February 08, 2009

In for a penny...

Last night was Kurt's birthday and I finally got to tell him about the surprise ski trip I've been planning forever. True to form, I was emotional and riddled with anxiety as the moment approached.

I've worried so much about this gift. First there were simply the logistics of the thing: where to go, where to stay, transportation, child care and, of course, cost. Cost remained the most haunting of all my worries, the way that it always is. I am a stay-at-home mom with no income of my own. That's not to say that what I do has no value, but it certainly doesn't bring in any money.

Every financial decision in our family goes through Kurt. Oh, we say that it's a joint effort, we work to provide transparency in both directions, but on a nearly primitive level, it is all governed by ingrained societal roles. I am the housewife, he is the breadwinner. Anything I spend is his money and deserves, at the very least, his knowledge if not also his approval.

We've talked about this so often and always try to come out on top of it in a fair-and-equal kind of way. After all, though I don't earn a paycheck, my work hours extend far into overtime and the demands of my job are certainly equal to his, just incredibly, totally, different. We made a decision to be a one-income family while the kids are young so I can care for them myself. When I do go back to work that money will be shared as a family, the same way that our money, in theory, is now.

The disconnect lies inside my own head. I have trouble owning that joint-finance reality. I defer, often unconsciously, to Kurt's authority over our expenses. And let's face it, there's no denying I've had some spending issues. It's not like any concern on his part is unfounded. I'd like to chalk it up to mental illness, but the truth is I've never been terribly careful with my wallet. It's been a sensitive point between us, on and off, for years.

So, the decision to make a big purchase on my own, secretly, even as a gift, involved a big ol' leap of faith for me. Here was the test, for us both. Is it really "our" money, does he trust me with it? If he decided to send me on a fantasy trip, I would never question the expense. Will he respond in the same way for me?

And you know what? He did. He really, honestly did. Last night, he opened his card to find a small tour guide for Park City, Utah. He turned to me, looking incredibly confused.

"We leave on the 20th," I said, trying to hide the nervous squeak in my voice. "I've already cleared it with your boss and mom's taking the kids for the weekend. You've practically given up skiing since we had kids and you deserve a big getaway. Happy birthday!"

He never once asked me about the cost. It took awhile for the whole thing to sink in, but then he spent the rest of the night flashing a spontaneous little grin and poking through the tour guide and maps.

"Wow. I'd never have done this for myself, this is awesome!"

Today we briefly talked, almost as a side note, about how I paid for it without him knowing.

"You OK? Are you still nervous about last night, if I'd like the trip?" He was honestly confused at my anxiety, an expression that was more of a balm than anything he could have said.

I avoided eye contact for a moment. "Mostly I was just worried about the money- that I made a big purchase behind your back." I had to bite my tongue to keep from apologizing.

"Really?! No," and he waved his arm around in dismissal, "no, that's nothing. Why...? Don't worry about that. It's going to be great!"

And there it was, all my worries put in their proper perspective. After all, we share together in the troubles of our lives, why not also the benefits? Money shouldn't be the biggest issue in a relationship, it really shouldn't, but it often is. So many little things, small irritations that rub each other raw, come down to money- who owns what, who's responsible for what, even what one partner owes the other in terms of chores or obligations versus financial support.

It's not that I think all those creeping background issues will just disappear overnight, but the confidence boost right now feels very good. I wanted to give the love of my life an experience he'd always remember and a surprise he'd never forget. I did it and he delighted in it.

Guilt-free! Now there's a tab we can both approve.


Lisa said...

Sounds like wonderful vacation plans!

GrandMem said...

I'm so pleased it worked out that way. I know you were really concerned.