I’ve noticed this phenomenon before: women, often self declared feminists, write about their fundamental unhappiness in their heterosexual marriages. They then often try to reason that this is normal and inevitable. It’s no wonder these women are also often deeply transphobic, as they need to pin the source of their suffering down to some weird “biology” instead of either discussing social issues or, heavens forbid, personal issues, especially of themselves.
Heather starts by making a trivial observation that most people in any long term relationship, whether romantic or not, will agree with:
After 15 years of marriage, you start to see your mate clearly, free of your own projections and misperceptions. This is not necessarily a good thing.
The Austrian author Robert Musil once remarked that a good friend is somebody you actually can’t stand. Because in any deep relationship, you are allowed to show the signs that are not pretty. You’re allowed to have bad days, be a flawed human being, and leave the toothpaste unscrewed. I think we can all agree that the better you know somebody, the more intimate your relationship becomes, the better you get to know all their character flaws. But they also get to know yours, so that’s ok. Had Heather written an open ed about all those little quirks and compromises that make up a relationship, her article would have been equally unoriginal as uncontroversial. But Heather didn’t stop there, Heather decided to air all the dirty laundry on a husband she seems to be still married to. Did I say “dirty laundry”? Because this is how she describes her husband the first time that we meet him in the text:
When encountering my husband, Bill, in our shared habitat, I sometimes experience him as a tangled hill of dirty laundry. “Who left this here?” I ask myself, and then the laundry gets up to fetch itself a cup of coffee.
This is not an illusion; it’s clarity. Until Bill has enough coffee, he lies in a jumble on the couch, listening to the coffee maker, waiting for it to usher him from the land of the undead. He is exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite.
If I ever write about somebody I claim to love like this, please whack me over the head and take away my internet because holy shit. Throughout the whole article I’m wondering if Bill knew about this before it was published and how he’s feeling, because this is simply cruel. Oh sure, she then writes a full three lines about his positive aspects before descending again into a diatribe about how aweful living with him is. She comes to this, in her view universal conclusion: Because her husband makes sounds like a normal human being (can you imagine, the guy sneezes!):
This is why surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying.
First note the phrasing. It’s not “for a marriage to survive”, it’s “surviving a marriage” as if that relationship was a life threatening ordeal. But maybe, just maybe, no longer speaking and listening to your partner is what makes your marriage such a miserable place to be in. I’m not going to give marriage counselling here, but I actually do enjoy talking to my husband and listening to him. We’re each others emotional support system. we chat and we vent, we give advice and support. It wasn’t something that can naturally to either of us. Or maybe it did and my parents beat it out of me, I don’t know, but to us, this is what sharing our lives means, and when we’re done with the talking, we can take comfort in each others presence. Any partner would be justifiably upset if their love declared them only barely bearable. Yet the author doesn’t see anything troublesome about her paragraphs over paragraphs on how horrible her spouse is (mind you, I haven’t read anything that would make me think that Bill is actually a bad guy. His major crime seems to be existing in proximity to his wife):
Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely. I don’t know anyone who’s been married more than seven years who flinches at this concept. A spouse is a blessing and a curse wrapped into one. How could it be otherwise? How is hatred not the natural outcome of sleeping so close to another human for years?
See, it’s that overgeneralising I talked about at the very start of this post. Whoever objects to this is quickly dismissed:
“Well, speak for yourself. I don’t hate my husband,” one of you holier-than-thou marrieds might announce, folding your hands primly in your lap. Do you think I can’t see your left eye twitching ever so slightly, as you resolve to never let each little irritation add up and move into your conscious mind like a plastic bag floating out to sea and then joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
You. Cannot. Not. Hate. Your. Spouse.
Because if you could, then the problem would be Heather and Bill and their marriage. If you could, then maybe this wasn’t some fate you cannot escape, some martyrdom you are destined to experience, but some very mundane issues that arise in most relationships that you can work on. Bill leaves his dirty socks around? Do talk to each other. Bill keeps forgetting to pay the bills? Find a solution that works and hopefully doesn’t risk your mortgage. Or if you find out that you cannot resolve the issues, do get a divorce. But Heather isn’t interested in solutions, she’s interested in telling us how bad she has it, taking us on a family trip to Australia, where her husband comes from.
She tells us about all the things she did on the journey and how travelling around the globe with kids isn’t exactly fun. And yes, I’m wondering: Where’s Bill? It sounds like a typical situation of how women are often burdened with organising trips, doing emotional labour, caring for the children, putting up a brave face. And if that’s the issue, that again isn’t an intrinsic problem of being married to a guy. It’s a social problem and a relationship problem. And it’s not easy to navigate those issues in a relationship. But I’m 100% sure that venting in an international newspaper isn’t going to solve the problem. Though, I must admit that by now I’m already considering her such an unreliable narrator that I’m wondering how much of this is her own doing. Take this part, for example:
Who engages in the 105th hour of an ongoing discussion about Bill’s Bad Knee, which includes speculation, revised imaginary diagnoses, and in-depth analysis of a level of pain that she herself would file under Not Worth Mentioning at All, Ever, Not Even for a Second?
