Anatomy of a marriage, Part 1

Recently, I discovered Cloud’s blog Wandering Scientist. I really like her writing; her thoughts on the election have echoed my own (the ones I can’t manage to get down) and her “Weekend Reading” posts are amazing–so many links to great articles that I missed throughout the week but I so need to read.

She is also really good at linking to past posts in which she touched on a topic that she is delving into again. Last weekend I fell down a rabbit of these links to a post where she admits that she can’t really understand why some couples cannot maintain an equitable division of labor, despite the fact that both parties believe that marriage should be an partnership.

You see Cloud has the kind of marriage most woman want, where the childrearing and chores are divided, if not equally, in way that feels equitable to both parties. Sure things get out of balance, sure they have arguments, but they always find a way to work it out.

In that post from 2012, Cloud presents two marriage scenarios, one in which the marriage looks like her own, and one in which it looks like, well, mine. Then she asks her readers why they think a couple in a marriage like mine (where the woman is dissatisfied with the division of labor) can’t manage a marriage like hers. She wasn’t so interested in the cultural messages at play, because supposedly both couples are internalizing them, but instead wanted to know why some couples can’t achieve an equitable division of labor, even if both partners say they would ultimately prefer that.

There are over 150 comments on that post – many are responses to comments and then responses to those responses. I read them all. I thought a lot about the question, because I am in that situation and I wonder a lot why we can’t seem to manage a more equitable division of labor.

Her post inspired me to write a response, not so she can better understand (she wrote this post 4 years ago, and gained a lot of understanding from the responses–I don’t think she’s thinking much about this stuff anymore).

So I started to think about why I think my marriage is the way it is, and I kept falling back farther into the chapters of my life, until I realized there are even pieces of my childhood conspired to create the marriage I am trying to improve today.

So here goes. An attempt to explain why (again, I believe) my husband and I were fated to fall into a set of relationship dynamics that neither one of us realized we were signing up for.

I really do believe it all begins in my early childhood, as I watched my mother mourn my sister (who died at three months old having never left the NICU), and then lose three sons to stillbirth (at the time they were considered miscarriages but they all occurred between 20 and 24 weeks). She never went to therapy to properly process these loses, which were rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the friends or family. While I have very few concrete memories from this time, I truly believe this left me with a fundamental fear of not only losing pregnancies but also being unable to have a child.

That fear was compounded by the fact that after a few years of pretty regular periods (they started the day I turned 12), I stopped menstruating entirely for almost a decade. My mother also suffered from amenorrhea, which she attributes to the difficulty she had getting pregnant (it took her over two years to get pregnant with me).

Basically, I went into my twenties assuming I’d have a hard time conceiving and carrying a pregnancy to term. Having kids and being a mom was also my only goal in life; I had no professional aspirations to speak of.

From 16 to 21 I was attempting to manage a pretty crippling depression. I tried all sorts of SSRIs, and therapy but nothing helped for very long. Finally, at around 22, I emerged from the fog, fundamentally changed.

Perhaps it was because of the depression, perhaps because of the weight I gained when I was depressed, or perhaps because of who I was (I’m guessing it was an intricate combination of all three), I never found myself in a romantic relationship of any kind, despite pining unproductively after many people over the years. Sure I never really put myself out there, but nobody tried to start a relationship with me either. For that reason, at 24, I was sure I not only was never going to find a partner, but that I was basically unloveable.

So when I met my husband I felt like I’d won the lottery. Not only did someone love me, but he was a smart, interesting, hilarious guy who could make me laugh my ass off. I pretty much immediately started planning our life together.

The problem was, he didn’t want kids.

This obviously was a deal breaker for me. But I was so terrified that my husband was some kind of unicorn, possibly (probably?) the only man on earth who would ever love me, I pushed us toward parenthood, instead of realizing I should probably just leave.

By this time I was 28. Even when I could be level headed about finding someone else again, I was pretty damn sure it wasn’t going to happen in the next two or three years. I was so sure I was going to have problems getting pregnant, I was panicked to get started. I was running out of time. I literally had conversations with myself in which I considered two distinct possibilities: leaving my husband and finding someone who actually wanted to have a family with me, but then not being able to build that family because we’d missed our window, or having kids with my husband and leaving him if he really hated parenthood. I was so fixated on having kids, I couldn’t fathom ever being happy in the first scenario. It felt like a death sentence.

Continued tomorrow…   {Sorry, it started getting REALLY long.}



  1. Hugs. This makes a lot of sense so far even though you’re not done.

    I’m so sad for your mom. Losing a child at 3 months would have gutted me, but then to go on and have three stillbirths and have them not even acknowledged…

    1. Yeah, I figured you could all tell where this is going… 😉

      My mom’s story still breaks my heart. I don’t know how she isn’t totally broken herself.

  2. It’s so mysterious to me why miscarriages & stillbirths were not discussed back then but it was just something that was never talked about…something that could have been so cathartic. My heart goes out to you guys.

  3. I feel like I see where this is going, and it does make a lot of sense. It is really quite eye-opening to think about all the history that makes us who we are as people, and how this also impacts what we bring to a relationship. its not as simple as “if he loved you he’d do xyz” (as I know was mentioned in some comments on that particular post). My heart aches for your mother, what a nightmare scenario, so many losses, so little support.

