I grew up in a very traditional southern family. Yes, there was the delicious southern food, church every time the doors opened, and Alabama Crimson Tide football on every television in the house on Saturday in the fall. Let’s not forget the family secrets and being all about “appearances.”
There were also the “traditions” when it came to the roles of men and women.
My maternal great-grandmother Lib, who died 10 days before her 94th birthday, never had a driver’s license. She worked for Sears & Roebucks for years, but back then, everything was in downtown Montgomery and within walking or city bus distance.
She had June in 1933, before her first marriage ended. She met my great-grandfather Brophy in 1936 and told me part of the reason she married him in July 1937 was because he didn’t mind that she had a child from a previous marriage.
They were married for 66 years and 6 months. The three 6s seem very appropriate for the length of their abusive, dysfunctional marriage.
During the first decade or so of their marriage and after he came home from North Carolina, where he was stationed during WWII, Brophy worked out of town. While in Anniston, one of the women he cheated on Lib with called her and said she was with Lib’s husband.
Lib wished she meant it when she said, “You can have the sonofabitch.” Emotionally, she did, but financially, she could not. By then, she had June along with my uncles Charles and Earl.
When he came home for good, she had Carol, Robert, and Mike, quit her job at Sears, they bought a house in a developing area outside of downtown Montgomery, and she never worked outside of her home again.
For the last 21 years of their marriage, I had front row seats to their personal shitshow. I heard them scream at each other and watched Lib shove Brophy into their old television set, one of those that sat encased in wood and had enough space on top for pictures of the family, a clock, and some knick-knacks. In Lib’s case, the knick-knacks were salt and pepper shakers. I watched her shatter a whole row of them with Brophy’s body. I watched her throw chicken fingers at him because that’s what she had cooked for dinner and he “didn’t want anymore goddamn chicken fingers.”
I once broke up a fight between them where they each gripped an end of Brophy’s walking stick and tried to hit each other with their end. I was in my late teens, they were in their 80s.
I watched this for two decades. Meanwhile, I watched my dad often treat my mom like he was her ruler and not her husband. He criticized the way she dressed, didn’t like her going anywhere besides work without him, questioned her relationship with any man she spoke to, accused her of cheating on him, and did not trust her because she’d had sexual relationships with boyfriends prior to him.
I then watched as she allowed her second ex-husband to steal her money, health, and eight years of her time away from her four young children. I took her to the ER when he split her head open with a can of green beans the day after Christmas.
I watched the women in my family have men’s hands around their throats and heard their voices threaten to hurt or kill them.
Mama, June, and Lib are some of the strongest women I have ever known, and yet they often allowed themselves to feel powerless against their husbands and sons because they had been taught to submit. They had been raised to believe they needed those men. The culture of that time also made it almost impossible for them to leave and shamed them if they tried.
The summer before I moved to Mobile for college, June made me promise her that I would do four things before I even considered dating or marriage:
1.) Go to college and get my Bachelor’s.
2.) Get a full-time job.
3.) Get my own apartment and live alone for at least a year.
4.) Learn how to be financially independent and generally self-sufficient.
I did all of these things. Got a B.A. in English-Creative Writing, became a permanent employee with the state government of Alabama, began learning how to take care of myself on my own.
In February 2007, I moved into my first apartment. I barely had enough money to buy myself groceries after paying my car payment, rent, utilities, and credit card payments, but I had my own place. There was peace. There was quiet. I had my own place with all of my own things and I could come and go as I pleased.
I remember thinking, Why would I ever want to get married and have kids when I could have all of this?
I was in love with being alone. Alone with my books. Alone to sing in the shower. Alone to lie on the couch in my underwear and watch whatever I wanted. Alone to sleep as late as I wanted to on the weekends. Alone to stay up as late as I wanted. Alone to be me exactly how I wanted to be me.
In my first apartment, I learned what it meant to have next to nothing but somehow make it work. I learned then I could make it on next to nothing. I didn’t like it, but I could do it.
When my lease on my first apartment ran out in February 2008, I could not yet afford to stay nor live on my own and moved back in with Daddy for a few months.
I would not have my own place again until February 2011, when I moved into my first apartment alone in Smyrna, Georgia.
A little over a year after I finally got my own space in Georgia and declared that I would be happy if I never shared a space with anyone ever again, John and his two dogs, Louie and Missy, moved their belongings into my 720 square foot apartment.
John and I got married in July 2015 and while we promised to lived united as one, I still guarded everything like it was mine. I had my apartment that I alone paid the rent on. I had it set up the way I wanted it. Everything in the apartment minus his clothes and a couple pieces of furniture was mine. There would be no joint checking or savings accounts. John, who is also an introvert who had recently discovered the beauty of living alone and being independent when his relationship and marriage of 10 years ended, was fine with this. He did his own thing, I did mine.
John fell in love with the strong, outspoken, outgoing, adventurous version of me that I built in my twenties. I was also in love with that version of me.
