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Hearts & Minds

Can Relationships Kill Our Sense of Competence?  

Many couples divide responsibilities along traditional gender roles. For this writer, following her divorce, that meant having to relearning the basics.

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Once upon a time, I came close to turning down a guest writer gig at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in order to avoid driving from Chicago to Milwaukee on my own. Though I did end up accepting the offer, I spent days dreading the drive, worrying that I would get lost or have car trouble or even that I would fall asleep behind the wheel for no reason. I yammered on about my anxiety endlessly to my then-husband, who had to give me driving directions. Let me be perfectly clear: The drive from Chicago to Milwaukee is two hours long, on a major highway. At the time, I was 42 years old, and had been driving since the age of 16. I drove my kids around Chicago on a daily basis, so it is not that I had a driving phobia. The simple—and now incredibly embarrassing—fact is that I had, for the past 20 years, done almost no “road trip” driving. My ex-husband, who was the type of person who could arrive in a country he’d never set foot in and immediately navigate around, decades before Google Maps, did almost all our driving on car trips—sometimes 18 hours without stopping—and absolutely all our navigation. I had, slowly and without even realizing it, come to think of myself as “incapable” of something as simple as driving my own car to the neighboring state.

If I’m being honest, my feelings of incompetence had been coming on slowly for years. I’d met my ex-husband four days after my 22nd birthday, and by the time of my Milwaukee driving terror, I had two master’s degrees, two published books, was an adjunct professor, and ran an independent press. Yet over two decades of coupledom, I had rarely-to-never: paid a bill, taken out the trash, changed a lightbulb that required a ladder, called a handyman, or had a job that provided health insurance. I did not know where the toolset or circuit breakers in my own home were located.

I thought of my role in our marriage less as some June Cleaver stereotype and more as our both catering to our strengths for the optimal functioning of our unit. For example, he had worked in science and finance, so he was actually more qualified to take charge of the family finances than I was. However, as his salary began to rise meteorically, and three children joined the mix, the division of our roles were increasingly drawn along distinct masculine and feminine lines. Only later would I learn that by sticking to the things that came easiest to me, I was potentially setting myself up for failure as an individual, outside the auspices of a couple.

At times, relying so much on my partner bothered me, but it wasn’t like I was sitting around eating bon-bons. I might not have known how to operate a toolset, but in addition to my writing, I taught hundreds of students, and edited and published thousands of writers over the years of my marriage. I was the primary caregiver to three kids, managed the household schedules, and for six years I was a caregiver to both my aging parents. Like many people of all sexual and gender orientations, I’d simply found myself in a certain pattern of coupledom, wherein roles that at first developed organically ultimately grew more and more rigid over time. Still, it was hard at times to see this as a problem. My ex and I were together for 25 years, and during that time, I cannot recall our ever having had a single fight about the things most couples allegedly argue about most: money and the children. This was because he made all decisions about money (he once bought a new car in cash without consulting me, for example, and I could not have cared less) and I made all decisions about the children, which he never criticized or questioned.

However, after a quarter century of such a coupleship, it’s hardly surprising that when I left my marriage in 2015, I found myself dazed by the “other half” of Adulting that would now be expected of me independently. And with the hindsight of three years gone by, what I still can’t help but wonder is whether I was also, for more than two decades, a weirdly enthusiastic co-conspirator in a form of highly gendered—if unintentional—control and oppression that slowly wore away at my range, confidence and competence as a full adult human being. The woman I was seemed to believe that if you didn’t like doing something, you didn’t have to do it, and someone with more innate skill and less aversion to the task would swoop in and manage it for you.

What is more damaging, however, even more than such entitled thinking, is believing that if you don’t do a thing, it means you are incapable of doing that thing, such that it comes to frighten and limit you.

If we examine ourselves through the most charitable lens, we all have space in for only so much knowledge and expertise, and sometimes life gets in the way of expanding that knowledge, as we age and the demands of our busy work and home lives require narrowing specializations.