    1. “It is really quite eye-opening to think about all the history that makes us who we are as people, and how this also impacts what we bring to a relationship. its not as simple as “if he loved you he’d do xyz” <-- Yes. This. It's been kind of eye opening for me to take the time to write all this out and really think about it. Now I'm super curious what brought my husband to his place, why he said yes, he'd have kids with me even though he was terrified. I'm kind of dying to know... I wonder if he could even articulate it.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. While you didn’t say it explicitly, I can see how the fear of not being able to have a child ends up making
    having a child a central driving focus in one’s life.

    Many good thoughts to your mom, who from the sounds of it, had to bear these losses alone.

    1. “I can see how the fear of not being able to have a child ends up making having a child a central driving focus in one’s life.”

      I had not seen that! I never put that together, but now that you say it it makes a lot of sense. I’m going to think more about this. I’ve always wondered why I was so driven to have kids. I think you may be on to something…

      1. Yes. A close friend lost one of her ovaries at age 3, and later developed pcos. She spent her teens and early 20’s terrified of not being able to get pregnant. She ended up rushing into marriage and getting pregnant 6 months later. Luckily she really does seem to love being a mom, although the marriage didn’t work out. But I definitely see how many of her decisions were made based on that fear of not being able to have kids.

      2. I relate to this so much, although my situation is a little different. I have always been afraid of not having children (no medical indication that this would be a challenge, just my nature to worry about things), and in my case it came true. My husband and I have been through a three year infertility struggle (male factor primarily, although my doc is now concerned about potential egg quality issues because of our lack of success in even creating embryos) and recently adopted.

        ANYWAY, for those of us who want families so dearly/desperately, it is absolutely a driving force.

        Our struggle consumed my life in many ways for years. And it has been hard on a marriage that wasn’t ideal to begin with.

        And now we’re beginning our parenting journey already exhausted and frustrated with each other.

        1. “And now we’re beginning our parenting journey already exhausted and frustrated with each other.” <-- We entered into parenthood with our relationship similarly stressed. We hadn't been through three years of IF, but I was a mess during our one year of TTC and our ectopic. Then anxiety totally overwhelmed me during my pregnancy, and that was not easy to live with. By the time we were parents we were already very frayed around the edges. It's not an easy way to make that massive transition.

  5. Sorry for not commenting in ages, but I’m always reading when your posts hit my email! I remember you telling me about your Mom’s experience with pregnancy, and it still guts me to read about it today (and to think of how much of that you internalized as a child). I look forward to part 2…

    1. Yeah, my mom’s story is totally insane. So much loss. I don’t know how she managed to keep it together. I really, really don’t.

  6. Talking about miscarriages then was sort of like …. well, actually I can’t tell you how unacceptable it would have been because my examples are today’s unprintable behaviors.
    It was not normal or accepted for middle-class or blue collar women, not in a committed relationship, to have children out of wedlock when you were forming your ideas of parenthood between the age of 6-17. Of course you didn’t picture ‘single motherhood by choice’ as a choice. Makes walking away from a relationship that brought you joy and laughter and love VERY hard.
    Thank you for this thought-filled post and the next one.

    1. I did sometimes think about having kids myself, but that seemed like it would be SO HARD! I was scared to do it alone, and I wanted to do it with someone. I guess I just hoped it would all work out in the end. I was naive. But I’m not sure it was mistake yet either. We’re still working on things.

  7. Also looking forward to the next post. I haven’t read the Wandering Scientist post from 2012 but it seems obvious to me why people are in marriages with an unequal distribution of work. There are two people in every marriage — you can’t control what the other party does. I guess you can always leave, but leaving is often worse than staying. I’m puzzled as to her bewilderment.

    1. Cloud actually says that she would divorce a man who was unwilling or unable to divide things in a way that felt equitable. So there you go…

      1. Yeah I figured. But that’s easier said than done. Divorce is really expensive and logistically exhausting. You also see your kids less and give up some control on how they are raised. Again, doesn’t surprise me that women don’t divorce their husband’s over this. Everyone has different priorities and breaking points. I’d probably divorce a man who voted for Trump, but others wouldn’t.

        1. That point was made in the comments and she understood where people were coming from. I think I would walk away from a marriage if I felt my husband wasn’t contributing because of a lack of respect. I don’t feel that is true in my case. I do think my husband respects me, I just don’t know if he can ever value my contributions accurately because I do so much that he has never done, so he has no frame of reference for what it requires. I guess I just have to accept that and move on.

          1. THIS. I plan to comment on the next post (part 2) as well, but I relate to this so much. Can you figure out how to handle/fix it and let us all know?

            My husband is a good person. He is loyal, smart, funny, and we share similar values/politics.

            BUT, he is terrible at many things that make a household run smoothly and, honestly, are necessary adult tasks. I knew this a bit when we got married (at a young-ish age, but not super young– 28), but I thought because of his general good traits that we could work on it and that as he aged and shared a household with me, it would get better.

