Thursday, September 27, 2007

Guest author Joshua Henkin on Matrimony

Guest blogging for me today is Joshua Henkin, author of the soon-to-be-released book Matrimony. Enjoy - and be sure to check out the promotional video for the book!

Now that my new novel, Matrimony, is being published, I have a moment to reflect on my own marriage, which, though it’s not the basis for my characters’ marriage, nonetheless informed the novel. When I started to write Matrimony, I was single, living in Ann Arbor, and now I’m married, with two small daughters and a dog, living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, land of the freelance mother—and, in my case, land of the freelance father, too. How do you balance it all, and is it different for a father than for a mother?
I think it probably is different for a father. It seems to me (and I’ve been witness to extensive discussions about this on the Park Slope Parents Listserve) that the assumptions about what mothers and fathers do are different, even in liberal families striving for equality between the genders. In Park Slope, for instance, which is a bastion of liberalism, when I take my daughter to music class or to a reading hour at the local bookstore, I am usually one of the only fathers there, if not the only one; everybody else is either a mother or a nanny. And from speaking to my friends about this, I don’t think this was what most of us intended to have happen.

It tends to start out innocently enough. The mother is the one who takes the freelancing job, in order to have more flexible hours. Or her training is in a field that is less well paying than the father’s field, and so it makes financial sense for him to hold on to his job. But there are all sorts of ramifications. The mother becomes more familiar with the children’s routine—she’s better, more efficient at being a parent—and so even when the father is around she tends to take the lead. There can be a kind of infantilizing of the father, for which both parties are responsible. The father ends up being lazy (why not let the mother do the hard work?), and the mother, who is often resentful and feels devalued, prides herself on the fact that she’s the better parent, and though she wants the father to chip in, she often unconsciously discourages him from doing so. I’m not saying that this is always the dynamic, just that it’s familiar enough that I’ve come to notice a pattern.

Although I wouldn’t say my wife and I are immune to these forces, we’ve managed for the most part to avoid them. Much of it has to do with good luck. We have good childcare, and we have parents who are nearby and available to help out. My wife and I are both freelancers of sorts. I’m a novelist, and though I also teach creative writing at a couple of MFA programs, my teaching schedule is fairly flexible. My wife is an academic, and though her teaching load is heavier than mine, for her, too, it’s not an office job where she has to be there every day of the week. So most days, we take the kids to daycare/preschool together. Although it’s not the most efficient way to work (it would make more sense for us to take turns bringing the kids to school and picking them up), we’ve decided, To hell with efficiency.

In general, because as in any marriage with small kids and two careers, it’s easy not to find the time to spend with each other, my wife and I are as conscious as we can be to attend to our marriage and not take it for granted. It’s what my wife said to me on our wedding night—that we always need to grow together—and those words have stuck with me ever since. We tend to spend a larger portion of our disposable income on babysitters than some other couples we know (we promised ourselves early on that we wouldn’t compute the cost of going out to the movies on a Saturday night), and whenever possible we tend to do things together with the children, instead of alternating.

There are disadvantages to this. On those occasions when one of us is alone with the kids, we often feel a little more at bay than we otherwise would. But so far we’ve managed. Also, we have an office in our home that we share, and we work at adjoining desks. It’s our own kind of parallel play (we’ve had to learn not to interrupt each other), but we’ve found that simply being in the same room even if you’re not interacting can foster a kind of togetherness that is good for a marriage.

While it’s nice to have the kind of flexible schedules that allow either of us in the middle of a given day to take one of the children to the doctor, the flip-side—and what’s hard for freelancers, academics, and others like them—is that the work is potentially limitless. In my case, there’s always another novel or story to begin, and the same goes for Beth with her own work. At a certain point we need to say, “Enough,” and have perspective about work. We also have needed to be pretty strict about the kids’ bedtime. We happen to be strong believers that children do best with a good night’s sleep, but beyond that, it’s after the kids go to bed that we have the chance to eat dinner and sit down to prepare for class.

In a way, I think the next couple of months may be the hardest ones on my marriage and family, since my publisher is sending me on a book tour that will take me to more than twenty different stops. I’ve never been away from Beth and the kids for more than a weekend, and now I’ll be gone for ten days straight once, six days straight another time, and over the course of six weeks I’ll probably be gone more than I’m at home. We’re living in Philadelphia this year where Beth has a fellowship. She’d originally thought of commuting from Brooklyn four days a week, but once it became clear how long my book tour would be, we realized it wouldn’t be possible for us both to be commuting, so this is what we’ve worked out.

Matrimony, interestingly enough, focuses on a marriage that for a long time is without children. It’s about the twenty-year history of a marriage—what happens when a couple meet in college (he’s a Wasp from New York City, an aspiring novelist; she’s Jewish, from Montreal) and end up marrying earlier than they expected and the ways that their choices (faithlessness, failed ambition, the decision whether to have a child) and things out of their control (health and sickness, the death of a parent) test the endurance of their relationship. It struggles with some of the tensions of a two-career family (the woman is studying to be a psychologist) even before there are children.

By the end of the book, Julian and Mia do have a child, so they are about to face a lot of the things that my wife and I already face. But what they have had is quite a number of years together without children. Beth and I had that, too. It’s certainly not the only way to go, but for us, at least, it’s proven invaluable. The balancing of work and family is always hard to manage, and knowing who you are, and who your partner is—having that solid foundation—has been essential in helping us endure some of the difficulties that inevitably come along.


Blogger Mary Louisa said...

Joshua, I so enjoyed your post today! My husband and I spent thirteen years as a married couple before the birth of our first child. Making that change is quite a leap of faith.

I look forward to reading your book! Will you be coming to any Delaware bookshops?

29/9/07 8:12 PM  

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