On Divorcing a Feminist

Trigger Warning for Unadulterated Bitterness

On a humid summer day, and old friend and sit in a restaurant balling our eyes out, tears streaming down into little bowls of wasabi, as our sushi sits untouched.  I have just told her my husband has asked for a separation.  It was not my feelings about losing him, however, that had us tearful for ten solid minutes as fellow patrons tried to be subtle about their gawking — it was my fears, and her empathy, about losing my kids.

You see, my friend and I have something in common.  We both went through infertility.  We both know how hard being a mother is, but we both know how it feels to fear you’ll never get to be one.  For months now I’ve lay awake at night thinking about what it will be like to someday lay alone in bed in my house knowing my kids are sleeping somewhere else.  And she can imagine all too well what that would feel like, especially after willing our kids into existence against every odd.

Meanwhile, somewhere in New Jersey, my husband sits with some friends over drinks talking over how good I’m going to have it after the divorce because I’ll still have him doing half the childcare.

Meanwhile, somewhere in New Jersey, my own family members laugh aloud about how I’m going to cook and clean for myself now that my “wife” is leaving me.

Marrying a feminist rules, but friends, let me tell you, divorcing a feminist sucks.

Marrying a feminist means a true parenting partnership.  Divorcing a feminist means losing half your access to your kids.

Marrying a feminist means it’s not the woman by default who does the most housekeeping.  Divorcing a feminist makes all too clear the sexist notions people had about your marriage.

A woman does more housework in a marriage and no one bats an eye.  A man does more, and the same people who are ready to erect a statue in his honor are quick to draw conclusions that his wife is lazy, incapable, ungrateful, etc.

No one stops to consider all the ways in which a relationship can be egalitarian, all the different types of work that go on in a household, and the many reasons why one person might end up doing certain work over another.

When I agreed to share childcare 50/50 with my husband I did so in the context of a family.  I wasn’t giving up time with my kids, I was gaining a partner, someone to parent with.  It never crossed my mind that when that partner would choose not to be my partner anymore, parenting together would morph into parenting half the time.

Having a fully capable, fully involved parent in your bed with you at night in case a child gets sick or is upset, is not the same as sending your young child to a strange home without you.  Both of these situations could be called egalitarian, but they are far from the same.

Having time to yourself because you’ve made arrangements with your life partner and best friend to be with your children is not the same as having time to yourself because your children are with a man who prefers to build a life with someone else.  That person’s investment in you, in respecting your wishes, in your general well-being, is never going to be the same.  And your ability to really know him and trust his motives will never be either.

So I’m not just losing a husband and best friend.  I’m losing the family structure that I chose for my kids, and the parenting structure that I chose for myself when I decided to have them.  I know I’m not losing my kids, but I am losing time and access to them.  I’m losing the ability to know who they are with and how those people are treating them, to know what they’re being fed, what substances they are coming into contact with in the their environment, what types of experiences they are having, and what the little expressions on their faces will be when they have those experiences.  It’s missing out on first-times, kissing boo-boos, comforting them, and even knowing comfort was needed.

I don’t say any of this to denigrate my ex-husband as a parent.  He is an incredible parent.  But I didn’t spend three months on bed rest willing my precious O and J to survive so I could miss those things.  And I didn’t make the choice to parent with someone who isn’t invested in me as a life partner.  I guess this is all just part of the terror of parenting, because however we conceive our kids, whether with a partner, a donor, through adoption, a gestational carrier, etc., we don’t ever have complete control.  There are governmental forces, legal forces and unknowns about our child’s other parent(s) that we will never have complete control over.

The truth is I have no more control now that I did in that bed wishing to god my cervix would stay closed long enough.  But that was random, and this doesn’t feel quite so random.  This feels like a betrayal.  It feels like a betrayal of my trust in the person I chose to parent with, because for me, I wouldn’t have chosen to do it alone.

