The trouble I have with romantic comedies is that I can never really relate to the conflicts within them. Mostly because the conflicts are usually so far fetched they don’t reflect any kind of reality or are easily avoided. (Try not to lie to someone the first time you meet them. Don’t tell yourself that Gerard Butler is going to turn into a nice guy. Avoid breaking up your best friend’s wedding. Etc.) But the stuff that Novem Auyeung writes about today, about the fear of what it means to step into the role of wife, that is much closer to the kind of thing that used to keep me up at night. (Also, who knew that about Thai marriages? I certainly did not.)
Chris and I have been married for almost six months. While the fact that I am married to Chris makes me want to strut and dance like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in (500) Days of Summer after he got together with Zooey Deschanel’s character, I actually never expected to be a married person when I grew up.
I grew up with the idea that I can either choose to be a single, independent woman with a career, or I can be a married woman and spend my life putting my husband and eventually my children’s needs and desires before my own. This may have had to do with where I grew up—in Thailand and Hong Kong. It may have also been largely because of what happened to my mom. She thought she would be able to continue to work as a statistician, a job she loved, while she was a mom, but eventually she was pressured by relatives into quitting her job and becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom. Even though I realized that I was living in a different time and place, and I am extremely grateful to have had a stay-at-home mom, a part of me was still terrified of becoming a wife.
For a very long time, I just accepted the fact that I would grow up to be a single career woman because the alternative didn’t seem as good a fit for me. It wasn’t until I went to college in the U.S. that I fully appreciated the fact that 1) women had more than just two options in life and 2) marriages where both parties are equal partners exist and aren’t just made up like unicorns and the Pacific Northwest tree octopus. Logically, I understood those two things to be true, but for a long time, I had an irrational fear that marriage would force me to give up my career as a scientist, which had become a huge part of my identity. Modern American chick flicks—my guilty pleasure—were no help: there’s often some conflict between the leading lady’s career and her love life (e.g., The Devil Wears Prada, Kate and Leopold, You’ve Got Mail), and very few movies with men in the same situation (um, The Family Man?). Research on modern American marriages wasn’t very encouraging either: it all seemed to find that married working women spent a disproportionate number of hours on household chores and childcare compared to married working men.
So, for most of college and beyond, I experimented with serious dating and casual relationships. Maybe I fantasized once or twice about living together with a partner indefinitely in that artist-bohemian way, but that was as close as I got to fantasizing about marriage, until I met Chris. It was nerd love from the beginning: he’s a mathematician; I’m a scientist. (Cue: romantic music.) We talked about invasive plants and the Mean Value Theorem on our first date. Then I discovered that we were actually on the same page when it came to gender roles and the division of labor within and outside of a household too. (Swoon!) Then we dated for a couple more years while I wrapped my mind around the idea that getting married in the U.S. did not mean literally signing away your rights as it did in Thailand. (Okay, so this part usually doesn’t normally happen in a romantic comedy, but it’s still important: according to Thai law, my mom needs to have my dad co-sign every legal document, even things like a credit card application. My dad, however, doesn’t need my mom’s signature.)
Thankfully and not surprisingly, after we got married, Chris and his family did not pressure me to change who I was. But unlike a romantic comedy, my story doesn’t end there. As luck would have it, I spent the first four months of our marriage unemployed, and I ended up doing (what felt like) a lot of cooking and cleaning for Chris. To say that I felt terrible would be a vast understatement. Suddenly, every laundry load, every meal I cooked, and every time I vacuumed reminded me of the fact that I was unemployed. I felt ashamed that Chris was supporting both of us financially. Again, logically, I understood that doing housework while being a married woman did not literally erase my identity as an independent person and aspiring scientist. I had just finished graduate school during a major economic recession, so I kept on telling myself that it was a tough job market for everyone. Chris was also tremendously supportive throughout all of this and dealt with my random bouts of crying with his customary patience and lots of hugs. He—and also both of our relatives and friends—constantly reminded me that my unemployed status was only temporary.
Like most romantic comedies, my story does have a happy ending. I found a job as a research associate doing the exact type of research I’ve been hoping to do. More importantly, I am even more grateful than I was before for how much earlier feminists, like my mom and her generation and the ones before, have accomplished so that their daughters (and to some extent, sons) can redefine marriage and what it means to be a wife and a husband on their own terms and make the institution of marriage richer and more diverse.
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