The 17-Year Itch

Laura Jean Baker finds that being a feminist married to a progressive man isn’t a fail-safe against sexism occasionally intruding in their marriage.

Laura Jean Baker | Longreads | August 2018 | 10 minutes (2,590 words)

 

5.

Four years ago, in the nook of our L-shaped kitchen on Hazel Street, my husband Ryan — equal partner in marriage — proclaimed, “I think I’m probably a little bit smarter than you.” He paused, remembering to cut me a compliment sandwich. “You just have a better work ethic.”

To what did I owe the pleasure of this rare expression of sexism? In our family, men and women belonged at the hearth. Ryan washed dishes, burped babies, and curried meals. We’d just pulled our fifth bun from the oven, a little boy, exactly what Dad had ordered to tip the balance in our two-boy-two-girl household. Are you hoping for a boy or a girl? With the first four pregnancies, he’d dare only to say, “a healthy baby,” but with Gustav, he’d openly declared his preference for the Y chromosome. My husband was sometimes a stranger to me, a throwback, a modern man sprung from an old seed.

Experts in family studies predict that by 2050, men in heterosexual partnerships will share equally in housework. That will be a year shy of what may — or may not — be our golden wedding anniversary. But can sociologists predict when men will totally reconfigure their mindsets? Is there such a thing as a blank slate, free from the ghost outlines of patriarchal history?

Household chores are tangible problems we solve together. How to empty the sink trap; how to polish the countertops; how to make a bed and sleep in it, alongside your wife. Implicit bias is a much more sinister thing, a bad omen for any marriage founded on equality.

On the day of Ryan’s regrettable comment — his decree of superiority — we’d foolishly cycled back around to an old conversation. As childhood sweethearts, we’d taken the ACT exam together — same test, same day. After two hours and 55 minutes, the proctor had authoritatively announced, “Time’s up.” Our equitability — our gender equality — had been examined and documented by American College Testing. We both scored 28 (very good but not impressive, according to the internet, which didn’t yet exist). We’d landed together in the 90th percentile. Our brains matched. We planned to become in real life what we represented on paper: equal-opportunity partners, relishing our shared smarts.

But as with athletes demoralized by a tie game, we were left longing for something definitive. We wanted to know who was smarter, and as it turned out, he still believed, on some deeply ingrained and unquestioning level, that I was just a “try-hard.” This is how my 12-year-old son, Leo, describes classmates, often girls, who labor over extra-credit projects. He’s talking about me, I concede internally, nearly surrendering to a new generation of boys and men.

“Teachers like girls better,” Leo says. “It’s reverse sexism.” He too believes he has something to prove. At least twice a week, he sends a cryptic message from his school-appointed Chromebook: “Come pick me up. I hate it here.”

One day, the message just reads, “Help.”

***

4.

News reports tell us marrying an intelligent man increases the likelihood of a marriage lasting. Not so for my parents. Neither my mom’s master’s degree nor my dad’s M.D. saved their 17-year marriage. X marks the spot where Ryan and I stand today, two brains engaged in a tug-of-war. In July, we celebrated our 17th anniversary. When the bedrock of my parents’ seemingly solid marriage crumbled, I was as much awe-struck as grief-stricken. Seventeen years is the length of an entire childhood. How does something so long-lasting break?

My parents’ romance, on which I was reared, makes me wonder, what kind of intelligence breach was to blame for their demise? Admittedly, I preferred asking my dad for help with homework, especially math or science. My dad once footnoted every lyric to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel as we listened to the cassette tape on a road trip. He’d been my mom’s psychiatrist, a man with the upper hand, with more power. She entrusted her brain to him, but did he reciprocate? It’s possible, though I’ll never be certain, that my mom divorced my dad as a power grab. From what I gather, she began planning the divorce without his knowledge. The clairvoyant (wife) is smarter than the stunned recipient of bad news (husband). My mom was the Nostradamus of failed romance.

The number seventeen is considered unlucky in Italy. The roman numeral XVII as an anagram might mean VIXI, translated in Latin to mean “I have lived,” or “I lived and then died.” It suggests a lifespan, over and done. In the Bible, the great flood begins on the seventeenth day of the second month. Seventeen is a prime number, divisible only by one and itself.

***

3.

Maybe the worst part about our spousal contest of intellects was that, on some level, I worried Ryan might be right, such was the power of prejudice. Women internalize. It’s what we’ve been trained to do with negativity.

