On Marriage (Part Two)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The expectations on us in the run-up to our marriage were frustrating but I wouldn't say they caused major problems. In the same way, I don't feel that we've found negotiating certain expectations of us within marriage particularly difficult either.

When we talk about equality in marriage I don't necessarily see it in terms of an exact division of labour or an exact division of finances. As I mentioned in Part One both of us were under no illusions about housework - we both live in the house, therefore we both help with its upkeep. The way this has played out over the past couple of years is as follows: if we're both in at a weekend, we do the housework together. We'll take a couple of rooms each. If one of us is away or out, the person who's in does the majority of what needs doing and we'll often try to get bits and pieces done during the week so there's less for that person to do. Our approach to cooking is basically the same. I think what's more important than the exact sharing out of tasks is that housework is not considered 'women's work', with no expectation that her partner should help her out.

Talking about how we negotiate housework may seem faintly ridiculous but it's interesting how people react when they find out that we both do it. Some former work colleagues of Luke's were outraged that he was clearly 'under the thumb' and told him in no uncertain terms that he 'shouldn't have to do all that'. The reaction from a lot of women is that I've 'got him well-trained!' and that some degree of 'nagging' must contribute towards him doing a bit of cleaning or tidying up because men are 'useless' around the house.

Many blogs written by conservative Christians place great emphasis on being an exceptional 'homemaker' and that this is a major justification for married women not working outside the home - the implication being that there's plenty to keep women busy. A lot of these blogs actually seem to place the most emphasis on being fanatical about tidiness and organisation, crossed with idolisation of some sort of very white, middle-class, Martha Stewart-influenced, picket-fence crafts-loving way of life which fails to acknowledge the fact that women may come from cultures where no-one feels that making seasonal table centrepieces in complementing colourways is essential to being a good wife or mother. They may be less affluent (like me) and not be able to afford the luxury of staying at home, or (again, like me) just don't feel like they're a let-down as a wife because they have a 'junk drawer'. Or in my case, several junk drawers, a junk wardrobe, three junk cupboards and boxes and boxes of, yep, junk.

As it happens, I don't really know anyone who embraces that vision of wifeliness but since I've been married I've found that some people tend to ask me 'And do you work?' rather than 'What do you do?'

A couple of weeks ago I was reading an essay on a Christian website about the roles men and women should play within marriage. I didn't know whether I was more amused or depressed to read that (to paraphrase) 'critics of Christianity are wrong when they say that the wife cannot make decisions. It is appropriate, for example, for the wife to have the final say on matters of shopping or home decorating'. The author went on to say that of course, decisions involving money, parenting, church, careers etc should always be down to the husband. Sadly I'm not making this up.

Surely making decisions on such important aspects of life should be a joint endeavour? I don't think it's responsible, for example, for one partner to have total control of finances while the other has no involvement or knowledge of where money is coming from, going to and how much of it there is. We firmly believe that decisions affecting both of us are for both of us to make and this will definitely include decisions regarding children, when (and if) they come along in future.

Speaking of children, that's another subject that people love weighing in on. Plenty of people ask if we plan to have children - that I don't mind so much. It's when people ask when we're going to have them, or ask how long we've been married, in a 'what - haven't you started trying yet?!' kind of way. Really, that's no-one's business but our own. I've realised it's pointless to use the reasoning that we can't afford to have children because someone will always say 'You can never afford children (ha ha ha)!'. Or if they don't say that they'll make a whole host of assumptions about us. That we're clearly just 'selfish' and just want to blow all our money on material possessions rather than babies, for example. Someone I know asked 'Couldn't you just get your mum to look after the baby when you go back to work?'

A really big part of me wishes that parental leave rights were more equal, easily allowing either partner to be a stay-at-home parent, or for the total leave period to be split between them. People tend to assume automatically that the mother will stay at home with young children, despite the fact that fathers want more time with their children and better paternity leave. I'm currently the higher earner of the two of us (just) and that for much of the last year I've actually been the 'breadwinner' as Luke has struggled with redundancy and a series of temporary jobs, a victim of the recession. Our culture and parental leave as it stands doesn't take any of this into account, instead pressuring men to 'provide' everything and women to give up their careers (guilt-tripping tabloid pieces about the evils of 'working mothers' are particularly good at this).

