"I felt that marriages were messed up. From the things I saw I thought, this is some kind of slavery." [An Interview]Read Now
MW: I want to start with a quote from last week’s interview. The woman last week said, “Marriage is what you make it.” Do you agree with that, or do you think marriage has a specific definition?
I agree with it. Marriage is what you make it – for me, at least. Some people are very traditional with how they see marriage. And it’s what they want. But I believe the only people who get to decide what marriage is are those two people in the marriage. They get to make the rules for their marriage and I think a lot of problems that people have, have to do with traditional rules of marriage and the pressure for it to be a certain way. A man is supposed to do this, a woman is supposed to do that. Or, even if it’s same gender marriage, one has to be the male and one has to be the female, whatever that means. (laughs) I think that causes a whole lot of problems. People follow those traditional rules instead of trying to figure out, or trying to understand who the other person is and work with that.
MW: That makes a lot of sense.
Yeah. Who are you? Who am I? What works? I think one of my issues is that I’ve tried so hard to forget about the rules– but lately I find I’m actually comfortable with some of them. And I’m just now realizing at forty-something that, oh, I kind of like that. For whatever reason- it might just be my personality or, I just don’t want to do a particular task –
MW: Right – like, isn’t a man supposed to do this?
Yeah. Or understanding that the person I’m with, maybe he’s just better at this particular thing than I am, so I’ll let him do that. And vice versa. I just think we get too hard and strict about, these are the roles. And they change over time, you know? The longer you’re together, you might become more capable at something that you weren’t very good at before. You might say, hmm, I like this and I’ll do it. Marriage is what you make it.
MW: Are you married in the conventional sense?
I am not married in the conventional sense. I am not legally married. If Illinois had a common law marriage – which it doesn’t, because we looked it up (laughs), we would be common law. We’ve been together 14 years. We’ve lived together almost ten years.
MW: Can I ask why you chose not to get married in the conventional sense?
I have never been interested in having something sanctioned by the state that I think is personal. I understand the economic reasons for it. I understand… for example, there’s this Supreme Court case with this same sex couple who had been together 40 years, and they had a civil union. Anyway, when her partner died she inherited all this stuff but there was like a million dollar estate tax charged by the government. See when you’re married, you don’t get taxed. So I understand why people want to get married for that reason, but I’ve always seen marriage as something different. Not an economically based thing, but a personal thing that is about me and this other person. And our family. And I think growing up also, I saw a lot of marriages that were sanctioned by the state and the church, but that I feel were horrible. I’m not as judgmental now the older I’ve gotten, but I’ve seen some things that really didn’t work. People were so taken with, we gotta go to the courthouse and get married or we’ve got to go to the church and get married. If my partner and I decide to do it, it will probably be a big party.
I never fantasized about weddings when I was younger. I wasn’t one of those girls who thought, oh my wedding’s going to be this, or this is what my dress is going to look like. I always fantasized more about the partner I would have and the family I would have. And how I could do it differently than some other marriages I’ve seen. And then the older I’ve gotten I’ve learned to look at those relationships and also take what’s good. Some of them were just no good (laughs). There was nothing redeeming about them other than the children they produced.
I was just never that girl. I’ve gone to weddings where I thought oh this is beautiful, but the marriage is the relationship, not the wedding. I think weddings have always been a turnoff for me in terms of the big productions, but the intimate, family weddings, I would always go – yeah, I like this. And those people, I always respected what happened in their marriage later, you know – the family they were trying to build. Watching them and seeing how it wasn’t easy, even with the best of the best. What turned me off of conventional marriage mostly was seeing things that made me uncomfortable growing up.
MW: Do you want to elaborate on that at all?
Seeing marriages to the extreme of physical abuse, things like that. Seeing people who were unfaithful. I mean consistently unfaithful to their partner. That’s just problematic. I don’t understand. I mean, why are you married? (laughs) Why are you trying be committed to people? And I’ve seen a lot of people who were together for 20 years who hadn’t cheated on each other. And I thought, ok, this one is sanctioned by law and by God, and that one’s not. But that one’s working a lot better in my opinion.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, many people encouraged me and my partner to get married. The very ones encouraging me to get married had their own partners, and their idea was, if he leaves you, you’ll be in a better situation. But these very people had their own husbands leave them while they were married and they wound up raising a child by themselves, essentially. Having to take their partner to court the entire time for child support. Whereas the partner I had, had already committed financially to this child. When I found out I was pregnant, he established all that immediately.