Marry a feminist and you can look forward to a cushy lifestyle of reasonable contributions by your partner to childcare and housekeeping – lofty contributions nearing 50% – which far exceed the average in which women still do twice as much.  But beware.  Every single thing that male does will stick out like a sore thumb to everyone in your vicinity, including him, and the things you do will be as invisible and undervalued as women’s work always has been.  You will know your relationship is 50/50, but someday you may realize that no one else sees it that way.  Because a woman with an egalitarian spouse looks oddly similar in a lot of people’s eyes to a woman lounging in a pool sipping a tropical cocktail, and parenting 50/50 in a marriage can suddenly morph into only getting to parent 50% of the time.

Feminist, if you want my completely jaded, absolutely colored by bitterness and anger, totally situationally-bound, and thoroughly inappropriate opinion… don’t marry a feminist!  Better yet, don’t marry anyone.  Keep your bank account to yourself.  Keep your kids close.  And ladies, if you have to partner with a feminist, for god’s sake, make it a woman!

Copyright 2013, undercoverinthesuburbs.com, All Rights Reserved.

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Why I’d Love a Four-Person Marriage

Originally Appeared on elephant journal.

A few years after finding and marrying each other, Seth and I found our couple-friend soul-mates. Over the few years that followed, in an entirely platonic way, we became more than just friends. When there was something going on in one of our lives, there were four people, instead of just two, who put their heads together and figured out what to do. Instead of Seth and me planning our social schedules together, all four of us would coordinate. When one of us was being bullheaded, there were three other folks there to gently but persistently provide an “intervention.” Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to get your partner to hear feedback on his behavior when there are two other people there backing you up!

However, the biggest thing I took away from that experience was that the business of life felt a lot less like work during that time. Life felt less burdensome and more fun. With four adults facing the world together things just felt a bit less daunting. Spending time with friends stopped feeling like it required elaborate planning or impossible scheduling feats. There just seemed to be… time.

When our couple-friend soul-mates divorced, Seth and I were devastated. We all joked that Seth and I were more upset than they were, but I think in some ways we really were. We were losing this family unit we’d created, except we didn’t have any of the motivation for wanting to move on that they had. We were perfectly happy in our sexless, four-person marriage. We hadn’t signed on for divorce.

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Children and Happiness – My Guide to Realistic Expectations!

Parenting is an uphill climb...

Originally Appeared on RoleReboot.org

Before I started graduate school, I spent several years taking courses I needed in order to apply, volunteering in clinical and research settings, talking to folks who already had doctorates, and simply thinking about whether this was what I wanted.  I knew getting a doctorate would be a massive undertaking that would impact every aspect of my life.  I knew a lot of the steps in the process would be grueling drudgery, like taking my comprehensive exams and writing my dissertation.  I had enough people warn me that there would be times I would wonder if I had made the wrong choice, and might even consider quitting, so when those things happened I wasn’t completely thrown.  I reminded myself I had been warned but had made the decision anyway because I believed, in the end, grad school would be worthwhile.  I wasn’t expecting to feel great all along the way, but I sure did feel great when I walked up and claimed my diploma and folks started calling me doctor.

I have a very smart friend who also has a doctoral degree.  When talking about the transition to having a daughter, she told me she thought having a child would disrupt her life for about two months, and then she would return to her “normal life” – back to work, back to the status quo in her relationship, “just with this cute little person there.”  Well you can imagine the rough transition she had when reality hit!  Imagine going into grad school expecting to have your life hardly be altered?  No one would ever get their degree.  Imagine thinking you could just write your dissertation on the side in your spare time.  Imagine showing up for the New York Marathon expecting to feel blissful the whole time.  Expectation is everything.  The same experience can feel drastically different depending on what we are expecting.  But it order to manage our expectations we have to make an informed choice to do something and not have it thrust upon us.

Some key ways to manage expectations about having children:

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Math is Not Enough – Negotiating Egalitarian Marriages and Partnerships

I recently received an email from a reader asking how Seth and I negotiate finances in our marriage.  Conflict over finances and division of labor is rampant in marriages and partnerships, whether traditional or egalitarian.  In traditional marriages where roles may be clearer, with men laboring outside the home, and women inside, conflicts may still arise about how to spend money and who controls it.  If roles are reversed, the same dynamics can still appear.  For example, a stay-at-home dad talks about how he found himself going out of his way to sexually please his high-earning wife to gain power over financial decisions in this post on Role Reboot.  Conflict can also arise when partners disagree about how traditional or egalitarian their marriage should be, essentially a question of how power will be negotiated.