I had moved away from my family and gotten another full-time job and place of my own. I had traveled as single woman. I had performed with my belly bared in a belly dance student show in front of 100+ people. Yes, I still worried way too much about my weight and body and what people thought of me and I still feared all I was missing out on because I’d jumped right into the office space world post-college graduation, but overall, I was prouder of myself than I ever thought I could be.
And as my relationship with John grew deeper and became more permanent, I watched in horror as I began to question everything about myself and looked to him to validate me and my decisions. One minute, I was on top of a skyscraper, hands on hips, cape flapping behind me, barely spent from my last battle, and it was as if the wind caught me off guard, I fell off the skyscraper, hit the ground, and shattered into a million pieces.
If you think you’ve escaped the demons of your childhood, just get into a relationship. I now understand a big part of why I was single until I was 28. Fear. And there’s nothing that can fully prepare you for it.
In October 2015, three months after we got married, John graduated from technical school and got his A&P License. In January 2016, he got an airplane mechanic job in Chicago and we moved. I wasn’t upset to quit the job I had, as it had become an overwhelming stressor in my life, but it definitely still rattled me that I was no longer the breadwinner.
In Chicago, I started piecing myself back together again. Nine months of marriage counseling helped. I learned that John loved me and simply wanted me to be me. To stop questioning myself and fishing for validation from him, but to also stop trying to carry all of my struggles, emotions, thoughts, and decisions on my own. He was in my corner and always had been. He was not going anywhere even though he is sometimes just as tempted as I am when we’re both being difficult to be around.
And now we are back in Georgia and I am unemployed. I have less than $100 in my checking account and less than $500 left on the only credit card I allow myself to use because I have spent the past two years paying the other one off and I refuse to add any debt back to it. John is learning what I experienced for three years. We can make it on his income alone, as it’s the same as I made before, but I know the pressure he feels. Even if he made three times as much and I never had to work again, I would still feel it necessary to do so.
The creeping fear that I am dependent on him is coming back. That if something happened to him, I would be shit out of luck. I have no money saved up. I am $10K in debt between my car, phone, and credit cards. I cannot afford this apartment on my own. I don’t have a job yet.
I am not alone.
John and I are in this together.
My struggles are no longer just mine. His are no longer just his. Same with decisions. Same with finances. We still want separate accounts at this time, but we are openly communicating about our finances more because they involve both of us.
My ears ring constantly with June begging me not to be like my mom, not to let a man run my life, not to be dependent upon anyone else but myself, and yet, I am tired. I am tired of being so self-protective with a man who has proven he loves me over and over again and that he wants me to be exactly who I am and he isn’t going anywhere.
I hate it when the fears start talking. When they say things like I don’t deserve to have a voice in our financial matters because my checking account is currently bordering on empty.
But at least I am now able to voice these fears which he understands. I also understand and acknowledge them and the fact fear will always exist in me. Like Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Eat, Pray, Love (or maybe Big Magic), fear can coexist with me, tag along on my adventures, but it will never have the driver’s seat again.
In this version that I am becoming now at 35, I am learning I don’t have to keep everything to myself. I am learning that I can trust John even when I still feel afraid to. It’s as much of a decision as loving him. It’s also a risk. So is every other important decision in life. There is always a high and pretty inevitable chance of loss, grief, pain, and suffering.
But also with every great risk, there are rewards. John is my person. My partner. We see each other through the good, bad, and the really fucking ugly. At this point in my life, no one knows me better than he does, and I feel like he would say the same about me.
When you’ve watched the shit hit the fan and spray everyone in its radius your whole life, you are bound to want control. To be able to predict when and where the shit will land.
I am almost always on edge, always reading people, always with one foot out the door, ready to run. I overanalyze on an expert and often paralyzing level. I am incredibly impatient and I am bossy. I want things done a certain way and if someone else can’t do them fast enough for my liking, I take over. I know what I want, how I want it, when I want it, and I don’t like it when I am not the one making it happen.
I have had to be responsible for so long, I don’t know what it means to sit back and allow someone else to drive for a little while. I want responsibility because I’m afraid of what will happen without it, but I resent it because it’s exhausting and not fun.
When it isn’t terrifying me, I am proud of John for stepping up and taking on some of the weight that has left my burdened shoulders in knots for most of my life.
I can still be independent. My voice is as equally important as his, as are my thoughts, feelings, and decisions. This is not all or nothing.
John has his fears too which have made him uneasy about allowing himself to believe what’s his can be shared with me too and I understand that, but I am hoping as I re-evaluate the stories I’ve told myself my whole life and begin to share more of what’s mine with him without completely losing myself (I am still learning how to balance that and stay out of Codependency Land), he will see I am in this with him for life and what’s both his and mine can be ours.
The only traditions I want to remain from my childhood are the southern food and Alabama football. The rest are free to go.