When I was a little girl I wanted to grow up to be smart and spunky. I also wanted to meet a boy who was my bitter rival and sworn enemy, but who gradually came to have a secret passion for me. Of course, that passion would only be revealed when I rushed to his side at a time of grave illness and he professed his undying love for me. So basically, I wanted to grow up in a turn of the century novel for young adults.
When I was in my 20s, I wanted to meet a man who was my equal in every way and who saw me as an equal. We would both have fulfilling careers, exciting philosophical conversations over glasses of wine in French cafés, and we would split the housework 50/50. Or even better, I would have a high-powered career and he would take care of the kids. He’d be a great cook and he’d keep the house running smoothly. In essence, I wanted a sexy, intelligent man who was also a 1950s housewife.
These are just two of the fairy tales about love that have colored my romantic life. And what I’m discovering is that the earlier tales don’t disappear. They just get covered over temporarily by the next story, like an archaeological dig of love and longing.
I met Daniel, now my husband, in engineering school when I was 23. He’s unconventional, spontaneous, he feels deeply, and he has a true moral compass. He stood out from other engineers -– on the inspirational poster showing a crowd of penguins, he’s the one painted bright yellow.
Except for the sponge manufacturing factory date, we rarely went to places or events that were intrinsically interesting. It was Daniel’s quirkiness that made our outings memorable. One evening we left his apartment in character – me a wide-eyed country girl visiting Montreal for the first time; he, a foul-mouthed Russian aristocrat – and spent the date in our roles. Another time he demonstrated his repertoire of crazy faces and invited me to grimace back at him. I was entranced.
Daniel is smart, but unlike my 20-year-old self’s fantasy man, he doesn’t enjoy philosophical conversations. He respects me, but laughs in my face when I’m trying to pull a fast one.
My main con is acting sweet and innocent, while in ruthless pursuit of what I want. A few months before our baby was born I was “asking” Daniel “nicely” if he would mind taking care of our older son while I traveled out of town to visit an old friend. He listened to me, and I watched resistance come over his face like a blind rolled down over a window. Why was he being such a jerk? I needed this getaway, I deserved it, and who was he to stand in my way?! Suddenly his face changed, as he realized what was going on. He laughed, and then he switched into Birdie role. He mimicked my saccharine voice and fluttered his lids over wide innocent eyes. At the same time, he used his left hand to imitate the driving force behind my words. His hand came toward me like a drill, relentlessly pursuing me, as I playfully ducked and parried. A second later, I dissolved into laughter, recognizing myself in his act. He’d totally nailed it. Now, with my intense need and demand out in the open, we were able to have an easy, productive conversation. He was happy to give me a mini vacation, and I felt seen and relieved.
I love Daniel’s home cooking. He also has a higher standard of household cleanliness than I do, as I learned when we moved in together five years after we first met. I’d just left a good job to go to grad school. He was working, making decent money, while I was racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. It was awkward for a modern woman. We could theoretically share costs, but my half was just coming out of my loans. So, to cope, we dropped the charade and he paid for most things.
Several years later, he was burned out from an office job he hated and was taking time off to follow his bliss. Hopefully. Or at least find a career that didn’t make him want to stab his own eyes out. He gradually found work he loved as a psychotherapist, but it took time: four years for school and several more years to begin a practice and grow it.
I graduated from naturopathic medical school and was trying to make a go of it in private practice. I quickly saw that being financially successful would take years, along with having entrepreneurial talent and a comfort with the unknown that I didn’t yet possess. I was also 33 and aching to start a family. I realized how passionately I wanted a home of my own, and maternity leave that wouldn’t leave me fearful about my finances.
I started to feel anxious, and resentful toward my husband. I woke up to a strong but secret expectation that my husband would provide for us. I envied other people who could go through life with a ‘Trust the Universe’ sensibility, but when my husband talked like that I could feel hot contempt rising up in my throat. “You owe me a home, a baby, and security!” I silently screamed. My thoughts shocked and horrified me. What had happened to my modern values about equality of the sexes?
It was time to do some soul searching. My husband was not providing the things I needed to feel safe and fulfilled, but he didn’t have the same needs as me. It wasn’t his path. Something changed drastically the day I woke up to the fact that if I knew what I wanted, it wasn’t anyone else’s job to make it happen.
It was up to me.
I combined my engineering background and my medical studies to find a full-time job. Now the bank would take us seriously. Mortgage pre-approval and a whirlwind house hunting expedition quickly followed. A few months later we moved into our cozy three bedroom home –- one for us and two for the babies we badly wanted. Something fundamental had shifted for me as I threw myself toward my dream. We’d been trying to conceive for many long months, and after dozens of heartbreaking pregnancy tests, we finally saw that tiny blue plus sign in the window. We’d conceived the very first month after moving into our new home.
There was magic in the air. I was happy, and my life even felt a little enchanted. But the inequity in our work life balance started to get to me. I was working my 40+ hour work week and commuting an hour or more every day. It was me bringing home the bacon and picking up the tab for a few years. I didn’t like it.
Daniel got to work from home every day, and what exactly was he doing, anyway? How much time was he spending watching TV? Facebook? He definitely wasn’t seeing clients every day those years. Was he putting enough time into creating his website, and marketing? Was he pulling his weight?! I had forceful opinions about how he should be spending his time. He was surprisingly unwelcome to my helpful suggestions.
It took a while for a new sense of balance to be restored. Daniel’s practice began to grow, and I could see the pleasure and meaning it brought him. I also began to fully appreciate all the other ways he contributes to our family life. He shops with great care for quality ingredients that he uses to prepare delicious meals. He vacuums with an athlete’s intensity. He notices when the parking sticker needs to be replaced, makes the appointment with the bank when it’s time to contribute to the kids’ education funds, and most of all, he’s a loving and committed dad to our small boys. With our first son, he took night shifts every second night, holding our baby in his arms and feeding him a bottle. School lunches, play date drop-offs, runny noses – he is in. Our 9-month-old baby squeals with delight to see him because Daddy means fun, comfort and love.
My marriage is not a fairy tale. My husband is not a knight in shining armor. He’s not even a turn of the century romantic lead. There’s a part of me that wishes he were, but the clear-eyed adult part of me sees the ordinary heroism in the way we try to be real with each other, and in how we show up for our kids.