How Did I Wind Up a Housewife in Paradise?

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Photo: Ulf Huett Nilsson

I have moved to a Caribbean island with my family. It’s not like it sounds. Or it doesn’t resemble any of my previously held fantasies — the sort of burnout expat lifestyle where you tend bar or work in a hostel and sit around a bonfire at night with Australians. I did just get back from snorkeling (I saw a barracuda; it was terrifying), but only after I dropped our son off at day care and my husband off at his new job, which we moved here for. Now I’m in front of a computer, sitting inside at the kitchen table. Things are pretty much business as usual, except it’s hotter, and I’m no longer the primary breadwinner. We have “relocated for work,” but not mine.

Until a month ago we lived in Portland, Oregon, where we planned to buy a house and stay forever. But then, in about month four of a dark, rainy, typical winter, Dustin forwarded me a job listing to run a bookstore on a tropical island. The weather would be between about 75 and 88 degrees all year. “I mean, you have to apply,” I said. I was sitting in front of a SAD lamp when I sent the email. “Of course,” he wrote back. Then he got the job. It was like a joke, and we spent the better part of a month going back and forth between “Why would we leave?” and “Why wouldn’t we go?” Each day I’d wake up with a new gut feeling, always the opposite of Dustin’s.

“Today I want to go,” I’d say. “We should do it.”

He’d laugh. “I was just going to say that I was sure it was a terrible idea.”

Our kid isn’t in school yet, my work is portable, and then there was the money. To most people the decision seemed obvious — “an adventure!” — but my friends with young kids were more solemn. “Moving is hell,” we agreed, solemnly. It would be disruptive (I lost a month of work, in the end). Our son finally loved his day care, and the thought of putting him through all that change made me feel a rare, potent charge of mom guilt. Plus I had never been there. “I’m worried you’ll hate it,” Dustin would say to me. I was sort of beguiled by the idea of hating it, though, of blaming him for making us move there while I wrote in a notebook on the beach every day. I think he knew this, that we were both worried it would be a mistake and that the mistake would be his. I want to say it’s okay to make mistakes like that, great even, but as a parent, the idea felt untenable, irresponsible, foolish. I don’t intellectually believe that, but familiarity does hold more appeal in our life now. “Stability.” Which is why I think Dustin tried to leave it up to me. And why I did the same to him. And round and round we went.

I would have loved to say, “In the end, it wasn’t about the money” — hell, there are lots of ways I could spin the idea of moving to a tropical paradise that have nothing to do with money — but in the end, we took a hard look at our budget and our hypothetical budget and I cried and panicked and we asked for more money. We got it. We bought our kid a book about coral reefs. We put stuff in storage, sold our car, and shipped a damn play kitchen to the Caribbean for something like $200. (Never move.) After a couple years of scotch-taping our existence together with freelance gigs and my savings, I was more than ready to be welcomed into the bosom of employer-sponsored health care.

Or, you know, to volunteer my husband to be welcomed in, to work six days a week and get a Samsung phone and an email signature about saving the planet by not printing out this email. I would snorkel. And write without the gnawing anxiety about whether I’d be paid before rent was due. I hadn’t been financially dependent on anyone since the coffers were my parents, but frankly, it sounded great. Sure, I’d taken much pride from largely supporting us the past couple of years, sure I really love to earn money and be paid well and help my family. Sure, it’s not feminist, but not everything is. The very idea of someone else’s steady paycheck entering my checking account every two weeks was like a balm to my frayed nerves. It isn’t fair, and it is a little embarrassing, but it is also great (for me). What I’ve lost in moral high ground, I’ve gained in chill.

A few years ago I would have balked at the idea of moving for someone, but then again, a few years ago I didn’t have a toddler, and I cared about how things seemed more than how they felt to me. I also hadn’t been on the other side of it. When the situation was reversed, I gave Dustin a little speech about how our life together will be long, and if things go as planned, we will both take turns being the primary breadwinner. One of us will support the other, then someone will get a lucrative gig, then someone will want to do a less lucrative project, and so on. It’s his turn. Or mine, depending on how you look at it.

Of course the thing is, when I was paying the bills, it was progressive. It was interesting. Now I am a woman who has moved overseas for her husband’s job. When he asked, I told the guy who poured my iced coffee yesterday that I was a writer. “So you’re visiting?” he said.

“No,” I said, “My husband works here.”

“Oh, so you’re on his visa. And you can sit on the beach while you make him work for you!” It was supposed to be a joke, I guess — either really conservative or really progressive.

I told him I was on a deadline, that I get anxious if I don’t write. That we needed my income, too. I’m not sure why I didn’t just laugh and take my coffee. I wanted to be understood, for the guy at the local diner to know my deal.

“But you don’t have to work! You should embrace the life of leisure! Go swim in the ocean while he brings home the money!”

When he said this I was spilling cash out of my hands and shoving bills into my tote bag, trying to wave off his remarks. I left and went to the beach.

When we got here, I took care of our 2-year-old for the first couple of weeks. I wanted to cling to him through all this change, to give us both time to adjust. We plodded around sandy playgrounds with all of the other mothers also here on spousal visas. We went to the juice bar and got smoothies with the other dependents. The kids ran through the fountain, the moms chatted in their workout clothes, the nannies took photos with their phones, presumably to send to those moms who were at work in offshore banks. We went to story times and playgroups and music jamboree, where people asked me where my husband worked. I didn’t tell them I worked, too. I nodded to the director of the playground, pretending we’d get home and register, come every week. We were having such a good time. I didn’t want to ruin it by delicately explaining to anyone that I wasn’t one of them.

How much I loved tooling around town and going to the beach with my kid and slowly erasing my inner life surprised me. It took me three whole days to grow tired of the arrangement, six to get truly resentful. On day seven I was screaming, “I have a CAREER” in my head three times a day.

I am here as a dependent, though, or that’s what it says on my visa, and that’s what people who matter keep calling me in bureaucratic situations. People keep reminding me. The word is hilariously direct: dependent. It’s a circumstance that feels funny to me, but not to history or to the lady at the bank who, without asking, wrote, “HOUSEWIFE” as my occupation on our application form.

I was surprised to see the word right there, in all caps. I almost laughed when I saw it, had the urge to correct her and then stopped myself. For visa purposes, this is what I am. I decided to sit with it, not cause trouble.

When she told me that if my husband wanted, she could give me a credit card, I smiled and wrote writer in small letters under HOUSEWIFE.

When we left the bank, I brought it up first and Dustin laughed. “As soon as I saw that I knew you’d hate it.” I laughed too. Back in the intimate confines of our rental car, back in the sun, everything felt lighter. What was convention at the bank is a grand experiment to us, our stint with traditional gender roles. As much as I miss working in a coffee shop in our little progressive haven in the Pacific Northwest, I know it is my turn.

For a few years I’m going to be doing day-care pickup and grocery shopping and all the administrative tasks that make a family function — all the shit most women do anyway but I’d heretofore actively resisted. Dustin will talk about how unfair it is and I’ll tell him it feels okay so far. I’m okay with unfair as long as I have enough time for myself and my work. As long as his salary keeps me from having panic attacks about how we’re going to pay for child care that month. This is why we came here. I am happy to put in a load of laundry while I sit at the kitchen table and write, in a quiet condominium surrounded by blue iguanas, just down the road from the beach.