MW: Are you saying he established child support immediately?
Before she was born, he put away money for her. He said, this is established, this is for her, this is her money. And also as soon as she was born- well she might have been a few weeks old – we had the child support stuff all figured out. That let me know that even if he and I didn’t stay together, he was committed to her. I knew he was committed to her emotionally as a father, you know, as a parent presence. But the fear that a lot of women have – I’m going to be doing this by myself financially – I saw a lot of that from people, especially from family, and friends of my mother’s.
And I also saw relationships where gender … it didn’t feel like two people who respected and liked each other. It felt like work. Which is of course in contrast to the things you see in the TV and movies where it’s all romance. I always felt like I wanted something where, this is my friend, we like each other, with also the understanding that- and this was the older I got – that the romance part of it is not going to always be present. Just like any other relationship, you have periods where you’re really happy, and then other periods where you’re having to really work hard at communicating. And that’s any relationship that you care about. If you don’t care about the relationship you can say, forget this (laughs). I’m not going to be bothered with this drama. But if it’s somebody you’re invested in – your child, your parents, your siblings, your partner – then you want to expend that energy, You say, ok, let’s work through this. I didn’t see… I saw a lot of people going through motions. I saw a lot of people who – particularly women – who were working, coming home and working…
MW: (Laughs) Right? Working, and then coming home and working…
Going to work in an office, coming home and working some more. And I didn’t see husbands doing that. As I got older, I recognized some families, like, oh yeah, I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back I realize, the husband would cook. Sometimes in your youth you don’t see all of it, and then you step back as a person with some experience and go, oh I see it now. He may not have cooked but he brought home dinner twice a week. He did laundry. I can recall my uncle combing my cousin’s hair. And then I go, ok, so there were these things.
Those gender things really impacted me, though. And also, the idea that the man is supposed to be the breadwinner. And the idea that if he can’t do that, there’s something wrong with him. I never liked that. It didn’t seem fair to me. If there’s a husband who stays home and takes care of kids and feeds them and washes their hair and does the laundry and she goes to work every day – if that’s the way you’ve worked it out, so be it. Let it work for you. If there’s a partner who is not willing to wait at home or bringing in any money, then that’s a problem, with any spouse.
I was always just really looking at these relationships. I saw physical abuse. Disparity between gender and work. There was a “we’re in this together” mentality that I didn’t see enough of to want to do it. Or it was all Disney, you know. Princesses and diamond rings. But many of the women I saw who had diamond rings and their husbands bought them this and that, and they had the best car – their husbands were cheating on those women. And I thought, so, keep your diamond ring. A lot of women would accept that, though – thinking, I got a diamond ring and I get to drive a fancy car. And all that has to do with economics. They don’t want to be hustling out there, trying to make it. I just felt that, for a long time, that marriages were messed up. From the things I saw I thought, this is some kind of slavery. (laughs) And it felt to me that people who weren’t legally married in that institution seemed happier. Much more at peace with who they were, and are.
MW: What are your expectations for your partner?
Support. Emotional support. Which sometimes is probably unfair, because you need to be able to do a lot of that stuff for yourself. But I like emotional support. I need a cheerleader at home – somebody to say, you can do this, or, it’s going to be okay. Or ask, what do you need? And I want to be that for my partner. I expect equity. Fairness. I think sometimes one person at different points in the relationship is probably doing more in one area than the other person. So, my work equity is probably more with my daughter and what’s going on with her, in terms of taking her where she needs to go – piano, and this and that. His equity, his work comes in on the economic side of things, because a lot of my money is going to her. So his money, his work, is going toward providing and maintaining our home. To pay for long term kinds of things like the house, and taxes on the house. And he’s able to do that with the kind of job he has. At some point, that might be different. The older she’s gotten, he’s been able to take her to certain things, depending on his work schedule.
