea that spouses can somehow ‘control’ the behavior of their significant others. Wives are looked down upon if not seen as ‘reigning in’ the more extreme parts of their husband’s personalities. Women are supposed to somehow socially engineer their husbands into smoothed out forms that fit tidily into behavioral norms. If not explicitly expressed, we have all experienced those long sideways glances when our husbands are telling fart jokes loudly or screaming at the TV in company. The message: “Why don’t you do something about him?” The method, (which everyone seems to think is some sort of universally effective punishment), to withhold sex. Can I just point to the rebellion that is ‘man caves’ or exclusively male spaces, as evidence that said man-molding is ineffective.

Too, you women, will be hitching your wagon to a particular kind of marriage. Whether you have a spiritual bond, shared household chores and childcare, mutual hobbies, long romping vacations without kids, is largely (if not wholly) a product of what your man can and will tolerate. Believe me, I’ve been married three times and not a one of those marriages was alike. My current life would not be discernable to either of my previous husbands. Clearly, I am a compliant sort (my marriages looked more like my husbands’ personalities than my own) and there are women (I dare say many more now than in our mothers’ generation) who are not so. And the divorce rate keeps going up – not because of the lifestyles women are creating for men that they just can’t tolerate, but because women want more from marriage than to sustain two jobs (three, if you count yourself wife to a challenging man).

I have learned finally that my house will never be clean unless I clean it. I will always be responsible for managing child schedules, no matter how much I throw in my husband’s lap, he will be able to manage only what he can. And the rest will fall by the wayside. Onto the floor. Where it will sit. Until I pick it up. Because he will not even see it unless I point it out and then is just as likely to walk right passed it saying “Oh, I didn’t see that there” as rush over to pick it up to please me. There are just certain vacations I will never go on, certain conversations I will never have, certain colors my living room will never be painted. People will always look at me as a different person as I stand next to my husband as when I stand alone. Not because I have a difficult husband or an uncaring husband, but because I have a husband. My marriage will simply look more like my husband’s personality because I am the one willing to bend. Because a marriage really is a bend or break proposition.

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