Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Class Report

I went to an overpriced, overrated, and patriarchal university that was a spectacularly poor fit for me. (I happily got credit for AP tests and managed to get out in three years.) I knew only a tiny fraction of the people in my class, I remember even fewer, and I remain in touch with none. Yet when I recently received my class report, I was mesmerized. I am fascinated by what people choose to say to sum up their lives so far.

The really cool people never say anything about themselves, of course. I dutifully sent in the requested info: my address, job title, and the names of my husband and son. Since I enjoy reading this stuff, it seemed unfair to say nothing about myself.

Of the people who chose to write something, almost all wrote about only those three things: job, spouse, and children. Now, the form requested that information up front, so it makes sense that most people would assume that's what they're supposed to write about. But it seems terribly incomplete, especially after reading blogs. Of course there's a space issue, but I think that most of my favorite bloggers would be able to come up with a couple of paragraphs that could provide some insight into their souls. (I couldn't, but then who said I was one of my favorite bloggers?)

The descriptions of the children made them seem interchangeable. Most three-year olds mispronounce words in cute ways. Most six-year-old boys have an obsession with some category of toy. Most twelve-year-olds play soccer. All children "keep you young but make you old!" I was sobered, however, by the number of people who had sad stories to tell. One classmate has three children who all have autism. Another lost her second pregnancy to a fatal neurological disorder and her third to uterine rupture (followed by a diagnosis of metastatic cancer in her husband). Another had a two-year-old who died of a brain tumor. These latter stories made the breezy descriptions of the boringly normal children seem callous, though I know they weren't meant to be.

A surprising (to me) number of people married young and stayed married to their original spouses. Many had sweet things to say, but some of their comments distressed me. For example:
I'm still married. That's saying something, isn't it? After so many years, I observe that one must work hard at a marriage relationship, and one must be committed. I have found that love is a decision, not a feeling. Effort does seem to pay off.
I mean, what the fuck? I read this entry to TrophyHusband and said, "I'd kill you if you wrote this way about me." "You shouldn't care if I said that," he said. "You should be upset if I felt that way."

This reminded me of how several people pulled either my husband or me aside at our wedding to tell us, very soberly, something along the lines of "You should know that marriage isn't a party. Marriage is hard work."

The spectacularly poor timing of these pronouncements aside, we both found this to be a bizarre way to look at things. We have always "worked" at not taking each other for granted, saying please and thank you, and considering each other's feelings. But the reason we knew we wanted to be married was that none of this felt like work. So it became an inside joke for us—"I feel like having Indian food tonight." "I was thinking Chinese." "Work of marriage!"

Things were harder once we had a baby, but the work has been more to try and figure out how to spend time with each other while working full time (and that's a work in progress). I've had to work at remaining pleasant despite fatigue and stress (not always successfully), but that's in general. There have certainly been ... challenges, but they've always seemed to be about one thing at a time, not about the marriage as a whole.

Our suspicions about the reliability of the "work of marriage" advice have been borne out in that everyone who gave it is now divorced. This past weekend we celebrated our fifth anniversary, and we asked each other, "Does this feel like work?" And we both said no.

Are the folks who talk about the Work of Marriage just in bad marriages? Or am I misunderstanding the concept?

And if you had to, would you be able to sum up your life so far in a couple of paragraphs?


Anonymous said...

I have TRIED to describe myself in those little thumbnail sketches sent by the alumni association but if I were to put in black and white my life then I would feel obliged to add my reasons where I am and then my new life philosophy and my NEW goals and..and...oh heck buy the unabridged novel when I have time to write it....

Anonymous said...

I, too, have always been mystified by the "marriage as work" paradigm. My husband and I get along disgustingly well -- a colleague of mine once introduced me, saying, "This is Lisa, she loves her husband," as if it was something truly bizarre.

My relationship with my husband is really pretty effortless. We haven't been challenged by any sort of crisis yet, e.g., infidelity, sickness, but I just don't see those circumstances changing the fundamental way we relate to each other. Maybe I have a smug gene, too.

Anonymous said...

I've been married for 15 years. We dated for 5 years before that. We have been through rough times, however being married has never been work. Being nice is sometimes work, listening when I could care less is work, but being married isn't work. It makes it worth the effort to try.

Anonymous said...

