(Content warning: lots and lots of sexism directed at Yr. Loyal Correspondent, but I’ll spoiler this shiznit now by telling y’all that this unhappy tale ends happily.)
When I was very young, I saw how my mom and dad operated as a couple. I saw that my mom worked full-time, as did he. For most of their lives together, her commute was easily several times the length of his so she was out of the house earlier than he was and home much later than he was. Yet my mom was the one who also did all the cooking, the vast majority of the cleaning, the laundry, and everything else around the house. If there was some childrearing that had to be done–a PTA meeting to attend, or homework to be vetted, or a sick child to pick up, she did it. Plus she sewed all his shirts (he was very tall and back then it was hard to find shirts that fit).
And shockingly, she did all this extra work without fuss or grumbling. Dad came home, plopped himself in front of the TV with a beer or drink in his hand, and mostly vegetated all night while she buzzed around him like a bee around a hive. When my sister and I got old enough, we got assigned chores to take some of the burden off of our mother, but I seriously doubt we did much more than make a dent in her workload.
For my mother, as for many women her age (and mine, damn it), “having it all” meant “doing it all.”
Years earlier, she’d struck a terrible bargain, you see, and I use “terrible” here in its oldest darkest sense and not in its paltry modern sense of just being lousy. No, it was terrible in a monstrous and evil way, “as terrible as an army with banners,” as Sappho wrote long ago, and the image stayed with me forever of what it must have been like for a woman in ancient times to look out over a tower’s safe walls to see that sight and know what was coming for both her and those she knew and loved. Terrible, indeed.
My mother had given up her freedom, her dignity, and her sense of justice for love. It was the same bargain her from-another-mother sisters were striking all around her, and the same one women strike today. And the same one I struck when I married Biff.
It’s no wonder that I saw this uneven arrangement and from a very young age decided that if I cared about fairness and equality, I could not ever have children. I wasn’t into the idea of motherhood anyway, but I sensed even in my earliest childhood what happens when kids come along–how they lock women into this unequal arrangement, how they trap women, how they enforce the inequality that already existed just between couples.
Many years later, I’d discover my own terrible bargain when I briefly flirted with a Christian man who desperately wanted kids. He told me one evening, very matter-of-factly, “If we marry, there will be children.”
For a moment the bargain hovered in the air like fairy dust before my dazzled and shocked eyes, though: He’s so awesome. I could marry him, and would it really be so bad, what he wants? Then I came back to earth.
I’d thought I was in love with this guy, but my affection evaporated later when I mulled over what he’d said. He knew how I felt about that topic. He knew how adamant I was about not having children. But that didn’t matter. He wanted kids, and if I was going to marry him, I was going to need to get on board with that idea. It had very clearly never occurred to him that he might need to alter his life plans for his future wife. If I wanted to marry him, I needed to bargain away my dignity, all my future plans, all my ideas about self-ownership, and all my illusions about my own worth. Unsurprisingly, that flirtation didn’t last very long after that. He’s married now, I hear, by the way, with two kids and a wife he picked up a week or so after I’d told him it just wasn’t going to work out. It wasn’t much fun to know I was that interchangeable at the time, but I’ve gotten philosophical about it since.
That was one of the first times the bargain hit me in the face, but it sure wasn’t the last. Thankfully, I had boundaries strong enough to understand that what this guy was asking of me wasn’t very loving or kind and avoid that trap, but my sense of other boundaries was blurry enough that I still got into trouble later by signing up for stuff that violated my sense of fairness. Had I had a clearer idea of what I should and shouldn’t put up with from a partner, a lot of drama could have been avoided.
As I journeyed through Christianity with Biff, the bargain reared its head many times before we married. He was thrilled with the arrangement he was getting: guaranteed sex whenever he wanted it (except not really–there’s a reason that all those jokes and zingers about the dwindling frequency of sex after marriage exist, and largely they exist because of what Christian conceptualizations of sex do to women), a pretty house-cleaner, and maybe, if he played his cards right and prayed hard enough and manipulated me well enough, a woman to bear all the children he wanted. For an evangelical Christian man, it’s a heck of a deal, isn’t it? And deity-sanctioned to boot!
I ignored the signs. I thought I was in love. I think that it’s easy to see when a man buys into patriarchal ideas about relationships; I just think most women don’t pay attention to the red flags that come up. It’s only later that we realize what all those signs meant, and by then it’s usually too late.
But I’ve got this problem, you see. I care about fairness and being treated fairly. No way was I going to do all the housework, work full time, and carry a class load in college while Biff goofed around and hung out at church. That is clearly what Biff expected to happen, of course. When I objected, he began a course of studied incompetence–deliberately wrecking clothes in the laundry machines, doing dishes so poorly I had to do them over again, cooking food that can only be described as gruesome on his nights to cook (he especially delighted in using ingredients he knew I disliked, like avocado), or the old-fashioned approach of just dragging his feet to force me to nag him to death to do the tiniest little thing. This phase ended only when I quit asking him to do anything, and then we went back to the time-honored patriarchal model of me doing all the work in the home while also carrying a full course load and working outside the home.
