Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have a love story to rival a Disney princess’s. We communicate well, share the workload, go on plenty of dates, have fun with our two children (8 and 9 years old), and treat each other kindly. We share similar interests (but still have our own hobbies and identities) and are always flirting and complimenting each other. But there is one thing missing in our marriage: sex. I just can’t do it. Sometimes, it sounds scary. Other times, uncomfortable. Most of the time, I have no interest. It isn’t that I’m bored of him; I have no interest in anyone else, either. Sex is just not at all appealing to me. We started off just fine, but after a traumatic pregnancy, something clicked and I just don’t want to anymore. We go months without fooling around. And I am fine with that. He says he is fine too. He never was a jackrabbit and seems content with the hundreds of other ways that we show love. I myself feel absolutely loved and satisfied, but all anybody seems to talk about is sex—it seems like half of what we see on TV is about sex!—and I feel guilty, like I am depriving my husband. The guilt is exhausting. How do I curb it? And is it normal to be so disinterested in sex?
—Happy, but Guilty
The only thing that matters is that you and your husband are satisfied with this arrangement (indeed, you sound happier together than most married couples). As long as “fine” from your husband means that he’s happy, and not just resigned to the state of your sex life, what is there to feel guilty about? Societal expectations? Screw that (so to speak). You are who you are; there is nothing wrong with you. “Normal” exists on a wide spectrum, and a lack of interest in sex, often referred to as asexuality, is part of the full spectrum of sexuality. The more you learn about it—I hope—the better you will feel about it. Start here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m woman in my mid-20s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in a writing, research, and teaching-intensive field. My male partner (we’re in a long-distance relationship) is training for a career in a field that is very demanding and hard to break into no matter how talented someone is, and it’s also hypermasculine (think professional poker player or F1 driver). We’ve been together for years and are very supportive of each other, and we manage to make things work in spite of our crazy workloads. I’m writing because my partner and I have talked about how, eventually, we would like to have a family. But my partner is the kind of person who really dislikes doing the mundane and annoying tasks that are part of adult life, like getting health insurance, paying bills, etc. He gets most of those things done, but he is very vocal about how inconvenient it is to do them. I don’t enjoy doing them either, but I also need health insurance and electricity and so on, so I take care of such things without complaint. I take a hands-off approach to his complaints—while I sympathize with him, I will not play personal assistant to him (not that he asks me to).
He and I will (presumably) live together at some point before we have a family, and while I know this is a long way off, I’m also acutely aware of the fact that household and family management labor (including emotional labor!) falls disproportionately on women. I’ve already had conversations with my partner about emotional and household labor imbalances. At the beginning of the pandemic, my Ph.D. responsibilities moved online, and some of my partner’s colleagues expressed surprise that I did not pack up and move a few thousand miles away to live with him in order to “support” him. We talked about how this was a sexist view of women in general, and dismissive of my career aspirations (which my partner encourages and supports) in particular. But recently I’ve been thinking about what happens when we have a family. Once there are other humans dependent on us to care for them, the emotional and household management labor will increase exponentially. Even though my guy is generally quite “enlightened” (especially compared to his family and people in his field!), I know that gender roles around parenting and family-raising are sneakily resilient.
As I think about the idea of having children and being a professor seeking a tenure track job in a precarious academic market (even more precarious now thanks to COVID) with a future husband who is also in a demanding field, I don’t want to just hope that we end up with a fair division of labor. What I want is to have the knowledge and practical suggestions for how to have an equitable distribution of family/emotional/household labor before I need them, so that those worries can be part of the conversations my partner and I have as we think about our future. Do you have any suggestions for books or other sources of information that can help women explain to their male partners that the potential for an uneven division of labor between parents is a serious issue, and/or which have suggestions and strategies for how to avoid or correct imbalances of emotional/family/household labor when they do occur?
For sources of information about the unbalanced domestic workload and the toll it takes on women, one hardly has to look: They are everywhere. In the past two weeks alone, I read two stories in the New York Times that drive home the points you want to make. But while these articles—and many others, and many books—look specifically at the problem of women in the academy, like you (and me), the problem you describe is of course endemic. And I find it hard to believe that your partner isn’t aware of it (he would’ve really had to have had his head in the sand his entire adult life). So perhaps these two articles would start a conversation between the two of you that you need to have, but it might be counterproductive to dump a lot of reading material on him. More to the point, I think, and especially when it comes to “strategies” for preparing for and dealing with imbalances—because in general you’re right to look ahead to them!—is for the two of you to be able to talk frankly about your relationship, your expectations of each other, and your understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
But I feel I must also point out that you seem to be years away from cohabiting, much less having children together. So it might serve you well to think of these as preliminary conversations, the kind that will help you get a feel for whether he’s going to be willing (and able?) to work through this with you.
And even if he is—and even if this relationship does move in the direction you hope it will—I assure you you’ll have to circle back to this subject again and again until the two of you get it right. Sometimes this takes years. (Sometimes it never happens, which is why I think it is wise of you to start thinking about it now, so that you can discern whether the two of you are really going to be able to work as a team, which it seems you fear you might not be.)
As a woman in a tenured faculty position, I have firsthand experience with the challenges of juggling the competing demands of the academy and the family. (For the record, I came up for tenure three months after my daughter was born and didn’t come up again for promotion to full professor until that baby was 12.) And as a creative writer married to a full-time, hardworking visual artist—both of us needing and wanting to spend every minute possible on our own work (and often enough finding ourselves with simultaneous deadlines—my husband preparing for an exhibition in New York at the same time that I was desperately trying to complete revisions on a manuscript, or both of us working toward the same grant deadline)—I can tell you that there is no easy solution and absolutely no one-size-fits-all model for a healthy balance.
