Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I grew up in a rural area in a highly religious family with very traditional conservative ideas of what gender roles should be.
But for me, it’s always there somewhere in my psyche.
Even as I grew up, moved away, and found a social group with different ideas about sex, gender, sexual orientation, and family roles, one in which a lot of ideas that would have been unthinkable in my chilldhood are normalized, there’s a very consistent quiet voice that lets me know that what I’m doing is only normal here.
That there’s a big bad world out there that fancies itself aggressively normal. Another subculture that thirsts for normalcy.
Still, that inner voice grew more quiet as the years went on in a supportive community.
Apparently, You’re Suppose to Fight With Your Spouse and Be Best Friends With Your Mother. Oops.
I keep running into them a lot lately, ever since I relocated cross country and left my existing group of friends behind: Women who are a lot different than me but a lot like each other in important ways.
For the most part, if you strip away a lot of other possibly distracting differences (political bent, hobbies, etc), the essence of the difference is this:
They fight constantly with their spouses and are best friends with their mothers.
This is not me. I am a leftie under this same paradigm. I instead am best friends with my spouse and have a pretty terrible relationship with my mother.
Whenever their husbands want to do anything (like go on a short trip), they have to ask for permission. And typically, when it’s agreed to, they insist on directly getting something in return. “Okay, you can do this if I can do this other thing” is the only form of yes. One woman I talked to calls this her “trading system.”
It reminds me a bit of a setup my husband had at work when there were free tickets to a show. All the employees had points built up based on how long it had been since they had gotten something from work that accrued over time. If you wanted something, you bid a number of points. Bid high enough and you won (and I believe ties were broken by seniority).
It seemed like a really fair system at a company with thousands of employees, many who didn’t really know each other.
But having a “system” for two people who ostensibly know each other well and care about each other… well, it strikes me as strange.
But increasingly as I’ve met people down here, I’m seeing a similar mindset in marriages. And realizing that this is not considered strange, this idea of keeping score and counting everything. And I’m the strange one.
The Need for Normality
The idea of being strange doesn’t really bother me. This is also strange within their paradigm, that I wouldn’t be bothered by being different.
The people I keep running into want their lives to be normal. View life almost as a scavenger hunt checkered with traditional milestones that you pass and accrue points. Get married, get a house, have a kid or three, take kid or three on same vacations you went on in your childhood.
Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
Even minor deviations from this formula can be grounds for extreme distress. For example, one person I talked to was very defensive and seemed quite ashamed that she and her partner were renting her house and not working towards buying it via a mortgage. This is in spite of the fact that housing prices are out of control in her city, and if she bought now she’d likely end up quite underwater on the mortgage in a few years (with no sign of when she’d get her investment back, if ever).
“Renting is really sensible given all the signs,” I reassured her. “It’s the right decision, looking at the numbers.”
“I know,” she replied. “It’s just not what you’re supposed to do. It’s the wrong order.”
I Spend Time Closeted About the Fact that My Husband and I Actually Get Along
It’s an odd time hanging out in situations where I’m surrounded by people that assume a woman must fight with her husband, find him annoying, and war over the pool of available money and freedom with them.
My husband and I are great friends and rarely argue. If one of us learns the other wants something, we’re quick to say, “Yes, get it!” or “Yes, go do it. Have a good time.” This is how we are generally, even when we’re not seeing other people, at times when our relationship is functionally monogamous.
If he wants to do something, I look for ways to make that happen. If it requires a counterbalance in the budget or logistics, I do my best to facilitate it.
He’s very much the same. Arguably, he’s more giving/generous than I am — at least he’s more proactive. He seems to be scanning me continually for signs that I need something, where I’m more likely not to realize he needs something until he asks me.
Still, we both default to “yes.” Not “yes, if I can do X.” Or “well… I’m not a controlling wife, but…” (the exact opener I heard at a barbecue the other night).
I don’t really mind having a relationship that’s different from “the norm” (or at least the norm that everyone else seems to be aspiring to, one that looks like it came from a sit-com).
It does get uncomfortable sometimes because people always assume that we’re like them. They mean it as a compliment, I think, because they assume we’re on the same path, that we’re successful at what they’re also trying to do.
