When I was fifteen, my mom came home and announced that she’d found me a job. She and my father had decided that it was time for me to learn adult responsibility (also I was beginning to cost my family the kind of money that only a high school girl can spend) so my mother had done the hard part and had gone and found a job for me. She was so pleased that she’d found a position so close to home that would cater to my class schedule that she nearly missed the part of the conversation where I’d started crying.
Bawling over the counter top, I explained that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to work. (Which was my mom’s first and most terrifying fear. Had she raised a loafer?) I just (sob) wasn’t (sob) ready. Getting a job felt like such a big step, and the decision was being made for me. I hadn’t had time to consider what it meant, to weigh the consequences against the rewards, and thus I was convinced that this very big step was going to change everything about life as I knew it. My mother, of course, told me to stop being irrational and to go clean my room. So I cried, then I cried some more, and then when I’d officially exhausted my body’s salt resources, I got my sh*t together and went to work. And it turns out that working was just fine. Less fun than loafing around and doing nothing, but more rewarding in that I now had cash to burn and was contributing to society (or something like that).
To my surprise, it turns out that moving in with Michael was much like getting that first job. I had originally expected the decision to be one that I would arrive at when I was in my mid-twenties, once Michael and I had both had time to explore our early twenties on our own, and after years of “finding ourselves” we would simultaneously arrive at the conclusion that life was better spent together than apart.
Instead, I found myself at 21 years old, about to graduate, with no job prospects in sight, looking very seriously at the possibility of moving back home. With nowhere to go, the only other option was to take the plunge and move in with Michael. And while it was the obvious choice (moving to Maine wasn’t really a viable option), the decision plagued me with the same anxiety as the moment my mother told me I was going to enter the workforce. Michael and I had gotten engaged the previous winter, and while I had gladly accepted his proposal, I had also originally thought of our engagement as something like layaway. (We could decide we wanted this now, and then purchase it for real in 5-6 years, right?) Suddenly, a few months later, I was staring down the prospect of being engaged to be married. Which, it turns out, felt like an entirely different beast altogether.
I was scared sh*tless.
However, since I lacked the words to articulate this fear at the time, and because it was right in front of me, I decided that the real thing to be feared was moving in together. Yes, THIS would be The Relationship Step That Ruined It All. Now, I understand that the circumstances surrounding our cohabitation were different than most. For me, moving in together was a decision I was accepting under duress as a result of my socioeconomic condition. It meant giving up living in New York City, which was the first place I’d felt at home in a long time, and saying goodbye to any young urban twenty-something fantasies that HBO and I had cooked up together. Moving in represented all of the aspects of marriage that I was secretly afraid of, but was too young, naive or unaware to recognize.
I’d like to say that I used my anxiety to explore some of the fears I was having about marriage, but instead I threw a fit that would make my 15-year-old former-self proud. In the five months leading up to living together, I managed to reduce all of those big time fears into tiny nitpicky arguments. I refused to talk about buying a car because it meant giving up a future where we might live in a walking city together. I couldn’t hear the word “Connecticut” without crying because it would drum up images of Stepford wives and khaki shorts, and I wasn’t about to buy into either of those ideologies. Each minute detail became a breaking point in the conversation. And each conversation led to the same conclusion that this step was too big for me. And I just (sob) wasn’t (sob) ready.
Of course what really was happening was that I was acting out against the prospect of losing myself. I had only just been granted a few years of independence from my parents, and I had spent that time diligently building myself into the kind of person I could be proud of. And now I was just supposed to turn around and give that up for the rest of my life?
Not without a fight.
So the next few months of our relationship were plagued with tears. I sobbed and sobbed, and accused our relationship of being the harbinger of death, all while Michael sat patiently on the other end of the phone, waiting out the storm. Then, once I’d tearfully stated every proclamation of what would and would not be tolerated in our new life together, I accepted that moving in was what we were doing, got my sh*t together, and packed up Michael’s truck for the hour drive out of Manhattan and into suburbia.
And indeed, the first few weeks together were hard. I was crying myself to sleep at night and watching daytime TV during waking hours while waiting for job offers to come through. (Being unemployed without transportation and with no friends nearby is not something I recommend.) Meanwhile, I analyzed every move Michael made as symbolic of things to come. Did he ask me to clean up after myself? HE’S TURNING ME INTO A STEPFORD WIFE! Did he request that I not touch the fancy new technology he bought until he has a chance to show me how it works? HE DOESN’T SHARE! PARTNERSHIP IS BUILT ON SHARING! I wanted so badly for the answers to be wrapped up in the flaws of our relationship, because it was easier than admitting that I just wasn’t ready to let go of the life that I’d had.
It wasn’t pretty.
But then, slowly, things became less hard. When the lease was up on Michael’s apartment a few months later, we began the search for a new one. Looking at apartments made us a team again, and it allowed me to focus energy away from what was being lost and toward what we were gaining. I’d nearly forgotten that I had waited, pined, and suffered through six years of long distance dating, dreaming of the day that Michael and I would wake up together in a place we could call our own. So we found a garden-level one-bedroom within walking distance of the train station and a few weeks later I received an offer for a job in Manhattan that I could commute to.
As we all know by now, that living situation didn’t last long. But it was an important step in the direction of where we are now. I needed to know that I wasn’t giving up everything for marriage, that there was indeed a way to have it all, so that I could later make a conscious decision that having it all was never what I wanted.
Truthfully, I did lose some of myself when I moved in with Michael. And I still mourn a bit for the things that were lost (I miss being a ten minute train ride away from my girlfriends, being able to walk to the grocery store, or sitting in the park having lunch on a Tuesday). But moving in with Michael wasn’t all sacrifice. I became an adult with Michael. I learned how to stick up for what I need in a relationship. I gained the support of a partner who puts my needs on the same level as his own. And most importantly, I discovered what it means to be an individual in a partnership. Four years ago, I was afraid that moving in with Michael would change who I am. I thought that moving in together and getting married meant that suddenly I’d be saddled with a list of character traits I could never live up to. Now I’ve learned that just because circumstances change, it doesn’t mean I have to radically change as well. I also learned that it’s all right if I do change when I need to, even if it is for him, even if it is hard, because sometimes that’s just what you have to do when you say “Yes.”
So, maybe my worst fears came true. Moving was a huge step that I just wasn’t ready for. But even if I was pushed into the deep end too soon, well, I learned to swim real quick. I didn’t drown. And if I was flailing my arms and treading water to start, well, at the very least I’ve learned to do this thing a little more gracefully now.