When she was a baby, I had more to do – nursing, you know – my body was so involved. There wasn’t a lot for him to do in that respect. But even though he wasn’t raised around babies, he still needed to know how to take care of her. I taught a Friday night class when she was first born. Instead of his mother keeping her, I wanted him to keep her for those three hours, without me around to say, that’s not how you do it. He needed to find his own way to do it, and make mistakes. My mother would say, he might be giving her the milk too hot, and I would say, maybe, but I might be giving her the milk too hot, too.
MW: So many women assume that because they’re the mom, they know the perfect way to do it.
Right, yeah. But all we know is we may have had some practice with babies. That doesn’t make you an expert. The first time I told him to change a diaper, he was like, uhhhh, and I said, oh, you never changed a diaper before, have you? And I was like, ok, let me show you this, and he said, ok, don’t stand next to me while I do it. Don’t watch me. (laughs) The equity… I don’t want there to be this sense of, you’re the man, and I’m the woman. Sometimes things break down traditionally, and it’s ok if I’m comfortable doing certain things. I want equity. I want fun, friendship. Which is different from romance. I’ve never been a big traditional romance person, because I always think that stuff is cliché and trite. Like, I’m going to give you a box of chocolate covered strawberries. (laughs) I don’t want that.
MW: And it’s only sexy because men want to watch us eat them. (laughs)
Yeah! Or they saw it on TV. I like stuff that means you know me. It’s sexier and more romantic to me to feel like you know me. I like when he gets me flowers but it doesn’t have to be all the time. Just to say, I’m thinking about you, that’s more romantic to me. Or to have an inside joke. Our own language. That we can laugh at something and nobody knows what the hell we’re laughing about. That is the kind of stuff I like. I’ve always been that kind of person. Especially after college. (laughs) You’re always so enthralled with relationship stuff in college. Everybody wants to get married, and this is the kind of ring that you’re supposed to want. That stuff is such a turn off for me now. I want fun. I want humor. I want a friend. That’s what I require.
MW: How old were you when you met your partner?
I was 34.
MW: How old were you when you got pregnant?
MW: You talked about how when you had your baby, your partner set aside money for her and that he was financially responsible right away. Also, you said you’ve observed certain marriages and realized they weren’t for you, and that you prefer a less traditional arrangement. How do you think your age influenced your decision making? How do you think it would have been different if you’d met your partner at 22 and had a baby at 23?
You’re absolutely right. My age did impact that. Because not only was he old enough to be an adult with a certain financial maturity, I was an adult. Even if he had said, I’m out of here, I was a tenure track professor at a university. I had a salary. I had health insurance. At 22 I wouldn’t have had any of that and we would have both been scrambling. But we were both at an age where we could say, yes, first of all, I want this child. I can take care of this child financially, which is a big deal. It’s all about love, but if you’re struggling to take care of somebody, that’s hard on two people. It meant everything to know that I was capable, that he was capable, and that this child would have a place to live. That it was safe, and that there was plenty of food. And if she got sick, we could just go to the doctor. And if she needed medicine, we could just go get it. We had a car and car insurance. Those kinds of things at 22… I was working on a master’s degree when I was 22. I would have been adjuncting at a bunch of places. He was a teller at a bank when he was in his 20s, and he was still in college. We would not have been in the same kind of position. And I think my expectations for a relationship would have been very different when I was 22.
MW: Talk about that.
Well I think I would have been more traditional. I would have accepted…when all the relatives said I needed to get married I would have said, ok. We would have had a wedding and done all that stuff but I would have been mad and resentful the whole time. Because actually, at 22 I was engaged to somebody. I accepted the ring and I remember putting the ring on my finger – and I loved him – but then saying, I ain’t marrying nobody. There was a voice in my head going, is you getting ready to marry him? And me saying back, naw I ain’t getting ready to marry him. I mean, I loved him. I wanted to be with him. And one part of me was like, ok, I’m getting married. And then the other part was like, um, this is never going to happen, for real. (laughs) And he turned out not to be a mentally healthy person. There were a lot of issues. And I think I knew that in my heart. I always tell my girlfriends, I remember buying one bride book and looking at the dresses, and then I think I threw it away when I moved out of the dorms. I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Because I knew we were too young.
