I’ve become more outspoken in the last few years. There’s a combination of factors at work – I’ve become better at articulating my positions, the thought this has required has made it more and more important to me to not let the things important to me slide, and, as stressful as it’s been, returning to university has given me a major boost to my self-esteem.
There’s one place I keep falling down on, however. My internal censor kicks in, or I hesitate on the premise that it would derail the conversation, and then I spend the next ten minutes shifting uncomfortably in my seat cursing my spinelessness.
I actively dislike the assumptions that come with socializing. Once someone knows a few details about your life, or sometimes just your gender, the unthinking comments come flying out. As much as I try to be aware of it, I catch myself doing this too on occasion. I’m well aware that we’re socialized to do this. It’s a way of reinforcing culture, of displaying how well one fits in no different than the oversized jeans and loud boxers on a suburban teenager. The impulse is strong enough that defying expectation can be met with active, angry resistance when in the wrong company. For example, women disinterested in having kids get this regularly, as there’s still an entrenched idea that all women must want become mothers, with the subtext that non-mothers are objects of pity if infertile or in conflict with their own natures if consciously childfree.
In this case, I refer to the assumptions made when speaking to a married person or couple, and my persistent reluctance to counter them in conversation.
They come in many forms. Personal examples have included referring to a me as ‘(his name)’s wife’, or joking, in reference to some imagined outrageous act of his, that I would have to change my name, or commenting that ‘we women’ (wink wink nudge nudge) know who really runs the house, or remarking on the helplessness of men with housework or childcare, or asking why I’m worried about having a grad student income because surely he’ll support me, or otherwise assuming that he’s the head of the house, I’m the domestic one, and our life fits the tidy traditional heteronormative box.
Yes, my partner and I are married. From my standpoint, it means exactly two things: We filed paperwork with the government, and that I was too young and too caught up in someone else’s idea of doing things the ‘right way’ to realize I had agreed to it out of internalized cultural expectations than because it was actually the right thing for me.
There’s a vast gulf between having a piece of paper and having a healthy, satisfied relationship, and a bigger gulf between the way interpersonal relationships actually play out and the stereotypical heterosexual marriage. My relationship with my partner has absolutely nothing to do with that piece of paper, and that piece of paper is where our resemblance to a traditional marriage begins and ends.
I am not ‘his wife’ any more than he is ‘my husband’. I categorically reject those labels, and the roles that go with them.
We are partners. Full stop, no possessive.
We are consenting adults who have chosen to make a household together out of mutual affection, convenience and preference for one another’s company. Neither one of us wears the proverbial pants. I have my own life, my own interests, my own finances, my own family and history and achievements, and so does he. We’re separate people who have chosen to overlap our lives.
Marriage, as traditionally constructed (and this is a much younger tradition than is frequently implied), is male-centered, carefully split into active and passive, public and private, intellectual and instinctual. ‘Husbands’ are, in this construct, heads of the family, wage-earners, negotiators of the public sphere and collectors of achievements. Their word is law, the glory theirs alone, and everything from wives to children to goods are properly framed as decorations to his life well lived. ‘Wives’ are conversely discouraged from taking a leading role, having their own wage, appearing in public beyond a handful of specifically proscribed circumstances, and encouraged to devote all their energies to bolstering the husband’s achievements while maintaining the home, fulfilling their reproductive duty to continue his family name and caring for the results.
If this seems regressive, take a look at high-profile American organizations such as the Vision Forum*, dedicated to selling this paradigm under the guise of wholesome American Christian family values. That’s an extreme example, granted, but it comes out in smaller ways in mainstream Canadian culture every time a pregnant woman is asked whether she’s staying home with the child, a newly married woman called Mrs. HisName, a company is revealed to be top-heavy with male managerial staff, a new father scorned for wanting to take a few weeks following the birth, and marriage rights policed based solely on the gender of the couple. We’re not past this stuff, not in the least.
I’ve spent the last several years of my life growing steadily angrier with the tight box I’m supposed to fit myself and my relationship into. There are times when I feel suffocated by the conflict between expectation and the reality. It’s a constant push on my sense of personhood, and I am caught between engaging in pushback or smiling, nodding and seething.
Not, not, not.
I am not a wife, his or otherwise. I am Ms., not Mrs., and I strongly object to being called Mrs. HisName. I do not think it is proper or loving or romantic for anyone, of any gender, to change their name on marriage; it’s a mark of the continued primacy of male lineages, and the lesser value placed on female identities and achievements that don’t include a male spouse and children.
I do not believe in marriage, but in relationships. Married relationships are not superior to those of commonlaw couples, or any other kind of long-term relationship, sexual or otherwise. Marriage is not an inclusive concept, but an arbitrary set of boundaries describing a set of behaviours defined by culturally conservative conceptions of what’s proper and what’s transgressive. The piece of paper declaring marriage grants some outdated, heteronormative privileges with respect to taxes, health care and inheritance, and should not be taken as subscription to the roles that traditionally go with it.
We made a home together, not ‘joined families’. I am not Ms. MyName in name only. My name is not expendable. My achievements are mine, and though some may be mutually beneficial (such as a degree leading to improved employment and career prospects), they are not a means to decorate him or his family.
I am not a vehicle for continuing his lineage. Should he and I have children, I will not modestly cede my surname, for myself or my theoretical offspring. They would not be his alone, but the product of two people with two distinct histories and achievements.
It is not his job to support me financially, but rather my responsibility to contribute equally to maintaining our standard of living, within my means; I am not taking this degree merely for something to do. Conversely, it is not my job alone to maintain the house or get dinner on the table or stock up on groceries and sundries; he is not domestically helpless. My career is not expendable, nor is his wage the one that counts. Dependency of any sort is not in my best interests, or his.
This is the short litany.
It’s maddening, that rather than being taken for who I am, I must constantly state what I am not. It’s infuriating that so many look at our relationship and see nothing but a cookie-cutter template.
As obnoxious as it is, I can’t in good conscience continue to leave it unchallenged. The more one lets assumptions stand, the more assumptions are validated, and the harder it becomes for the next person or persons who doesn’t fit the mold. I have a responsibility to get over my polite reflexes. It’s too late to change the paperwork, but it’s not too late to challenge the expectations.
*I’m avoiding driving traffic to them directly, as I find their entire message utterly odious.