Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

ring

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Mother’s Day

I burst through the door in her room. “Mom! She is taking an extra turn on the video game! She promised to let me play when she died, and she wouldn’t let me!”

I immediately regretted my decision. In my rage at my sister’s video game injustice, I failed to realize exhausted my mom was. It was Sunday afternoon, after a long three-hour block at church, and she had been dead asleep for only an hour.

I looked at her back as she faced away from me, the covers pulled up over her ribs, and I knew she was awake, but she barely spoke above a whisper. “Please handle it yourselves and let me sleep.”

“Okay, okay, Mom, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have woke you. Go back to sleep.” I retreated out of the room quietly and closed the door. But of course she couldn’t sleep.

It was 1992, and I was 13 years old. The sixth of seven children, I was the man of the house now. My older sister, Marnae, at 16, was always sneaking out and causing problems, and my younger sister Sheri, at age 10, was forever trying to get me into trouble. (The older four kids were already out of the house, married or divorced and raising their children). But I saw myself as the rock in my mom’s life, the one that could help ease her burdens a bit. I felt terrible for having interrupted the nap.

I decided to make up for it by making dinner. I scanned our cupboards, finding cans of chicken soup, crispy fried onions, and Rice-A-Roni there, and in the fridge was butter, milk, and a few essentials. I could cook all of this up and them Mom wouldn’t have to work this afternoon, she could rest.

As Sheri and Marnae kept fighting over the video games in the next room, I thought of how much our lives had changed in the past few years. In 1990, just after I’d finished the fourth grade, Mom had made the boldest move of her entire life; she left her husband. After over 20 years together, seven children, and a move across the country, she couldn’t take anymore of Dad’s depression, crippling debt, constant yelling and fault-finding, or the long crying spells. Though it had been good in the beginning, the last decade plus (right around the time I was born and afterward), Dad had been steadily declining. So Mom, in her mid-40s, packed a U-Haul full of keepsakes and left Missouri.

For two days, we had driven back to Idaho, where we’d moved back in with her parents for a time. Mom found work at a small-town Idaho school, using the teaching degree she had earned back before she’d had children, and rented a small brick house next door to the Mormon church, in a town that had less than 500 people. We registered in to new schools and our new lives began.

I wouldn’t understand for several more years how difficult this patch of life must have been for my mom. Many years later, as I faced my own divorce with two young dependent children, when I moved from a four bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment and from financial security to massive amounts of debt, then I would begin to understand. Mom’s entire future had been built up in her marriage. She’d prepared for marriage through her entire adolescence, and she’d supported Dad through thick and thin. She’d carried seven babies and raised them, each with their own struggles and challenges. She’d had many joys, but she’d faced many hardships as well. And now, with the divorce final and three children remaining at home, she must constantly wonder what the future held for her. At 14, I simply lacked the capacity to see her courage, her unwavering strength, and the utter emotional exhaustion and devastation she must have been facing at the time.

When she left Dad, there might have been hope for a reconciliation. Maybe this would be the wake-up call that he would need to finally climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. But instead, he’d only gotten farther away, more angry, more critical. He’d sold the home, berated her for leaving, and moved himself to Las Vegas. He didn’t call us, he saw us maybe once per year, and he didn’t pay an ounce of child support. She was on her own now.

Earlier in the day, in sacrament meeting, I’d seen Mom wince, almost silently, and a few tears leak down her cheeks when one of the women in our Mormon congregation had stood up to bear her testimony of the power of marriage. She’d discussed her gratitude and love for God for providing her such an incredible husband to share her life with, and she’d professed that all who worked to keep God in their marriage could be successful and find happiness. After that, I’d gotten up to bear my own testimony, sure to tell the congregation how blessed I was to have an incredible mother who was my best friend and who sacrificed everything for her family. She was my greatest, and only, example of heroism in my direct life.

I worked quickly to prepare dinner, accidentally knocking a bag of sugar over, several cups’ worth of it spilling onto the floor before I noticed. Then as I was cleaning it up, the glass bowl that I had set on the burner, full of water and set to boil, exploded into a million billion shards that cascaded across the room; somehow I didn’t realize at the time that glass bowls couldn’t be heated from the bottom up. The explosion woke Mom up and she saw the kitchen littered with sugar and glass shards. I was worried she might cry, but somehow the sight of it was just ridiculous.

Mom got a broom and a dustpan and sat down next to me on the floor to start cleaning up the mess. She knew I’d only been trying to help.

“Sorry, Mom. I love you,” I said, a guilty, humbled expression on my face.

She looked past her exhaustion and saw me there. “I love you, too, Chad.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

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the Origin of My Species

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“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.