Just a Piece of Paper

IMG_4828When I moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, my life was planned: I would go to college, get published, get married at 25, have 3 children, and homeschool my children while living in the forests of Alaska. But life didn’t work out that way.

Twenty-one years later, with two college degrees, no children, and living in Wyoming, not Alaska, I finally got married.

And although there were some fairy-tale aspects of my wedding (the hummingbird that hovered over us as we said our vows, marrying where I always dreamed, in Sedona, Arizona, a man who wanted to marry me despite a cancer diagnosis six weeks before), getting there had been anything but a fairy tale.

My husband and I met on Homecoming Day in 1999. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a party that I wasn’t even supposed to attend. My date had stood me up, and so I found myself at the party instead of the football game.

Three years later, we were living together. Eight years later, he proposed. In between those years, we discussed marriage…well…we fought about marriage. I wanted to get married. He didn’t. I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t imagine life without him, and despite the occasional fights and the disappointing jewelry boxes that contained rings for my ears and not my fingers, I stuck with the man. I decided that being with him in a committed relationship without a ring or a piece of paper would be enough. In fact, I had convinced myself that we were already married.

IMG_4953To some degree, that was true: we owned a house together, we had pets, we didn’t go out with other people; we weren’t looking for anything better…we were in a committed relationship. But it wasn’t enough. Over and over again, we argued about that piece of paper, and I found it difficult to define marriage beyond the obvious property and fidelity. Instead, I focused on the ceremony itself. I would argue that we already had a marriage. “I just want a wedding,” I’d say, hoping this would convince him.

I had been planning my wedding for as long as I could remember. As a child, I dressed my stuffed animals in handkerchiefs and tissue paper, marched them up make-believe aisles, and hid them under the bed or in the closet for their honeymoon.

On the occasions we took the 45-minute drive from Flagstaff to Sedona, I dreamt of a big wedding in front of the beautiful red rocks and then gathering with my friends and family for a big celebration.

With every fight about getting married, that dream dwindled, and I would grieve its loss. But I wasn’t willing to find a new relationship. I wasn’t willing to say good-bye to this man I loved…this man whose life I shared. Instead, I conceded and finally said, “Marriage is just a piece of paper.”

When I finally let go of the fairy tale, it became reality. On top of the Big Horn Mountains on a cold, fall day in 2009, this man, who I thought would never propose, knelt in front of me and asked that question I’d been wanting to hear. Of course I said yes, and now, 4 ½ years later, the fairy tale vanquished, I still struggle to define marriage.

There is something to be said for planning a wedding, going through the hassle of the paperwork, the seating chart, juggling family dynamics and finances until that day when you stand in front of your family and friends and say those words: “in sickness and in health.” Saying those vows…all of them…makes a difference. It matters.

IMG_4906It’s intimacy.

It’s trust.

It’s learning to listen to each other as you struggle daily to remain true to your identity while also navigating through the day-to-day difficulties of life with and without your spouse.

It’s about coming home to someone who knows who you are and, yet, doesn’t understand you, but is willing to keep working at it.

It’s about compromise and communication and doing the work…and still…it’s about so much more than that.

It’s just…I don’t know…more than a “piece of paper,” and still difficult to define, but it’s worth the effort.

~ K

 

I was a child bride…

lt and sjI’ve been called a child bride. I got married right out of college – in fact, I finished college early so I could get married sooner. I was busy being a wannabe academic, planning for graduate school and internships when I became the ultimate cliché: I fell in love with a Navy pilot. I was twenty-one, college educated, and head over heels in love – it all seemed pretty grown-up to me.

In August I sat in my academic advisor’s office ringing my hands. Dr. Steen flipped through a wall calendar looking for testing dates. I needed to sit for the LSAT and the GRE before spring she said. I had applications to fill out, essays to write, deadlines to meet she insisted.

