The past year has been a little rough on me. It was the first year of my husband’s and my marriage, which while blissful, is a transition. But add on top of that another shift for me: I had decided to take the year off of teaching to focus on getting my dissertation research done. I was in the data collection phase, which required doing a lot of interviews and observations “in-the-field”, thus requiring a flexible schedule that teaching just did not allow. We’re very fortunate that my husband makes enough for us to afford me not having a salary for a year without too much financial strife.
But I did feel a heavy, heavy emotional burden. In ways I didn’t even articulate to myself, I felt I was a burden. My husband didn’t do anything to cause this per se. This was guilt I put on myself. Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve always brought in my own salary. Through college, I weaned myself off their financial support and slowly built up my own financial independence. Money isn’t important to me, but somehow the fact that I make money for myself meant a great deal to me. It meant I was independent, strong, capable, responsible. It made me feel good about myself (or at least contributed to my sense of self-worth).
But this year of not only not making money, but also incurring student loan debt on top of that as I finish my degree, made me feel like an incredible financial burden. And in ways I didn’t totally articulate in my head, I tried to “make up for it” by doing more around the house: more than my share of cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, washing dishes…to “earn my keep”. Trouble was, it’s not like I wasn’t working at all. I was still working on my research, writing, and keeping a fairly full schedule…and then doing all the household work on top of it.
My mom and my husband’s stepmom both saw something was afoot and warned me several times that in marriage you can’t think of money as “his money” or “her money”, but as “our money”. But none of this really made an impression on me. I agreed, but that did nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt that I wasn’t putting in my fair share. And because I didn’t feel I was putting in my share, I cut back on as much of my extra expenses as I could: I stopped getting haircuts, I stopped wearing more than a minimum of makeup, I stopped going to yoga, and so on. Meanwhile, my husband freely bought the things he wanted (within reason, of course). If there was something he knew I wanted, he had no problem buying it for me (so generous, I thought in my head). And so he believed his wife wanted for nothing. Except that if I had a desire for something, I had to ask him to help me buy it: in essence, I had to ask his permission. So on top of the guilt feelings, I also had a deep sense of male patriarchy and inequality in our relationship.
Even after I started teaching again, I kept up the patterns that had started to develop. And that’s when the burden really began to add up. I became grumpy, disenchanted, and positively sour. A serious expression was my default face. My husband’s stepmom even tried to offer to help out financially so I wouldn’t have to teach…because she could see I was changing. I wasn’t the same person anymore. My parents started getting concerned. Finally, over Christmas, my mom had me watch a film called “The Human Face” with John Cleese (if you have Netflix, you should really look it up – it’s fascinating, funny, and less than an hour long). This film was all about how our facial expressions have subconscious effects on our relationships. She said I always used to smile, and she wanted me to watch this because I’d lost my smile.
I didn’t think very directly about all this after watching the film, but I know something was happening underneath. I’d finally had enough of my self-imposed burden. Shortly after the new year, I talked to my husband about it. We talked it through and he simply said I cannot and should not feel guilty, that this is what marriage is about, it’s sharing, and it’s helping each other when we need help and not feeling like we owe each other like tallies on a tally sheet. I don’t know if it was what he said, or if I was just finally ready to hear it, but ever since then, I haven’t felt guilty and I haven’t felt unequal. And we’ve reasserted fair shares of the household chores back to the way we used to do it.
And I’m making greater efforts to smile, and discovering my smile comes back easily again.
I think this speaks partly to the new generation of feminism: figuring out the proper roles, since they are no longer defined for us. Before society told us what was fair and what duties belonged to whom. Now we have to negotiate that for ourselves. It gives us greater freedom, on both sides in a way, but with freedom comes the need for communication and negotiation. Part of the negotiation is with our partners in life, and part of it is with ourselves, so that we can let go the burdens we try to carry, even when they’re too much, even when they’re of our own making.
What have I learned from this?
Marriage Lesson #1: Learn to share, and that sharing means knowing how to give and to receive.
Life Lesson #3,486: Sometimes we smile because we feel happy. Sometimes we smile in order to feel happy.