Backyard Politics How to Be a Husband
I was husbanding—providing for my household by physically taking care of my land and livestock. And they were providing for me.
This is Backyard Politics, a column by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee that sees the world through the lens of urban farming and agriculture.
When the queen bee first hatches from her cell, she ensures she is the sole queen of the hive. Then, in the first two weeks of her life, she mates with at least ten male bees, known as drones. During mating, the drones experience an ejaculation so strong, they explode off their penises. The neutered drones fall to their death, while their penises remain plugged in the queen’s body; she stores their sperm for later use.
If a dickless drone somehow makes it back to the hive, the female worker bees push him back out to die outside.
When I became a wife, I did not know that my marriage would end suddenly after the birth of my child. I had been a good wife. Those were the parting words from my ex-husband. I had been faithful, he said. I had been thrifty. I had been loyal. I had helped his career. I had been a Woman of Valor.
I became a wife in 1999. I wore a big white gown. In front of friends and family, I circled my betrothed seven times. We made promises that I did not know would be broken fourteen years later. To his credit, he had no idea either; we never make those vows knowing they’ll be broken. Expectations are pure in that way. To represent the fragility of relationships, he crushed a lightbulb—easier and cheaper to break than a wine glass—wrapped in a cloth napkin to seal the deal.
Adam’s parting words echoed those of my father.
“A woman needs to be a good hostess,” my father advised me. And then he made sure my teeth were straightened, “because a woman has to have a good smile.” My first visit to the orthodontist was at the age of seven. My orthodontist had four of my adult teeth pulled at the age of eight; my mouth was too small to aesthetically accommodate more than twenty-four teeth.
I did not ask why I had to be a good hostess, or why I had to have a good smile, or why I had to smile at all. I did not ask because it was assumed. I was a girl. There were rules for girls. Rules constructed by men on how to be.
I had to understand and anticipate emotional needs but not be emotional myself. When I cried, my father’s response was not to hold me or to ask what was wrong. Instead, he’d say, “Men don’t like that.” That is to say that (cis, heterosexual) men like cheerful women. That he, a man, did not like that. That a future husband would not like that. That I may be sassy in private but must be serene in public.
“A good woman is loyal and thrifty.” He taught me to be practical. To limit my dreams, if necessary. To have ambition, but to have the capability to temper my ambitions, so that my dreams would never stymie those of my future partner—my future husband.
When I had a baby, I had a daughter who needed my attention. Who captured my gaze. I was also encased in severe postpartum depression. And so, for the first time in our marriage, I took my eyes off my husband .
A bee colony’s interior is pitch black and ninety-five degrees to keep the baby bees warm. Everything is ordered. There is a constant movement of work being done. But nothing can be seen in the darkness of a hive, so bees crawl around, navigate, and communicate by smell. Pheromones tell the bees how to manage their population. And worker bees will kill a bee that smells different, a bee from another hive. In response, bees will emit an alarm pheromone that smells like bananas, which then alerts other bees to the danger, whether it is a foreign bee, a bear—intruders.
After our daughter was born, after I went dark, my husband did not come home during the workweek, instead claiming business trips. When he did come home, our daughter recoiled from him. She recoiled from him before I even found out about the affair. He blamed me for turning our daughter against him.
“It’s your smell,” I told him. “You have a new cologne. I told you not to wear perfume around babies.”
He washed the cologne off, and still, our daughter screamed whenever he came near. She knew what the cologne was trying to hide.
My lasting concern after my marriage ended was not my broken heart, but the question How will I live alone? As I processed my heartache, it transformed into panic. I bought a car seat for my infant daughter and I wept all the way home, knowing I’d be installing it on my own and feeling it was an insurmountable task. Which, it turned out, was not too hard at all. But still, I had no model for being alone. No framework, except to press forward into unknown territory. Each time, terrified. Each time, victorious.
In hindsight, too, I had no model for a community of women . My mother is an introvert. And my father made it so challenging for her to invite friends over that she hardly ever bothered at all. So, during the entire course of my marriage, I feared a life without my husband. I had, like some coupled people, wished my death before his, hoping to never experience life without him.
One morning, a couple of weeks after beginning Zoloft, I sat in the rocking chair with my daughter. I was staring at the wall and cooing, singing. From far away, it looked like motherhood bliss, even if it was not. And then the colors of the walls grew more saturated, as if the sun were still rising. It was not, because it was midday. I had not seen the world in color, and there it was again.
At the time, I was still asking myself, “Where is my husband?” As had my friends. One week later, my friend Saeed called to tell me he had seen my husband with another woman in the streets of Manhattan . On Sixth and Twenty-Third, to be exact. “This explains everything,” he said as he hung up.
I did not immediately end my marriage, much to the frustration of my friends. I had hoped my husband and I could move through and past infidelity, mend that broken glass. I gave him a month to decide if he wanted to end the marriage, as he split his time between our home and the now-revealed crash pad he shared with his girlfriend.
I snuck my lingerie into his luggage where I knew his girlfriend would discover it later. I sprayed his clothing with my perfume to combat hers. I sprayed the seat belts in his car, too. I was clinging to being a wife. I did not know what else to be.
