A few months after the birth of my first child, a piece of my tooth fell out whilst strolling in the park (I may have mentioned this before. If so, please bear with, hopefully the context is slightly different). It was alarming because it seemed unprovoked – I hadn’t been chewing on anything, nor had I eaten anything tough in the lead up to the event, such as nuts or seeds. But there it was: the corner of my front tooth, hanging on my lip. When I approached my dentist about it, she was relatively phlegmatic: new mothers are prone to stress-induced jaw clenching. She administered me with a clear retainer and told me to wear it to bed every night to prevent further cracks and chips.
Skip to Valentine’s Day 2014. After making (and cleaning up) a partially successful dinner (my fish cakes didn’t work, but my prawns and chocolate pots were of decent enough quality for a first-time execution), I take a shower only to discover that as the hot water soothes my various aches and pains, the biggest pain is emanating from my jaw; I more or less having to wrench it open with my hands in order to relax.
The tension isn’t really surprising and it’s been mounting for a while. People had prepared me for the advent of two children, that it was far harder than one expected. I kept waiting for the looming reality of it all to hit me but, so far, it had seemed okay. After all, you’ve already surrendered your autonomy with the first so further loss of autonomy isn’t much of a surprise (and I mean autonomy in every sense – physical, mental, emotional, etc.). But I suppose the insidiousness of it all is that with each passing day small bites are taken out of you, perhaps undetectable at first, then over a period of time you realise you’re feeling utterly defeated as the weight of physical exhaustion, failure, boredom and inequality cave in on you.
I wrote a post last year about money and gender dynamics in the home – or more specifically, my home. It was the first time my blog had ever received any attention (outside of that nugget of loyal reader friends – thank you, you know who you are!) and it freaked me out. Suddenly my comment field was full of remarks by various people, some of them teeming with camaraderie, but most of then rather pointed and perplexed at my obvious acceptance of what they considered an exploitative situation. Why wasn’t I taking my partner to task more? Why wasn’t I demanding our money situation be resolved? How could I live with someone who didn’t help out with the cooking or cleaning more? How could I be such a passive victim and domestic relic?
This was confronting to see because I have always considered myself quite the fighter. And I certainly wouldn’t consider myself accepting of the status quo in terms of gender politics. But then, there it was: evidence that other people’s relationships are far more modern and equitable than mine.
The problem with these sorts of forums is that it’s very easy to pass judgement on other people’s circumstances. I’ve certainly done it myself. But no one really knows what happens in relationships, even if one party is a notoriously public confessional writer. I know that fundamentally, neither the Doc nor I see the home as a context where roles should be gendered. It’s just sort of happened that way.
When I was 19, I moved out of home with four Glaswegian men in their late twenties. I knew them all – good lads, but a bit feral. We found this c.1970s chalet in Surry Hills (the ONLY non-terrace house in the whole area) to live in. It wasn’t exactly the cool place I had in mind but it was roomy and relatively cheap rent. On the day we got the keys, I envisaged we’d all meet there, have a good clean of the place and have a brief discussion about how the layout might go. When I arrived, they were already there with more than half of their revolting furniture and belongings already shoved into various corners of the house. I was clearly aghast and looked at my parents, who seemed to be looking the situation over nervously. As a result, there was always something slapdash about the place, something disorganised and transient. I was never able to settle and ended up not staying long.
On occasion, my relationship feels as if it’s followed a similar pattern. We moved in together because I was pregnant – we had no real belongings between us and no real plan. Three years on and we’re still operating within the same framework: a bit slapdash, making it up as we go. In many respects this is fine, but for us it seems to have meant falling into strangely gendered and archaic roles. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a housewife, if it’s a choice. But in many ways, I don’t feel like it was for me. Yes, yes, I chose to have children, blah, blah, blah. But like my first renting experience, there was never any discussion; things were just crammed into places without any thought of whether or not that was the optimal place for them. Now I’m beginning to feel a bit like a piece of furniture as well, crammed into a space I don’t necessarily feel is appropriate for me, but covered in enough dust that I can effectively be ignored.
So when people make comments to me about my apparent acceptance of my circumstances, I take umbrage. I don’t accept them, not at all. In fact, I’m so unaccepting of them that I spend a great deal of my day fighting against my constraints. I argue, I scream, I rant, I plead, I attempt to converse, engage. I try everything in my arsenal to even things out a bit between the Doc and I but mostly it just results in cliché: much eye-rolling and storming off to the bathroom. When you’re in it, it can be very difficult to have the same objectivity that others have regarding your situation and much of the time, yelling only to find you’re still losing the argument just gets tedious. Amidst all this door slamming and child-rearing, there doesn’t seem much room for fun or tenderness and definitely no romance.
After I spent the last hour or so of Valentine’s Day in the shower, prising my jaw bones apart and trying to shrug off the mounting tension that threatens to explode in a volcano of rage any day now, I went to bed. There, under the duvet, was the seal-like silhouette of the Doc, having already gone to bed before me. For me, that image has become such a symbol of disparity between us, that I have to resist, with every fibre of my being, the burning desire to leap onto the bed and start violently pummeling him.