Friday, July 10, 2009

Does that Make Chris My Boss?

The other day, I surprised myself. I asked Chris for permission to do something. Sort of. Let me explain.
There's no question the nature of the relationship I share with Chris changed when I left my job two years ago. All at once, I went from earning 60% of our household income to earning none of it at all.

Make no mistake, Chris and I knew going into this new arrangement what impact it would have on us financially. It was a calculated move on our part: We'd sell our condo in Vancouver for far more than we bought it for in 1994 (this was before the real estate bust), and we'd pay off all of our debt so we could not only live on one income but also keep our quality of life. Maintaining our quality of life was important feature of this. And, in the meantime, I'd focus my attention on getting a writing career started, and, if I earned nothing for the foreseeable future, that would be fine because we didn't need it to make ends meet or even to put money aside in savings. We had it all planned.

For the period of time we continued to live in Victoria, our arrangement worked. We lived on Chris's salary only, including the increases when he was promoted, and I wrote pretty much continuously, including an 800-plus page first draft of a book. To repeat, Chris earned all the money, and I earned none. As I wrote in a previous post, the money Chris brought in was now "our" income, even though it took me some time to refer to it that way. (I've always made my own way in life, so the adjustment period took a little longer for me.)

Fast forward to our new lives in __________, and, while Chris was promoted to a new position at the old office where he used to work in the Lower Mainland (which precipitated the move), and while his income increased to where mine used to be (minus the annual bonus), surprise of surprises, it costs more to live here--for food, for transit, for gasoline, for everything, really.

Over the past several months, I've tried to manage our bi-weekly income in the same way I did in Victoria (ensuring we put money aside in what I call True Savings), but something always seems to come up. Outright new home expenses have been paid for from the money we made on the condo, but living expenses come from "our" paycheque. And it's more challenging to save money now than it was before the move. So I'm not sure Chris feels the pressure, because he goes to work every day in the same way he's always done, earning the best income he's ever had, but I feel it, since I manage our finances and don't earn a penny.

As I alluded to before, the dynamic of our relationship has changed. When I earned my managerial income, I had more discretionary money than Chris did. Every two weeks, I always gave myself plenty of what I call "mad money": That is, after I socked away funds into my RRSP and savings, I allowed myself a generous amount to buy all sorts of things--from DVDs, CDs, and books, to things for the house that improved our living environment in some way, either practically or esthetically. I was always buying something for the house--a rug for the kitchen floor, an assortment of vases for above the kitchen cupboards, a new set of towels for the bathroom, ceramic pots for our outdoor garden. The list goes on and on.

I loved being able to do this. I knew that Chris couldn't afford to contribute to these items, and they weren't really necessary for living, but I could afford them, I wanted them for us, and they improved the quality of our lives in one way or another. I was never resentful that I was the only one paying for these items; rather, I was happy that I could improve our living environment in so many ways, and I wanted us to have a comfortable life, a house we felt good coming home to, and a place we could be proud of.

But our circumstances are very different now. On one income, there's much less discretionary money, we have to prioritize what we want to buy, and I feel in some ways that, even though I still provide value to our household by taking care of everything (from our finances, to housecleaning, to watering the garden, to painting and upgrading the house, to being available for various services providers), and even though I still try to find some time to write (for example, on this blog), I'm somehow not contributing enough. I'm not sure I could do anything more than I already do around the house, but I feel there's still one piece missing: Helping our household, and perhaps propping up my ego, by earning an income.

Over the past several months, I've brought this up with Chris. And, as I've written before, he's happy to keep being the sole wage-earner as long as I continue writing, which was the whole reason why we made our arrangement in the first place. In that sense, he's been completely consistent, whether we lived in Victoria, and still had discretionary money on his income alone, or in __________, where he continues to earn our only income, but where money is tighter and saving is more difficult.

Thus, it occurred to me the other day, as I was completing yet another task at home, that, in a sense, Chris pays me for what I do at home through the income he earns and shares with me as part of our relationship. So, if that's the case, he could be considered my boss, or sorts, right? I don't receive a specific paycheque from him--that is, he doesn't write out a cheque for me every couple of weeks--but I have access to what he earns and can buy things for myself or for the house from those funds. In an offhand way, as I see it, that's kind of like Chris being my boss and indirectly paying me for the work I perform around the house, including writing.

So I asked him permission the other day if I could do something.

My sister is off work this week, as is the fellow she's seeing, and they planned to take the Albion ferry one last time over the Fraser to spend the afternoon in Fort Langley, a place I enjoy visiting. I asked her if I could join them, and she said yes. I was all excited about having the opportunity to get out of the house for two or three hours and do something different for a change.

But I got to thinking. What I do in the house while Chris is at work--whether it's washing the dinner dishes from the night before (so we have more quality time to spend together in the evening), or prepping and painting a room over several days to a week, or having dinner ready for us once Chris arrives home from work, or even writing--is my "job." And if Chris is, either directly or indirectly, my boss, shouldn't I ask him if I can take some time off to join my sister and her boyfriend in Fort Langley?

So I did. Chris responded as I knew he would. He said something like, "Of course you can spend the afternoon with your sister. You do so much work around here, you need some time out of the house." Good point. I was glad that he recognized what I do and the value I contribute, and that he saw the benefit to me to be away from the house for several hours.

But, my, how our relationship has changed. Whether it was the right thing for me to do to ask him this because he's, as I suggested, my boss, or because it was the courteous thing to do, I know for a fact that, had I still been working for CIBC, and had I happened to be on vacation from work at the same time as my sister, and had she been going to Fort Langley with her boyfriend, and had I wanted to join them for the afternoon, I wouldn't have asked Chris for his "permission" to go, courtesy or no courtesy. There would have been no need to ask him. In the old world, I would have advised him of my plans, spent the time with my sister, and not given it a second thought.

Perhaps this is all about a certain guilt I feel that Chris is our sole breadwinner, and that all I do is draw from that, not add to it. This is such a different role for me that, even two years out, in ways I didn't expect, I continue to adjust to the new dynamic between us.

I wonder if Chris was surprised that I asked him if it was all right for me to go to Fort Langley with my sister. I wonder if he ever thought that I, ten years older than he is, would come to him with that question. Did he think it was appropriate under the circumstances, or did he think I shouldn't have given another thought to spending the afternoon away from my responsibilities at home? Was he surprised that I, the more dominant person in our relationship, would ask him for permission to do anything? Did it make him feel good? Did he appreciate my courtesy, or was he embarrassed by it?

Like I said before, circumstances have sure changed in our relationship over the years. Which I suppose happens in all relationships when the partners are together for a long time. Things change in the world, which forces things to change within the context of a relationship. You can either change and grow with it, or you can hit the road and call it a day on what you share together.

If what you share with the other person is the first priority in your life, as it is for Chris and me, then you adapt, and you don't concern yourself with your changing status within the relationship. Sometimes you'll be up, and sometimes you'll be down. In the end, one person is not better, or more powerful, or more important, than the other person. In one way or another, each person, if he is truly committed to the other and to the partnership, ensures he plays a valuable role in the couple, whether that person is the sole income earner or the person who supports the sole income earner.

And, in our case, I get to continue doing what's most important to me beyond our relationship: I get to continue writing and working on making my dream happen.

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