Letter from a Kept Woman
On the plane to London with my daughter on my lap, the man in front of me immediately leaned his seat back as far as possible. The built-in television knocked my daughter in the head. I rolled my eyes and he must have felt it (or the head bonk) and turned TO MY HUSBAND to ask if it we were comfortable. AND MY HUSBAND answered him that yes, it was totally fine.
A few days later when we went into a bank to open a joint account, there was no way for me to get on it. There was actually no way for me to even get card access to an account only in his name, something our two lawyer mothers would certainly not advise. I imagined my husband handing me a weekly allowance and I’m pretty positive fire came out of my eyes.
That same day my Citibank credit card was flagged for fraud. When I called to remedy it, Citibank (feel free to address their sexist policies online) told me that because I didn’t have a United States number, I’d have to have a relative with the same last name in the states to verify my identity. Because I’m a woman who decided to take my husband’s last name, that meant an in-law would have to speak for me in order to access my funds, sexist archaic absurdity, and I’m sure my force of a mother-in-law who, of course helped me, would agree.
Double face-slapped with the reality that I’m nearing forty, a kept woman in a new country, and seeing for possibly the first time the sexist ground I stand on, I went to my husband, who happens to be my closest friend, for comfort.
“Accessing money hinging only on my connections with my husband is so fucked up.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It’s only temporary,” my husband assured me.
“The patriarchy? That’s good news. You mean until the end of civilization?”
“Well, the men in charge don’t seem to be doing that great of a job, so one way or another.”
“At least they can purchase some organic chicken breasts at the grocery store.”
“Real patriarchs don’t eat organic.”
In Texas I was the Executive Director of a popular nonprofit, Austin Bat Cave. I worked harder with more heart than I ever have before at any job. And I’m a hard worker and have had many jobs. One friend recently told me that although we weren’t friends when we were young, she remembered me as “that girl that had all the jobs.” It’s true. In order to fund my education and pay the bills, I worked anywhere from two to four jobs and attended college, as many classes as I could pack in between work hours. I worked at coffee shops, bars, nannied children, office jobs, at a mail order music memorabilia business, concert production and promotion, picked up shifts at temp agencies, washed dishes at a country club, painted the exterior of a house, a bored stint in corporate retail, sliced meat at a deli and basically anything that would get me from month to month. I’ve probably had dozens of jobs, most of them for longer than a year, many at one time. They taught me dignity, grace and skills, but never defined me. And they’ve been fun. I enjoy work.
When I was 19-years-old, I was hired as a consultant at the busy 24 hour coffee shop I’d worked at earlier in high school. The owner asked if I would stand behind his new store manager while he made drinks and critique his form. I told the manager he was going to hate me and he laughed. Two hours later, my throat hoarse from critique (he was not great at making coffee drinks), he told me he hated me. I shrugged and patted his back. If I would have seen my teenaged self from the other side of the counter I would have shouted at her to get into business school, to be her own goddamned boss, to buy stock in something-or-other, to rule at something and to start at that moment. I would have never told her to quit and move for her husband.
That’s what I’ve done.
I’ve done this before, too. When I was in my early twenties, I had my first committed relationship and, like many first committed relationships, it was super unhealthy. We were co-dependant. He was jealous. I was 100% focused on filling his needs and encouraging his desires and was equally as not focused on mine. I worked hard on him. And he flourished professionally. When we moved across the country for his dream job that I’d encouraged to the point of forced him to apply for, he worked 14 hour days, 6 days per week and played video games the remainder of his awake time.
Our last night in the house my husband and I own in Austin, I had a panic attack at the stupidity of what I’m doing again.
Except, I’m not doing that again.
For the past 11 years, I’ve been working hard and only doing what I love, and I’m not just talking about paychecks. I’ve been that woman that the imaginary person on the other side of the counter urged that girl to be. I built her. I’ve been the mother that I didn’t even know existed within me. And I’ve killed at it, all of it. And my husband who I met eight years ago, has not. He’s been hardly keeping his head above the surface of okay. And he’s been supportive. It’s his turn to shine.
Before I left my first boyfriend, in what I thought was desperation, he gave me two suggestions closer to where his job was, as he wanted me to stay: one was an MFA program, a good one, and the other was getting involved with a writing nonprofit nearby. I glared at him and mentally packed the U-Haul that I physically packed only a few days later. Years past now, with a writing MFA and management of that same nonprofit under my belt, I realized that I wouldn’t let him lead me the way that I led him. True, it was poor timing, too little too late and all of that, but he was right and, more importantly to note, I was wrong. Encouragement, even from a shitty boyfriend, is worth hearing.
When you’re a young girl, it seems as if you either have to decide to let the world float you in her pool, men pushing you this way and that, probably coping a feel here and there, or you have to be a closed-off badass, shouting at balding men about their milk steaming techniques. I chose the later until now.
The more gray I get, the more gray the world looks. There aren’t two simple choices of who to be. That man who leaned the seat into me and my daughter and then asked my husband about our comfort, fuck that dude. If I could time machine anywhere it would be back to that moment I would say so many witty and poignant things while giving my husband the shut up face and hand.
And that’s what I’d urge all privileged white men to do. Shut up (unless you’re going to ask thoughtful questions) and listen. Give us back our voices and make us visible. Believe us. That’s the job of an advocate. Lift us up onto your broad, manly shoulders. Activate us. You won’t regret it.
I choose to be a kept woman in the company of my husband because he is the strongest pair of hands, along with the rest of my carefully curated community, that I allow to keep me afloat.