Even in a Queer Marriage, There’s the Familiar Trap of Gender Roles
The wall that divided us in those early weeks of my first child’s infancy became a continued separation.
One Saturday in April, I left breakfast on the counter for my children, stepped into my chore boots, and opened the gate to the back pasture. There, my partner knelt in the wet grass as she attached our chicken coop to our riding mower with a pull chain. Our coop was on wheels and every week we moved it so that our laying hens would have access to new forage. My partner connected the coop to the mower like it was second nature, like she had no fear that the chain would come undone, that the mower would get stuck in a rut, that our coop would topple. Not me. As I stood there, I wondered how I’d handle this chore if she died.
When I imagined myself as the primary caregiver, I imagined I would enjoy the feeding, the putting to sleep, and the diapering. And I did. I did enjoy these things. I had spent a decade longing for them. But I hadn’t imagined the loss of autonomy and what that would feel like. I hadn’t imagined it because what was there to picture? It was a feeling only recognizable once I inhabited it: a vice.
While my first child was a toddler, I attended weekly classes led by a local parent educator. Parents sat in a circle on the carpet while children played with toys in the next room, supervised by the teacher’s assistants.
Mostly the parents were mothers, though occasionally a father attended. Once, there was a lesbian couple. I looked at them from across the room, wishing we’d connect, though I knew I was too shy and too straight-passing for any exchange to happen easily. The occasional father was typically there with his wife. I don’t believe I ever saw a dad who came to parenting class every week alone the way the mothers came to parenting class alone. In other words, the fathers for the most part came as drop-ins, as support or fill-in for their wives.
I came alone. It was a role I assigned myself. I cared about having a place to learn how to be a better parent. I knew that my partner would be uncomfortable in such a setting, hyperaware of her difference as neither a dad nor a straight-passing mom. So I made it my job to come every week and report back the essential information, for instance that we were supposed to find a healthy balance between setting firm rules and negotiating with kids, or that developing rapport between each parent and child was key to solving ongoing conflicts.
Parenting class always opened with a round-robin check-in, and one day a mother complained about how much freedom her husband took every weekend.
“Moms,” the teacher responded. She took a breath and looked around the classroom, taking in all of the mothers sitting cross-legged on her floor. “If you resent your husband for going to The Home Depot on a Saturday morning, you might take inspiration from that and take off for your own errand when he gets back. Women need to learn to feel less comfortable with resentment and more comfortable with guilt.”
It was a statement that simultaneously alienated and included me. Was I or wasn’t I one of the mothers she was addressing? I was a mom, but I didn’t have a husband. I had a wife, who did in fact take off for The Home Depot on Saturday morning. And I did need to learn to be more comfortable with guilt and less comfortable with resentment.
Resentment was a habit I’d formed to deal with my partner’s autonomy, which remained largely invisible to her. Things that wouldn’t have bothered me in our life before children bothered me now, like if she stopped at the store on her way home from work but didn’t call to ask if I needed anything. Or if she left to run an errand and then, on a whim, stopped to visit a friend on the way home. Part of me longed to steal these small pleasures from her so she could miss her own freedom the way I missed mine. I was ashamed of this impulse—I knew it was ungenerous—so I stayed silent, and in that silence my resentment festered.
For years, long after I’d completed the sequence of parenting classes, I carried the teacher’s advice in my head, but I didn’t know how to implement it. It is one thing to instruct a room of mothers to reclaim their own autonomy, but the question is: How?
Over the years, I watched my partner as if I were looking out a window. There she was, catching a swarm of honeybees. Here I was, picking up spilled LEGOs. There she was, cutting a fallen tree with a chainsaw. Here I was, nursing our second child in the same green chair. I felt stuck like the goat with swollen udders, bodily obliged to the small creatures who had transformed me. Though I missed my autonomy, I made no move to reclaim it.
Though I missed my autonomy, I made no move to reclaim it.
And then March 2020 arrived. My children, who were by then larger, more unruly creatures, shared a house with me all day every day. Our routines collapsed. Our boundaries shifted. Often we were an amorphous mass of need and conflict. After the first three weeks of restrictions, my partner was called back to work. I stayed home with both children. My older son melted down daily from the frustration of online school. My younger son fought completing phonics worksheets with bottomless fury. I ground my teeth through professional Zoom meetings knowing that either child might burst through the door at any moment. By the end of the day, when my partner returned, I had a deep physical need to depart the house and close the door behind me. The change was instant and involuntary. I simply couldn’t take it anymore.
Spring’s arrival brought me relief. Our big-leaf maple changed daily as it grew long chains of chartreuse flowers, then sticky leaf buds, which opened and then grew. I noticed because finally I was outside. I found myself on the riding mower, finding satisfaction in the way my body jolted when I mowed over a bump. I found myself every day in the garden, pulling up weeds and turning soil with a spud fork. I told my children they could join me, but I was relieved when they declined. The guilt I felt was negligible. Our world was falling apart anyway, so what did it matter if I claimed some time to myself?
My frantic self-care invited a shift in our family balance. I left without instruction or expectation, and in doing so I left a space for my partner to step into. When kids asked for food in my absence, she served mac and cheese in tin cups with wooden spoons. She and the kids watched Marvel movies together and then drove down the road to visit our neighbors’ pigs. Or sometimes my partner joined me. We planted garlic in the garden and sat on buckets in the greenhouse where we drank beers beside the lavender starts. We came inside to messes of chip crumbs and drips of salsa on the counter. I took comfort in the evidence that my kids knew to feed themselves when they were hungry.
Other caregivers might have reclaimed themselves sooner. They might have handed their partner the baby and bottle and stepped into the wide beyond with minimal guilt, knowing that they would return nourished and whole. But I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t ready.
I have long believed that to love a person deeply is to, in a way, become them: to understand the world through their eyes, to integrate their ways of being into my own. I experienced early parenthood as an interruption in this way of loving. Mothering simultaneously stretched and shrunk me. I was a rock. My partner was a wall. For a long time we were only ourselves and not each other. Our marriage was winter, and then spring arrived.
This winter, the day after Christmas, snow fell and stayed. The water feeders in the chicken coops froze. Our cow (a recent addition) needed extra care. To avoid burst pipes, my partner turned off the outdoor faucets, so watering the animals required someone to fill ten-gallon buckets from our basement and haul them across the field.
On the first day of snow, my partner did these chores alone while I searched our house for mittens and snow pants and took our children outside to play. By the time she was done she was exhausted and wheezing, her asthma triggered by the cold.
In the frozen days that followed, we did morning chores together. In the basement, in rhythm, we put on muck boots, filled buckets, then stepped into our shared world to break the ice, feed the animals, and spread new straw on the ground. Inside, one child slept while the other made himself hot chocolate and waited for us to take him sledding. It was better this way: me inside the cow pen, my partner passing a bucket of water to me over the fence, the warm breath from our lungs visible in the air.
Jennifer Berney writes to explore the human state of longing. Her essays have appeared in Wired, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Longreads, and many other places. Her book, The Other Mothers, tells the story of her journey to parenthood and the obstacles she faced navigating the fertility industry as a queer woman.