Years earlier, Ryan shared with me sample test questions from the LSAT, which he practically aced, and my brain oozed blank answers. He was a lawyer now, and I was a teacher. We’d pegged ourselves into professions consistent with gender norms. I nurtured writers. He made public arguments and convinced judges of his position. Stenographers recorded his workaday tour of courtrooms. I tallied the list of autodidacts, self-taught geniuses, almost entirely male — Leonard da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs — and wondered, what meaningful role did I play in my classrooms, if any? Even my male colleagues had dismissed me. I was “popular” with students because I was friendly, nice, generous. At the very least, I possessed the requisites for creative writing — so-called emotional intelligence, which has, of course, also been called bogus, not even psychometrically valid. Anybody can game the EQ test, apparently. It’s nothing like the Intelligenzquotient.

Household chores are tangible problems we solve together. How to empty the sink trap; how to polish the countertops; how to make a bed and sleep in it, alongside your wife. Implicit bias is a much more sinister thing, a bad omen for any marriage founded on equality.

When I was in elementary school, a family friend tested my IQ. Tired, hungry, and confused, I sat at the dining table in our open-concept kitchen, reciting shapes and numbers in reverse. My delegate rattled off long random lists of words, and I’d say them backward; it reminded of me of singing the ABCs in the wrong direction. I remember thinking, is this really a test of my intelligence? Nevertheless, I was eager to learn my number, though ultimately I never would. This family friend was struck with “a family emergency,” according to my mom, and she never tallied my results. In the wake of Ryan’s comments, I began to worry about that too. Maybe the family friend had calculated my embarrassingly low score, then lied to protect me from knowing my ineptitude. In this paranoid delusion, I believed my mom might have shamefully shredded my IQ. Sometimes, though more rarely, in my fantasy world, I convinced myself that my intelligence was so high, it needed to be kept under wraps.

As recently as the 21st century, public figures have erroneously declared many more men than women are geniuses, but women’s IQ scores have risen more dramatically than men’s over the last 100 years, which suggests, in riding the coattails of feminism, girls have performed in accordance with their new and improved positions in society, a promising shift even if a close analysis of the IQ demonstrates its inherent bias and controversial history of having been used often to marginalize underrepresented communities.

My marriage is teetering over this very watershed moment. My husband supports my writing, my quest for workplace equality, my feminist approach to parenting our daughters and sons, but if push came to shove, I wonder, would he nominate himself as the family brain trust, and would I let him?

***

2.

Though Ryan and I have collaborated on many projects — from child-rearing to writing a book — with a kind of remarkable egalitarianism, our give-and-take sometimes still feels like tit for tat. In our 20s, I took the GRE and Ryan took the LSAT, non-analogous tests, so that ultimately, our battle of intelligence remained undecided.

Recently, in the years and months before Hollywood officially launched the Time’s Up movement, we’d already descended into an all-out battle of the sexes at home. With two daughters and three sons, my girls felt outnumbered, living up to gender stereotypes, struggling with math homework more than our boys did. They cried, and Ryan screamed, “Just memorize the times table,” or “Stop expecting me to answer for you.”

Woefully defensive, I showed up every day to my marriage like it was a job interview, résumé in hand, testifying to my academic pedigree. Girls are just as smart as boys.

“Which one of us was invited to skip sixth-grade math, huh?” I said. I thought of all the other ways I might defend myself: As an eighth grader, I boarded a special bus to the high school. I enrolled in college courses early. I was valedictorian, for crying out loud. I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate; you were not. I was accepted into the University of Michigan for graduate school; you were not. Of course, the explanation was simple. Ryan’s grades suffered because he just didn’t care as much as I did. My enthusiasm should not be mistaken for intelligence.

So, I picked fights. Ryan wasn’t just married to me anymore but to every woman ever subjected to gender stereotyping, patronizing attitudes, and worst of all, mansplaining. “Time’s up, boys,” I’d growl, whenever I nailed the answer to a question he flubbed, even if the subject was as simple and as linked to gender norms as ingredients in a recipe.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


“Are we out of maple syrup,” he’d ask as we scrolled through the aisles at Pick ’n Save. If I said yes, and it turned out I was right, I’d gloat for days. See, I know a thing or two about what’s inside our cupboards. I galumphed away, slammed doors, held a grudge. I studied for my marriage like it was another standardized test. After all, assumptions that boys’ brainpower is innately superior to girls’ is precisely what emboldens men like James Damore, a former Google engineer, to distribute sexist memos. My husband was a far cry from that guy, wasn’t he? Or had he violated our code of conduct? I tried desperately to remember our marriage vows.