            Well, spoiler alert, it hasn’t. Our careers have gotten more demanding as we have gotten older and our household responsibilities have increased (taking care of the house, planning for retirement, etc.) and we recently added a child (and more tasks and less time) to the mix.

            I don’t believe divorce is wrong and I do have clear deal-breakers that would make the decision to end a marriage more clear.

            BUT, what do you do about the gray area in between. Sometimes I think it’s not worth it. Sometimes I think I need to be more gracious about doing more work, knowing that he never will. I just don’t know.

            1. “BUT, he is terrible at many things that make a household run smoothly and, honestly, are necessary adult tasks.” <-- Oh my god yes! I sometimes wonder how my husband is the successful person he is. I guess because his parents helped him, and now I help him. How he managed in college and law school is a mystery. I know that when we started dating he had been living in his apartment for five months and the bathroom clearly had never been cleaned. In fact, I had to go buy all the supplies to clean it myself because I couldn't stand to even wash my hands at the sink let alone shower. Should this have warned me to leave him? Maybe. Except my bathroom wasn't spotless at the time (nor is it today). I know what you mean about the grey area. If my husband flat out refused to participate, or I felt he was evading things out of spite or blatant disrespect, I would leave him. But I honestly think he doesn't step up because he doesn't know how or is overwhelmed or just doesn't care that much about something. I have seen him not pursue personal goals because he is unmotivated, so I know our issues are not so much about me but about him. So what then? It's a harder question to answer for sure.

  8. I view my marriage as being very similar to what the Wandering Scientist has. Do this post is insightful as it helps me understand how you came to find yourself in the situation you are confronting. To answe Annie’s question, the bewilderment comes in understanding how two seemingly similar sets of couples could have such different outcomes. It’s not judgement but more of trying to understand the dynamic. Noemi shows that the answer is fairly complex, which I do appreciate as it helps me empathize and learn.

    1. I guess it just doesn’t surprise me. Everybody is different and so every couple has their own dynamic. I think moms are subject to more judgment and expectation than dads, so they always step in when something needs to be done. The dads that don’t step in are probably just more selfish than the dads that do (assuming everything is equal with regard to non-parenting responsibilities). I’m kind of lazy myself, so I let a lot of household stuff go — I guess if I were a more generous person, I would take out the trash rather than wait for my husband to do it. It just doesn’t surprise me that some men are better partners with regard to childcare than others.

    2. Wandering Scientist was also coming from a place not of judgement, but just wanting to understand. Which I get. Honestly for me, it’s hard to understand how people can have an equitable relationship. When you’re not in one, it seems like it would be so hard to achieve. I’m glad some people have it; I hope we can get closer before our kids really start internalizing our dynamic.

      {An aside to that: Interestingly, my husband’s parents had a much more equitable arrangement when it came to parenting and domestic duties than my parents did. At least, that is what I have gathered. I think part of why I do everything is I saw my mom do everything and so my default assumption is that I should do everything too. My husband’s dad was very involved, so it’s not like he didn’t see that. I guess it seeing your parents’ dynamic at work doesn’t always mean you will perpetuate it.}

      1. “Honestly for me, it’s hard to understand how people can have an equitable relationship. When you’re not in one, it seems like it would be so hard to achieve.”


      2. I think it’s hard to understand when you’re not living that situation. Grey is the one in charge of pick-ups and drop-offs at daycare (he has the car and the Beats’ daycare is by his work). He also takes on responsibilities like taking out the trashing, doing his share of the cooking and managing finances. I don’t know if there truly is an even split with work, but we both acknowledge all the other does. But this was also our relationship long before we had children/were trying for children. This idea of partnership was established to boloster us through graduate school.

        Given you’ve talked about feeling guilt about pushing your husband into parenting, I wonder if he is also subconsciously internalizing this as a reason for not being more involved/acknowledging all you do. It would be an interesting conversation to have as him feeling like he was forced could explain the inequality you feel. I know Grey has had similar conversations with coworkers who are unhappy and this theme of unhappiness/punishment for loss of control comes up a lot.

  9. A number of thoughts I’m still forming …

    but first, this – ” I was so fixated on having kids, I couldn’t fathom ever being happy in the first scenario. It felt like a death sentence.” I really appreciate your honesty, that you articulate this. When we in the No Kids zone say we’re living the ALI community’s worst nightmare, this is what we mean.

    Whilst I understand it and can relate to it somewhat – I felt that way when we went through ectopics ourselves, and then infertility – I didn’t always, and at least in my 20s felt strongly that I didn’t want to be pushed or bullied into having children. I was not going to do it simply because society assumed that’s the way it should be, or because my husband wished it. My husband knew clearly how I felt before we lived together and married. If he’d wanted to leave, he could have. And I guess now I am pleased that he has always chosen me over the family we theoretically could have.

    So I guess I do have some sympathies for your husband. I know that one of the reasons I was adamant about my not-until-I’m-ready policy, was because I didn’t want to resent my husband for forcing me into something I didn’t really want. (That’s also the reason – 15 years later – I felt I couldn’t push too hard with him during infertility to look at things he wasn’t prepared to do either.)

    Right … now to read Part II.

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