Gaining legal standing does not mean we now need to accept conventions that don’t work for us.
When I first met Valerie 15 years ago, it was love at first sight. Or, really, email at first sight. We met through an online dating service and spent the first month of our courtship writing one another long and open-hearted letters.
Our first meeting was a dinner where I was too nervous to talk and she was too nervous to stop talking. Our compatibility was obvious from the start. We moved in together a year later, the official start of our life together. A life that has been sometimes joyful, sometimes difficult or sad, but always loving. And a life where we have negotiated not only our relationship with one another, but our relationship’s place in a shifting social landscape.
When we met I was fully closeted. Now our union has full legal recognition. Through it all we have tried to be thoughtful about how much we allow public perception to impact our personal relationship.
For me, the relationship started as a self-conscious sort of coupling. I had dated other women, but Valerie was the first person to make me think about forever. In the first few years, I kept our relationship a sort of secret—referring to her first as a “friend” and then as a “roommate,” a naming that fooled no one. When I finally came out, no one could even bother to act surprised.
So my friend-then-roommate seamlessly then became my partner. Unable to marry, we used the legal system and the wheels of progress to obtain the sorts of advantages married couples had.
Our respective companies began offering domestic partner benefits, increasing our joint work flexibility.
I changed my last name to hers. We made that decision because Valerie is an only child and we thought her parents would be sad to see their only progeny take on another name.
We got married in Canada. Traditional in many ways, we both wanted the exchange of vows before we started a family.
She gave birth to a child who I soon adopted. Since Valerie is older, we decided she should get pregnant first. We originally planned to expand our family with a biological child of mine, but life circumstances changed our direction.
We combined our finances. We bought a house. We cared for a son with developmental disabilities and medical complexities. I became a stay-at-home mother and Valerie took the responsibility as sole wage earner for our family.
We built a life with no particular plan of who should take what role. We have taken the roles that suit us. I like taking the lead in managing our son’s education and medical needs. Valerie is part of important decisions but is otherwise content in handing over the day-to-day of running our house and family. As a result of our division of labor we are both free to spend time with our son that is free of guilt from undone chores and errands.
Valerie likes the structure and challenge of a full-time out-of-the-house job. As an introvert prone to depression and anxiety, I am much happier without never-ending deadlines and the need to interact with people who drain my energy. The time at home helps keep me at my equilibrium.
It’s not been a smooth process, but we have developed a comfortable partnership over the years. A sort of dance where we take turns leading, as the music requires. So comfortable, in fact, that when marriage became legal in Illinois earlier this year, as monumental as the law change was in terms of claiming our place as equal members of society and in building a social structure where individuals have real freedom of choice, it had little impact on our day-to-day.
Like thousands of other couples, while the politicians and conservative leaders had campaigned to keep us in the shadows, Valerie and I had gone about the business of building a family. Beyond the quietly defiant act of living my life anyway, I had not really been a vocal part of the marriage movement—only a petition signer and donator.
But my one small but meaningful-to-me personal protest was that I refused to call Valerie “wife,” even after our Canadian marriage. Instead, I pointedly referred to her as “partner,” as a reminder to my circle that no matter the strong family we had built, we were denied full equality.
Denied, that is, until 2014 when the state of Illinois finally gave legal standing to the wedding ceremony we had had eight years earlier. I finally, legally, had a wife. And was, legally, a wife.
But to our joint surprise the change in title didn’t take. I tried for months—but time and again I slipped and referred to her as “partner.” To put it in context, I had made the transition from a maiden name to Valerie’s last name in a matter of weeks. That switch had felt easy and natural; it was the claiming of a place at her side.
But “wife” felt like a step backward. I began to think that it was impossible to have a wife—or be a wife—in the absence of a husband. That by calling Valerie my “wife” I was no longer claiming a place at her side but staking her out as my property. That I was dredging up everything that was woman hating and soul crushing about patriarchy. That I was claiming “equality” in an outdated system at the cost of giving up something better that we had built without a set of oppressive norms—our partnership.
Valerie felt the same so we have, officially, reverted back to calling each other “partner.” It fits us better.
And, no, this hasn’t turned me into a crusader against the term “wife.” I know other lesbians who use it. I know many heterosexual women in healthy and equal relationships who use it. But the experience has made me realize that gaining equality does not mean settling for sameness. We spent years building our family in spite of what social norms dictated. Gaining legal standing does not mean we now need to accept conventions that don’t work for us.
After all that time out on a limb, why take a step backwards just to fit in?
Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on her experience with disability (her son has Down syndrome and she lives with mental illness) and parenting. She has published in Chicago Parent and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives with her partner and son in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.