Dark Shadows in Marital Mirrors

They say that getting married can place you in front of a mirror to your soul.


And that you won’t always like what you see in there.

But until this week – a full year into marriage – I thought that danger was over-rated or that I had an inherently beautiful naked soul. Because while there have been some adjustments and minor frustrations to underpin all the fun of togetherness, I haven’t often looked into that mirror and really cringed at the selfishness I see reflected.

My mother would say that this is due to the fact that my life has been disrupted far less than Mike’s as we’ve fitted together the global pieces of our romantic puzzle rather than to any particular virtues I possess. She could have a point. After all, it was Mike who quit his job and moved to California before we got married. For the last year and a half it has been Mike who has done at least half the cooking, the vast majority of the dishes and cleaning, and almost every load of laundry. The man packs me my lunch and is almost obsessive about checking the oil in my car. My life has not only gotten more fun since I got married, but logistically easier.

Now all that looks set to change. Well, hopefully not the fun. But definitely the logistical operating system. In fact, pretty much our entire operating system.

For this week came Laos. And India.

Mike picked up India on the plane back from Laos when his seatmate for the 15 hour flight from Bangkok not only shared interesting stories about being a documentary filmmaker in Mumbai but also the nasty cold he’d picked up there. Mike came down with India five days after getting back from Laos, and three days after that, so did I. But, as miserable as it is currently making us, India will probably pass.

Laos is looking like a different story.

Mike was in Laos interviewing for a job with a humanitarian organization.

Mike has been looking for a job for much of the last year. Our original plan when he moved to California in September 2008 was for him to find some sort of engineering job here and take a temporary lateral step away from humanitarian work. Our original plan hadn’t factored in a collapse of the US economy or the fact that many US employers would simply scratch their heads and look dubious upon reviewing Mike’s CV and seeing the phrases refugee camp, water and sanitation, Uganda, tsunami, toilet, and rural communities in Papua New Guinea.

Jobs in LA have proven somewhat hard to come by recently. Interesting ones, even more so.

In light of this, the fact that Mike was offered a number of short-term consultancies for aid organizations last year was a blessing. Those consultancies took him back to PNG twice, to South Sudan, and to Indonesia. They kept him from going crazy at the kitchen table endlessly job searching, they put some money into our savings account, and they also kept us apart about half the time.

But as we spent Christmas in Australia at my parent’s house soaking up the sunshine and sipping wine on the porch, we also had to wonder why we were so tired, frazzled, and flat. Why we were arguing over whether to buy tomatoes or eggplants at the market. Why we were being jarred at odd moments by the novel feeling of being out of sync emotionally – half a meter and half a revolution off.

A lot of talking these things over while we walked the dirt roads looking for koalas in the trees led to several important realizations. First, koalas in the wild are really, really hard to spot. Second, if in doubt about tomatoes or eggplants, just buy both. And, third, living life in one-month chunks between different intense assignments and being apart half the time is not really our preferred operating system for our marriage.

For months now, since well before Christmas, we’ve been spiraling through a series of variables that spawn all sorts of interlocked questions – Where do we want to be living in the long run? In making our next-step decision should we prioritize investing in friends and a local community, or in career and jobs that may take us to yet another new country? Do we stick to humanitarian work with all its lofty ideals and noble aims, and all the dangers that flames present to moths? Can we mesh our two careers in a win/win equation? How might any future kids fit into this picture?

And as these months passed, Mike began to rediscover his passion for humanitarian work. Increasingly we found ourselves talking less about LA and Melbourne, and more about Uganda, Zimbabwe, and… Laos.

When he got on the plane to Laos for the in-country interview Mike was not at all sure he was even that interested in the job. When he landed back in LA six days later he brought with him much more excitement for the role, answers to most of the 65 questions we’d come up with before he left, and the confirmation that a job offer would be arriving via email sometime in the next little while. By the time we’d spent three days talking it over we thought we had about 90% of the information we needed to make a decision and we were leaning towards yes.

Then, last night, came the offer by email.

With a salary lower than what we’d expected.

And I – who’d thought that I was fully on board with this process – suddenly find myself dangling over the dark waters of doubt and fear, hanging on by my fingernails, and wondering exactly what has sent me spinning. Why now, rather than when we realized that this move would mean I would have to quit my job, or when we found out that the nearest decent doctor would be an hour and a half flight away in Bangkok? Why has money been the trigger?

I don’t have a personal history of being tremendously motivated by money. Instead of staying in Australia and finding a job after I qualified as a forensic psychologist, I went to Croatia on a stipend that barely covered my airfare and living expenses. A year and a half later after having accidentally landed a well-paid government job back in Australia I quit that job the day they offered to make it permanent so that I could accept a scholarship to pursue another masters at Notre Dame. Two years ago I took a 20% pay-cut at work to drop down to four days a week so that I could spend Fridays writing. When Mike quit his job and moved to LA four months before we got married I didn’t seriously consider going back to work five days a week to bring in extra money that may have come in handy – I figured we’d see how it went first and adjust as needed later.

People often mention the sacrifices that non-profit work must demand, and I know money is usually one of them. But it’s rarely felt like a huge sacrifice to me. Sure, I have the odd stab of house envy when I walk into some of my friends’ dwellings and I would give almost anything to fly business class. But I’ve pretty much always had enough money to do the things I needed to do, and most of those I wanted to do, as well. In making career decisions that led me down the humanitarian path I was doing what I wanted to do much more than giving something up. I was following my passions. Yet sometime during these last six and half years of living and working in LA I’ve also gotten used to mostly not having to worry about money – at least not in the short to medium term. I certainly can’t afford to buy a house in California, but I don’t have to wonder whether I can eat out at a restaurant. I don’t need to think twice about buying books on Amazon.

But since getting married last year I’ve found myself paying more attention to things like savings accounts and the importance of good medical insurance. Now I find myself thinking about houses. Now, doing the math on Mike’s job offer for Laos is raising all sorts of questions. Will we be able to travel home for Christmas? Will we be able to send hypothetical children to good schools? Will I finally have to acquiesce to Mike’s annoying suggestion that we keep a household budget? Does Amazon even ship books to Laos?!?

Those are valid questions, and the fact that I have been asking them is not what’s disturbing me.

What’s disturbing me is the realization that there’s a small and very ugly part of me that would quite like Mike to quit following his passions so assiduously and simply focus on making lots of money so that I can live in the style to which I would like to become accustomed while I continue to do pretty much whatever I want with my life, my passions, and my time.

Facing selfishness in the marital mirror is not fun at all. Staring down hypocrisy is even worse.

“I don’t like what comes out of me when I’m squeezed in these moments,” Mike said over the breakfast table this morning as we were trying to stumble through the thicket of mixed emotions and dark realizations that I hadn’t yet found words for.

“Inner junk,” he said. “And I suspect I’m not the only one in this relationship who has some of that.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “I don’t have any of that.”

“Of course you don’t, honey,” he said, laughing. “Of course you don’t. Because you’re perfect.

I’m not, as Mike well knows.

But I am taking my imperfect self, and my beautiful naked soul, to Laos with him.

© Lisa McKay 2010


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