I think being married has made the everyday work of life easier. If you're lucky (I consider myself to be), your marriage makes you happier than you would be on your own.

I can never figure out how to sum my life up in two paragraphs. There's no space for the non-pigeonholed life, and who fits in a pigeonhole?

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting timing, as I was just discussing the marriage as work sentiment with a friend over dinner. My feelings were exactly the same as yours, although they were expressed in a very poor, my toddler is yelling in my ear kind of way. She felt the same, which made us both thankful that we are in great relationships.

Anonymous said...

My husband & I have been together 14 years- 10 of them married. I don't know if I would call it work, as in "do I have to?" as much as making an effort. Initially, we had a lot of horrible crap come our way and it took effort to keep lines of communication open. Now, in our mid-30's, I feel like it the effort comes in breaking through the boredom, eg, making the effort to listen intently and not while we're folding laundry or on the computer.

Laura said...

How about three paragraphs? This is what I wrote recently for my 25th high school reunion.

It's hard to believe that it has been 25 years! My first born graduated last May from high school and it brought all the memories back. I am so looking forward to her next great adventure! One down and only FOUR more to go! Yes, I now have five kids ages 19, 14, 12 1/2, 10 and the bonus baby, age 4 1/2. My darling husband and I just celebrated 23 years of marriage and we are still happy to be stuck with each other.
I still practice as an RN in a level III NICU. Last year I gave up gave up a very comfortable, very part time job in San Jose, Cali for a fulltime position in an inner city hospital in Stockton. It is much, much closer to home yet it is a whole new world for this white bread girl!
Life has been good but over the last year or so I have learned to not take anything for granted. Our family has lost many loved ones this past year....some who were much too young. My little brother Randy died in 2004. It is still hard to believe that he is gone.Like I said, life is unpredictable and much too short to take anyone for granted. I focus now on the moments that take my breath away.

It's okay to be bored and to roll your eyes....I was and did when I read this in our reunion album.

Anonymous said...

Huh. The "work" part for us is to remember to be sweet to each other, even under stress, and...I think that's about it. I enjoy D more than anyone else I know, and he seems to feel the same way about me. We have been together since 1991 and on many levels this still feels new. I fall in love with him all over again every time I see him walk into the kitchen to get me juice, when he sings to our daughter, when his face breaks into a smile as we run into each other on the street, as he says "I love you" in his sleep, every time we giggle uncontrollably at the absurd things that happen to us.
Yeah, dealing with stress and remembering to be good to each other in very stressful times is whatwe work at. The rest...
About summing up your life in two paragraphs - it's hard to do without sounding callous or trite, in the face of what others have suffered. And it is always amazing how much others have endured.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I was just spouting off to someone about "the work of marriage" today. 'Nough said, dontcha think?

And yeah, I could sum up my life since college in like, ONE SENTENCE. "After graduation, Mrs. Pygmalion earned her MFA at XXX University, married Pygmalion, and had three children; she worked from home briefly but then had to quit due to the illness of her youngest child, who is expected to grow out of his health issues by the age of two." Period.

You're lucky if you don't know about "the work of marriage" and your life takes up more than a couple of paragraphs.

Me, I'm just bitter (and heading toward stinkin' drunk).

Amy said...

ooh, I like your blog, I like your topics! Good running advice, by the way.

I don't have the answers to your "work of marriage" question but I'm in the process of a divorce (he left) and a new relationship with a guy also in the process of divorce (she left.) All I can say is, for both of us, the old relationships felt like work. This time around, so far anyway, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Just to chime in on the marriage and work (and delurk, I guess)--don't many good things take effort? Say running...if you don't run frequently, you're running isn't going to be great or get better. (I don't run, but my husband does.) Isn't it "work" to run? But it is also fun and rewarding and good for you. Just as marriage is good for you and fun and rewarding.

I think you and the other commenters sound offput by the term "work." Is work a bad thing? My daughter attends a Montessori school. All activities and projects are called "work." Dr. Montessori recognized that we work at things we value. And children want to do real, valuable things. (a bad paraphrasing of her philosophy, but I hope you get the idea). It sounded weird in the first few months to have her talk about doing the letter work or the bead work or, this year, the chopstick work, but now it seems normal. And work is good.

thumbscre.ws said...

Hee... I'd have to have graduated from somewhere to be eligible to write the "Alumni X has been up to Y activities" blurb.

