“I have waited my whole life to be oppressed” admits Lynn Messina in the opening line of her incredible Modern Love column that appeared in the Times this past Sunday. In “Chained to Hearth or Warmed by It?” she comes clean about the ramifications that her yearning for victimhood–or predilection for self-pity (aka justification by suffering)–has had in her relationship with her husband. But it is also a story of grace triumphing over law in a very visceral sense. Some might say the writing is on the wall when Lynn describes her pre-parenthood agreement with her husband, Chris. Because he had really pushed to have children, they decided to split the childrearing duties 85-15, with him taking the larger share. Sounds like a recipe for resentment, I know, and it turns out to be, but perhaps not in the way one might have predicted. “Reality played out very differently”, and Lynn soon found herself taking on more and more of the child-related responsibilities, certainly more than the agreed-upon 15%. The breaking point comes one evening when Chris arrives home late from work, on a day where she had had to drop everything to take her son to the doctor.

damn-right“How many bottles have you cleaned?” I asked. “How many shirts have you washed? How many peas have you picked up off the floor?” The questions were rhetorical. I knew the answers: none, none and none.

I reminded him of our 85-15 split. And yet there I was, the mother, defined not as the female parent but as the child’s administrative assistant responsible for appointments, filing, scheduling, body maintenance, pea warming and diaper changing.

In Chris’s defense, he’s a very involved and active father, more than most men I know… His intentions per our agreement were pure. He genuinely planned on being the lead parent and he regrets every dinner he missed and every doctor’s appointment he had to bail on. But he was defenseless against the strategic moves life makes and the way he feels when he looks at his worshipful little boy and thinks, “I have to provide.”

I knew all this and still I mounted my high horse… I have a prescribed, preordained existence as a mother, and every day I’m either living up to it or down to it, depending on your point of view. All my life I had hated fulfilling traditional expectations, and now I was fulfilling the largest one of all. I believed my argument was strong, full of rhetorical power.

Lynn describes the intoxication that one feels in a bout of self-pity with affecting precision, how supremely gratifying it can be to feel sorry for oneself, especially in the heat of a spousal argument. Percentages, tit-for-tat, negotiation, this is the language of control, and it’s all some form of what we might call little ‘l’ law. A standard of judgment that isolates even when only it’s meant to regulate and protect. But add the sundry and often (extremely) unjust social pressures we feel as men and women, and you have a powder-keg. Love simply cannot breathe with that much expectation in the room. In fact, as far as gender roles are concerned, Lynn’s story doesn’t affirm one model over another so much as it attests to the potential for constriction on both sides of the conformity-rebellion divide. Escaping the law is not as simple as embracing its opposite. But I digress:

2000_11_13_Kaplan_ConflictChris had a few facts of his own, and he rattled them off: bathtub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, grout, tile, microwave, cabinets, carpets, floors, windows, windowsills, stovetop, countertop, vacuum, vacuum filter: all the things he’s cleaned for the last 12 years. Wiping, washing, scrubbing, scraping, rubbing, rinsing, dusting, disinfecting: all the chores he’s done during the life of our relationship.

And then he added the kicker: Three months after he moved in with me, he made plans to move out. He had a line on an apartment and calls in to moving companies for price estimates. He couldn’t stand my haphazard existence, the way I never hung up my clothes or made the bed or opened my mail or ran an errand. He needed out. But he didn’t get out. He sucked it up and dealt.

Something clearly happened that day. For whatever reason, Chris stayed even though he had plenty of reason not to. Maybe it was a careful cost-benefit analysis, but I doubt it. I suspect that he stayed because he loved her. He couldn’t help but love her. And love is never tidy, pun intended. It doesn’t operate according to percentages. Someone once even claimed it keeps no record of wrongs. This being real life and not Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Chris related the story in a moment of defensive self-justification, but that didn’t prevent it from triggering a cascade of gratitude in his wife. The veil of judgment dropped, the entitlement melted away, and Lynn caught a glimpse of how much she’d been loved–at her least presentable, in all her mess; not apart from it. With striking humility (and courage), she confesses:

We keep hearing how a woman’s quality of life and happiness can decline when she marries. Mine went up. All my life, I had been a scrounger. When I ran out of toothpaste, I’d use baking soda. When I ran out of toilet paper, I’d use tissues and then paper towels. Now these things were in the closet when I needed them. I could open the refrigerator at any moment and find a half-gallon of milk. It was magic.

Remembering that made it all click. My oppression was one part practical, one part circumstantial and a billion parts theoretical. The only reason I kept washing bottles instead of running them through the dishwasher was because my son loves action… Sometimes what feels like oppression is just a really bad day…

Lynn ends the piece on a suitably stunning note of liberation. Having come face to face with reality–of her belovedness in the midst of weakness and her preternatural, percentage-defying love for her son–she gives up her ‘rights’ and starts loving in return: her son, her husband, even her career. Which inevitably involves some cost to herself. For the time being at least, she is free.

So what about those of us who find ourselves stuck in the relational courtroom day after day and night after night? Who are tempted to believe that the solution to our problems involves a new or better set of expectations, roles, or terms (even ‘gospel’ ones)? If this story is to be trusted, then there is hope, and it has nothing to so with cleaning up our act(!). Some call it magic, I call it grace.

Lynn’s final lines are a beautiful–and beautifully paradoxical–picture of what self-forgetful happiness looks like:

In reality, motherhood for me is the opposite of oppressive; it’s been an amazing liberation. For the first time in my adulthood, I’m free of the obligation of writing every day, a weight I’ve carried since the moment I decided to become a novelist at 17.

It has given me a clear and present priority. Days with my son are days with my son, and all I have to do is be with him: no work, no e-mail, no telephone calls, no guilt. It was and remains a revelation… My oppression is freedom. My cross is flexibility. I really can’t complain.