The Kitchen Table
As I opened the mailbox, I saw the yellow notice that my cable bill was overdue. How had I forgotten that one? I took it to the kitchen table and opened my checkbook. Yep. No check. I sat there, stunned. Where would the money come from?
Three years ago, I made a decision that forever changed my financial life. I had to choose between committing to a relationship and a family, or following my career. As a person who had started and run a women’s studies program, as an ardent feminist, the choice should have been clear, right? I learned from women of my mother’s generation the major lesson — don’t ever give up your career.
When I was young, my divorced mother cared for us during the day and then waited tables at the Holiday Inn at night while we slept. And I know that she still didn’t make enough money. One day when I was nine years old, I went to the cabinet to get food, and found a can of creamed corn, and some bread. That was it. Later that week, I found her crying at the kitchen table as she sat over a small pile of money that she tried to spread among too many envelopes. Eventually, we left North Carolina and moved into my Grandmother’s house in New Jersey so we could survive financially. My mother felt incredible pressure to marry again so that she would have help. I never wanted to be in the same position.
But I had begun to wonder. I had always chosen career before and had given up so much, left so many people I loved behind, committed myself again and again to a solitary existence. I had lived essentially alone, with my dogs and cats and the occasional boyfriend or roommate who moved their things in and then out. I lived alone for so long that loneliness had become an ache that I no longer identified as pain. It just was. It was as much a part of me as the dull ache from my once-broken wrist. Quiet. Gently painful. But always there.
I came from a big family. Living alone was unnatural to me, but I thought that it was a flaw in me, a weak woman thing that feminism was meant to eradicate. My friends kept telling me, “You need to learn to be by yourself.” And I was. For a very long time. Yes, I formed dating relationships, always had relationships, but they never touched that lonely place, that hurt place. I thought maybe choosing family over career this time would make a difference.
He was a single father of a 15-year-old daughter, having lost his first wife to cancer. I became friends with his daughter first, and was drawn to him eventually. I thought, “He’s a good risk. A man who knows how to take care of himself and nurture someone else. A liberal. A scientist. An enlightened man.”
So in the spring of 2001, pregnant and thousands of miles away from home, I decided to stand up against the accepted conventions that demanded that a successful woman must have it all — career, family, and an independent income — and resigned from my full-time, tenure-track position at Marshall University in West Virginia. Thinking “feminism is about choice,” I stayed at home to provide full-time care to my stepdaughter and my daughter, which offered me some of the most amazing learning experiences of my life, both very rewarding and very difficult.
The most difficult had to do with my marriage. Although the Husband had seemed like a “new man” at first, once the baby came, that was over. Breastfeeding does not promote gender equality in a marriage. Caring for a child, inevitably, falls more to the woman than the man.
But I never expected to become a maid. What links child care with house care in a man’s mind? They are not inevitably connected. Choosing to be the sole provider of one does not mean I chose to be the master of both. As a former women’s studies director, I never expected to hear, ever, in my life, the accusatory, angry words from a husband, “Where is my clean underwear?”
When I challenged him on his archaic definitions of gender roles — “If you need it right now, wash your own damn underwear” — he laughed at my feminist pretentions and told me that he made the money; therefore, my role was to clean the house and do the laundry and care for the child.
I did do these things, and I agreed to do them to try to keep the marriage, but I didn’t agree with the value structure that was attached to them. That these jobs were beneath the Husband but not beneath me. That my work in the home was valued less than his work outside the home. That I had no power over the finances. That I could have all the say I wanted, but that he would go do what he wanted regardless.
Despite all this, I tried to make it work. I read Buddha Mom and explored the Zen of housekeeping. I attacked my internalized negative stereotypes cluttered around the image of women’s traditional work. I struggled to raise the value of doing laundry in my own eyes, but found it so hard to do so when I knew only my hands were doing it.
I resented him for leaving his cereal bowl on the table after breakfast, for creating messes that he then blamed me for not cleaning up, for making cleaning up after him a command rather than a request. I could easily have lived with his sloppiness; I couldn’t abide his demanding that I clean up what he did not. His outrageous, irrational, angry outbursts over housekeeping came more frequently and with more ferocity. When he began throwing things and threatening divorce, I put my foot down.
We entered counseling. Yet counseling only served to clarify the gendered conflict over work inside and outside the home. He told our therapist that he had married an equal, but that is not what I was. He was angry at me for leaving him as the sole support of the family, and putting pressure on him to stay in a salaried position rather than going out on his own as an individual consultant. He told our therapist I compared badly with his first wife, who was a successful trial attorney and still kept a perfect house, kept his clothes clean and put away, and kept the child. To him, I was a failure because I needed his help, though he seemed to forget his first wife had a full-time, live-in housekeeper and childcare provider. I sat quietly through most of these sessions, stunned into stillness. I was unable to articulate my sense of betrayal.
In our second to last session with our therapist, the Husband called me “stupid” for giving up my job. Finally, I exploded. I cried “Unfair!” I saw it all then in ugly, painful clarity. For us to have a family living in the same place, he needed me to give up that career, but when I had, he thought less of me for it. My power and status within the relationship had declined, but so had my desirability. To him, I wasn’t his equal, and thus not as interesting or as desirable as I once was. He didn’t want me anymore. He had married a successful, independent woman, and, to him, I was no longer that. I saw myself through his eyes, and that person bore no resemblance to me.
A few weeks later, the Husband lost his temper at work, and his new job became unstable. Frantic, I called the universities where I had worked and asked, “Any last minute staffing needs?” Fortunately, I got two offers for visiting assistant professorships.
I took the one at the University of South Carolina a week before classes began, packed a few large duffel bags and got on a plane with my daughter and husband. The Husband helped us get settled, then went back to CA, where eventually he lost that job altogether. Where he decided to stay and start his own business as a consultant rather than follow us. Where he began filing for divorce. So, suddenly, I became the sole income provider. And I was not in the position to be one that I once was.
I left a tenure-track position. I forever interrupted the course of my career. I should be at a certain rank and salary and have so much retirement by now. But I am not and I don’t. Yes, I am back on the job market looking for another tenure-track job, and the response so far has been favorable. However, I am not making enough money now to do what I need to do.
I have become what I never wanted to be.
I am now the mother hunched over the kitchen table with too few dollars for too many gaping envelopes. I feel the panic of knowing my income is just not enough. I take my daughter to her pre-school each day thinking, “Please, let her like it. Let her be okay,” because I know she has to be. She has to stay there. I have to go to work. I have no other option.
So, feminism is about choice? Yes, it is. But so is money. And while I had come to think that U.S. feminism perhaps emphasized individual economic independence too much as a reflection of our money-focused community, I was wrong. We cannot emphasize it enough. I didn’t think it could happen to me, and it did. And no one is really safe in a country where over 50% of marriages end in divorce. When I consider my life now, the concept of “choice” has a whole new meaning.
Postnote: Just so no one starts sending me money, my ex-husband and I have worked out the child support issue, so I am not longer under such financial pressure. But if you feel compelled to donate money to a good cause, you can buy LiteraryMama t-shirts and mugs to help support this site.