Which is just as well; I've always said that my car is devoid of bumper stickers because I don't feel that my views can be summarized on a few square inches of sticky vinyl; same thing here. It would just feel weird to reduce my life to a few concepts (Wife, Mom, Blogger, Risotto-Maker).

Re: marriage/work. Married for three years, together for seven. The past three months have been hard, hard work (stupid freakin' Major Life Challenges). The rest has been like hiking an uneven trail... certain periods required more exertion than others, but the entire experience was FUN and beautiful, not drudgery.

Anonymous said...

Being newly married, I am hardly in a position to comment on whether marriage is hard work. My in-laws, however, have been married for 35 years and THEY say that while marriage is work (insofar as you're always compromising with another and always considering another before yourself), they also said that it is great fun to share your life with someone whom you love. So I like to think that if Erik and I can continue to laugh together and not take things too seriously, then everything will work out fine.

I think I could sum up my life in three quirky paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I wanted to add that when we were dating, Erik and i went through some really TRYING times -- the unexpected death of my mother, a long-distance relationship for about a year, graduation from law school (me), starting graduate school while working full-time (him) and we are still able to keep laughing and getting along. I honestly think the death of my mother might have broken lesser couples up because I was a total wreck afterwards and still had yet to take the bar. I guess if we got through that, we can get through anything.

Anonymous said...

I've thought about this before. I think when some people say their marriage is work, they're talking about work we all do, but focusing oddly on their marriage. I work (as in I put in effort) every day to be a nicer, more patient person, a better friend, a better parent, etc. I mean, I'm not obsessed with it, I don't spend my days plotting out my path to perfect friend or uber parent, but if I find myself being impatient with a friend or my child I'll try to be extra patient the next time. It's just basic human civility, I think. So I think when some people say they "work" at being married, they mean they are applying these same concepts to their marriage, or remembering to be civil to their spouse. I think a lot of people go into marriage naively thinking they won't have to worry about things like saying 'please' and 'thank you' with their soul mate.

I do think some people are just in bad marriages, though, or maybe are the kind of person who marriage doesn't suit, and have to work at it every day in the same way I have to work at exercising every day. And man, I feel sorry for those people because I cannot stand exercising.

brewerburns said...

I think that marriage is work in the sense that a good marriage doesn't just happen on its own. You do have to make an effort to treat each other well, even when you have disagreements or are going through stressful times.

Incidentally, on the day of my wedding, as my father was about to walk me down the aisle he turned to me and said "you don't have to get married." To be fair, he and my mom went through some very difficult times in their marriage so he doesn't have the best attitude about it.

amusing said...

It's wonderful to know that there are people in happy marriages! I was beginning to think maybe male/female just isn't meant to be as a long-term pairing!

E. said...

Nice sum-up, Bihari!

I agree with Sarah: depending how you define work, it's not necessarily a bad thing. I love my work. And I've often done "work" that was not required (writing, music, gardening, the above and beyond during all those years of school).

But even still, I wouldn't call my marriage "work." After seven years married (and almost eleven together), it still feels like a reprieve from the stresses of other areas of life. Most of the time. Sometimes there are minutes or hours of work - working to be patient, working not to assume that I'm always right, working to understand what my dear is saying even though it seems kind of crazy to me. But by and large my marriage is far from work; it's fun, it involves lots of laughter, it's more often not work but play. I think being able to do the work parts make the play parts possible, though, when you're in it for the long haul.

Anonymous said...

Marriage is tough because people change. My husband says I am not the person he married. Well, no i am not.
When we got married, we were going to music festivals, camping, partying, did i say partying? and didn't have a care in the world.
Once we had children, our lifestyle changed drastically. Did we know each other? Hell no! I knew my Guiness bottle better than him.
That is where the work part comes in--working to accept change and go with it. Enjoy life in different ways and learn more about your spouse while doing so.

B.E.C.K. said...

I think it depends on the associations one has with the word "work."

I would want to replace "work" with "commitment" and "effort." My son's dad was governed by his feelings. He made day-to-day decisions about our relationship based on feelings that changed from day to day. He had no overriding sense of commitment regarding our relationship, and was unwilling to put forth effort to listen or speak softly or be pleasant or even stick around and help out if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Dealing with his fluctuating feelings and accompanying behavior was like living with a hormonal teenager.