Whose fault is it exactly that she isn’t able to voice that she’s in pain? Whose fault is it that Bill is comfortable saying “I have a medical issue and I need some rest” while she’s soldiering on? Again we have gender stereotypes but also a blank refusal to acknowledge them as well as a blank refusal to take responsibility. I get the impression that she is one of those people who love to complain, but never change anything that would take away the basis of the complaint. Because she sure loves to complain a lot:
And when we arrive at that island in the Great Barrier Reef, the one populated at this time of year by thousands of birds, birds squawking and cawing and clucking and screeching, birds every two feet, bird droppings covering literally every inch of ground, who makes up a game where the first person to get hit by flying bird poop wins an ice cream cone?
Can you believe it? There are birds. In nature. Who allowed that?
Who says it’s OK for one kid not to snorkel? Who says it’s OK for both kids to snorkel without her, since she gets seasick? Who goes snorkeling anyway because both kids want Mommy there, since Daddy will ignore them because he’s super-jacked to snorkel the hell out of the Great Barrier Reef? Who asks the snorkeling guide if she’d be better off in the boat if she’s starting to feel queasy?
Again, this is not a sentence chiselled into stone. It’s a relationship dynamic. It’s one you easily fall into when you’re a woman married to a man. It’s something you can change. Unless your dude is actively endangering the children, in which case I want to know why you’re married to the guy and had not just one, but two children with him, he can take care of them. Don’t just let him, make him. FFS, talk to him! Does Bill actually know that you’re feeling terrible? Or is it another one of those “Not Worth Mentioning” things (except in a national newspaper)? Or do you expect him to read your mind, Heather? Yes, that’s exactly what Heather expects. After enlightening us that her issues with snorkelling aren’t actually her issues, but universally acknowledged truths, she tells us this gem:
And then who gets sick, as predicted, but doesn’t say a single word about it, even as a wave of colorful fish swarms the scene and everyone marvels and wonders why they suddenly appeared, like magic?
Let’s recap this: She went out for an activity the rest of the family enjoyed, but she found out made her sick. Instead of talking to her husband and telling him to please take care of the children, she plays the martyr and goes snorkelling with her children. This makes her sick and miserable. She still doesn’t tell anybody, but probably keeps on smiling. And then it’s obviously everybody else’s fault. Can’t they see what a great warrior she is?
I’ve been feeling ill since we arrived on the ferry. There is no air-conditioning and there are no screens on the windows because we are now honorable eco-warrior vacationers. I have a cut on my finger that I’m pretty sure is infected. I’ve been battling insomnia for over a year. But I don’t say a word about how bad I feel. You don’t believe me, but it’s true! Thanks to writing an advice column for years. I have evolved, unlike my spouse. I am so good, so thoughtful, so generous.
No, Heather, instead of talking to your family like normal people do, arranging time for you to wind down, probably going to a doctor to get something for the insomnia or that infected cut, you write about how you feel in the New York Times. How will your children feel about this? Do they know you basically described them as ungrateful brats instead of children who are basically behaving like children do? But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The victim thing. The thing where the family needs to feel bad about how you are unable to have some boundaries and voice your needs.
Finally, I break.
“You ALL need to make less noise!” I announce. “And you,” I say to the big one, “you’re the worst of all. You can’t hear a noise without making another noise!”
At first they all start making noises at once. So I raise my voice. “No,” I tell them. “I can’t fix this anymore! I am broken!”
“It’s true, but …”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
But I can’t stop. “Who could stand this? I need a break! Go have breakfast without me!”
My family exits guiltily.
I’m sure that at this point the family is equally confused as well as feeling guilty without even knowing why, and while I can sympathise with being burned out and overwhelmed and completely at the end of your tether, I cannot sympathise with what she’s doing here. She has repeatedly told us that she didn’t say anything before. She simply swallowed all the big and little things. She didn’t say “no”, she didn’t set a boundary. She gave everyone around her the idea that Mommy was fine and enjoying herself. But again, that’s a Heather problem, not a world problem. I can understand being stressed out. I can understand an overload. I can understand being frustrated when you just spent lots of time and money on something and now your kids aren’t ohhhhing and ahhhhing (usually because they’re suffering from overload as well), but bickering. But it’s not ok to guilt trip your family. Because all they’re learning now is that mommy can snap at any moment without any previous warning. And that’s abusive.
When that outburst is over, Heather muses again how hatred is intrinsic to marriage. And sure, change is needed in their relationship, she clearly sees that. Bill needs to change! Because, and now I suggest you sit down before you read on:
During these talks, I encourage Bill to be more like me: Give up control. Relax. Let these birds make their noises, and they’ll quiet down quickly. When you treat them like they’re doing it wrong, it only gets worse.
Is this satire? Because I remember reading whole paragraphs about how horrible the birds are and how she needs to organise and smooth out every single obstacle that appeared. How can you write that whole text and then think that this describes you? Apparently the author has written a whole book on marriage, to be released come February, and I suppose they gave her this open ed as a promo. I can also imagine this book becoming a bestseller among a certain demographic: White middle class women in the UK and the US, who find out that the dream they were promised hasn’t come true. The promise of equality often only worked to the extend that they have their careers, but once the children arrive, their liberal husbands unconsciously mutate into their own fathers. I always say that women have changed a lot in the last 50 years, men have not (yes, I know, not all women/men). This leads to clashes, tension, unhappiness. But the solution isn’t to claim some natural order in your dissatisfaction. The solution to your husband refusing to do care work isn’t to hire a nanny and a cleaner, so you can have your liberated dream of kids and career. The solution is especially not to abuse your family in the New York Times.