She’d already moved to grab another sheet of paper when she looked me in the eye. “I’m not going,” I muttered. I’d sucked all of the air out of the room. “I’m getting married,” I blurted out, talking so fast my words seemed to slur. “In a few months. I can take four or five extra credits this term and graduate midyear. I’m moving to Florida and I need to plan a wedding.” She said nothing.

In addition to being the Dean and my advisor, Dr. Sara Jayne Steen was my father’s personal campus spy. She was an old family friend, a woman who’d known me as an awkward preteen and an ambitious college freshman. More importantly, she was a loyal friend to my parents and worked hard to make sure I used their tuition monies well.

The rest of our meeting was a blur. Sara Jayne recovered enough to help me formulate a plan for my escape. She arranged for me to work as a tutor at the international center and helped me figure out how to accelerate my courses. She smiled and hid her misgivings well, but Dr. Steen was in shock. I’m sure she called my dad as soon as I left her office.

It wasn’t just my advisor or our families that seemed surprised by our plans. The message was clear in all directions: I was too young to get married. They thought we were immature and inexperienced. They thought we were rushing, that we’d miss out on life, on graduate school, on opportunities and freedom. We were moving too fast. pilot and sj

When twenty-something Cody told his military buddies about his plans to get married in the middle of flight school he got two immediate responses. One guy called him crazy; “You’ll never be so eligible again – what are you thinking?” he hollered. But another, older officer was just as convicted when he said “every day I waited to marry my wife, is one less day I have with my best friend.”

It turns out they weren’t all wrong. We weren’t as grown up as I thought we were, but we did group up together. We were too young, so we talked our panicked selves through our first real jobs. We waded through military moves, dying grandparents, and graduate school with a fortunate naivety reserved only for the very young. We ventured overseas and traveled the globe before we got old enough to be afraid. We had babies when sleep wasn’t so difficult to miss and energy was high. We took on the world before we knew enough to look beyond the horizon. We sort of grew into each other.

Growing up together could result in an unhealthy, even scary case of marital enmeshment, but for us spending our early twenties together looked a lot more like unconditional friendship and adventure. We just got lucky.

Cody and I will celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary this weekend. In May I will have been with my husband longer than I lived in my parent’s home. I am most grateful for the years we spent together before our boys were born. We didn’t know enough to be afraid or to second guess our head long jump into commitment. Now we choose commitment every day. I have come to understand that part of the joy of a long relationship (however long is…) resides in the beauty of shared experience. We are fortunate to have started early.

wedding

Marriage Expectations…They’re not all THAT

women juggle

Recommended Reading:

7 Reasons Why Age Doesn’t Matter in Marriage” by Sasha Brown Worsham

I overheard a conversation the other day that quite offended me: “A family can’t exist without children.” Well, as a child-free woman, I beg to differ.

A family concept is larger than a wife, husband, and child (or more). There are step-families, adopted families, close friends considered as family, pets, and so many other non-traditional families that I can’t even name them all. Family, as well as marriage, should be something defined by those in it, not by outside sources.

It was with this idea that I started reading Sasha Brown Worsham‘s article on “The Stir.” The article is Warsham’s response to Susan Patton’s letter to the women at Princeton University–an article Sarah responded to on this very blog. Worsham claims that people should marry whenever and whomever they want. She states, “It’s not what age you marry. It’s who you marry. Period. End of story.”

These posts, as well as Sheryl Sandberg‘s book Lean In, have me thinking about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. It’s discouraging that women still struggle with their place in our society and continue to fight for equal pay, equal status, and freedom over their own bodies. I thought these battles were fought and won a long time ago. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

On the other hand, we live in a time period where women have more choices than ever before, and perhaps, it’s these choices that cause us to question once again our place in society.

Technically, I’m a newlywed. In June, it will be three years. I say “technically” because I have been with my husband for 13 1/2 years, but we didn’t exchange wedding vows until 2010.

Living together back in 2002 was a difficult decision–one that went against my family’s belief system, but it was the right decision for me and my significant other.

Not having children was another decision we made. Again, it was the right decision for me and my significant other.