The 20s doesn’t seem too young – I mean you’re an adult – but I was too young. There were too many things I wanted to do. I didn’t have the patience. I just didn’t know who I was. In my mid-30s, I had done some living. I had been in relationships and knew what I didn’t want. And I think that the thing that changed everything for me was deciding it was ok if I wasn’t in a relationship. When I moved to Chicago I was like, you know what? It’s ok. That was one of the best Valentine’s Days I’ve ever had. I hung out with myself. I bought plants for my apartment, I went to the movies. I wasn’t depressed about who I was with or who I wasn’t with, you know? It was great. And as soon as that happened, I met somebody.
Also I said to myself, I’m not going to depend upon a type that I think is best for me, you know – like an artist or a writer or professor. I had this type – bohemian or artsy or whatever. I let go of that and started to see these other human beings, these other men who had plenty to offer and were kind and generous. I said, just try dating someone who’s not in that category. And it’s worked out well. In your mid-30s – and he was the same way – we’ve already had drama. So that was not attractive. No more drama. I think at 22 and 23, you almost attract drama, especially if you’re an artist. Everything is dramatic. And you start to decide, I don’t want this stuff anymore. So yeah, economically, it would have been very different if we’d gotten together at 22. And even in our thirties, it was still stressful. Anytime you’re in a new relationship and you have a pregnancy and a newborn and a child in a brand new relationship, is very stressful. Because you’re still getting to know each other. It’s like warp speed. So instead of 14 years together it feels like 24. (laughs) I tell him, I’ve known you a loooooooong time. (laughs)
MW: Did your partner have the same ideas about marriage as you, or did he want a more traditional marriage?
He was like me about getting married. I don’t want to completely speak for him, but I know we both felt the same way about weddings. We were sort of like, you know, why do people spend 30 thousand dollars on a wedding? That could be their down payment on a house…
MW: College tuition, vacation…
Something, you know? Pay your bills, whatever it is. So we agreed on that. His mother was very independent, even though she was married for a number of years. She really was uber competent. She could run a household and work. She was stressed, she told me later– but she knew how to do so many things. If she took her car to the shop, she knew exactly what was wrong with that car. And those mechanics were not going to screw her over. So although my partner doesn’t consider himself a feminist, from his ideas about women, I could already tell he came from a competent woman. So his expectations about what women could do… he automatically thought I knew how to take care of things. But there were some things I didn’t know how to take care of. Because even though I’m a feminist, there were some things that I couldn’t do, or I didn’t know how to do. He was kind of thrown off by that, like wait a minute. Just like I assumed he could change a diaper, he was like, I thought you would know how to invest and do these kinds of things. (laughs) I’m a poet. I was an adjunct professor and a poet so it’s like, invest what?
But yeah, he was nontraditional in that sense. I honestly think that a lot of his aversion to marriage had to do with financial equity. To be perfectly honest, I think a lot of it had to do with fear of being tied to somebody financially, and then if it didn’t work out, having to go through a lot of craziness. But I made it clear to him that, although we have a child, I don’t expect you to take care of me. When we’re kicking it, or in a relationship, I’m not expecting you to take care of me. I think when he saw that, he felt better. And even after we had a child together, it was still difficult for me to let him take care of me. We were both responsible for her, but when he would say, yes we are responsible for her but you are her mother and I love you and I want you to be okay too…
MW: Because she can’t be ok if you’re not ok…
Right. There was a part of me that felt beholden, like I’m taking something from him. So I was over-the-top the other way, like, no, you just take care of her. But I began to soften up about that. I realized yeah, I’m also a human refrigerator for this child. I gotta feed her. I’m the one buying diapers. So slowly, I let him do things for me. And my thing was always, how do I reciprocate? And at that early stage, there wasn’t much I could do to reciprocate. Other than cook a meal or something like that. Now, at the stage we are now, he still has more economic capital than I do. So, how do I reciprocate? Well, I cook a meal. Or, I’m responsible for meals. I have food in the house for him. He comes home – even if I’m not cooking the food – there’s food for him. He’s a vegetarian, so I always make sure there’s something for him to eat. Gifts are not… I can’t spend a whole lot of money on a gift for him and he doesn’t want me to. He’s like, you ain’t got no money so… (laughs) So my gifts become gumbo at Christmas or crocheted scarves. He put on a scarf the other day and I was like, where you get that scarf? He said, you made it for me.