In egalitarian marriage, there is a commitment to equalizing power.  This inherently asks more of partners in the way of negotiation.  If power imbalances exist, we are called on the rectify them, rather than accept that as “just the way it is.”  The main power dynamics in traditional, heterosexual marriages relate to gender.  Thus, in egalitarian marriage, we equalize power by giving gender less weight.  Firstly, this means power is not given out or assumed based on gender (traditionally on being male).  Further, the value of labor is also not dictated by gender.  Traditional “women’s work” has historically been devalued.  Additionally, women do not earn the same pay as men for the same labor outside the home.  As a result of these societal realities, to be truly egalitarian, the value of labor must be separated from its monetary value.  Thus, our value in the relationship is not earned, it is inherent in us as people and independent of our earning potential.

Egalitarian father Seth, holding O's hand

Secondly, in egalitarian marriages, decisions about how to structure division of labor in families are made based on criteria other than gender.  For example, a question may arise about who will do the dishes after dinner.  A traditional way to solve this problem would be concluding doing dishes is woman’s work.  An egalitarian way to solve it could be to base it on who cooked dinner, who washes dishes more efficiently, who has time on a given night, or deciding to take turns no matter what else is going on.  You can see where the answer might be clearer when based on gender.  Gay couples do not have the option of dividing labor based on gender and thus are sometimes more well versed in  division of labor negotiations.

Often it is tempting to assume in egalitarian marriages “everything is equal” so there are no power dynamics.  But, power imbalances and negotiations occur in all human relationships.  Egalitarianism requires constant negotiation.  It is not a pronouncement made at the beginning of a relationship that holds true for all time, it is a guiding principal that informs our continual interplay with our partners.  I frequently see couples attempting to “balance” power in marriages and relationships with math.  For example, couples will calculate who spends more hours working, who does a greater number of household tasks, who spends more time at childcare, who brings in or spends more money, or who feels like the most shit at the end of day (okay, that one is less mathematical).

These mathematical negotiations can sometimes give us a global idea of how equal things are.  For example, Seth works full-time and I work part-time and am home with children part-time.  When counting childcare as work (as any sane person should), Seth and I both work approximately 12 hour days five days a week.  We split childcare on weekends (not with any kind of mathematical formula, it just works out that way).  Obviously, working full-time, he makes more money than I do, but I provide childcare which enables him to leave the home and work.  Seth and I don’t plan out our schedule so that we both work the exact same number of hours, but doing this math gives a rough estimate of basic equality of workload.  However, there is way more to equality than this kind of math can quantify.

Seth's creations for a dinner party

Our finances are completely combined, which is ironic, and a little frightening, as I swore for years to never mix my money together with a man’s.  Before marrying, Seth and I had a plan to pool our earnings together, no matter how different, make all necessary monthly payments, and then split the remainder into two separate accounts.  This would be “our own money” with which we could do what we pleased.  This plan was egalitarian in that the power to make financial decisions was not based on level of earnings or the type of labor each partner would be doing.  When this plan was made, however, Seth and I were living in a magical fantasyland where people have extra money at the end of the month.  One major thing we didn’t anticipate was that shortly after having children, Seth would leave a job at which he was miserable, for one that paid almost half as much, but affords him greater happiness and more time with our precious babies.

This experience is a great example of continued negotiation.  We make a plan for division of labor and finances, than we tweak it and tweak it, and sometimes throw it out and start all over.  From what I’ve seen, in most marriages, one or often both partners feel they are doing more than their share.  Math calculations meant to “prove” who is doing more often fail to take into account critical aspects of true equality.

