When I got engaged last August, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my ideal feminist marriage would look like.
I pictured "having it all:" wearing a giant Meryl Streep turtleneck in a farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, editing manuscripts while my husband sweeps the floors, collies frolicking at our feet; taking Lamaze classes while barking expletives at my subordinates on my iPhone; attending awards ceremonies and book parties, looking lithe and glamorous in Balmain, an infant latched onto each nipple.
"You see, bitches?! I really can have it all!" I'd cry, cackling as fellow guests and have-it-all-ers Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer looked on approvingly.
Like many millennial women, I viewed the ability to balance a career with a family life as the apotheosis of a modern feminist marriage. But recently, I've been thinking that the above scenarios sound fucking exhausting.
I don't want the ultimate feminist marriage. I don't want to have it all.
I want what Donald and Melania Trump have.
I'm not the only person scrutinizing the Trumps' marriage right now. As of Tuesday, May 3, 2016, Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, meaning he is one of two people who will be elected President of the United States of America. This, in turn, means Melania is closer than ever to becoming First Lady, a scenario depicted in a recent profile of Melania in GQ.
As written by Julia Ioffe, the piece depicts a marriage that is, at face value, the polar opposite of a 21st century union. Ioffe quotes Melania discussing, at length, how she assumes responsibility for all domestic labors, because the two "know [their] roles. I didn't want him to change the diapers or put [son] Barron to bed."
The piece goes on to describe Donald's apparent glee at having found a wife willing to take a backseat to his political ambitions, who doesn't appear to have any ambition at all. (For what it's worth, journalists covering the Trump campaign have clearly embraced this image of Melania as little more than a sentient pair of breast implants; in fact, Jia Tolentino of Jezebel recently wrote that Melania is "so studiously proud, vapid and absent that she resists close analysis.") To hear Trump tell it, Melania doesn't even have a working intestinal system — Ioffe quotes Trump boasting on the Howard Stern Show in 2003 that Melania "doesn't make doody."
As a feminist (and as someone who spends a fair amount of time describing my bowel movements with my partner), this point of view is anathema to me. To be expected to cede my career ambitions to a lifetime of raising bratty little blond boys — and to be expected to limit my bodily functions while doing so — does not sound appealing.
And yet, I can't help but admire how the Trumps have settled on a clearly defined division of labor in their marriage, how both partners have negotiated their terms to carve out their own spaces for each other and for themselves. To me, the Trumps represent not the 21st century ideal of an equal-footed, feminist relationship, but a more complicated (and, frankly, interesting) conception of marriage: that two people can enter a partnership carving out specific roles, and maintain a harmonious domestic balance accordingly. They are not two halves of the same whole, so much as they are two complementary pieces in a 1,200-piece jigsaw puzzle reproduction of an abstract expressionist painting.
"The Trumps represent not the 21st century ideal of an equal-footed, feminist relationship, but a more complicated (and, frankly, interesting) conception of marriage."
Today, there's an understanding that marriage is supposed to be an equitable merger, a union of two people on the same intellectual and ideological wavelengths. Common wisdom dictates a marriage should be between two people with the exact same values and desires, who can thus navigate the complexities of life in perfect, Busby Berkeley-esque synchronicity.
But in positing that a happy marriage is a union of equals (especially because our current laws don't exactly reflect that) , we fail to recognize a fundamental truth: Not everyone actually wants to marry their equal, or even to be equals with their partner. In fact, judging from a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, which found that 18% of Americans want women to return to "traditional gender roles," it's safe to assume a fair number of Americans don't.
Plenty of women are perfectly content pulling Melanias and staying at home to change the diapers: in fact, according to a 2014 Pew poll, the number of stay-at-home moms has been steadily on the rise. Yet it's considered not only antifeminist, but anti-woman, to admit that you want this life or this marriage. When women like Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco, who told a reporter she did not consider herself a feminist because she "liked the idea of women taking care of their men," or Ryshell Castleberry, the author of a controversial Facebook tribute to stay-at-home moms, admit they prefer to lean into domesticity, they are roundly slammed.
Never mind the fact that feminism is supposed to give women more pathways for how to live, rather than forcing all of us to travel down one road; never mind that these are personal preferences and not a prescription for how other women should live. For women, it is still considered unacceptable to say you feel more comfortable as a wife and mother than as, say, the COO of Facebook — which is why Melania will always be seen as little more than Slovenian arm candy to her bloviating merkin of a husband.
I don't want to be Melania Trump when I get married. I am not a paragon of icy inscrutability, all sharp angles and leonine hair and cheekbones. I don't want to take a backseat to the ambitions of my partner; I am too loud and too needy and too ambitious for that. And I certainly would not consider it a point of pride not to ever defecate in his presence (in fact, I'd probably consider it impetus to go to the doctor).
What I do want to emulate, though — and what I think all spouses should emulate — is the obvious respect she has and support she is willing to provide for her husband, a picture that Ioffe draws at the end of her GQ profile:
Maybe Melania hadn't wanted any of this a year ago — hadn't wanted her husband to run, hadn't wanted all the prying scrutiny, hadn't wanted to become a politician's wife. But here she was, taking the strangeness of life in her long, tan stride. She smiled, tautly, like a sphinx and beheld the throng before her. She was proud of her husband. He had a great heart.
Questionable accuracy of the kicker aside, clearly this is a woman who is reticent to take the spotlight as a political wife — and yet she does so gracefully, because she knows it is what is needed from her at this moment in her husband's life. And whether your partner is running for President or debating whether to take a job in another city or going through a personal health crisis, this is a lesson that all spouses can take to heart.
We might think it's sexist for Melania to take pride in her diaper-changing and bowel movement-suppressing abilities. We might decry her lack of political ambition — even though there's nothing in the constitution to suggest that every first lady needs to have a finger in the public policy pie. (Were I married to the president, I would not spend the vast majority of my time advising him on issues of diplomacy; I'd probably just try on ballgowns and make the White House chef feed me chicken with his bare hands.) And we might mock her for her professional rich-girl career of designing jewelry and watches, as Ioffe does, but... well, actually, we can mock her for that, because her jewelry line is fucking hideo.
What we can't mock the Trumps for, however, is having a bad marriage. Clearly, the Trumps have navigated the thorny roles required of a husband and wife in the 21st century to settle on a balance that works for them. And ultimately, more than an equal-footed partnership, more than the struggle to have it all, that is all a marriage is — two people figuring out how to snap together in the 1,400-piece Jackson Pollock jigsaw painting that is the rest of the world.