confession

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.

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17 thoughts on “confession

  1. Oh, Jade. This is such a hard lesson. I was there too. The only thing that made it our financial situation different was that we were poor, so no one was getting anything at that point. I have asked myself many times if we could afford for me to quit working, would I? The house wouldn't be any neater, I wouldn't cook better meals, I wouldn't be calmer or less insane. I enjoy having my work as an outlet, and it also does play into my need to earn and contribute to our family financially. So I guess in a way working (sometimes only 2 hours a day) lets me let go of any guilt I may have over my housekeeping habits (or lack there of)! :) I'd rather be doing than picking up after all the doing. I will say that both T and I are at a point where the money really is "ours". We still confer with each other on bigger things, but it's ours. We have also been married for almost 12 years, so we've had a lot of time to get there. Don't be hard on yourself. The smile will return as will the balance.

  2. Yeah, even if we could totally afford to live indefinitely on one income, I don't think I could not work. I'm definitely feeling better about our situation, but I love doing what I do – even if it were only part-time, it gives me a sense of personal creative fulfillment. It helps that I'm bringing in money now again, but I think I still have some emotional attachment to being able to bring in some money. Doesn't matter if it's equal or not.

    The part that brings me comfort is that this really is marriage and it's only just beginning. We have a lot to learn together, but we also have a lot of time to figure it out. And we're pretty good at figuring things out when we do it together.

  3. Thank you so much for this story. It is a great lesson to learn and sometimes we need the reminder, especially about the smile. As a teenager I worked in the reception of a manufacturing company and I learned the importance of smiling. When you smile when you talk on the phone you sound more pleasant but I also found I WAS more pleasant. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    • Yeah it sounds kind of funny, but I think it's definitely true! I made a conscious effort just to smile more and I know I definitely felt better because of it. Strange how that works.

  4. You post is so honest and insightful. You are so lucky to have people that really care for you and could show you th way forward subtley. I'll have to watch that film too. I've been trying to sort my feeling out this week Istarted off the week really anoid and grumpy and the simplest things would make me angry, I'm not sure where it came from but I've been trying to smile and relax a bit more and it does help.

    Being able to smile and also laugh is really important. It's great that you could talk it through with your husband. I agree that the boundaries of modern feminism are blurry and it's difficult to define what your role should be. You can never really tell how you will react in a situation until you are in it yourself but it's interesting to speculate how I would react to this situation. Do you think it would be different if you had kids and stayed at home or do you think you would still have that desire to bring in some income, even part time. I'd like to take some time out of work if we have kids but I'm not sure how well I would cope with it!

    Jade

    • Thank you and yes, I definitely am very lucky to have such supportive people in my life – even if I'm not always good at listening to them.

      I think when it comes to having kids, it'll be something we'll just have to re-evaluate when the time comes. I know I'll want to be home with them; I'm hoping it'll work to just maintain a job with a flexible schedule and one where I can get some work done at home. But that does sound a little pie in the sky. Having kids, I'm not sure how much time and energy I'll have to actually get work done. I think in that case, I'll become even less attached to having an income be a measure of my self worth. But I think I'll still want to work because what I do is fulfilling for me.

  5. I know what you are talking about. I have been married for almost six months and I don't have a job. I graduated in May and have been job hunting since March, but there isn't anything. My husband is a teacher so we are really struggling to live on a teacher's salary with a NJ mortgage. We keep cutting and cutting until we can't cut anything.

    I feel like a burden. I don't buy anything anymore unless I have a gift card for it. Since we are struggling, he doesn't buy anything either, but I feel like I am just burdening him, which he tells me isn't true all the time. I have an interview on Monday for an amazing internship, but if I get it, then I still won't have a paying job and will have to spend $100 a week on the bus. While I want the internship, I feel guilty ever interviewing for it because I know how much harder it will be for us financially. Know you aren't alone. I know what gets me through it all is my husband's smile when he gets home nad how happy we are that we at least have each other.

    • This economic system certainly doesn't make any of this easier, that's for sure! I'm sorry to hear you're having such difficulties on the job market. That can be so frustrating, and worrisome, and I know how hard it can be to one's self-esteem.

      As far as feeling like a burden, I think the fact that I stopped had more to do with me being ready to get rid of feeling guilty than anything anyone really said to me; though what they said helped. I just really had to decide to change my frame of mind about it. But it's one thing to know it in your head, and another to really feel it. I think the really great thing about marriage though is that it is long term. If it helps at all, the situation you are in is temporary. Eventually you'll find something that works. And sometimes the coin flips the other way too. You never know what life will throw at you and there may be times when you will carry him and I'm sure you'd do it happily without thinking of him as a burden at all either.

      If you both decide the internship is worth it for the extra experience and you can swing it financially, I guess just try not to feel guilty about it: it's just an investment right now that will pay off in the future.

  6. I so totally get this. There were similar things in my marriage (for very different reasons) and I felt much the same way. I still do, to an extent. I was on my own for seven years before I got married, and was very used to (and liked) that independence. My husband came into the relationship more well off than me, makes more than me, and other things happened at the beginning of our marriage to "throw off the balance" more. At least that's how I saw it. We were able to work through it, eventually. But I still struggle with "his" money and "my" money. I still feel like I need to pay him back for things. He tells me all the time that "we're not keeping a tally" but I have a hard time with it still. I know it affects my mood and demeanor far more that I realize or want it to. Thanks for this post. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    • It's such a difficult transition, isn't it? I'm glad you were able to work through it, and I guess just thinking about things from a long term perspective can also help: that things even out in the end, and often times the support husbands and wives give each other is not even quantifiable in dollars and cents terms, so eventually it becomes incalculable anyway. Although maybe it's more helpful to just stop thinking about "him" and "me" altogether and start thinking of ourselves as a single unit.

  7. So do you think stay at home moms aren't equally contributing to the marriage/family? I would like to hear your thoughts on that.

    • No, of course not. Real freedom of choice comes when we can choose what works best for our families and not have others judge us for our choices, nor feel guilty for the choices we make. I think no matter whether people choose to stay home with their kids or choose/are forced to go back to work, they often feel guilty about it. Even when they know the choice they've made is the one that's best for their family, it's often hard when you know what sacrifices sometimes have to be made. It's not just about women's choices either. Sometimes it's the men who bring in less money or stay at home to take care of the kids. They have to deal with feelings of self-worth too, and I imagine it's at least as hard for them when traditionally manhood was partly defined by being the principal breadwinner.

      This post isn't about actual contributions; it's about the difficulty that comes from transitioning from being an independent person to becoming a single mutually-supportive unit with someone else. For me that difficulty manifested itself in financial dependence. For others it might manifest itself in issues of personal space or sharing decisions. The transition really is different into marriage than even it is with living together, as much as you try to treat and think of living together as marriage.

  8. Lovers find their way by insights and confidences; they are the stars they use to navigate the ocean of desire. And the brightest of those stars are the heartbreaks and sorrows. The most precious gift you can bring to your lover is your suffering. ~ David Gregory Roberts

    Love you Sweetie!!!

  9. i'm having this same struggle right now. only its not what i'm taking on myself, its expectations others are putting on me. and its so hard!!!

    Kirsten gave me the link to your blog after reading my blog today. I'm really struggling.