Sometimes I wonder if getting engaged isn’t actually more fraught with cultural expectations than getting married. I mean, if your engagement goes the route of a proposal (and society offers little in the way of an alternative) then the secrecy, the gender play, the pressure to get it just right are almost worse than the expectations surrounding the wedding itself. And since engagement season is almost upon us (and I mean that statistically, not in the way that Kay Jewelers means it. Believe it or not, something like a third of all proposals happen between Thanksgiving and New Year’s each year. Who knew?) we thought we’d take this week to dissect and discuss engagements and proposals, APW style.
So to kick off the week, we have a follow up to a post (yay!) from almost one year ago exactly. M. wrote into us asking for advice on proposing to her partner of eight years and the result is, well, nothing short of awesome. But the thing is, this post isn’t just about women proposing to men (though hell yes, turning cultural expectations on their head). It’s also about debunking the myth that proposals are always as easy as one person doing the asking and the other person saying “yes” (or the myth that engagement even requires a proposal). But what I really hope this post is about is how we’re hopefully moving toward a place where any of these things become just as much the norm as whatever it is they’re selling us in those damn jewelry commercials this time of year. So let’s discuss.
—Maddie for Maternity Leave
C. and I had been together for over eight years when I decided I wanted to ask him to marry me.
Still, even after I’d made the decision to propose, it took awhile before I actually did anything about it. I was surprised to find that, although I loved C. and wanted to marry him, actually going ahead and making it official felt like a very big deal. The vulnerability and finality of it was unexpectedly overwhelming. All of sudden I was having thoughts like, “Everything is so good, why mess it up?” and, “I’ll just wait one more week.” I felt a new and unexpected sympathy for men, from whom proposals are simply expected. Truly, it isn’t an easy thing to do.
There is no one reason I decided to propose. It wasn’t about needing to get married that instant, and in fact I wondered aloud on ATP about whether it was the timing was right. C. and I have our challenges, like any couple. Could we manage them? I thought so. We’d loved each other for a long time already. I’m trying to think of ways to explain, but realize it doesn’t need to be explained. I can’t believe I’m saying this—it sounds so trite!—but once I decided to do it, I felt certain of my decision. It really was that simple.
I’m a worrier, so I immediately began researching about women proposing to men. I found Carrie’s piece on APW about it, which was by far the most thorough and thoughtful thing I read. C. and I are not a particularly traditional couple, and although there were moments when I felt funny about it, ultimately the gender role switcheroo didn’t bother me. Our families and friends are easygoing types, so I wasn’t worried that anyone would be upset that I had scooped him (least of all C., who I thought would enjoy the reversal).
And in fact, that is exactly what he said. But I’ll get back to that.
For the proposal, I had an artist friend draw an incredible Edward Gorey-themed card that I printed along with a matching envelope: a mysterious letter that would find its way to C. in the mail. I let the card burn a hole in my desk for a couple of weeks before doing anything about it. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to present it. A big gesture would embarrass both of us, and a picnic or special trip or candlelit dinner just didn’t feel true to who we are as a couple (and I’m going to go ahead and say that I wanted us to feel free to react however we needed to without worrying about crying in public).
I had mixed feelings about a full-on surprise, but didn’t see a way to give much warning about a non-traditional proposal. Although C. and I had talked about getting married before, and agreed that we wanted to marry each other, it was always in the abstract future. I knew he thought of it, vaguely, as something to be done once you were past thirty, which we weren’t. For all these reasons and more, I didn’t feel at all sure of what he would say when I asked. This was scary. I didn’t really think he’d say no (that’s not true—in some insecure moments I definitely did), but I was worried he might say that he really and truly wasn’t ready yet.
In the end, I proposed on a random Thursday night in December. I was out with some friends, and at the end of the evening I was telling them about an amazing video I’d seen where a kayaker off the coast of Southern California unexpectedly sees a blue whale lunging right next to him. It’s an incredible encounter (go watch it, seriously). The retelling left me feeling strangely exhilarated. A borrowed exhilaration? Perhaps. But I ran home and decided to propose right there in our living room.
I had written a rhyming poem that was also printed on the card. It ended with these lines:
What you want, where you’re going, who you’re taking with you,
Questions wanting answers, there’s no end—only through.
To have and to hold, to love-yet-be-free,
I was supposed to then say, out loud, “Will you marry me?”
That part was really, really, really hard. The vulnerability was nearly immobilizing. C. read the card twice, silently. I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to talk. It felt like minutes before I said anything. I think my t-shirt was probably soaked, but I did manage to choke it out.
C. started to cry. It sounds bad to say, but I have to admit I liked that.
He was totally surprised and very moved. And he did say yes, right away in fact. But I could tell he was holding something back. I will forever feel proud of how remarkably calm I stayed as I asked him to tell me more about how he was feeling. He said he did want to get married, but he wasn’t ready. He felt terrible. He wanted to make sure I knew this was not a “no,” but a “not quite yet, almost.” We both cried a little more as we talked. I think he felt afraid, which I understood. It’s a mammoth of a decision. I realized that I’d had all this time putting together proposal to prepare for what it really, in that moment, meant. He hadn’t. I explained that he wasn’t alone, and that parts of marriage scared me too, and that I still wanted it. I was disappointed and sad that he couldn’t yet give me a full-on yes, but not despondent. I knew it was a yes in spirit, despite the off timing.
By the time we finished talking, it was late. We did what sensible people do after emotionally demanding experiences: we went to bed. The next morning, after we woke up, C. repeated that he really did want to get married. I said that I knew that, it was just that he wanted to do it on his timeline. And he said, no, he wanted to do it on my timeline. He’d slept on it and realized he would never feel completely prepared for something like marriage. He wanted to be together, and in the committing, he knew we would both become ready. And he was right. We got married at his grandparent’s house in Maine this past August. The letter found its way to him after all.
Photo from the author’s personal collection