Sunday, January 18, 2009

lay off, man!

I'm kind of surprised at how we're feeling the gender issues present in L's lay-off. Even though we're both clear on the fact that we don't agree with the social premise that men are supposed to be breadwinners and women are supposed to be home-based caregivers, the issues still seep through. I've always wanted to be the main breadwinner for our family and periodically feel embarrassed about the fact that I've been home with D for the last two years. I get by, psychologically, with the dodge that I'm still "in school" while I work on my dissertation, but still. L and I have talked forever about how once I'm finished that I can provide the main income and L can go back to school for his MFA. Yet in our house right now I've been the stay-at-home mom and he's been the go-to-work dad. That pattern is so familiar in our post-baby world that changing it feels like waking up in the middle of a dream and being like, where the hell am I? Oh I am.

L talked about how losing his job made him feel somehow less manly. I don't know that the experience is making me feel less womanly, but it is definitely making me think about love-based (rather than money-based) caregiving and its contrast with doing the moneywork. Today I met my writing page goal for the first time in a while; recently, a post-Christmas writing slowdown had left me experiencing only periodic fits of good writing productivity. (I am currently giving myself a pat on the back for this in the form of letting myself write this blog post.) For me, writing my dissertation is moneywork because I have to finish it before I can go out and get a job. When I'm in a writing zone, I'm no good at the caregiving. I let D watch TV rather than trying to jolly him up with various creative activities; I don't pick up around the house or do any dishes; I don't think about any of the bills I should pay or appointments I should schedule.

I've known about this tradeoff in my own head for a while. However, the new situation is making me think about how it operates in the experience of marital relationships, even in 'enlightened' ones like mine. For example, I fear L becoming depressed about finding work if it turns out to be difficult or take a while. My fear about the prospect of his bad feelings leads me to want to do all sorts of prospective emotional caretaking. However, even the thought of putting out all of that extra caretaking energy is exhausting. Plus, he's not even asking for it. Any emotional equivalent of pillow-fluffing and chicken-soup-providing I could do at this point would be purely from my own initiative. And if I became resentful as a result of not really having the emotional energy to be doing that, how ironic would that be?

My job is thus actually not to think about how to make L feel better, or to organize L's job search (on the assumption that he's too overwhelmed to do it himself), or even to assume that I know how he's feeling at any particular moment and to try to provide what he needs before he even asks for it. I'm not a geisha, I'm not an administrative assistant, I'm not his mother. I'm his life partner and my only real responsibility towards him is maintaining clear and open communication with him about what we're both feeling. And that is a job and a half, all by itself. But it's amazing what it does to make everyone feel better, even when you weren't sure you knew what you needed.

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