Every so often I’d blow up. When we got back from Japan and moved to Portland (about two years before our final confrontation, at the tail end of my deconversion process), I had it out with him. I knew I’d be working right away; I already had gotten my job back and was set to start the day we got back to the States. He’d promised to be a “house-husband” and take care of the house and apply for jobs while I worked, because I was going to be working much more than 40 hours a week and I knew I’d be stressed. You can guess how long that promise panned out–measurable in hours, really. The first week we were back, I got home to a filthy house, dishes piled high, and Biff delightedly pruning a homemade bonsai tree in the living room. I stared at the sheer wreckage around me. Biff looked up with a goofy happy smile and said “Hi! What’s for dinner?” As you can guess, I went off like a rocket. I got so furious I had a rage blackout.
But Biff weathered that storm as he had all the others. Why did he need to change? He had everything he wanted: a surrogate mommy he could importune for sex, a housecleaner, a servant, a tender, a sugar mama. If he simply refused to carry his end of the load, what choice did I really have but to pick up that end and carry the whole thing? I mean, someone had to cook, right? Someone had to do all of this work. If he just didn’t do it, if he simply declined to be the one to do it, then that meant I was automatically elected. During that argument, he acted like he totally understood, he made a commitment to “help” a little more, and then headed to the computer to play his flight simulator game while I cleaned up and made dinner.
That night I finished cleaning the kitchen, tidied away all the dirt from the bonsai trees, and found a quiet corner, where I collapsed to the floor and began to sob. I wept as if my heart would break in half because I had finally figured out what the price was that I had paid so innocently and what I had really, truly gotten myself into here.
This was the bargain I had struck: My dignity in exchange for a husband. My pride in exchange for a marriage. My sense of justice in exchange for love. I swallowed that bitter pill as I had so many times before that night. I knew deep down that as long as I remained his wife, Biff had absolutely no reason, no impetus, to conduct himself any differently.
A lot of people make these terrible bargains. I’ve talked to several men who have struck a bargain that is heartbreakingly similar to what I describe here–who have found themselves married to women who either cannot or will not carry their end of the load and must therefore step in to work full time outside the home and then return home to do their “second shift.” What I’m talking about here isn’t restricted to just one gender necessarily. I think mostly it’s women who find themselves staring down the terms of this bargain, but more and more I’m running across men who are probably more than a little surprised that they, like their sisters in chains, must decide what’s more important to them: their dignity and self-worth, their sense of fair play and justice, or their marriage?
Obviously Christianity just muddied the waters even further; the flavor I was involved with was especially gender-rigid and patriarchal, and working wives were barely even tolerated much less encouraged. So if I wanted to work outside the home, then that was like my little hobby and that was okay, but I’d better be home in time to clean the place up and make dinner for my husband, and obviously if my working outside the home bothered him too much then I needed to be prepared to drop that job like a hot potato. If I wasn’t working, then obviously I would have a lot less of a burden, right? So see, patriarchy worked out great for everybody! I’ve mentioned before that my emerging sense of feminism was clashing against that sexist ideal, and this is one of those places where those things clashed hardest.
Eventually, obviously, I chose myself over the marriage. Over the years that followed, I ended up dating my way across the North American continent. (Contrary to what Christians claim, no, non-marital sex doesn’t destroy a woman unless she’s laboring under a lot of preposterous patriarchal ideas, and I wasn’t by then.) I met a lot of men like Biff, some Christian, some ex-Christian, some atheist, some pagan, who still labored under that old relationship model. As I said, men have a lot to gain with that model. Who wouldn’t like having a live-in sex slave and housecleaner? Answer: A lot of people including me! It can be hard for a man to reject that concept and try to live fairly.
Indeed, many men in Christianity and out of it know how unfair that old model is to women and men and they want to play fairly. I know a great many of them. Some of them deconverted because of how the religion tends to treat women. Some came to understand that terrible bargain well after deconverting. Others start to wake up while still in the religion. As long as we get there, right? (BTW: Neat article here about the many benefits to men of embracing egalitarianism. And I’ve seen this article’s points play out many times as I talk to men who have rejected patriarchy.)
No matter what gender you are, you can see when you’ve made a terrible bargain. You start to realize that you must swallow a lot of stuff to make the other person happy. You avoid talking about topics that interest you because they’ll just distress your partner. You go to church to make that person happy when really you’re dying inside and just stepping into the building makes your stomach roil. You start tallying up the hours you spend working in the house and really looking at how much the other person does, and wonder why the other person seems to have so much more free time and why you two, as a couple, value that other person’s free time so much more highly than your own. You start wondering why you’re the one on Body Fluids Patrol or always the one who deals with spills and stains, or why you’re the one who is up late cleaning after big meals. You start wondering when it was you stopped asking your beloved partner to do anything to lighten your load. You start wondering when you started thinking this kind of a life is perfectly normal.
