After Bill and I got married my friend Kevin, the priest who performed the ceremony called me. “I see Bill got N through Z,” he teased into the phone, “such a 90s couple.” We have been friends long enough that he can rib me about my idiosyncrasies. Indeed, Bill and I had divided the “Thank You” duties: I got A through M, and he got N through Z.
From the beginning of our marriage I was determined to maintain an egalitarian distribution of labor. Everything would be 50-50: laundry, cooking, cleaning, everything. One evening I returned home from work to be served pasta topped with, I kid you not, red beans, sautéed spinach, and cauliflower. I almost vomited on the spot. But I sat down and cautiously placed a piece a farfalle with its creative “sauce” into my mouth. “Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “it’s even worse than I imagined.” I couldn’t eat it; there was simply no way. Perhaps it is a vice but I am a food snob, and I have limited ability to stomach a meal that repulses any of my senses.
For some reason that remains unclear to me, Bill simply assumed that he magically knew how to cook. Nevermind that he had never actually made a meal that did not spring out of a box whose directions read, “Add water.” After a few more of Bill’s culinary concoctions I decided that the egalitarian kitchen concept would need some revision. The second version of the 50-50 kitchen arrangement, which remains to this day is I cook and Bill cleans. Of course, it includes a third part where I bitch about the dishes that remain in the sink the next morning, but let’s not discuss that because the whole control freak thing it’s not one of my finer qualities.
Like many couples who merge households after several years of being on their own, Bill and I discovered that we each possessed ritualized approaches to many household tasks. At least half of our fights involved the laundry. I liked my socks married, one folded neatly inside the other. I reasoned that this prevented socks from their innate tendencies to separate from their partner never to return. There would be no sexual revolution in my sock drawer. Bill, in contrast, wanted his socks neatly stacked on top of each other; he had some need for them to maintain their freedom. Maybe the stacked socks were symbolic. Perhaps he was secretly longing for his own freedom given that he had married some complaining dwarf who was apparently more high maintenance than he had bargained for. And then there were the towels, “If you fold them in half twice and then in thirds, they stack more neatly in the closet,” I begged. But he held tight to leaving them folded in quarters. So I refolded them. It took several years but we finally declared a laundry truce. We both participated in the laundry routine and had few disputes about whether the burden was shared evenly.
The years went by and we added two children to our family. Predictably the demands on our time increased expontentially. Bill and I were never extreme in our insistence that we carry weight equally as parents. We didn’t have a posted sheet of who changed what diaper when. Most things divided themselves naturally. When the children awoke during the nights Bill was not on call, he brought them to me and I nursed them. I pumped once a day so he could enjoy giving one bottle before putting the children to bed. We rarely argued specifically about caring for the children because we both enjoyed them so much. We were like most couples, however, struggling to meet the demands of stressful careers, young children, and household chores. No matter how much effort we both put into all these competing demands, it was never enough. Amid the clutter and unfinished and ever-growing list of chores, it was easy to turn on each other and fling angry accusations about who was not pulling their weight.
In some ways my worsening illness has simplified our lives. Now there is only one career to nurture. Of course, my illness is a full time job in itself not only because if the amount of care I require but because of all the bureaucracy involved in getting care, paying for it, and qualifying for disability. There is no longer room for anything extra; we now have the right to say no to volunteering, coaching, etc. People bring us meals and watch our kids. And, yet, we are more exhausted than ever. We don’t even have the energy to fight anymore.
One aspect of the laundry dispute remained over the years: I adamantly refused to put his clothes away. I figured that I had already put away mine and the kids’ clothing; he was on his own. A few months ago, when I was at my very sickest, the 50-50 had become 90-10. Poor Bill toiled day and night. I helped with whatever I could but there were many things that I was simply incapable of doing. One night I spied a laundry basket full of folded clothes. I put away mine and left the kids’ in each of their rooms. When I returned to the basket, Bill’s clothes remained. I picked up his boxers. After several tries I found the right drawer and proceeded to place the boxers a top their counterparts. Then I put away, T-shirts, shorts and pants. Then I hung up his shirts. I divorced the socks that Gloria, our housekeeper had married (apparently she believes in sock fidelity as much as I do). Much to my surprise I did all this joyfully.
