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.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To Sixty-Five Years (Or More)

When a couple signs up for pre-marital counseling, the priest or minister covers a wide range of topics, including emotional compatibility, life goals and strategies for fair fighting. Some pastors even get overly involved in the relationship of their clients:

My husband and I got a semi-deluxe version, which thankfully did not involve being spied upon by Robin Williams. It did, however, include advice regarding financial planning and decisions, as well as a warning that which way to mount the roll of toilet paper in the toilet paper dispenser could become a serious issue if not definitely determined at the onset of our marriage. There were a few things, though, that we didn’t discuss with our pastor – including how to make enormous life decisions regarding career changes and long-distance moving.

Since these are the things that have been serious issues for my husband and myself over the past year and a half, I’ve been feeling more than a little bit lost. It’s incredibly difficult to balance your own emotional needs with that of another person’s so completely, especially when the two of you may have very different needs that are at odds with each other to a significant degree. For example: my husband ultimately needs to settle down in a warm place where the days have more than eight hours of daylight all throughout the calendar year. He gets unbelievably stir-crazy if it’s cold and dark by the time he gets out of work, and here in the Hudson Valley, it gets dark around 4:30 in the afternoon during the winter. Because of his extreme aversion to winter, my husband feels that it is necessary to choose a warmer locale where we will retire eventually – whereas I desperately want to stop moving around so much. I need to be able to put down roots again, without the fear of being eventually uprooted – torn away from any community ties that I have established. I am hesitant to try to make friends in New York again when I think about the fact that I may have to leave them someday, just as I have had to leave behind dear friends in Michigan and in Washington D.C.

In order to find a solution that allows us to stay happily together, we need to figure out a compromise, which we’ve been working on – a long-term plan that will meet both our needs. But we haven’t really felt as though a lot of people can give us advice on this subject because our conflict is about the possibility of another geographic transplant, which is something that has really only become a necessity for people of our generation. As careers have become more specialized and particular industries have become rooted to specific geographic locations, it has become harder and harder to build a career and earn a living unless you move for your job. If you are married, this means that you will ultimately have to prioritize either the husband or the wife’s career, and the other spouse will have to search for whatever work that he or she can find once you are settled in a particular geographic location.

Now let me be clear – our original decision to move away from Michigan wasn’t about prioritizing either of our careers over our family ties. It was about making sure that we can pay the bills, obtain health insurance to pay for my medical bills, save enough money to support a family, and then stockpile for our retirement – because by the time we’re in our sixties, social security and Medicare will practically have run out. I may like shopping and owning pretty things, so having extra income is nice, but if I could live near my friends and family, I would try my very hardest to give up my addiction to shopping at Target and on Amazon. I would give anything to live near my college roommates, to be around as my nephew grows up; I wish I could have been in Michigan during the last few years of my grandparents’ lives. But there just aren’t that many jobs available in Michigan.

My husband and I have both had to make a lot of sacrifices, both in terms of leaving our families and in terms of giving up some of our career dreams. We have both ended up with jobs that we didn’t really plan on having – I landed in the non-profit sector instead of academia, and he applied to a vague job description that turned out to be for an analyst position in the cosmetics industry. His career shift has definitely been a bigger surprise than mine; we obviously discussed change and compromise during pre-marital counseling, but neither one of us anticipated that my beer-drinking, football-loving husband would end up working for a make-up company. It turns out that compromise and sacrifice can land you in some pretty unexpected places.

All these compromises and surprises have had a huge influence on my identity and concept of myself, of course. And I can only imagine how much it may have spun my husband’s head to become an employee of a cosmetics company, since he’s such a boy. Now we find ourselves in New York, both with different careers and different prospects for the future than we ever imagined, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that my husband finds himself greatly enjoying his job. All these unexpected twists, however, mean that as we continue down our career paths, we’ll be traveling farther and farther away from our originally-imagined lives as university professors. This has the potential to be a great adventure – but also to be the potential to cause conflict at every juncture and every unforeseen decision that we face as a couple.

When my husband and I fight for prolonged periods of time, I start to panic. What does this mean for our marriage? How can we resolve a conflict this huge? Will we end up getting a divorce? I never imagined myself as someone who would even entertain the thought of divorce, but I have to admit that every once in a while over the past nine months, the possibility has crossed my mind. Not that I think I would actually ever divorce Jeremy. I know that both of us are miserable when we’re apart for more than a day or two, so I doubt I’d have the strength to leave him, even if we had “irreconcilable differences.”

But just the fact that divorce has crossed my mind freaks me out and makes me question who I am. I didn’t think I was the kind of person who would ever give up on someone that I love as deeply as I love Jeremy. But sometimes it’s not simply frustration with my husband that throws me for a loop and makes me think the dirty word divorce – it’s the question of whether or not I am betraying myself or doing something that is emotionally unhealthy for myself by putting Jeremy’s needs and desires before my own. That’s why compromise is important – you have to be able to figure out how to keep your commitments without doing yourself any emotional harm.

How you deal with your commitments, not just in a marriage but in all aspects of your life, is really a big part of who you are. I’ve thought about that fact lot in the last nine months, both because Jeremy and I have had to hash through a lot of decisions about our careers and moving across state lines, but also because my grandparents’ deaths made me realize how they were such amazing examples of commitment.

My grandparents modeled deep love and steadfast dedication to their children, grandchildren and their community, making the major decisions look effortless – when in reality my grandparents must have struggled in their marriage just as much as Jeremy and I sometimes struggle now. Of course, I heard my grandparents bicker on a pretty regular basis about things like whether or not my grandpa should use certain language (having her husband use words like “fart” in public was an embarrassment to my well-mannered grandmother, but he liked his fart jokes). But I never once heard my grandparents fight about big things, even though they must have.

So now when I am afraid that Jeremy and I won’t be able to resolve something as big as a conflict over whether or not we should move again someday, I think of my grandparents – and how happy they were on their 65th wedding anniversary. We gave them a fancy party and a big cake, and because they were the cutest 80-somethings on the planet, they fed each other. It was a little awkward – but all the more adorable because of the shaking hand extending the forkful of cake to the unsteady chomp.

I want to be just like my grandparents – committed to my husband and my family’s happiness, through whatever unexpected conflicts and challenges may arise. And when I think of them, I’m pretty sure that even without too much specific guidance, if I always keep their memory in my mind, I’ll end up feeding my husband cake on our 65th anniversary too.

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