A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Monday, February 14, 2011

To My Husband, the Feminist

A few months ago, while I was still working part-time as an English Composition professor, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who is similarly working to build a career as a writer. We have a lot in common – we’re both married to scientists who have had to support us as we try to establish some sort of career for ourselves in a field that is difficult to break into and isn’t very lucrative. We both have struggled to consistently pull in a decent paycheck. And we both have felt frustrated and guilty that our husbands have been the major breadwinners – we were raised, after all, as feminists. Nobody should have to take care of us, right?

Yet I had to confess to her that I had started to contemplate throwing in the towel on this “career” thing and becoming a full-time housewife – it would just be easier than having to backtrack and start a whole new career AGAIN. I had become fairly frustrated with my own situation by last fall; I had been unable to find full-time employment without a Ph.D. and I was facing the prospect that even if I earned a doctorate, I still might not be able to get a full-time professorship. There’s just simply too much competition out there, vying for a very few teaching positions. And honestly, I was starting to enjoy the days of experimenting with new recipes, taking mid-morning walks, running on the grocery errands myself, doing laundry and reading novels. I could get used to a schedule that involved taking care of all the tedious chores so that my husband didn’t have to worry about anything when he got home – while also having plenty of extra time that I could dedicate to book blogging and Dexter.

This admission felt like a shameful confession, though; I told her I was starting to feel like a “failure as a feminist.” (Read her thoughts on our conversation here.) We women are supposed to be gung-ho career types these days. If you choose to be a housewife because that’s what you enjoy, then you’re not a failure. But what if you start off pursuing a career and then hit a glass ceiling – or a brick wall? What if you just can’t cut it in your chosen career field? You’re good – but not good enough. There’s too much competition and you haven’t managed to claw your way to the top of the pile. What if it’s only at that point that you choose to become a housewife, just because it’s easier? The idea of extra time for novels and movies was tempting, but I knew that I would loose respect for myself if I just gave up the idea of a career entirely.

What compounded my frustration with my job situation and made me truly miserable, though, was that my lack of steady income had started to cause a lot of friction between my husband and myself. He truly wanted me to pursue my dream of being a Literature Professor and he had been very supportive over the first five years of our marriage, as I applied to graduate schools, earned my Master’s Degree, applied to Ph.D. programs and took a couple of part-time teaching gigs to gain experience and build my resume. But when we found out that I had basically no shot at competing for full-time professorships in the New York Metro Area (because most applicants already have their Ph.D.), he wanted me to change my career plan. He would send me emails full of job listings – mostly marketing and public relations positions.

I tried to be gracious, but inside I was screaming, no, no, NO! I’m a TEACHER. That’s who I AM. I am not a marketing strategist; I am not a speech writer. I am a TEACHER. Again, that’s WHO I AM. This has already been decided and established.

Of course, I have already mentioned that I probably rely too much on my “career” to define my identity, but I really don’t know how to avoid doing that. I become extremely invested in whatever I am doing with my time, and I had invested a lot in earning my Master’s Degree and learning how to run a classroom.

But I really did try to be gracious – because I understood his frustration and felt pretty darn guilty. My husband is a feminist, too, and he had not signed up to take care of his pretty little wife in a 1950s-style marriage. (The poor guy had not chosen right for that set-up, anyway – he’s a much better cook than I am. I tend to dry out the chicken, burn the bacon and have absolutely no clue how to spice/flavor anything. I just dump in a bunch of salt.) My husband had married me expecting to get a partner. Someone to help him pay the bills and take on approximately half the chores. Someone to share the weight, so that it wasn’t all on his shoulders. And that’s what I agreed to do when I married him – share the weight. So far, though, I think I’ve been more of a load to carry, as opposed to someone who is helping him carry the load.

So this fall, I had to face the facts – I’ve been both a bad feminist and a bad wife. At least that’s how I felt, since I wanted to prioritize my career over being an equal partner financially with my husband (bad wife) and then I wanted to give up my career when I wasn’t finding success (bad feminist). This was an incredible identity crisis – especially for someone as pie-in-the-sky ambitious as I am, someone so determined to be good at everything she does. I dream big and I talk big; I always imagined myself changing the world. But I’ve learned in the first five years of my marriage that it’s hard enough to make sure the bills get paid – never mind being some kind of social justice superhero. My new job is the closest I’ve ever come to finding a way to make money while saving the world – and we’ll just have to see how much of the world I am really able to save. But up to this point, I’ve been sailing along and ignoring what was probably obvious all along: that there just isn’t a big enough market for Literature Professors. I was sacrificing some of my husband’s trust in order to pursue a dream that at some point became unrealistic.

If I had given up the dream of being a professor because my husband just didn’t want me to pursue that route, then I would have been a failure as a feminist. But I’ve sense come to realize that switching gears doesn’t make me a failure – it makes me a pragmatist.

And it has nothing to do with my feminism – my husband had to do the exact same thing. He earned his Ph.D. with the intention of being a Psychology Professor and Researcher; he had to start looking for jobs out in the corporate world because he realized that it might take him years to find a teaching position that paid enough money to cover the bills and offered benefits. He had to compromise too – and he did it for me. He wanted to make sure that I would have health care, enough money to pay the doctor’s bills and insurance to cover the cost of all the allergy medications that I take daily. He had to be realistic and gave up his original dream a lot sooner than I did.

So this Valentine’s Day, I wanted to post about my wonderful husband – not because he bought me flowers or candy (which he didn’t, anyway) and not because he brought me perfume and lotion (which he did, for the record) but because he was grown-up enough to give up his dream to make sure that I would stay healthy, and because he was enough of a feminist to let me pursue my own dream for a few years longer than he was able to pursue his. He’s given me things that have been so much more valuable than flowers or candy, and in return this Valentine’s Day, I am finally becoming what he has always wanted – now that I have a full-time job, I can be a real partner.

Feminism is all about equality, anyway.


Xiaoyan said...

You just got me in tears.
I completely understand what you had to go through, everything that you wrote here. At the same time I'm so happy for you that Jeremy is such a loving and caring husband. I was not brought up in the feminist culture so I don't have much of sense of duty to carry half the weight in a marriage. But I do have things I want to achieve for myself and it definitely becomes obvious how much easier life would be with two incomes. Reading through your blog is like going through my own feelings and struggles. One thing I don't want to admit yet is that I'm not good enough to be a psychology professor I guess that's why I'm still hanging in here. Your blog is kind of what I really needed these days, knowing that someone has gone through the same thing, the same dilemma, the same guilt, the same frustrations.. So thank you for posing this! it helps more you probably had thought.

bfc said...

Very sad that women feel they have to live up what they think are the feminist rules rather than be their true selves. If a man said he can't be a househusband because that's not what a man should be, you and other feminists would say he should ignore what society says and just do what is right for his family and himself. But if a woman says she can't be a housewife because that's not what a feminist should be, the same advice doesn't seem to apply.

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