As I take care of my son, I recognize that my relationship with him (going off the marriage topic for a moment, but still on relationships in general) takes commitment and effort. This is not a bad thing, though, as the effort and commitment that I bring to my relationship with my son brings me joy, and I do it joyfully.

I believe something similar applies to marriage, but people get hung up on the word "work" because they've been taught to separate life into "work" and "play," and that work isn't fun -- only playing is fun. going by this, if marriage is work, then it can't be fun.

It's all in one's definition of (and associations with) work.

Fat Doctor said...

Here's what most of my college "class notes" section looks like:

"After college, I joined the Peace Corps, where I singlehandedly ensured the survival of a small African nation. I have especially fond memories of teaching the local women the much-needed skill of plumbing.

"After marrying the Best Man in the World, I devoted myself to keeping an orderly home. Of course, I found time to write three award-winning novels and bear five children, who are all precocious and beautiful. Our youngest, age 13, was recently named an official advisor to the President of the United States. He has an interest in middle eastern nuclear proliferation and is a deddicated Republican.

"Now that the kids are old enough to be looking at colleges themselves, Husband and I spend almost all of our free time taking them on weekend trips to visit the schools they might oneday choose. Of course, we both pray they choose Our School. Go Mascots!

Orange said...

I'll echo what others have said here—my marriage isn't arduous work at all. Sure, there have been snags during the past 18 years (15 of them married), but we got through them together, and the good times outweigh the bad by far. We're lucky to have met each other when we were still in college, gaining a true partner to wend through life with.

My life in short:

Life is good. Happily married for eons, we love living in the city and adore our kid. The rest is moot. College, yes; health issues, yes; occasional marital woes, yes; work, evolving. The worries are outnumbered by the ways my life provides a solid home base.

Neurotic Illini Fan said...

If you had asked me early in my marriage (married almost 18 years now) if it was hard work, I would have said no. However, the last several years have been hard work, and I can see that if certain things don't change, we will be heading for divorce fairly soon. It is sad.

Anonymous said...

My favorite part of the class notes are the paragraphs written by women who graduated when Sarah Lawrence was still an all-girls school--they all have nicknames like "Topsy," as in "Theodora 'Topsy' Rosen, '53." The ones from more recent graduates tend to annoy and/or depress me.
As for marriage-as-work: I think it can be work during particularly hard times--infertility/miscarriage, etc. But with that exception our relationship has only ever made everything about my life *less* difficult.
And by the way--I start your running program tomorrow...

Anonymous said...

If showing kindness, understanding, patience and love is work, then marriage is work. If these things come naturally, then it is not.

Mignon said...

I went to an expensive high-profile private school and our alumni magazine is the same way. Every time I've sent in an update that's a little different (okay, it was usually a complete lie), it was never printed. Unless it's doctor/lawyer/investment banker news it's not worthy.

And no, if I were telling the truth I could not summarize my life in 4 lines. I guess that's why I blog.

JK said...

I was in a terrible relationship for a while, not married, but for 7 years and it was the most work. It was awful.

I met the man who would become my husband and it's never been difficult in the slightest. If you're not with the right person, at the right time, it doesn't work. If you are with the right person, it is amazing! (It sounds so trite, but he inspires me and allows me to be more me like.)

To happy marriages.

I always write on the cards I send at wedding, "May you have a lifetime of laughter and love." I don't think you can have the second without the first. I always tell people as long as you keep laughing, it's easy. I truly believe that.

(We have had a few challenges in life, not in our relationship, but life and we've always joined forces.)

Mete said...

I've always subscribed to the "marriage is work" cliche, but I don't think "work" is always necessarily a negative thing. I come to "work" in an office every day, but I love what I do. I'm challenged, it's at times entertaining, and I'm good at it. However, I definitely wouldn't call it "fun". I have responsibilities, rote tasks that need to be done sometimes, and people that depend on me. Same with my marriage.

I think that phrase was coined because so many people thought marriage was supposed to be 24/7 "fun". That you could still do whatever you wanted with no regard for the fact that you were now in a committed permanant relationship. And that, when things got difficult, you could just give up because it wasn't "fun" anymore.

We have been through some very rough times. It is often work to force ourselves to spend time together to nurture the love we have. And yes, I think it qualifies as work to coordinate schedules and find sitters and make compromises. But as with most things you work hard for, there is always a rewarding and fulfilling result from our efforts.

