Monday, November 06, 2006

Tell it, sister

Bitch Ph.D. posted some thoughts on feminism, two-career relationships and making choices which resonate so deeply with my own life right now that I can't really summarize them, or the thought-provoking responses which ensued from her readers.

She gets to the core of the monsters in the closet which it seems like all couples face, unless they're both willing to partition the life roles into neat halves (e.g., "you be the breadwinner, and I'll be the homemaker"). Not that I have anything against partitioning -- it works well for some people, and it worked fantastically for my own family -- but it cannot and will never work for me. This has become painfully clear in recent months. I should be perfectly content right now: I have time to write, to think, and I'm liberated from financial worries.

Except that "liberation"? It feels a lot more like dependency. Like Dr. B says, economic dependence doth not a happy feminista make. Particularly when it's one in a cluster of little things which make you feel like it's just about impossible to balance your life and your career if you happen to be a woman -- and, worse, end up making you feel guilty if you want to try the balancing act anyway.

Here is my very serious disclaimer: none of this is intended to reflect on CB, who has been more supportive and understanding of the situation than I ever imagined anyone could be.

That said, graduate school is one hell of a reality check. It should be easier in this world for two book-loving geeks in different fields to find programs and funding in schools which aren't several hundred miles apart. So, off we went on our separate paths because neither of us ever considered giving up school for the other (having had friends with parents who did that, I'm a bit headshy of the notion). It was absolutely the right thing to do, even if my program wound up being something of a disaster. But, like Dr. B, it's all the things we didn't know to plan for which are revealing just how difficult it is to stick to your own principles in real life.

So now, here we are, unexpectedly: one of us is having a deservedly fantastic experience here, is surrounded and stimulated by a vibrant intellectual environment, and is clearly on his way to the career of his dreams. The other, well, the other enjoys having the time to write, but she spends hours scouring the job ads to no avail, is not liking the housewife-type-role she naturally falls into, as she does indeed have more time to be doing the cooking and such, and avoids going into town because she has *always* made her own money and cannot adjust to the idea that it is somehow okay for her to let him be the breadwinner. (This is different from being ungrateful, trust me -- I'm more than grateful. That doesn't mean I'm not uncomfortable, too.) Try as I might, I'm going stir crazy.

And yet, even though I'm admittedly unhappy, and even though I'm fortunate enough to have a partner who sees this (perhaps even clearer than I do) and who has supported the growing sensation that it is time for me to go home...I don't want to leave him. That part is fine -- I'd be more than a little alarmed if I didn't feel that way! -- but unless I find my work, it is time to go, and here is why I'm so hot under the collar: I am absolutely guilt-wracked, plagued ridiculous Donna Reed ideologies to which I've never subscribed but which suddenly haunt me whenever I seriously contemplate leaving. I don't know where these thoughts came from, but they're inside me hammering on my skull, telling me that a good wife doesn't selfishly abandon her husband for a career, of all things (and this spectre is always wearing an apron and smoking a Virginia Slim). A good wife is content to be with someone she loves because being together is all that matters. A good wife doesn't feel overwhelmed and frustrated in a situation she can't control -- she relinquishes the control, the money and the career, and she finds a job wherever she can get one AND SHE IS HAPPY.

I want to strangle this voice with her own apron strings, but the problem is that part of me wonders if she's right, even though I know better. That unconfident bit of me feeds off the responses we've been getting from well-meaning friends, classmates, family and perfect strangers since we announced that we were getting married and moving to separate cities. "But you're his wife!" I still remember one acquaintance saying with confusion, when I explained that I was thinking about moving home. Another person, who I'm pretty sure had the best intentions, gasped and cried, "Oh, that's just terrible! How awful for you both!" when we came to them with the good news that we'd been accepted into our respective programs. I swear she physically recoiled when I told her that we didn't see anything so bad about it. And now, it's starting all over again. I feel like a selfish bitch because I want to move back to the States, find a place of my own and work in the field where I'm pretty sure I belong, rather than spend two years kicking around a country where I'm not happy, where I've never been happy, and where I didn't really want to be in the first place. I know I could work at a coffee shop or as a receptionist, but *I don't want to.* And why should I feel bad about that? Hell, CB could do that, too: drop out of school and follow me to do what I want. He could work as a lab tech or a programmer and probably feel like I do now. But not one person has ever suggested that option, and people think I'm crazy when I try to draw the analogy.

Don't think I feel good about this. In addition to missing the husband, I'm worried about being a financial drain because we'll have two residences instead of one. I'm terrified that something will happen to CB, and I won't be there to help him. The little things are the worst: who's going to hold his hand when he has a bad day? What about when he has to sleep alone in our double bed? I've explained to him before that I feel like I'm being asked to tear away an essential part of myself, no matter which decision I make. And the only thing that tells me I should leave is that I know this part, this incredible man in the UK, will come back to me. When he does, he'll bring my long-absent heart with him, and maybe then I'll finally stop hurting.

These choices, these awful choices. I'm afraid they'll never end, that one of us is always going to be making huge sacrifices for the other instead of both of us finding ways to compromise which still leave us happy. Worse, I'm afraid they'll only end when one of us gives up and opts for something that one person doesn't really want in order to make life easier (historically speaking, that will most likely be me even if both CB and I fight against it with everything we have). Lord, if he gave up his dreams for me, I don't think I'd ever forgive myself. And I am deeply, deeply bitter at a world which provides no support system for couples who share a deep-seated conviction that they will move through this world as equals. Like Dr. B said in her responses to comments:

"...The stuff that both men and women have to deal with--moving a long way, asking your partner to make sacrifices, being broke--*do* affect women more than men. Women are more likely to be told they're "lucky" that their partner supports them, to have partners who make more money, their clothes and grooming cost more, they're more likely to have internalized the expectation to spend more time with the kids and want a cleaner house, etc. etc. etc."

A reader noted some of her situation-specific issues, but they're things I think about, too:

"1. He supports me, but if he is unhappy in an industry job, am I supporting him?
2. In the sciences, men just don't take time off to raise children. There is almost no map to how this would effect his chances for tenure. It is a little itsy bit better for women
3. I chose this completely 'useless' humanities degree, he chose his very 'useful' science degree."

I'll tell you one thing: if we ever have kids, we will both be working parents unless I know in my heart that I want to stay home. (Oh God, see what I just did? I didn't even consider that he might want to stay home instead.)

There's no brilliant conclusion to this, no witty rejoinder or astute observation. I've just noticed lately that an increasing number of women and men I know are going through similar situations as we find the partners who make us willing to struggle through all of this. I don't mean to sound too pessimistic -- plenty of couples get through this and find ways to make it work. I truly believe we are one of those pairs, because I don't think either of us would have gotten into this if we weren't. Nevertheless, Dr. B's post was sobering, and it clearly unleashed a torrent I've been damming up for some time. The last 1.5 years mark the first time I've truly realized how many things in life are unforeseeable and uncontrollable, and it threw me for a loop I wasn't expecting. Growing up can be a real bitch.