Five months after leaving my marriage—and three months after being laid off from my dream teaching job so that I was now unemployed, I was diagnosed with two forms of early but aggressive breast cancer. As I was undergoing a bilateral mastectomy and then beginning four cycles of chemotherapy, my divorce was growing more contentious. One day, my ex-husband apparently contacted all the utilities providers of the home I lived in with our three children, and had the various accounts (electricity, gas, internet, phone, television) shut off and discontinued. The same day, our marital bank account was unexpectedly completely drained and diverted so that only my ex had access to the funds, whereas my debit card was being declined at the gas station; my check for my chemo wig bounced. Though this situation would not, clearly, have been ideal under any circumstances, it was made astronomically worse by my total ignorance—aided by my ex’s automatic online payments, the fact that he had taken our filing cabinets of paperwork with him when he moved out, and my lifetime of glib disinterest—about who our utilities providers even were.

But if necessity is the mother of invention, it is also the mother of resilience. I had put off changing these bills to my name for months—now I had no choice but to act. Several times I made a fool of myself by trying to reactivate accounts that didn’t exist. But of course, there are only so many utilities providers to call, and eventually I figured it out.

When you have had your breasts amputated and your head shaved—and then to boot have no electricity and your credit card is being declined … well, such things as a phobia of driving to Milwaukee begin to reveal themselves as neurosis born of luxury and privilege. In my mother’s generation, most of the women in our Italian-Latino neighborhood didn’t drive at all, so they remained dependent on their husbands for any movement in the world. I had advanced degrees and had traveled five continents, yet I had somehow allowed myself to become similarly dependent. I realized immediately that leaving my marriage meant much more than leaving a particular relationship, and that, no matter my romantic status or the strength of my new bond, I would never allow myself to become so blindingly dependent again.

Usually life will hand you certain moments dire enough that you will have to decide, in a deep irrevocable way, who you want to be. For a while, I spun in circles of panic. What if I got sick again? What if I couldn’t find a job? What if the side effects of cancer treatment, from premature menopause to lymphedema to worsened osteoarthritis “changed” me and made me less capable, right when I needed to be more? What I discovered is that, as long as I was operating from a place of fear, I made all the wrong choices. Slowly—and then not so slowly—I found that pushing myself helped me more than retreating; I found that making my own decisions helped more than letting anyone else dictate how I would see myself going forward. I refused to see myself as someone who could not make my own way and continue to grow and thrive. While there are very real reasons that women sometimes need to fear their partners, I relearned that it is when we come to doubt ourselves and operate from places of self-directed fear that we truly surrender all our power.

There are still things that pop up from time to time, reminding me of how little I once understood about how to run my own life. Vehicle city stickers and emissions testing; websites lapsed because the domain renewal was sent to my ex instead of me, because he handled … well … everything back then. But it turns out that an emissions test is a simple thing; it turns out that getting a new web domain is not exactly rocket science. It turns out that I am capable of taking four kids on a road trip to Niagara Falls and Montreal—of doing the drive home in one day. It turns out that I can find a full time job while simultaneously in cancer treatment, and insure myself, which should not, of course, be an astonishing fact or even one worthy of any particular pride, but felt like one—still, if I am honest, feels like one, because I believed myself reliant on someone else for my survival for so long.

For many years, my concept of feminism had to do with conspicuous adventure, with being fearless as an artist, with living my life on a wider canvas than my poverty-stricken, housewife mother had. Though those are intrinsic parts of me, I’ve come to associate my personal feminism with quieter forms of bravery too: responsibility, vigilance, attention.

I still hate paperwork, and numbers, and most logistical tasks that don’t involve kids, friends or books. But I have come to understand—as a feminist and an adult—that nobody owes me an ability to avoid these tasks. Having grown up below the poverty line, I always knew better—or should have—but I had systematically pushed that knowledge down until I forgot it, preferring to live in the bubble of ease that came with marriage to a successful, high achieving man. My life is far less easy now, but much more mine.

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