For us (and we struggled to get there, and it took us years), it came down to recognizing and very clearly dividing up our labor. Although I disliked and was not very good at mundane tasks like keeping track of money, paying bills, and dealing with health insurance, I was better at it than my husband, so that task became mine. He was genuinely good at and/or didn’t mind fixing things that broke, doing laundry, researching big purchases, and keeping things in the house running properly, so all of that became his domain. Some things we split evenly based on our temperaments (I load the dishwasher and he unloads—always). And there was one major thing we finally realized neither one of us was going to do because we both hated it so much and were both so bad at it (cleaning the house). If we had figured this last one out earlier than seven years into our marriage, it would have spared us about a thousand arguments; since then, we’ve been paying someone to clean the house twice a month and letting it get really dirty between her visits.
Our arrangement would not work for every couple—it’s particular to us. And it isn’t always even. Some days—some weeks (and some years)—it’s entirely unbalanced. When our daughter was young, I definitely was doing way more than he was where she was concerned, because I was the one who purchased/kept track of her clothes as she grew out of them (and I quite enjoyed that task), and made doctor’s appointments, and kept track of school projects’ due dates (because he was, and remains, hopeless at that sort of thing). When it came time to decide which public school we’d enter our local lottery for, I did all the heavy lifting. And we argued, pointlessly, about this (because he was never going to get good enough at those things to satisfy me, and there seemed to be no way to shift the balance without my being angry with him for not being me when he did “my” things). But there have been other times when he has done way more for the total domestic balance than I have (for example, right now—literally, today, this minute, and for the past six months). While I sit on the couch writing this column—or working on a new book, or reading my students’ manuscripts or answering their emails—he’s upstairs working on the project he began at the start of lockdown: remodeling our house, room by room. Honestly, after nearly three decades of marriage, the balance between us feels, overall, quite equal to me, even though his share tends to be the bigger, noisier one (plastering and sanding and hammering and sawing). The main thing is that neither one of us feels put upon, unfairly burdened, stuck. Can you and your partner begin to talk now about what that might look like for the two of you if you decide to throw in your lots together for the long haul?
I wish my husband and I had talked about all this before we stumbled into it. I wish I’d figured out years before I did that there were plenty of things I could live with (baskets of clean unfolded, un-put-away clothes; a less than perfectly clean house; a considerable amount of clutter) that I’d wasted time and energy fretting about. I think the strategy you seek is the one you’ve already come up with: get ahead of the problem before it starts. And what I’d add to that, based on my own hard-won experience, is for you to think hard about what you’re willing to do, what you’re willing to give up (along the lines of my baskets of laundry or unclean house), and what you will absolutely need him to step up for. And then keep thinking about it (and keep talking about it) as the years go on.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two girls, ages 5 and 1. Since becoming a parent, I have been interested in reading books about parenting and child development. I truly enjoy parenting my two girls and am always “trying to figure it out”—what’s best for my kids, what’s best for me, what’s best for our family, etc. I in no way think I have all of the answers but I am enjoying the journey of figuring it out with my kids.
My issue is my older sister. She is three years older than I am but my entire life has acted like she is years and years wiser. She has three kids, ages 11, 7, and 1. I wince when I think of the “parenting voice” she has continued to use on me over the years when she thinks I am doing something wrong. That said, I have come to understand that she has no idea how offensive and grating this is.
Most recently, my husband and I were talking about watching our daughter during group sports. We’ve both noticed that she tends to be shy and reserved, holding back a bit. We want to help her without making her self-conscious, but don’t really know how. So we were talking—there were a bunch of people present—about how we might be able to build her self-confidence. My sister laughed at us and said, “You guys are such rookie parents! Stop watching her do everything.” My husband and I both felt this was incredibly dismissive and condescending. We both responded, telling her that we’re simply observing our daughter playing a sport! But how do you recommend responding to these types of comments? I’ve told her many times that I find her to be condescending, but she tends to be defensive or offer one of those “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” empty apologies. Unfortunately, I have only one sister, and my kids adore their cousins (as do I), so I would like to maintain a relationship with her. However, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to do so when she continues to be so condescending and authoritative.
—A “Rookie” Parent
Your sister is not going to stop being a jerk about this. If you want to maintain a relationship with her, you are going to have to learn to stop letting her get under your skin. Ignore her. You’re not getting anywhere telling her you don’t like it when she’s condescending (you may in fact be egging her on; she may be treating you this way because she knows it annoys you: Some sibling habits die hard). But no matter what’s driving her officious, supercilious, entirely unwelcome remarks about your parenting, it’s time for you to swat them away like the pointless irritants they are. Try rolling your eyes. Or completely changing the subject. Or saying something sarcastic (“Oh, goodness, why didn’t I think of that? That’s brilliant”), or pretending you’re grateful (“Gosh, Sis, thanks, that’s such helpful advice”—which, you may note, is almost indistinguishable from sarcasm; it’s all in the tone of voice). Try whichever technique feels most natural to you. Or try them all, one at a time, and see what sticks. But whatever you do, stop taking her criticism to heart! She is not, as you well know, the boss of you. Tell that to your own inner parenting critic.
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