Aspects of equality that can’t be measured by math and should be part of division of labor negotiations:

1)       Strengths, Weaknesses, and Limitations – People are wired differently.  My husband simply has more energy than I do (or than most anyone does).  He keeps going and going, like the energizer bunny.  Asking him to do less tasks just to make things exactly even is a waste of family resources, and expecting me to become more like him is unrealistic and unfair.  There are also times in our lives when for whatever reason, we are capable of more or less.  Emotional and medical crises or ongoing conditions may require us to take on significantly more than a partner.  Unless these situations are deal-breakers for our relationship, they need to be taken into account when dividing labor.  Equality does not mean equally capable at all times, it means equally contributing to the extent one is able.  Yes, egalitarian marriage is a little like socialism.

2)      Happiness – A related concept.  If everything seems “equal” according to math, but one partner is horribly miserable, things may need to shift.  Equality must take into account a balance in overall happiness, including ability to pursue life passions, career satisfaction, personal and spiritual fulfillment, etc.  For example, one partner may take a less appealing job that pays more so the other who has been miserable in his job for years can go back to school.  Supposed “equality” can really suck if one’s partner is miserable!

3)      Emotional Toll – Some labor is more emotionally gruelling , and thus takes a toll on the body, mind, and heart in ways that cannot be quantified by time.  An hour spent consoling a screaming child, talking a suicidal patient into voluntary commitment, sitting by the bedside of a dying parent, or taking a critical deposition of a hostile witness really can’t be mathematically compared to an hour spent entering benign data into a database, writing a brief, monitoring children playing harmlessly, or creating an architectural design.

In general, childcare is extremely emotionally taxing, and care of one’s own children is emotionally taxing in ways our culture fails to grasp even at a basic level.  Inner turmoil and guilt surrounding natural ambivalent feelings about our children can tax us to the extreme.  These feelings are particularly culturally forbidden for mothers, and may be worsened for mothers who make the choice to practice equal parenting.  Additionally, mothers do not receive the positive validation men do for childcare.  On the other hand, men who engage in frequent childcare must face the emotional toll of being perceived as gender variant, as well as not performing their culturally sanctioned roll as “provider.”  Many of us experience the effects of these feelings but are unable to articulate them to ourselves or our partners.  Emotional work, whether in or outside the home, requires extra time off to process, decompress, unwind, and care for ourselves.

4)      Physical Toll – Some work is also more physically grueling than others.  Again, garbage collecting, landscaping, and repeatedly carrying 20 pound twins cannot really be compared to sitting at a desk or in meetings most of the day.  An hour at a physically grueling job may take a greater toll and require more time to recover physically.

5)      Personal Preferences and Quirks –  Ahhhh… the downfall of many a well-meaning egalitarian couple!  There are levels of necessity for both household labor (including childcare) and work outside the home.  For example, feeding children is a life-or-death task.  Sweeping the floor can be put off for a time, but eventually has to be done.  You could probably get away with never folding sheets, although most people would typically want this to be done.  Waxing furniture is a task that could be seen as totally unnecessary.  Partners will have different opinions about which tasks should be prioritized and how much.  For example, if one partner cannot leave the house unless the sink is empty of dishes, that person may end up doing more than “his share” because he has this requirement.  The less necessary the task, the less weight it should be given in the division of labor.

Many people require their homes to be neat and clean in a way that goes well beyond safety, cleanliness and even basic aesthetic desirability.  These people cannot really expect their partners to do half of that work if they don’t see it as necessary.  Further, some people are workaholics and do way more work at their jobs than is necessary.  If this fills some need for them or is just part of their personality, they can’t really expect their spouse to rise to the same level of workload when it isn’t necessary.  Some people view cooking as a hobby, or find cleaning soothing and relaxing.  These tasks should be given less weight when compared to onerous chores.  In general, if a partner has preferences or quirks that require unnecessary work to be done, the other partner cannot be expected to fully reciprocate that.

6)      Division of Labor Equalizes Over Time, Not at a Given Time – Calculations meant to assess division of labor at a given point in time in the life of a relationship cannot possibly take into account inevitable ebbs and flows.  While one partner is engaged in an artistic, educational, or vocational pursuit that is all-consuming, the other may take on a greater share of household and childcare labor or financial burden.  Several years later, the other partner’s goals may be prioritized.

