That bad word, “homemaker”

I’ve instinctively struggled with the idea of gendered roles in marriage since we got engaged two years and two months ago. I’d like to think I’m closer to settling the matter in my mind by now but every time I turn a corner I find myself pausing, uncertain of where to go.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently since I’m about to enter a long stretch where the home, in a very real way, will be my domain. I’m not saying that having a baby will confine me staying home but I won’t be working, at least not for money, for a spell and I imagine that I’ll not be able to ignore the dishes quite as well as I’ve done in the past. So, by default, I will probably become a “homemaker”.

That word is hot and cold in my mouth, even though the transition’s already been happening. For the past few months I’ve worked primarily from home. The flexibility of my work has meant that we finally have a laundry day, our meals are generally planned and for the first time since we’ve been married, everything (save one mini suitcase) is unpacked. Furthermore, and this will make those who knew me even three years ago gasp, the house gets tidied and cleaned at some point every week.

I find myself taking pride in it, not in the sense that I’m fulfilling some feminine role (though there’s a bit of that too, if I’m completely honest) because competence is enjoyable. It’s like how I felt learning to play the guitar. There’s some creative fulfillment in it as well, as if acquiring new ways to be thrifty and changing the look of a room bore resemblance to writing a song. I also like the hospitality it allows. I usually don’t have to mentally check whether the house looks too much like a farmyard’s come and had its fun in it before inviting someone to spend time with us, spur of the moment.

I guess I feel a bit like it’s a “spousonomics” type of exchange between Laurence and I. For one thing, he works much longer hours than I do and earns a great deal more so I feel a bit like taking care of things domestic is my contribution to the “business” of our marriage. If the roles were reversed, I expect he’d be the one making sure things are spic and span.

But it’s a relational thing too. Something we discovered when taking a marriage preparation course (let me tell you, this was one of the hardest things I’ve done, one of the crappest times in my life but made our first year so much easier because all our personal rubbish was out in the open) was that he experiences love most strongly through acts of service and I through quality time. He really makes the effort to give me what I need and it would be more than a little selfish for me not to do the same.

So, it sounds like I’m down with this homemaking thing, no “issues” attached. But I’m not. I’m overly sensitive to any time I feel like I’m doing all of it (I never am) though I’m happy, time allowing, to do the lion’s share of it. When things do become messy because I’m too busy, tired or ill, I find myself making defensive jokes about being “a defective domestic goddess” or if I’m really trying to elicit a reaction, “a bad wife” – not that I actually think vacuuming has the slightest thing to do with being a woman or married.

These barbs protect the woman inside who’s scared of being taken for granted the way a lot of the women I grew up amongst were. Beneath their harsh tone, they’re quietly saying to him: “I know you’re not oppressive or distracted. I know you’re involved, happy to muck in with these silly domestic things. But I’m scared that eventually you’ll stop seeing me.” And that’s not fair to him. He’s done nothing for me to expect the worst.

Image: sflovestory

Kittens, coughing and something like helplessness

I often joke that Laurence is the real grownup in this marriage and that I’m still working out this adult thing. I may have the book sense but he’s got the infinitely more valuable practicality. But every now and then I realise just how much I depend on him, and it’s not something I’m altogether comfortable with.

It started with me getting stressed about the kittens this morning. They’ll be here in a few weeks. What if we’ve made a mistake? Should we really have two? Where will the litter box go? Can we afford the pet insurance? Will our pet ownership styles match or clash? He laughed at this last one and made it pretty clear that he had no opinions on how the cats were to be ‘raised’. I’m the one who wanted them so he’s expecting me to be the one responsible for their care. Me – responsible for another living thing?

I know the idea of responsibility shouldn’t floor me. I’m about to be responsible for another human being and a pretty helpless one at that. In fact, Laurence has been depending on me to take care of my body to keep the baby safe and I know although he intends to be as involved as possible, he’ll be looking to me to take the lead with most things baby care. And I feel fine about that.

But it’s a bit of a change to the dynamic that’s crept into our relationship. It’s not just that he handles the bills or that I’ve never gone into the garage on my own. Day to day, I find it increasingly difficult to make decisions on my own. If I’m contemplating canceling on a friend because I’m not feeling well, I’ll text him and ask what he thinks. If we’re at the bar, I’ll suggest he choose a drink for me.

I don’t think it’s helplessness so much as laziness but I’m not sure when it crept into our relationship. It’s not something he particularly likes either. I know he’d rather I just get on with the supermarket shop than stop at each item to find out whether he wants this and what kind. I’ve done something about that this week: a supermarket delivery order, without consultation. Sometimes, I think the mobile phone is my enemy. I should just forget it exists.

This dependence really hit home with me when I called the doctor this morning. Laurence has been asking me to call for ages, thinking that something was amiss with my ‘cold’. I’ve ummed and ahhed about it but he was firm with me this morning when we found blood and a clot on the sheets that I must have coughed up during the night. Even so, if he hadn’t told me this merited a call to the doctor, I honestly would’ve just left it until my routine checkup next week.

