What do the notions of power and success mean to men and women? How can we balance our need for fulfilling personal lives with a rise to the top? And once we have finished conquering the world, who’s doing the dishes? In The Unmade Bed. The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, Stephen Marche explores what it means to be in a heteronormative marriage in the modern day.
Interwoven with Marche’s personal experience in a non-traditional role—he sacrificed his career and moved to another county to enable his wife to accept her dream job—is commentary from Marche’s wife, Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford. It feels as though they’ve invited readers to sit at their dinner table. As Marche explains his point of view, Fulford will interject, set him straight, provide additional details, and sometimes contradict him. The effect is quite charming and fittingly provides balance to a book that is, after all, largely concerned with issues of gender equality.
I spoke with Marche in an e-mail exchange about the roles and responsibilities of gender, and why, as Marche concludes, the only way out of this “messy truth” is together.
At the beginning of the book you receive life-altering news in Prospect Park and describe the place with affection. What about the city do you miss?
Well, that was New York in 2007, remember, before the crash, before the inequality spike, before the death of media, etc. etc., so there’s a great deal about the world as a whole that I miss. But I miss what everyone misses about New York. The frankness with which people speak. The ambition and the openness about ambition.
You call the initial decision to move from Brooklyn to Toronto a “personal and professional disaster.” Was there no part of those early discussions that felt exciting or like an adventure?
The glory of Toronto, as I’ve written many times, is that it’s not an adventure. Everything makes sense. If your child gets sick, you take them to a doctor and the doctor fixes them. When your kid wants to go to school, you take them to the local school. America’s a hell of an adventure, because all of their systems are so deeply, deeply fucked. Going back to Toronto was like going back to safety. It was a retreat from risk.
Once the choice was made to relocate, you characterize the move as something that happened to you. Did this add to the feeling of sacrifice?
The thing about the decision was that it didn’t really feel it could go any other way. I mean, a big point of the book is that the decisions men and women make in their relationships are almost never political. It’s not like people sit down and say “This is how we imagine the future of gender that we want to create through our actions.” It’s more like: “How do we bring more money into this family?” And my wife was going to make a lot more money than me.
Your own mother was a physician. How do you think she molded your views on working women?
Certainly the example of my mother was powerful. To me, the idea of a woman not having a powerful job was always ridiculous. Companionate marriage, to me, is the norm. Men and women both having work is the norm.
I was intrigued by your phrase “I was suddenly my wife’s husband.” How much did being a husband play into your sense of identity before and after the move?
It’s funny. I don’t really think of myself as “husband.” But there was definitely a social role, outside of the family role, that I was playing, and that I felt. Older guys and older women felt that I was something radical, giving up my career for my wife’s. People of my own generation were just, like, this is life now.
The idea of the pervasive and unending concept of mommy guilt is explored. Do you feel that modern dads grapple with similar feelings when trying to balance home responsibilities and personal career fulfillment?
No. Any man who performs the basic functions of fatherhood is treated like a fucking hero. Go grocery shopping as a man, with a kid, they basically throw you a tickertape parade. Whereas moms, particularly single moms, are blamed for every social ill you can name. And even though single moms keep the fabric of society from collapsing, literally are the social force holding us back from a collapse into pure criminality, they make a reliable punching bag for politicians of all stripes. Here’s the thing about “balancing home responsibilities and personal career fulfillment.” It’s impossible. Give up. Just try and do the best you can at your job and try and love the people you love as really as you can. There is no way to be satisfied in this life.
Sarah’s notes add an intimacy and balance. Did you disagree about any of her inclusions?
Tons of them. But the beauty of the notes, I think, is that marriage is a disagreement. That’s actually the substance of it. People think of marriage as something you’re supposed to agree. It’s not. Marriage, good marriage, is actually a massive, longstanding disagreement that you can’t stop having.
A major theme in the book is that of sacrifice. In the past women usually put the home and family ahead of their career. In modern marriage is sacrifice still a requirement? Is it just now that sometimes the husbands are the ones coming second?
Money determines the reality. Look: You have kids. You need money. Both people want and need to take care of the kids. Both people need to make money. That’s the reality of what you need to do if you have a family. And the truth is that we are emotionally catching up to the reality poorly and slowly and shittily. But we are catching up.
For all the challenges, your (somewhat) unconventional arrangement seems to work. Is love the reason for your success?
Love is the great thing that feminism has failed to deal with. It seems so stupid, so ridiculous. But actually it’s what drives everything. Also, our arrangement, I believe, is more or less conventional by now. It is the future, anyway.