7)      Career and Earning Potential Losses – Partners who spend time at household labor and childcare inevitably make career sacrifices.  For example, I am progressing in my career slowly right now because I am doing more childcare and working part-time.  To look at it pragmatically, if Seth and I were to break up, I would have incurred vulnerability in terms of my earning potential and be less advanced in my career.  Things like missed promotions, earnings one could have made, research that could have been published, and books unwritten are impossible to mathematically quantify.  I often hear partners complaining that their partner is not contributing financially, but I rarely hear those partners recognizing the sacrifices their partner is making by “not contributing financially.”

8)      Normalizing Overload – This is a big one!  Many people assume that is they are completely overtaxed, their partner must not be doing his/her share.  The fact that one or more partners feel completely maxed out and almost at the brink of collapse does not necessarily imply inequality, at least not within the couple!  This is especially true if a couple has young children, needy aging parents or other crises going on in their lives.  The truth is two people can feel taken advantage of and miserable and the reality can just be their lives are equally sucky at that time.  Taking feeling overwhelmed as a sign your relationship is inequitable can unnecessarily add marital problems to your long list of stresses.  I personally believe family life structured around one isolated couple and their children is quite unrealistic and leaves us all overburdened, especially when combined with economic inequalities and lack of social supports for families, but that is another post or twelve.

9)      Sometimes Equality Requires Outside Help – There are times when in order to reach equality, not just based on math, but based on the criteria above, outside help is needed.  For example, let’s say Amy and Sue are a lesbian couple.  Amy is extremely high energy and ambitious.  She works 80 hours a week at a hedge fund.  Sue stays at home with their toddler, and is pregnant with their second child.  If Sue has a typical energy level, it may not be realistic for her to do childcare almost all the children’s waking hours while Amy works.  Even though Amy is the one contributing financially, Sue may need at least part-time help to stay sane and remain the person Amy married.  In my opinion, getting a bi-monthly house-cleaning service is the single most cost-effective way to lessen the labor load in a household.

10)  Respect and Basic Fairness versus Mathematical Debate – If discussions and negotiations of division of labor respect both partners, allow both to be heard, and focus on compromise they are likely to be more successful.  Negotiations based on proving one has been wronged or putting down the other partner’s contributions are doomed to fail.  Partners who feel criticized, blamed, and underappreciated are unlikely to agree to compromises that make the other partner feel things are more equitable.  We need to be able to put ourselves in our partner’s shoes and truly empathize with what their labor is like in order to respectfully negotiate.

So how do you know if things are “equal” then?  There is no mathematical equation that will spit out what each partner is “worth” in terms of productivity level in a family’s division of labor.  The most important thing is to remember how much your partner is worth to you.  If you are with the right person, your partner is priceless, so his or her happiness  is of the highest value.  Maintaining an egalitarian marriage in an emotional, not a mathematical calculation.  Ultimately we must ask ourselves if there is basic fairness in our relationship, and if there is, avoid making our partner the enemy.  Focus negotiations on solutions rather than blame and accusations.  If basic fairness is lacking, that may signal that partners don’t agree on a foundation of egalitarianism.




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My Husband Does Do That – My Journey out of the Equal Parenting Closet

Seth holding the twins.

Originally Posted on RoleReboot.org, also featured on Feministing.com, and Offbeat Mama:

The first time it happened, I was at a Mothers of Multiples Club welcome brunch.  My fantasy was that my terror at the impending birth of my twins would dissipate as soon as I met the wise kindred spirits who would be guiding me through the transition to multiple-motherhood.  Much to my surprise, however, brunch soon descended into a husband-bashing session, replete with the kind of ominous warnings I would receive over and over during my pregnancy.

“Make sure you leave the house when they’re a few months old.  I waited three years to leave my kids alone with my husband, and now he refuses to babysit,” one mom insisted.  My initial response was confusion.  I was planning to leave the house the first week.  I had written my doctoral dissertation on equally shared parenting for frig’s sake!  Caught totally off guard, I responded, “That’s not going to be a problem for me.”  Several of the women chuckled sweetly, shooting me the pitying “you’ll see” glance I would receive time and time again.