Beyond a wife, I was a mother, yes. But I had tied motherhood to marriage too, because of patriarchy. Because a child had to have a married mother and father, a “nuclear family.” Because anything otherwise was a ruin, credited to the term broken family —from which, according to one mother, my child was. Broken. And irreparably so.
He cheated on me when I was most vulnerable, in the throes of postpartum depression and new motherhood. I needed him most then. And he was not there. He broke our trust. The alarm pheromone activated.
For most queen bees, the only time they fly and leave their hive is during that one mating flight, save for occasions in which the hive swarms, finds a new home. Otherwise, queen bees spend the vast majority of their lives inside the pitch-black darkness of the hive, laying eggs. Despite their title, queen bees are beholden to the worker bees; the workers groom and feed the queen bee because she is unable to take care of herself.
But a queen bee is not beholden to the control of males whatsoever. The female worker bees control the production of drone bees, which decreases as the mating season subsides. At which point the drones have no function within the hive.
I was clinging to being a wife. I did not know what else to be.
Some nights, that winter, I slept on the kitchen floor with the baby monitor next to my ear. I could not get up—it was where I wanted to be, the hard, cold tile beneath me, reassuring me that, at least physically, I could not fall further. Even though—inside, in my heart—I was freefalling through endless darkness, unsure of where I would end up, or if it would end at all. I was nauseous all the time and did not eat. From the freefall. From heartbreak. From depression. From exhaustion.
My geriatric wiener dog died a month after that, and a dear friend replied to that news with: “Your life is a country song.”
I gave friends a key so they could enter at will and pick me up off the floor. And they did. And they left me food on my doorstep. My good friend Chelsea moved in. Set food in front of me. Asked me to eat a few bites before having to clear the food away. And it was she who said to me after Adam called to ask me for a divorce, “I know you’re scared to do it all alone, but you’ve been doing it all alone all year already.”
“Because,” I joked, “I have you as my wife, Chelsea.”
The word wife comes from “wif,” the Old English word for woman . When I was a wife, I was housebound, except for my work outside the home, my career supplementing my then-husband’s career. I was not allowed to focus on, or cultivate, anything beyond that. Our garden at the time was purely ornamental, yielding little to eat, and served as a paean to financial wellbeing for business friends. I rarely ventured into our backyard.
To cultivate means to nurture development. In the realm of farming, it means staying clear of roots, for if they are disturbed, the plant languishes. And my roots had been disturbed. But they are also disturbed when something is transplanted, given new room to grow. It takes a while for a plant to adjust to new surroundings. And I was going through what therapists call “a life transition.”
This transition felt more like near-death. An unearthing. Every minute, every hour, every day, I told myself to keep living. My daughter and I would watch the sunrise each morning. Her, tranquil after a night’s sleep, and me, heaving a big sigh and trying to imagine a life in which I could thrive. Often, we danced in the kitchen, my daughter snug in a sling against my body. I wanted to dance the terror away.
I did not know that I would become a husband. I did not know that I had wanted to be a husband all along.
The word husband comes from the Old Norse “húsbóndi,” which originally meant “male head of a household,” regardless of marital status. It also had a female form, “husbónde,” which meant “mistress of the house.” Both are linked to the word housebound . If the word wife had not taken on the meaning it has today, the female form of “husbónde” would exist. It would be pronounced in exactly the same way as the modern word husband .
For much of her life, a queen bee is hivebound . She lives in darkness, reacting to cues from the female workers. They say the queen bee is the ruler of the hive. As if it were a monarchy. But the queen bee is really a mother bee within a more socialist structure, with no clear ruler. The most accurate name would be the mother bee, the one who brings life, creates the hive, the home.
Before the mother bee was called a queen bee, she was called a king bee. Aristotle was first to call her this, unable to believe that a colony of workers would be in service to, of all things, a female. For two thousand years, she kept the name of king bee, even when scientists documented that she laid eggs. She wasn’t called a queen until Queen Elizabeth I came into power, whose popularity made space for a female to claim power in our imaginations. We are familiar with a monarchy, with one ruler, so we give that to an insect and its dominion. As humans, as ever, we place our own perspectives on others.
My father had seen what patriarchy could do to women. And how it could be used to manage women. And it wasn’t until old age that he entertained the concept that women could occupy the same space as men. When my daughter was born, he said, “Oh! This little one can be anything! The world has changed. She doesn’t even need to be married, because she is so good!”
My father was changing. And so was I.
A few months after my husband left, I planted a tomato plant. I didn’t know then that I’d start an urban farm. It wasn’t a conscious decision at first, but rather one where I wanted to infuse life around me and nurture something other than my daughter. To see something grow after destruction. I got hens, and then bees. All of the creatures, in hindsight, were female.
The soil in my garden changed, too. In the beginning, it was void of topsoil, which had been blown away by decades of weekly leaf blower visits under the direction of my ex-husband. What was left was clay, rich in minerals, but lacking organic matter for germinating seeds. I saw the roots of perennials snaking through the garden and little else when I began.
