Throughout our nearly two year engagement, my now husband and I intentionally prepared for marriage in a variety of ways. One of the primary ways we prepared was through clearly and openly communicating our intentions and expectations in our current and future relationship.
Since much of our identities are shaped by our upbringing, we spent many, many hours talking about our families of origin to better understand the similarities and differences.
Most visibly, our home structures were quite similar:
—our fathers worked outside the home in careers that provided well for our families, and our mothers stayed at home to care for the children and to manage the home. But there were certainly many contrasts, especially early on in our relationship when we turned to one another countless times with curiosity (and often frustration) and asked, “Why are you doing that?!”
One of the most important and ongoing conversations we had as an engaged couple was what our marriage would look like since we’re both Christians and feminists.*
We discussed this in practical ways such as whether I would take his last name or not (nope, we created an entirely new family name together) and how we would make decisions (mutually, with prayer and outside wisdom when necessary).
We also pondered more hypothetically about our “grown up” responsibilities and goals as Christian feminists, particularly around children and career. Would we have children? If so, when would we potentially start trying? How do we feel about adoption? Would someone stay home with the children while we worked, our would we pay for childcare? If someone stayed home with the children, would that be assumed that it was me, or would my husband consider it?
Since my husband is almost four years older than I am, I fully expected that he would be further along and more established in his career by the time we married or at least shortly thereafter that.
After all, he was a graduate student pursuing his PhD in a rapidly-growing and high-demand industry (solar energy chemistry) while I was graduating with an undergraduate degree. It made sense that as soon as he graduated from his PhD program that he would receive a more competitive and higher-paying offer than I currently have in my respectable, but relatively entry-level position.
As the younger and less experienced professional, I expected my husband to have a more lucrative career and for me to serve as the secondary breadwinner for our family.
I never thought to ask during our engagement what it would be like for me to be the primary breadwinner if we both worked. It just didn’t make sense to me at the time. How would I with a BA in international law and politics have a more lucrative career than someone with a PhD in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field? No, no, no, I thought, that doesn’t make sense at all. It simply didn’t cross my mind as a possibility during our engagement.
It didn’t cross my mind for the first year of our marriage, either.
During our first year as husband and wife, I was the primary breadwinner, but I justified it because my husband was still in grad school. I figured that as soon as he graduated, he would find a much more competitive offer and we’d move (if necessary) to wherever his job was located.
I even figured that this would be a pattern throughout the first several years or even decade of our marriage before I became more established in my career and/or went back to school for my own advanced degree.
But it didn’t work like that. And because of these unmet expectations, I felt out of control in my disappointment and grief and confusion.
You see, when my husband graduated with his PhD, I didn’t become the secondary breadwinner; I became the only breadwinner. For several months — so far eight, to be precise.
In the first month or two after he graduated, we enjoyed our new arrangement. We went on a relaxing vacation. We tackled some projects around the house. We trained for a half marathon together.
And we reallocated our division of labor in the home so that my husband would make dinner during the week and I would prepare meals on the weekend instead of us switching off each day.
All in all, we had fun, but we couldn’t wait to get back to a more routine schedule of us both working during the day. Plus, job searching for eight hours per day for weeks in a row can be demoralizing. We weren’t worried, though, and we expected to hear back from soon.
We didn’t hear back.
Through months three, four, and five, he applied and applied and applied. In a couple instances, he actually interviewed, but then got turned down. Most of the places just went radio silent. Meanwhile, I started getting cabin fever. We had expected to move out of our cozy condo by this point, and now the space constraints seemed unbearable. Not having a desk to write became more of a frustration. We had preemptively packed most of our books in boxes that were now piled high in the corners of our home. Everything seemed to be breaking down or perpetually dusty despite our best wrangling with the Swiffer.
I started rearranging the furniture every month or so to feel like at least something was in my control.
By month six, we were losing our minds. In the midst of depression and gotta-get-out-of-here anxiety, we finally broke down. We allowed ourselves to voice and then grieve our unmet expectations. I mourned the loss of expecting my husband to be the primary breadwinner. My husband shared his despair of feeling purposeless.
Together we tried to reevaluate our former expectations and create new ones.
Airing out our unmet expectations didn’t magically transform our despair into joy and contentment. It didn’t get my husband a job. It didn’t add a hundred more square feet in our home. But it did allow us to evolve with one another, to reevaluate what our marriage would look like as Christians and feminists…
– what it would look like as us.
What kind of expectations have you brought into a relationship? How did you handle the relationship when you felt expectations went unmet?
* I understand that there is a lot of baggage around the terms “feminism” and “feminist,” especially in some parts of the Christian community. To understand more clearly what I mean by “Christian feminist,” please refer to this post on what Christian feminism is and isn’t. For further reading, check out the 130+ posts written by Christian feminists during #FemFest, a three-day synchroblog hosted by J.R. Goudeau, Preston Yancey, and me in February 2013 about what we think feminism is, why we think it matters, and what questions we still have about the other “f-word.”
[Photo: linh.ngan, Creative Commons]