What was this strange land I was entering?  These were smart, accomplished moms –some working, some stay-at-home– all of whom swore that when kids came into the picture, roles changed overnight.  Were the brilliant, creative, feminist women I’d known in college really now accepting such arrangements?  My twin terror was quickly compounded by the fear of losing the egalitarian marriage I so valued.

Well, fourteen months into motherhood my marriage is as egalitarian as ever.  However, the “our husbands suck and don’t do anything” motif turned out to be rampant at the mommy meet-ups and play-dates that were supposed to help maintain my sanity during the first year with infant twins.  Now don’t get me wrong, my husband can be an ass.  Then again, so can I!  But the truth is– (hushed whisper) I like my husband.  He is a fantastic husband.  No one has the perfect marriage, but it was the gendered aspects of the husband-bashing which eluded me most– husbands not “helping” around the house, never “watching the kids,” oblivious to routines and childcare tasks.

Despite my relief that my own marriage hadn’t followed this path, my own parenting experience felt utterly erased during these conversations.  I would feel like a total asshole if I sat there repeating, “My husband does do that,” and adding obnoxiously, “My husband cleans more than I do.”  So instead I just passed, keeping my identity practicing equally shared parenting hidden.  I was also a queer mom passing as straight at these gatherings, but amazingly, stating, “My husband taught me how to swaddle,” orSometimes Seth is more comfortable with our kids than I am,” felt more threatening than announcing I was queer.

When I really examined my fear, I realized it felt like I would be “coming out” as a bad mom.  Had we somehow gotten the message that fairness and equality were okay for us to enjoy in our marriages but to be good mothers, we had to be the ones drastically rearranging our lives to make room for children?  If my husband was parenting as well as me, must I not be parenting well at all?

Seth Wearing Babies

I desperately want to be accepted by my peers.  After all, this mothering thing is hard, and I am going to need them.  Then again, am I really even there if I just hide out at playgroups , nod and pass, not only as straight, but as June Cleaver?  And the truth is husband-bashing isn’t the kind of support that I need anyway.  What about adult stimulation?  What about moms who can talk politics, who are activists?  What about discussing how the hell we are going to give our kids the space to explore flexible gender identities and orientations toward love and sex while media and culture steer them onto narrow, limiting paths?  What about the massive, profound transition that is becoming a mother?  Let’s talk about the guilt, the ecstasy, the terror, trying to find balance, trying to hold on to ourselves!  Some moms I’ve met seem so burdened with the lion’s share of childcare that they’ve had to lose the rest of themselves to manage it.  Is this the culturally-accepted ideal of motherhood?  No selves allowed?

I’m still trying to work out why my husband and I never walked through that time warp back to the 1950s that all those couples who “swore it wouldn’t happen to them” walked through.  I ask myself if these women complaining about their male partners’ traditional responses to parenting were themselves willing to be flexible in their own gender roles.  As long as we have the attitude that we can do it better, men probably won’t step up, because what man enjoys feeling incompetent?

That mom who didn’t leave the children with her husband for three years obviously didn’t see him as a competent caretaker, but now seems bitter that he’s not one.  We have to believe men can care for children and manage homes, just as we believe we can run companies and nations, rather than expect them to “help” while we maintain control over the private domain.  How would we react to that kind of attitude toward our work in the public sphere?  Imagine men expecting to supervise and micromanage our works as CEOs?

So why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents?  Is it just that hard to picture?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s because deep down there is a part of us that believes if we demand equal parenting, if we demand holding onto ourselves– as our husbands do when children come into the picture– then we are not good mothers.  I can understand this fear.  When I really sit and think about it, I have it, too.  When I work, when I take time to write, when I keep up with friends, go out with other adults, and spend time fantasizing about things I’m passionate about, there is always this little nagging feeling that a “good mom” would have let go of these things.

I’ve held onto my egalitarian marriage and my sense of self, but I haven’t managed to not beat myself up about it.  So my husband has all the parenting skills and responsibility I do, but I still look at him and he seems unburdened, free of the guilt and self-doubt that plagues me.  If he can be a full person and also believe he is a good parent, why can’t I be out and proud as an egalitarian mother?


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