And also I reciprocate by being by his side when he needs support. And it became a more relationship then, not a transaction. That’s the way having a child early on made it difficult. Because I didn’t want to be that woman who says, how much money you got? or, you better get me this. I hate that kind of woman. I can’t deal with those kinds of people. And so I said, nope, just take care of our daughter. If you’re going to put a down-payment on a condo for the baby and me to live in, that’s for her. But he was saying, I want you to have what you like. Don’t just get the house… I mean, do you like this place? Is this a place you can live in? Do you like the neighborhood? And I was just tense about that.
I think he had seen as many bad relationships as I had, so he knew what he didn’t want. And I think right now we’re at a place where we’ve both calmed down about a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t matter. And now we see ourselves as a family, instead of only these two separate people. We’re a unit now. Now that we’re family, my mother is his mother in-law. So, early on in our relationship, he didn’t even know what to call my mother. He wasn’t raised in the south so he wasn’t going to call her Ms. Lucille. But then all of a sudden, my mother had a name. The children had given it to her. My daughter and nephews gave her a name and she became Mama Lu to him. My sister became his sister in law. His sister became my sister in law. His mother was always my mother in law (laughs). But, we became family. And when his mother passed, I think her death impacted that dynamic.
Also when you’re working as a unit, as a family, you forgive a lot more. My daughter and I always say, oh, that’s just your daddy. And I heard him say it other day to her, well, that’s just how mama is. (laughs) And I was like, hey, wait a minute, I’m supposed to say that about you! (laughs) And we laughed about it. When you’re in a marriage, even when it’s two people and no kids, you’re family. And when you start thinking about family, it feels different than saying marriage, to me. I just have all those crazy connotations with marriage. But when people say family, I can relate. I always saw myself having a family. We both knew we wanted something different. And we still try to figure it out every day. (laughs)
MW: Is your partnership forever?
I don’t know. This is anonymous, right?
MW: (Laughs) Yes, it’s anonymous.
I don’t know. I love him. But two years ago, I was ready to go. There was too much head bumping. I felt like, this person will never understand who I am, or let me be. But I think he started to understand that’s the place where I was and started to work on himself. Which then made me more forgiving. And I said, ok, he’s working on himself, now I gotta go work on myself. I can’t just be the one that everything is happening to. So yeah, I don’t know. But I will say this – even if we were to break up – and this would make it difficult for another man or another woman who wanted to date either of us – we will still be family. And I think that’s another thing people don’t quite understand. When you have children with people, and you have a long term relationship with someone, they’re still your family. His mother will be the only mother in law I ever have, for real. Even if he and I broke up and I was with somebody else, he’d still be my family. That is my daughter’s father. The father I picked for her. I mean even if it happened by accident – I didn’t have to have the baby. This is the person that’s meant to be your father and I accept that and I loved him and I picked him. As much as my mother talks about my stepfather, (laughs) he ain't this, he ain’t that, you know – his mother is in the hospital and my mother is so worried. And they’ve been divorced over 20 years. But that’s her mother in law. It doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if we did end our formal relationship. We’d still be family. Whether he knows it or not. (laughs)
MW: Well, I think you answered everything…
We could talk all day. We done? I can run my mouth…(laughs)
MW: We’ve been talking for like 40 minutes. I have to type all this up! (laughs) It was awesome talking to you. This was a great interview. Anything you want to say that I didn’t ask?
Just… people need to create their own families and not be so pressured by the rules. You’ll find that some of these laws of nature are true, but some of them are false. And it’s up to us to figure that out. That’s it.
MW: Thank you.