My sudden 'breadwinner' status proved to be a great source of amusement for some acquaintances and even relatives. The days where a husband was considered less of a man if his wife 'had to go out to work' are behind us but that attitude is still around to a certain extent in that many people expect a man to earn much more than his female partner and be able to support the household singlehandedly. At first this really impacted Luke's self-confidence but going through problems with employment and money ended up really changing the way he saw issues like 'being the provider' and childcare, bringing us round to a much more equal perspective. He's always wanted to be a very hands-on, involved father which is great but I know now that he feels much more relieved of the pressures regarding earning and expectations of masculinity.

When discussing the issues surrounding marriage with my Christian friends recently I've tended to find that they agree with me regarding a more equal approach which is definitely refreshing (although this does depend on whether you're talking to complementarian or egalitarian Christians). In the past I've come up against a certain way of thinking that a job, for a woman, is just a stopgap until she gets married and has children, or that it's not right for her to sort out the family's finances, or that she should always submit to her husband's authority - and these attitudes don't really help or encourage anyone at all.


spritely-ariel said...

Nick's share of the domestic chores is a bit higher than mine because he works for himself from home and has a lot more spare time than me. My friends and immediate family are fine with this, but my extended family ask me every.single.time. I see them whether Nick is still doing the cooking, and then react with a mixture of horror and amusement when I answer in the affirmative. I find it *really* annoying. I am also the main breadwinner.

fallbreak said...

I've realised it's pointless to use the reasoning that we can't afford to have children because someone will always say 'You can never afford children (ha ha ha)!'.

Ugh, I thought I was the only person who had encountered this "reasoning" before. I swear, whatever reason I give for not wanting kids right now or maybe ever, someone else ALWAYS has a counterargument.

And I love how the same people who tell me that "no one can afford to have children" while imploring me to have them will, in a heartbeat, scoff at the idea of a poor or working class person having children "they can't afford."

Anyway, thank you for writing these blogs on marriage! They were very enlightening for me, as usual. Your writing always is. It's very inspirational and you make me want to start writing again.

Akela said...

I've just come across your blog, and how refreshing it is. There are times where I wonder if I am the only Christian leftie out there on the internet.

I shall be back!

Hannah M said...

Thank you. I have often wondered that too, you just have to search hard and there are some of us about! A few others i've found are on my blogroll but i've found it particularly difficult to find UK Christian leftie bloggers.

It's a shame you stopped writing your blog but i can understand your reasons :)

Hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah said...

Over here! (imagine a friendly wave from cyberspace) I'm a leftie, Christian and feminist too :)

Thank you for two delightfully-written and engaging posts on your marriage. I would love to read more!

Hannah M said...

You're welcome; i enjoyed writing them and hope they can be of help to some people :)

grahamsgrumbles said...

As a leftie, Christian male feminist, its also been a pleasure to read this (amongst other blog posts).

I really want to see more discussion around the whole "pressure to have kids" thing; it affects so many Christians, both male and female. I reckon if half of all married Christian couples stayed "child-free" (is this a helpful term?) maybe the Church would get a lot more done in the world. I know couples who gave up parenting for serving God, and the Church as a community has done nothing but lay into them for it, for instance.

Hannah Mudge said...

Hi :) The 'pressure to have kids' thing is something I've discussed a lot more with friends at church since I moved to a new church. Maybe because it's a bigger church with more younger people, the pressure doesn't seem so great but I've attended a church with many people in their 20s where it was 'the done thing' to start thinking about children ASAP once you'd got married. And like you say, I think a lot more could be achieved if people didn't feel so much pressure. We always agreed that we'll try for a baby when the time is right (financially, spiritually, mentally etc) rather than feeling we have to get it done immediately BECAUSE we're Christians and I think that it's given us the time to do other things.

IdiotZoo said...

Some interesting thoughts here. My first reaction was: "What a shame young couples still have to deal with this". But the way you describe your marriage as a partnership, is a great insight to what marriage is supposed to be all about.


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