Today’s post is from Jennifer, who you’ll remember from her lovely wedding that mattered to her community. Today she’s talking about a complex internal battle: wanting to stay home and be her family’s primary care giver, but also feeling a responsibility to go out and do things in the world. Now, just to be clear, at APW we think that feminism is being able to have access to the choices that are right for you, as a woman. So we think you can of course, stay home, and be a kick ass feminist, or have kids, get great childcare and head off to work. But as I talked about earlier this week, when we’re figuring out what we want out of our lives, it’s a complicated internal battle. And this is one deeply, deeply worth discussing.
Choosing to marry my husband was very, very easy. I had known that I wanted to marry him for several years before we actually got down to it. I had already chosen to date him, to love him, to live with him, to take care of him and to let him take care of me… the marriage portion was legally-binding, and therefore important, but I wasn’t trying to create something new. I believed, as many cohabitators do, that Casey and I already had all of the major components of marriage. I believed not much would change.
In some ways, I was right. We still have many of the same faults and triumphs and joys and agonies that we did when we were merely boyfriend-and-girlfriend. He doesn’t hang up his towels, and he has never hung up his towels. I don’t do dishes after cooking our meals, and I have never done dishes at night. We still laugh together and tease each other and disagree over the entertainment value of various television programs. Our elder cat, my pet from way back in the hazy days prior to our relationship, still favors Casey so extremely that it borders on insulting. Our lives have trundled on, as I knew they would.
But in other ways, other very important ways, our lives have shifted dramatically. Most of the shuffling has been internal, and most of it has happened to me. Both of my mothers, biological and step, raised me with staunchly feminist values. I understood from an early age that I had exactly the same rights and responsibilities as a man. I should make as much as man, work as hard as a man, and reap the same rewards that men reap. Guarding their independence is vitally important to both of my mothers—they’ve always had careers and extracurricular interests that were separate from my fathers’. I’ve always respected them for that. My own sense of value and self-worth is rooted very deeply in my ability to do things for myself, to make my own way in the world. My mothers gave me that.
Since our marriage, I’ve been forced to reevaluate what that independence means. It’s a struggle. I’ve taken his last name—an issue I took months reconciling—because my mother and stepfather have different last names, and I saw what that did for their sense of belonging and familial loyalty. Although I’ve always worked close to full-time, my husband routinely works 80-hour weeks; that leaves the bulk of the homemaking responsibilities to me. I feed our cats and change their litter. I cook our meals and wash our clothes. I vacuum and disinfect and take out the trash. I pack both of our lunches every day, which apparently makes Casey’s coworkers particularly jealous. I write our holiday letters and purchase our groceries and prepare for any and all overnight guests.
Casey occasionally loads and unloads the dishwasher. This is the practical extent of his chores.
It sounds very much like I’m complaining when I lay it out like that, doesn’t it? Why is that? I’m not complaining. Casey doesn’t ask me to do any of these things. I like to do them—not just because I love caring for my little family, but because I honestly enjoy the mechanics of housework. It clears my head. It gives me the instant gratification of a clean microwave or a freshly-folded pile of laundry. I’m a homebody by nature, and I like to set my own schedule. When Casey helps me by carrying the heavy clothing baskets or cleaning up the kitchen, I’m legitimately grateful. I know how hard he works and I don’t begrudge him his very limited down-time. Especially because he really just wants to spend that time hanging out with me.
My homemaking makes me feel embarrassed. I feel like other women look down on me for not requiring more of Casey when he’s home. Actually, that’s not just a feeling. I’ve had personal experience with the negativity most urban twenty-somethings harbor toward “housewives.” Most of my coworkers and many of my friends think of housewives as lazy, or evangelical, or hopelessly backward. Usually all of those things. Most women in a big city like Chicago cannot afford to be unemployed (which is how their working compatriots privately think of homemakers). To afford to be with your children full-time, it seems you must dwell enviably close to that elusive 1%.