I can understand why people want our lives and our roles defined: it can make life easier. If it is a wife’s duty to procreate, clean, and cook, then we know what our husbands expect, and we know what we need to do on a daily basis. Raised in a strict, Christian environment, I struggle with guilt about my “duties” as a wife: I keep thinking that I should do the dishes every day or keep the house spotless. I struggle with guilt that my husband does his own laundry and has household chores like he did growing up in his mother’s house.

At the same time, if I did all of these things on top of my full-time job, I would never have time to spend with my husband. We have our own expectations and our own ideas about how we want to live our lives.

What about the expectations of our own? What about the book I’m trying to write? The 60-hour work week my husband and I keep? Our desire to relax in each other’s company daily–sometimes more than once a day? What about those expectations? Should we ignore our own expectations in order to fulfill society’s expectations?

I don’t think we should, and yet, Patton’s letter and Sandberg’s book set up these expectations, but we do not have to meet them. Marriage is hard enough without bringing in other people’s expectations. Create your own. Live your life. It’s your life, and at the end of the day, you’re the one who chooses your own happiness. This is what Worsham gets right, and HAPPINESS is what feminism is really all about.

~K

2013 Academic Advice for women: Find a husband? Really?

Princeton

Read this:

The Daily Princetonian: Letter to the Editor

In her March 29, 2013, letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian, Class of 1977 President Susan A. Patton tells Princeton women to find a husband: quick.  She claims smart women – in this case the cerebral women of Princeton – will only be happy if they marry an “intellectual equal.”  According to Patton if Princeton women wait until they leave the Ivy League they’re unlikely to run into many marriageable (read: smart) men.  She admits that “soaring intellect” might not be the only thing that makes a mate desirable, but “ultimately,” she writes, “it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.”

Patton writes to the “daughters [she] never had.”  This is her advice to women at the top of their academic game? Get back to the old habit of seeking a Mrs. Degree? Get your ring by spring?

I suppose it is possible to read her commentary as heartfelt advice about long-term commitment.  Men and women operating from the same intellectual plane may be better suited for one another. They may have more to talk about – or argue over – as the years add up.  They may grow in similar directions and value similar approaches to life’s curveballs.  Maybe she’s just suggesting that a man with a good brain is easier to put up with.  Or that there is already enough misunderstanding in marriage without adding incompetency to the mix.

What strikes me about Patton’s letter is that she believes she holds the secret to happiness – she claims she’s willing to say what no other woman has the guts to utter out loud. Patton’s answer, her tough-love truth, is that marriage is the “cornerstone” of a woman’s happiness.   She writes this so unequivocally, that it’s easy to dismiss her ideas as backwards and uninteresting. She doesn’t leave room for other sources of happiness – friendships, or service, or intellectual achievement. However, it’s not Patton’s answer that resonates with me, but rather the question that precipitated her letter.

The woman of Princeton wanted to know about navigating life’s most important relationships.  They asked Patton about her friendships and her family. Women are looking for leaders.  We crave models and mentors who navigate the mixed up world of career and family with honesty and genuine concern for ethics and happiness.  And we want there to be an answer – some singular idea that will allow us to be content in a world ruled by chaos and change.

I want to dismiss Susan Patton out of hand.  But here’s the rub:  I did exactly what she suggests. I married while the marrying was good.  While it wasn’t Princeton, I did leave university with a BA and Mrs.  My path was far less calculated than anything Patton suggests.  It was a romantic risk perpetuated by some pretty good luck.   But it was my path – one I stumbled upon and one I choose every day.

There is plenty of advice out there at the moment: Lean In, opt-out, have it all, marry young. Patton’s suggestion to find an intellectual equal might be a good piece of advice (or an excuse to indulge in  distraction from college academics), but it is only one of many pieces. The arduous task of culling the pile of ideas is instructive. It seems possible that in the gathering of information, in the act of amassing and ditching theories and secret keys, we discover our allusive goal.  We forge our own paths.