You start looking down the road ten, twenty years, and wondering if you’ll be able to keep this up that long, and why your partner seems perfectly content with you having to go through all this crazy stuff–why your partner seems totally happy about taking advantage of you.
How important is your sense of dignity and self-worth to you?
Is it worth anything?
Is it worth everything?
Only you can decide what it’s worth. But I tell you this. There’s only so long someone can put up with that kind of mistreatment. And I promise you this: your sense of justice can be assaulted for many years, but not forever. Your sense of dignity can be trampled for decades, and some people can live like that forever, but not all people. Your sense of fair play can be violated time and again, but sooner or later your outrage will out. It will out.
And then it will be worth everything.
I regret only that it took me so long to find my outrage. I regret only that I allowed this situation to go on as long as I did. I regret only that I didn’t stomp out of Biff’s life much sooner, that I worked so hard to try to drag him kicking and screaming a few inches closer to treating me with fairness. And, yes, I regret that when things came to a head, all that bottled-up outrage and anger spilled out in ways that weren’t always constructive or helpful.
Regrets aside, I stopped buying into the terrible bargain, my life got a lot easier. I wasn’t laboring anymore under the old ideas about men and women; I wasn’t interested in marriage at the expense of my dignity and didn’t regard myself as “needing” a man in my life. I was much happier living alone and being queen of my castle than jostling uncomfortably with someone underfoot who just made my life harder. I went like that for a while and was perfectly content. When I finally decided to go find another boyfriend, I knew that I was looking for one who already knew what fairness looked like, one who decidedly didn’t want to mistreat his partner just because he had a penis, and one who had a commitment to fair play in a relationship even if that meant giving up a bit of his own privilege.
I wasn’t ever going to make that bargain ever again. If having a husband or a boyfriend or a lover meant giving up my pride, dignity, and self-worth and sense of fair play, I could jolly well do without one. Better to be single.
Now, obviously my life isn’t nearly as complex as someone who has kids and discovers him- or herself in a terrible bargain. If the bargain is terrible to someone without kids, then it is truly devastating to someone with them. At that point, breaking the bargain involves possibly losing everything that parent loves in the whole world–not just a partner, but kids as well. To that I can say only that such a person has my greatest sympathy and unquestioned moral support. None of us can say how much is too much effort, or can say to that person what he or she must do; none of us can shoulder that burden or its fallout, so it is wrong, wrong, wrong to armchair quarterback that person’s life choices or judge the choices made. If you ever catch me doing that, tell me, because I think that’s a mean way to treat folks.
All I’m doing here is saying that the bargain is a cruel injustice, one I rejected, one I’m happy to have rejected, and that you know, rejecting it seemed really scary at the time, but once it was done, I felt a hundred pounds lighter (though in reality I was a hundred pounds heavier; we’ll talk about that sometime soon). Sometimes we’re really scared of making a big change, but we’re more scared than we should be. The reality can be really painful, but living honestly and true to one’s ideals can often be much better than living under the terms of the bargains we struck all starry-eyed long ago.
When one is unequally yoked, that bargain is one of the things that will be inevitably examined as the deconvert questions everything else that’s happened. Couples that don’t buy into the bargain, who already value fairness and equality, who already don’t take advantage of each other, have quite a leg up on couples that do. About all that held me to Biff was my religion, and once my religious fervor vanished, I had no reason to put up with his shenanigans. In the same way, men may stay with women taking advantage of them because their religion told them to “die to themselves” and ignore their own needs in favor of their partner’s, as the ridiculous blog story going around lately says (BTW, what is it with newlyweds thinking they’re qualified to give life advice to other people?), but once they realize they have the right to be happy too, that there are millions of women out there who won’t treat them like walking wallets and butlers but like equal partners, the women married to these men may find themselves scrambling to figure out how to function under a very different paradigm than they signed up for on their wedding days. Incidentally, we’ll talk more about that blog entry soon, trust me, because I’ve got a lot of things to say on that topic.
I don’t have any advice here. I know usually I do. But I’m wrung out just thinking about this topic. It’s just so complicated and so fraught with pitfalls, and each of us is so different that I wonder what could I possibly offer to make life easier. I guess at the end of the day, I’d say this: Sometimes Christian marriages are so based on shared religious belief that they don’t seem to take into account each partner’s needs or to value those needs equally. Mixed-religion couples who succeed seem like they try hard to avoid that sort of thinking–they value each other’s needs above the religion’s dictates, they don’t try to force each other into gender-rigid roles that may not be suited to them, they don’t treat each other unfairly or revel in that “Men are From Mars” bullshit to justify their treatment of their partners. They certainly do not use religion as a way to justify treating someone poorly. In the couples who are struggling or who find themselves shattered in the wake of a deconversion, it seems like the ones who suffer most are the ones who bought the most into that sort of “die to yourself,” “my god says women do this and men do that” sort of thinking.
And I’d say this, as well: We all deserve to be happy. This may be the only life we ever get. We should use our brief years the best way we can.