So now I’m unemployed, through no fault of my own, for the third time in four years. The job hunt is complicated by the impending start-date of my graduate school program and a recent flare-up of Crohn’s Disease. I’ve been on an interview, and I’m still sending out resumes. I’ve never had much trouble landing a job, current circumstances notwithstanding, and my heart goes out to those that do. A great many people are desperate to find good work. I hope that all of you find it, as soon as possible. But this new joblessness has forced me to own up to a part of myself I find very hard to understand and accept: the part that just doesn’t want to work outside the home. The rogue, latent, bottled-up part of me that really loves being a housewife. The part that, let’s be honest, just wouldn’t make my mothers very proud.
I’ve had lots of alone time lately, with Casey working fourteen hour days and no visitors or work hours to distract me. I expected that alone time to make me feel… well, lonely. But I don’t. I often miss Casey, and I’ve had some very long telephone conversations to fill up a few hours here or there, but mostly I feel very peaceful. Although it will sound crazy to some people, I’m much more productive when I’m at home full-time. I work on my writing with limited distraction. I can finish the household projects that make our lives a little easier. I get enough done during the day that I can spend time with Casey on his schedule, which means I see him more than I would if I were working. I know we can’t really afford for me to stay home like this, and so I pursue new employment relentlessly. And I don’t want to. And that makes me feel ashamed.Everyone I’ve told about this (up until now, a small group) is convinced that I’ll feel differently once I’ve received my Masters degree and can work in an area which interests me. Even Casey believes that I ought to have outside work; he thinks it will stave off my hermit tendencies. “Everyone” may be right but… honestly? My degree in creative writing is over two years away, and I always wanted to be a young mom, and I never wanted to put my kids in childcare. So what then? Do I launch a brand-spanking-new career and sidetrack motherhood? Does my need for independence trump my desire to be somebody’s mommy? I don’t think that it does. And I feel like it should. My brain and my heart are at war over this. Pop-culture feminism, it turns out, may have really messed me up.
Our marriage is forcing me to evaluate this part of myself against my own will. We’ve been married 13 months, and our biggest marital struggle thus far has been reconciling how I feel about this issue. In an attempt to reassert my independence, I sometimes become illogically possessive of my space and the things I owned before our marriage. I’ll find myself fuming over Casey using my computer or napping on my side of the bed. I’ve gone through short bouts of anger and mild depression. Nothing too unusual, nothing too extreme. Just the normal confusion and frustration of a feminist homebody with an incongruous love of liberal politics and cleaning the kitchen. I wonder sometimes if I was born in the wrong time period. Perhaps I would’ve been better suited to Jane Austen’s life, running a small country home and reading my novels aloud at the fireside. Of course, Jane Austen wasn’t married. She also could not vote. I want to have my cake and eat it too—I want to be my own woman, whose thoughts are just as valuable and venerable as any man’s, and I want to be my family’s caregiver. Maybe I do want to be a homemaker, and maybe I want to be a respected academic as well. I know those things aren’t really contrary, but it sure does feel that way sometimes.
Marriage didn’t make me into anything I wasn’t already. It just made me aware of so much more of myself than I used to be. I thought it would simplify things (our finances, our family obligations, our sense of unity) but I was wrong about that. My own internal shuffle has complicated nearly everything. I think it needed to get shuffled, to get complicated, so that I could gain a greater understanding of myself. It’s corny, of course, but this confusion is making our relationship stronger. I need a sounding board right now, and Casey needs a caregiver, and we are each uniquely suited to those functions. I don’t know what any of this means yet. I don’t have a plan-of-action. I’m just stumbling around the dark with a lit candle, that flicker of optimism that makes the darkness bearable. And Casey has a candle too, and he’s holding my hand, and I’ve realized that we need each other to find the path through this mess. Actually, we’re rather codependent that way. Egads… and thank god.