It turns out I have a chest infection and my breathing isn’t amazing. I collected my prescription and chastised myself for being willing to just leave it.

Then, on the way home, I popped into a pet shop to have a look around at cat litter and suchlike. For a moment I thought, “I should come back when he can come with me to help choose” but quickly corrected myself. I’ll go back when I have my trolley bag to carry the things I’ve chosen.

Want me, Britain, want me

So as I mentioned before, I left my purse on the bus earlier this week. Stupid. Lucy told me to blame it on pregnancy brain. I will. It took me a little longer to realise that my Foreign National Identity card from the UK Border Agency was in it. Crap. Stupid by a gazillion. I don’t normally keep it in there but it happened to be in there because I’d used it for something.

For those who aren’t all that familiar with the British immigration system, that’s a biometric identity card now issued to foreign nationals applying for leave to remain here. I got it a few months after I married my lovely British husband and decided I should probably stay in the same country as him.

And I don’t have a problem with it. I understand that immigration needs to be controlled – though one might argue that the government has more to be worried about with immigrants from other EU countries who can claim certain benefits than with non-EEA nationals like me who have no access to public funds. But alas, that is another topic.

What I always find hard, though, is feeling a little bit like a criminal going through the process or at least like I’m begging to stay here – just a teeny weeny bit.

This is how it feels when I come through border control on my own. When I’m with Laurence there’s absolutely no problem. But come through on my own and I get interrogated, even though the papers are there, intact. A nice way to come back from honeymoon in Italy, I might add.

I felt this way when they took my finger prints for my first biometric card and I will feel this way again should I have to resubmit my finger prints for the replacement.

I understand why it has to happen and we were aware of all this when we made the decision to marry. To be honest, this is low on the list of difficulties involved in a mixed nationality marriage. Knowing that wherever you raise your children, they’ll be far away from at least one set of grandparents is a tad trickier.

I eventually calmed down from my initial reaction to having to wait 30 minutes on the phone to the UK Border Agency yesterday. Listening to the same music they’ve been playing while keeping people in a cue, for at least the last six years, made me shout into an empty room: “This country doesn’t want me!”

Once that bit had passed, I settled down and thought about why I was so upset. And I think it’s just that this is a blatant reminder that I don’t belong. Not yet, anyway. It’s not that I think belonging is that important generally but clearly, on some level, it is.

And I wonder if it’s because after six years of living here, getting married here and now preparing to have a child here, I want to belong somewhere. Existing in the space between isn’t as easy.

Image: Javier Micora

Choosing childlessness

As a younger teen I often bragged that I would never get married and certainly never have children. Mostly, I got a kick out of making controversial statements. I also considered myself a feminist (still do) and naively felt that this was at odds with pursuing family life. But mainly, I saw marriages suffering all around me, with children caught in the middle, and it scared the hell out of me.

It was safer to make the joke and scandalise friends and family than to admit that wanted to be a wife and mother – as well as a writer, speaker and advocate, in whatever forms those roles would take.

But while my assertion was a more of a joke that ended up falling on me when I got engaged at 22, I know a number of women who actually do not want children. One told me that she’s sure she’d mess things up, having had a traumatic relationship with her own mother. Others have simply decided that it’s not what they want for their lives. Whether that’s because they doesn’t want to lose independence or freedom or for some other reason, I don’t know.

I’ve always had a certain admiration for women who choose childlessness. Even if they don’t stick with it further down the line, it’s a decision to be honest with themselves and the world about their lives.

And I think it’s a bit unfair to dismiss their views with: “You’re young. You’ll change your mind.” Surely this goes both ways – except that women who choose to have children can’t change their minds.

Still, I found myself saying exactly this to a friend who admitted again the other day that she didn’t want children. I said it off-hand, without much thought, as we passed the cake around. In fact, I’ve found myself saying it in a few conversations with friends who view things this way. It’s surprised me even as I’ve said it.

It’s almost as if I’ve developed some pregnant woman syndrome that makes me want to see others join me. It’s like a Jane Austen thing where married women are compelled to match-make others.

I realise it could just mean that I am happy and want to see my friends happy. But when did my idea of happiness shrink? To say that motherhood is what truly fulfils a woman is insulting not only to women who choose childlessness but to those who cannot have children. It’s also a pitiably small view of what “woman” is.

I’ve wondered too if I’ve said “You’ll change your mind” just because I want company. At 24, I’m the first in my circle of friends to be pregnant. I’m stepping out into the unknown and maybe I just want someone else to step out with me.

But even so, I know I’ll meet other women in my situation and I’m confident enough in my current friendships to believe that my friends see my having a baby as an experience they’re participating in too.

What I don’t think is going on is me suddenly imposing some ill-defined sense of morality on the situation. I don’t think that women “should” or “should not” have children. I don’t think maternal instinct is innate. I’m not even sure what it is.

Image: Joseph Francis