When my husband and I were dating, I was a 20-year-old single mother and I was determined to finish college because my unplanned pregnancy had forced an unwanted hiatus from school. When we were going through pre-marriage counseling with our pastor, I mentioned this in a session. The pastor said, “You have a baby to take care of,” even as he was encouraging Jeff to extend his 2 year Bible college goal to 4 years. One day, as Jeff and I stood outside the beat up construction trailer that would become our first home, I said, “I will finish college.” He bristled, not because he was unsupportive of my goals (he’s always been that), but because I was making a declaration rather than including him in a decision.
What was implicit rather than explicit in my declaration was a desire to escape a dubious 1970s past. And fear. When my father died of a myocardial infarction at 41 years old, my mother was left with two children to care for on her own. I was terrified of being unprepared for an unpredictable future.
I did finish college, with the help of my mother and my mother-in-law, both of whom babysat, and with the support of my husband, who worked countless hours earning a lucrative income (rather than a degree) so that we were able to pay for my education without incurring any new debt. I finished also because I decided that college would be my hobby. I didn’t go to the gym or the nail salon or on expensive trips. I went to school in my spare time for twelve years and graduated with honors. Only then did Jeff go back to school.
Fast forward a decade and some of my worst fears have come true. My baby is dead and my husband is involuntarily retired due to a physical disability. We’re in the midst of profound grief and profound role reversal. He stays home and I go to work. To make matters worse, my choice of a practical career coincided with historic technological shifts. Journalism is about as unstable and insecure as a career gets. I’ve had to be creative and flexible in order to minimally meet our financial needs. I’ve also had to grapple with that little devil reputation again, because there is a prejudice in our culture toward those, like my husband, who are unable to work. I wrestle with this prejudice myself. And then, there are the emotional challenges of role reversal. Ann Althouse writes this about it:
These deeply embedded sex roles… they don’t change so easily. Being large-minded and flexible and into change isn’t enough. It doesn’t get at the root of what you really feel, and you can’t just feel what you want to feel.
Jeff is one of the smartest, hardest working men I know. Still. He keeps his days full and his mind occupied. He contributes significantly to our family and our community. His strong work history and wise financial decisions have made our continued solvency possible. And yet, we both feel the strain. As much as I’ve always wanted a career, I haven’t wanted one like this. As much as he knows he must respect his limitations, he often ends up writhing in pain from overexertion.
Ann Althouse’s marriage didn’t survive role reversal. My marriage will survive, as it has through a host of other challenges, including the only one that has truly threatened to decimate it: our son’s suicide. We’ll thrive because we love each other and because we have a long history of working through our conflicts, but mostly because God is with us and in us prompting us always to love and forgive.
Planning for the uncertain future is good and wise. It creates a framework upon which to build when the walls of life are blown off. Without structure, chaos reigns. Without love, there’s no point in rebuilding.