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Getting Mad at Good Men
“Look, Nique, I’m gonna tell you something,” my mom offered ominously, “and you’re not gonna like it.”
I knew what she was going to say. She says it every time she senses tension between my husband and me.
“I know he has his flaws or vices, but as far as men go, he’s a good one. Women see a man like that — married young, a good provider, and he cleans and helps with the kids. You need to pick your battles. Because one day he might be at work, and some chick might say ‘Does your wife know how lucky she is?’ and he might say, ‘No.’ There’s always another woman ready to take your place. Would you rather be with him or be right to be mad?”
My mom was right about two things: that I hated that advice, and that my husband is a catch.
He’s really handsome. I’ve known him since I was 15, and somehow he gets more and more handsome with time. Fatherhood is attractive on him — he’s an amazing father. We both grew up with pretty bad examples, yet somehow he’s a natural. He takes his domesticity seriously. Once, he went to three stores to find the perfect (minimal, black) apron. He loves to cook and finds genuine pleasure in organizing and cleaning. He doesn’t let me do his laundry, because he “does it a special way.” He works 12-hour days while I stay home with the kids and write. He provides health insurance for us all. He aligns himself with feminist ideals. He’s loyal, and his anger is quiet and nonviolent. Above and beyond by most male standards.
(If we’re going by the handbook) I, on the other hand, am hardly “wifey” material. I had model proportions when we got married, but two babies and a round of preeclampsia added about 100 pounds to all that. I’m an awful homemaker. I quit my job to avoid paying for daycare, but I always planned to keep working from home. Mothering isn’t enough for me. I resent the hell out of cleaning. When cooking, I get so overwhelmed and impatient at managing all the simultaneous elements that it makes me sweaty. I turn the stove up to high and everything burns. And I’m really bad at noticing all the little maternal/matronly things, like when it’s been a while and we need to buy new toothbrushes, or if my toddler is a bit ashy, or the baby’s sock fell off. My husband notices all that. By all conventional standards, I have no right to complain about any of my husband’s flaws and every reason to thank my lucky stars.
But I’m not going by conventional standards.
So I took my mom’s rhetorical question sincerely and found myself growing angry at the spectrum of it. Right and alone vs. suppressed and together? What kind of love expects you to swallow your feelings or it strays? No matter how many directions I veered from the original question, I wound up with the same translation:
The love that women receive is conditional. It’s contingent on carefully curating the way we vocalize and advocate for our needs. The better the man, the more reckless the woman who asks for anything more.
The other day, I offered to tend to the kids alone so my husband could do whatever he wanted with his day off from work. Solitude is coveted in our household. So are breaks. I wanted to give him the best thing I could think of. But at the end of the night, when he was back, I was exhausted and agitated after 12 extra hours of my toddler’s tantrums and my infant’s refusal to sleep. I took a hostile tone with him over something stupid. Naturally, he got mad at me. But I clung to my hostility, and later, when we were talking about it, I said:
“Sometimes, I just want room to be difficult.”
And he said:
“Why would you want to be difficult?”
And I said:
“I don’t know.”
What I should’ve said was: I want what you have by birthright. Or: I want to not be afraid to take up too much space in this marriage. I want to take a break from trying to shrink myself. To relax about my needs and flaws. My susceptibility to fucking up from time to time. For my brain to be conditioned to overwrite my minor bad with my major goods.
I didn’t say that, though, because I had taken up enough space for the night. Also, I had been a jerk and wasn’t about to fight for my right to be awful. What I really wanted was to address and correct an inequity that exists between us.
In defense of my husband, he didn’t put the inequity there to begin with. My mom did (though she did it to protect me from pain that I’m sure she’s experienced). My dad, too (the cause of a lot of the pain my mom experienced). And romantic comedies. And love songs. And all the racism and misogyny in the world that seep into everything and make it trash. I digress.
My husband is a “What do you need? How can I help?” guy. Also a “Damn, that thing that would require a lot of sacrifice on my part sounds really great for you. You should go for it” guy. He’s loved me through a lot of changes and hard times. With the exception of healthy boundaries, I’m pretty sure he loves me unconditionally.
But I have no idea what to do with that love except to contort myself in an effort to keep it.
Because difficult women aren’t taught to receive unconditional love. We’re taught to protect whatever kind of love we can get by offering our personhood up to it. No matter how my husband loves me, the pressure for me to play a particular role impacts us.
And though that role is meant to forge a sense of stability from a love that’s insecure, it actively inhibits women like me from embracing any sense of safety in a love that’s here to stay. Even if my husband offers me an unconditional love, I’m conditioned to adhere to societal conditions placed around my worthiness of it. And my husband is conditioned to feel secure no matter what. What are these roles if not a recipe for resentment?
Isn’t that the crux of a societal system of assigned roles and expectations, though? We’re unprepared for other possibilities. And if we want to know fullness feels like, we’re tasked with the burden of unlearning adherence.
I revisit my mother’s ultimatum, and I choose neither the stated or the implied.
I choose to trust in my husband’s offering of a loose kind of love.
I choose one where grievances don’t render me ungrateful.
I choose a love that allows us to be more than tired tropes, a lazy plotline.
I choose nuanced love, accepting and accountable.
I choose a love that won’t go wayfaring when I’m wrong — or right to be mad.
I choose the unconditional love reserved for men.
My partnership compels me to believe I can have that. It pushes me to exist outside the confines of the scraps society set out for me. I resist all systems that aim to make my love smaller, more restrained, less filling. Because women deserve the freedom to spread out, to complain, to be messy, to have needs, to be difficult. To gain weight, to lose track of time, to take a day off from curating a disappointment-free world for men. Women deserve a love that stands up to tension. My love beckons me to take what I deserve.