Over the next few days I looked for every opportunity to do small things. I sat on the laundry room floor plucking items from the dryer, folding them and laying them in a basket. I emptied the dishwasher with the kids’ help. I donned kitchen gloves and washed the large kitchens items – pots, pans, and the like – by hand. All these little acts of devotion filled my heart with joy because they lightened Bill’s load a little.
For some reason all of this reminded me of my romance with cloth diapers. I happen to be one of unusual women who opted for cloth diapers instead of disposables. I wasn’t an environmental cause of mine. I really don’t know why I did it except that my friend Brenda, an adorable button-nosed, brown-eyed woman, was into it so I went along for the ride. Brenda and I were the only mothers among my husband’s fellow residents and spouses and sometimes I felt like we were a pair of puppies frolicking about in a world our peers had not yet discovered. Not only did I do cloth diapers, like Brenda, I washed them myself.
I loved everything about cloth diapers. Really. I loved the way they looked stacked together in the changing table. I loved placing them in the covers and swaddling them around my babies’ bums. I loved the ritual of washing them. I soaked them in a hamper. Twice a week, I placed them in the washer and filled it with detergent and vinegar. When they were done in the washer, they spent five minutes in the dryer because this was during the 2000 Energy Crisis in California and our combined gas/electric bill was over $400. So I only dried things enough to get the stiffness out and then hung everything on the line. After the drier I placed Aidan in the front pack or sling, put the damp diapers in a beige basket, and told Amelia to follow me. Once outside, 20-month old Amelia handed me diapers that I secured to the worn twine line in our yard. When the diapers were dry I freed each from its clothespins and they fell, one-by-one, into the waiting basket. Then I carried the overflowing basket into the house. While the children played at feet, Amelia doting on her little brother, and the sun shown through the enormous picture window of our Eickler house, I fold the diapers in thirds lengthwise and then in half. And then I returned them, in carefully laid stacks, to the changing table. I found the entire process meditative.
When I was in my twenties someone told me, “Love is an action not a feeling.” I balked at this unromantic notion. “Are you crazy,” I thought to myself, “Love is having butterflies so big they make you want to vomit.” That’s honestly what I thought love was. Then I met Bill and I was able to be myself with a man for the first time and I thought, “Oh, no, this is love. Love is comfort.” And now I find myself, all these years later realizing that perhaps love is, in fact, an action. I realize now that laundry, diapers, meals, mom’s taxi service, etc. – all these things that we do, often begrudgingly – are acts of love. This realization has humbled me while simultaneously giving me enormous joy.
It is easy to say “I love you.” But turning love into an action in another matter. I realize now that all these small acts say more than my words ever could. Mother Theresa said it best: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
Don’t get me wrong: I am no Mother Theresa. I still get irritated when I throw something in the trash and the bin is overflowing. And I am a little suspicious about the fact that I always seem to be the person in the bathroom when the toilet paper roll needs to be changed. I swear Bill, Amelia, and Aidan intentionally leave two sheets on the roll so they don’t have to change it the same way my brothers left one sip of milk in the jug so that they didn’t have to throw it away. These little things still bother me but not as much as they once did. And I now embrace the opportunities to love my family in small ways – with a loving caress, folded laundry, a simple but lovingly prepared meal – because it is all I have left. I shouldn’t say it that way; it makes it seem like it is not enough when, in fact, it is everything. I just wish I had discovered the joy in these small acts of kindness years ago so I would not have wished them away.
When Bill and I were first married we feel off to sleep spooning. Over time we drifted apart physically, spooning devolved into my hand cupping his bottom. And eventually, like many couples, we slept like polarized magnets. For much of our marriage Bill has woken before me, but now I am the first to greet the day. In those early moments, when the sun creeps in through our blinds and drapes, I turn to him and position myself gently next to his body, careful not to wake him from the rest he needs so desperately. I realize now how short sighted the 50-50 proposition was. We are capable of so much more working together as a team than via some misguided “divide and conquer” approach. As his chest expands and falls in his slumber I realize that he is neither my spouse, for he has already fulfilled his promise, nor my husband, for he has never been my master. He is my life’s partner and worthy of every act of love for which I can muster the strength.