I wanted to infuse life around me and nurture something other than my daughter. To see something grow after destruction.
It takes one thousand years for bedrock and subsoil to generate just one inch of fertile topsoil. And it was gone. I did not have one thousand years. So I remediated the soil myself. The chicken manure became compost and contributed to more fertile ground for the plants. I carried in topsoil too, to aid replenishment. The gardener across the street felt sorry for me and sent his two sons over to help. Bucket by bucket, over a few days, we carried topsoil and manure down the hillside into my garden, one part of the land enriching another. In that first year of my urban farm, I spent more time in that garden than I had in the first thirteen years I owned it.
I was enacting husbandry.
The word husband evolved around the fourteenth century to mean “a married man.” At around the same time, “husbandman” came to mean farmer , and the word husbandry became a noun describing the work within farming and agriculture. This latest sense of husbandry survives today. Tiller of the soil. Carer for livestock.
I was husbanding, physically taking care of my land, and caring for my livestock as I fed and nurtured chickens and bees. I was providing for my household. And my livestock was providing for me—the chickens produced eggs for our household and manure for the soil; the bees pollinated flowers to create fruit and honey.
I’d started my farm as a way to move forward, but it was now pushing me forward, even if only by making me wake up each day to tend to my animals and garden. My daughter, too, was learning about the life cycle of animals, and from where eggs and honey come. I was sustaining my household even as I was petrified of filing taxes on my own for the first time in my life.
As a husband, I cultivated the way I wanted, without attention to decor or decorum. I let my garden run wild in a way that horrifies most landscape designers. Over the years, I made an effort to replace decorative elements with plants that had a function. I kept the roses because their flowers are edible. I pulled out rhododendrons and camellias and planted yerba mate and cherimoya trees in their place. I took down a twenty-year-old trumpet vine and replaced it with grapevines. This garden was no longer for other people. It had become, as my daughter calls it, “a fairy garden”—messy to navigate, but full of wonder and treats.
When a queen bee stops laying effectively, the worker bees build a replacement queen. When a hive becomes too crowded and has overgrown its space, the worker bees build a swarm cell and stop feeding the old queen so she can be light enough to fly. Then the old queen leaves with half the hive population to start again.
When a bee colony swarms and looks for a new home, the decision to occupy a chosen dwelling is made unanimously. There is no hierarchy. There is no single ruler. Each scout bee returns to the homeless cluster of bees, dancing the directions to a particular location. The other bees take the cue to check it out until the entire colony comes to a unanimous agreement about their new home.
I had stopped eating, too, overwhelmed with postpartum depression. I was down to prepregnancy weight three weeks after giving birth. And down to high school weight a couple of months after that. I thought I was disappearing. But in a way, I was also about to take flight. To claim a new space. That space was created for me. That space was uncomfortable, one in which I still reached for a body in bed in sleep and instead grabbed air. It was full of silence. And worst of all, it was full of waiting and anticipation, holding my breath for a husband that never came home.
When he left, the toxic waiting ceased. When he left, I could make plans for myself.
I had become imprisoned under the ownership hierarchy of patriarchy. First, from my beloved father who loved me but also told me I was “doing great with the smaller brain of a female.” And then my husband, for whom I had to slot under his functionality in the world. To serve as an extension of him, making nice with his business associates, some of whom have become my authentic friends, with me to this day. To make sure that during dinners, at least one man would ask his wife to “get the recipe” from me.
When he left, I could make plans for myself.
When a queen bee dies and is not replaced, the hive shrinks in size because there are no new bees born. The worker bees turn into laying workers, laying unfertilized eggs in an attempt to bridge the gap. Because the worker bees have not mated, their eggs are haploid and turn into drone bees. The worker bees will lay haphazardly, sometimes two to three eggs per cell, but the hive will try to continue its genetics in the form of drone bees who might then mate with a queen from another hive.
The idea is that the hive will live on.
My daughter began walking as I struggled to live. To survive. A friend came to visit. They caught me licking food off my daughter’s leg.
“The trash can,” I said, “is way over there, and this is just an easier way to deal with it.”
Thriving was another matter entirely.
I knew I would survive the end of my marriage. And at some point, I survived my postpartum depression. What I wasn’t sure of was whether or not I would thrive outside of marriage.
My garden did thrive. My chickens laid eggs. My bee colonies expanded and produced honey. The tomatoes gave endless fruit at the end of summer. The green beans gave throughout. I picked them. We picked them. Sometimes there was such a bounty that I gave produce away . I gave eggs and honey to my neighbors and friends. I gained thirty pounds, and my hair, which I’d lost due to malnutrition, began growing back.
This was the result of nurturing—something I gave myself, something I gave others via what I called my urban farm. Because I had become a husband, beholden to no other.
When a queen bee first hatches out, she may pipe. In a high-pitched bleating called piping, she announces to the world her presence, to the worker bees and any unborn queens. The worker bees, in deference to that new queen, go still when they hear it, continuing movement when she has stopped calling.
It is her battle cry. Her way of saying I am here .