Feral Mom said...

Marriage with Mr. Feral is by and large a joy, except the part where we have to make any kind of decision. That part, while it isn't exactly work, is certianly a workout. I definitely need a better bra for this.

Anonymous said...

I recently attended my 20 year high school reunion and had to verbally deliver that same kind of blurb about 30 times: "Who me? Well, after college, I worked full time for 5 years, went back to law/buz. school, moved down South and am now married, with 2 kids, and working as a lawyer. And you?"

My marriage was a breeze the first two years (after a year and a half of dating). The last four years have been incredibly hard. Turns out the first 2 years were probably easy because we just coexisted, didn't *really* communicate, and just had fun. Once we started having children, and life happened, the relationship's weaknesses were revealed ...

I so relate to what "Anonymous" said above, about camping and partying, and being left with not much once that all stopped. Hey "Anonymous", please stop by my blog and leave a comment with your e-mail - can't believe I found a kindred spirit...

Anonymous said...

One of my friends once described marriage like this: You're driving along in a car and it's strip mall, strip mall, strip mall, scenic vista, strip mall, strip mall, etc. And in a way, I believe she's right. The scenic vista makes up for all the "work" and just existing. (It's 9 pm as I type and my husband isn't home yet. I saw him for 15 minutes this morning. So, no it hasn't been work but it's not like we're actually communicating. That's the strip mall.)

John Updike has a great quote about marriage that I must find...

Anonymous said...

I know it looks like I'm coming very late to this party, but I've been reading the comments and can only now articulate what I want to say.

I'm in a relationship now with a man whom I also had dated for about a year six years ago. We dated, broke up, each dated other people, and have now been back together for about a year and a half. (We're not married. Neither of us is particularly interested in marriage.) I would say that we have an significantly better relationship now than we had six years ago. I would also so that the relationship is significantly more work than it was six years ago. For me, those things are related.

During the time we had split up, I was in a few relationships that were fine but never smooth. In the midst of one of them, I asked a woman I work with, a woman I admire tremendously for her wisdom, if relationships should *be* smooth, if my finding a relationship to be work was a sign that I should end it. She said, "Whatever makes relationships difficult for you is in you. It's not a matter of finding someone who doesn't bring those things out in you--because they're *in* you; they're there. But it is a matter of finding someone who will help you work through those issues--not just someone who will tolerate it but someone who will work with you to help you figure it out."

I'm someone who has a lot of dear, dear friends. I've been friends with some people for coming on 30 years now--6/7th of my life! And these relationships are as intimate, as full of fun and confidence, now as they were when we were kids and teenagers and lived in the same town. I'd say these are relationships that feel easy, even as I know that we've given a lot of time, energy, and money (travel, phone, etc.) to building them. Yet I know plenty of people who find friendship difficult, who shed old friends as they settle more into marriage. I have one friend from adulthood who cannot tolerate some of the decisions that her friends are making for themselves (careers, family, money, politics). I'm watching her move away from them, turn even more to her husband. I imagine (I haven't asked her) that she would never describe her marriage as work.

For whatever reason, romantic relationships aren't as easy for me. I feel so fortunate to have found someone who's willing to be in it with me--really in it. We talk a lot. We work hard to figure out how to make a life together that gives us both what we want and need.

Maybe years from now I'll realize, Hey--all of that work was a sign that I should have gotten out! Relationships shouldn't be so much work! But right now, I like what we're building.

Sami said...

Those questionnaire's can't fill them out with stuff to save my life. I can blog, but not that well and I doubt anyone would be interested.

As for the "marriage is work" we were told that when we got married as well. We will have been married for 2 years in a few months and every day I truly love him more. With all that we have been through not only the last year but the years before I am so thankful that I am married to him. He gets me... even when I'm shitty... and he considers our marriage a binding contract that cannot be broken... and he works at this marriage and sometimes I do the work and sometimes he does... I feel badly for the people that don't recognize that marriage is something to be treasured rather than something to be jumped into.

One of my coworkers got married - big lavish wedding. She's getting divorced. It hasn't even been a year. She says "I don't love him anymore" She didn't want a marriage she wanted a wedding. There's a big difference and that's the part that I think couples that are getting married need to realize. The wedding only lasts a day... the marriage CAN last forever.