Then one day, after stewing for nearly four years over his assertion of intellectual dominance, I had an idea. “I’m going to challenge you to an academic decathlon,” I told Ryan.

“Are you serious?” he asked. “Billy Madison–style or what?”

I wasn’t sure. I began researching the Academic Decathlon in earnest. If we simulated this competition, we’d take tests in art, music, social science, science, economics, literature, and mathematics, in addition to writing an essay, delivering a speech, and participating in an interview. For a week or two, I was, as they say, “serious as a heart attack” my blood-pumping organ swelled up with the possibility of beating my husband, girl power gone mad.

Then, I tried to step back. How can we assess intelligence when the question is meant more profoundly than a college admissions test can handle? For a while we considered more lighthearted possibilities: Trivia Night, the Luminosity app, another single standardized test. We’d get a babysitter, we’d hire a referee, and we’d recruit experienced nonpartisan judges. We’d skip drinks to remain lucid. We’d scratch the itch to finally know which one of us — husband or wife, man or woman — was the winner.

***

1.

In a talk at the New York Public Library called “Listening to Children,” author Jill Krementz describes how divorce can be more traumatic for children than a parent’s death. Instead of eulogizing the deceased parent, surviving parents demonize each other. Grappling with conflicting allegiances is stressful and sad for children, longing for their once intact homes. When my own parents announced their divorce, I remember repeatedly using the word “stupid.” She’s stupid. He’s stupid. They’re stupid. This is stupid.

Ignorance was the only explanation for my family falling apart.

Before Ryan’s assertion of superior intelligence, and since, he has always been the first to apologize. Regardless of who starts any fight, he is quicker to cool off while I smolder. If his brain is bigger and better in any way, it’s not because of his skills in math or rhetoric.

In a recent email to one of Leo’s teachers, I tried to be delicate: “It might be helpful to know that Leo acting out is less about negative attention and more about his perceived sense of injustice! He honestly believes (and his sisters give some credence to his beliefs) that boys get yelled at, reprimanded, or redirected more often than the girls in school.”

Ryan says Leo and I share the same brain. Sounds familiar, I say, laughing, relieved.

Neither of Ryan’s parents attended college or held especially prestigious positions in their workplaces. In later years, his dad was promoted to floor manager of Blended Waxes, Inc., a factory that specializes in products like paraffin and cheese wax. Following in his footsteps wouldn’t have led to higher education but to a stable working-class existence. Ryan was a first-generation college student when he signed his commitment papers at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. It’s difficult for families to laud something so new.

But last year, his parents celebrated 40 years of marriage, decisively beating my parents in the marriage game. I wasn’t around to witness conflict resolution in Ryan’s childhood, but from watching Ryan, I can gather what he saw. In our 17 years of marriage, I’ve acquired from my husband a kind of immeasurable intelligence, wholly separate from anything I learned in college. If there’s no such thing as a marriage IQ test, I wonder, why not? There certainly should be.

Maybe the true test of one’s romance acuity is — big breath — forgiveness. Who returns first after a fight? Who works to keep the unit intact?

Just as women closed gaps in tested intelligence as they became empowered throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, being allowed greater access to intellectual pursuits, and ultimately proving that smarts are not entirely hard-wired but also socially constructed, I eventually caught up on marriage. Holding a grudge was making my brain tired.

My parents’ failure didn’t need to predict ours. Ryan apologized repeatedly and back-checked his assertions whenever I pointed out his sexist undertones. He exercised due diligence, admitted his male privilege, and worked to change.

Maybe the true test of one’s romance acuity is — big breath — forgiveness. Who returns first after a fight? Who works to keep the unit intact? I’m learning to identify the right answers. I’ve gotten fairly astute.

Ryan called me recently while walking on a wooded path to meet his Fitbit step quota after dusk. “I’m calling this my feminist walk,” he said, explaining that with each step, he was taking inventory of the double standards in our marriage, in my workplace, and in our lives as parents and spouses. He also realized that as a man, he was enjoying freedoms unavailable to me. An avid runner, but female, I was limited to a daylight-only schedule. I could never run on a secluded trail alone, especially so close to nightfall, but my fear was not inborn so much as validated by violence against women in the outside world. There was nothing inherently wrong with me.

“It’s never too late for any of us to evolve,” I said to Ryan, and even before hanging up, I realized the double meaning. I was referring to both husband and wife.

* * *

Laura Jean Baker is the author of The Motherhood Affidavits, a braided memoir that explores her addiction to childbearing alongside her husband’s casework in criminal defense. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh specializing in memoir, women’s stories, crime narratives, and children’s literature.

Editor: Sari Botton