Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.
By Mandy Shunnarah
It’s a Sunday afternoon and over the top of my laptop screen, I watch my husband vacuum and sweep the floors, change air filters, dig cat toys out from under the couch, and do the dishes. Earlier that day he cooked breakfast and lunch, even making biscuits from scratch.
I’ve been working all weekend on a copywriting project. I’m a full-time writer and I have the best job in the world, even when it requires me to be glued to my computer for an entire weekend to meet a deadline.
It’s not that I can’t clean or don’t know how. I was raised by a single mother a few miles outside Birmingham, and she never missed a chance to lecture me on taking care of myself.
“Don’t depend on no man to take care of you. You could have the best man in the world and he could go out and get killed in a car accident or he could walk out on you like your daddy walked out on us. What then?” she’d ask. “Where would you be? You have to learn to take care of yourself because there’s no guarantee a man will be around to do it for you.”
My mother made sure I knew how to mow the grass, check my oil, check my tires and fill them, and manage my own money. She taught me what we might now call “life hacks,” like how to hide emergency cash in your car in case your purse got stolen and how to get businesses to honor multiple coupons even when the fine print said they wouldn’t. She taught me which store brands tasted good and which weren’t worth fooling with.
I carry these lessons with me. Partly thanks to her, I’m a capable, thrifty, self-sufficient person.
This is why I hardly recognized her one day about a year after I started dating the man who would become my husband.
“What do you mean you bought y’all’s dinner?”
“Sometimes he pays, sometimes I pay. I make more money than him, so it wouldn’t be fair for him to pay for everything just because he’s a man.”
My mother began questioning my relationship and the financial decisions associated with it after she married my stepfather. Half the time when we talked on the phone, she was on her way to or from TJ Maxx, her favorite store.
“He pays for everything, so the only thing I have to pay for is my shopping,” she said.
I tried to tell her that was great for her, but that wasn’t what was best for my relationship. I didn’t want my partner to feel like I was taking advantage of him or was financially dependent on him. I didn’t want to feel indebted to someone when there was no reason for it.
“Honey, I just want you to be with a man who will take care of you.”
She hadn’t considered that I didn’t want to be taken care of. Or that I could take care of myself.
For the first couple of years of our relationship, I was working a full-time job, going to grad school, and trying to build my freelance business on the side. I was exhausted and did the bare minimum in care and feeding myself. And even now that I’m doing what I love full-time, I still find myself working long into the night because my work brings me joy and fulfills me creatively.
There have been times when I’ve been writing an essay, short story, or the draft of a book and I ask my husband if he resents me or if there’s housework I should be doing.
“No,” he smiles. “This is my way of supporting your dreams.”
I know he meant it, but I felt a little guilty. Not because I believe that a woman’s place is in the house—feminism has cured me of traditional notions—but because I knew he had dreams of his own.
When my mother says she wants me to be with a man who will “take care of me,” she means a man who makes enough money that I have the option of not working. That man is not my husband.
Now that he and I are married, I’ve become less stringent about the notion of “taking care.” When two people cohabitate, there’s a certain level of consideration that sharing a space requires. To cohabitate is to have your wellbeing intertwined. In choosing to be married, I chose to allow myself to be taken care of and to take care in return.
We split our finances more or less equally, like we have since the beginning, but since we moved in together the housework has always been an unequal distribution. My husband does the lion’s share. When I consider how I want to be taken care of, it is in these acts of service where he tackles household chores.
I’ve stopped feeling guilty about not helping more around the house because I know that if the roles were reversed and I were the one doing the majority of the chores, it would seem completely normal.
So on this Sunday afternoon where I’m thankful to be doing work I love, gratitude swells in me, too, for this man I love and the way he takes care of me. Not in the way the world tells him he should take care of me but in the way I specifically need, and I hope one day I can return the favor.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Their essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others, as well as an essay forthcoming in the New York Times. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.