But it does get weird whenever they tell jokes or make asides that belie that assumption. Stuff like, “Husbands, am I right? Clueless.” Along with an eye roll.
In those situations, I do my best to be polite and friendly. This is usually at odds with absolute naked honesty. There’s some kind of middle path where you smile, laugh, respond ambiguously, change the subject, whatever.
And then finally, “Well, we actually get along really well,” when you’re chased for a while in conversation, finally cornered, and tired of being evasive.
“Ah, you’re newlyweds! That’ll change once the honeymoon’s over,” is a standard reply to this that I’ve heard many times.
I’ll smile, while thinking We’ve known each other nine years and knowing the person I’m speaking with has been with their partner for less time than that.
I’m Silent Around Mom A Lot
I get good at silence around certain people. Around people who have a certain idea of normal and are very rigid in it. (It’s not that hard to identify them; they’ll often tell you explicitly and proudly that they’re this way.)
I do my best not to talk about my relationship with my mother when I’m around people like this. It’s a wonder I have any relationship with her at all, after the rough start we had together.
And my relationship with my mother is filled with silence. With gaps. With omissions.
There are always going to be a lot of things I just can’t talk about with my mother.
Because she is the same way. She has a very fixed idea of right and wrong. Normal is right and everything that isn’t normal is bad or wrong. It seems to extend not only to assessments of people and the way they live their lives but to other innocuous vehicles like food. For example, her taste in food is very bland and unadventurous, she thinks pepperoni is spicy, and she does not seem to understand that other people could differ from her.
It’s quite confusing to her.
There’s really no hope for other more controversial decisions: The fact that I have chosen not to have kids or the idea of sex positivity (she views sex as a bargaining chip you use to get things you want from men). Homosexuality doesn’t actually exist in her mindset; it’s just confused behavior.
Bisexuality doesn’t even compute to her.
Again, it all isn’t about her own personal inner life (which can be as normal or vanilla as anything) but also a lack of imagination and/or acceptance that extends to other people. My mother-in-law is a good foil to demonstrate the difference. MIL isn’t gay or bisexual at all but has friends who are and while possessing no sexual attraction to women herself seems genuinely curious as to what it’s like to be that way (we’ve had some good conversations about it, in which she was very respectful).
My own mother is difficult. Whenever she encounters something she personally dislikes or has identified as abnormal, she basically goes “yuck.”
At that point, depending on the circumstances, she either demands a topic change or berates the person expressing the different opinion or preference (again, regardless of whether it’s something small like food or something large like philosophy).
Prison Letters Full of Redactions
There are a number of topics my mother has said she doesn’t want to discuss with me. And that’s fine. I honor those requests.
But our conversations are truly weird to me. They look like prison letters full of redactions. Missing pieces.
I spend large swaths of time whenever we’re talking or together (which is admittedly far less these days since I moved away) bored but trying to be polite as she goes over the list of dishes she’s prepared for the church luncheon a third time.
I don’t react when she says my life seems empty to her. That I need more in it.
Because I know that it only seems empty since she’s censored me into a very incomplete version of what my life is like.
She doesn’t want to hear about a lot of things that matter to me. The different kinds of twilight and how they differ. Why Texas seems so much like Mexico would if it had a dash of Oklahoma spilled in it.
When I tell her that I have over 100,000 fans on Facebook for my writing page, she gives me an expression that lets me know that she thinks I’m lying. In one breath, she tells me, “You always were writing. I always knew you’d make it,” and then in the next she’s surprised that people actually read my books and my blog (which she doesn’t read, she’s not much of a reader).
I’ve Gotten Good at Silence Around Certain People, But I Never Have Learned to Enjoy It
On the plus side, Mom has given me an important life skill: The ability to be silent around certain people, once all the signs are there that they aren’t interested in talking to a person who isn’t obsessed with being normal.
I slip into it well, when I’m in yet another conversation where I’ve been mistaken for an insider. A person striving to be super-de-duper-normal. A denizen of either a Hallmark movie or a sit-com marriage — or both.
I’ve gotten good at silence around certain people.
But have I learned to enjoy it?
Books by Page Turner: