by Rose-Anne Clermont
- Germany -
Such were Kahlil Gibran’s musings on marriage back in 1923, found in his acclaimed work “The Prophet.” Although an early wave of feminism had already begun, marriage then was still an institution that fostered a master and a keeper, a leader and an obedient follower. More than a generation would pass before bras began to burn and true equality between the sexes became a common societal expectation, in theory.
“Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. . .
Stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
In practice, a woman’s place is no longer just in the home. She is often holding down the fort both at work and in the kitchen: juggling meetings while discretely pumping breast milk or fixing a quick dinner before working late into the night on her laptop in bed. Time is also squeezed in for listening to her husband’s trials and tribulations while to-do lists run through the back of her mind. The term “good wife” has been replaced with being a “good partner,” but the job description is similar.
Partnership is perhaps the hardest task to befall modern women. While many aspects of motherhood are instinctual, evolving with a life partner is a long, often arduous learning process. To live together—actively and harmoniously as two equal individuals—is a challenge that proved harrowing even for women like Barbara and Renée who survived dictatorship, war, poverty and fleeing their homes.
In Part V of a A Current between Shores, Barbara and Renée share their experiences as wives, roles they assumed when many women were just beginning to question their conventional roles in society. When Barbara had her last child, the birthrates in Germany had begun to plummet; they still remain so low that the country’s population cannot sustain itself. Renée arrived in America at the pinnacle of the second phase of the feminist movement, shortly before Roe v. Wade.
Part V: On Womanhood and Marriage (Trials in Giving)
How did your own mother express herself?
Barbara: “My mother stood by her convictions. And she was very organized and did everything without always asking my father for approval. We children were actually more afraid of her and listened to what she said. She wasn’t a feminist—she had her role as a mother and my father had his role as a father—but she did always speak her mind.”
Renée: “My mother was very passive and never talked to my father about what she didn’t like. She spoke to her sisters about that. She really did everything by herself, especially in raising us. My father didn’t even leave his store to attend my first communion, which is incredibly important in Haiti. When my mother brought me around after the church ceremony to say hello and show him my dress, he didn’t even look up from what he was doing. My mother didn’t complain or anything, she didn’t say anything to him at all.”
Did you grow up knowing women who weren’t married? What were they like?
Barbara: “There were a lot of women who had lost their husbands in The First World War. And there was our Aunt Hilde, my eldest brother’s godmother. She had been very progressive and a university student and had always acted out against her mother. Her mother warned Hilde that she would end up in a ditch one day because she was so wild. She had always been so adventurous. Once she went to Sicily on a cargo ship just so she could see something new. I don’t know, maybe she never got married because she was too egocentric.”
Renée: “My father’s sister, Tante Emmé, never got married but that was never a problem for her. She happily took care of everyone else’s babies. My mother’s sister, on the other hand, wanted so badly to be married that she prayed and prayed to have a husband. She was very pretty, definitely a catch. But she was also very self centered and very proud. She never married.”
Did you always think you would get married?Barbara: “When I was around 24 I thought men didn’t want me. I wasn’t exactly the kind of woman that men fell over. I was also very shy. So even though I had hoped I’d marry and have children, I resigned myself to being alone and having my career. I didn’t think it would be all that bad. It was around that time, in 1959, that I met my husband. We married in the fall of 1961.”
Renée: “In Haiti, marriage is like a right of passage. In my circle of friends everyone was getting married. But what I noticed right away, after we got married, was that my husband was very traditional. He was very quiet and not like the other medical students; there were quite a few who were after me. But for some reason, he was the one I chose. We were married in December of 1965.”
What did you think your role was as a wife?
Barbara: “I had certain ideas about how a wife had to be. I wanted to be there for my husband because my mother never had enough time for my father since she was always having children. I was very naïve and thought we would do everything together and share the same interests. But he never seemed to have time for the things I was interested in. When I didn’t want to do something he wanted, then he said there was no more ‘we’ in our relationship.”
Renée: “I was raised to believe that we were bonded by love, that we did everything together as husband and wife. But we did have different interests that didn’t always fit together. I’m very social and love to be around people, but my husband was very different. If we had guests stop by (my family and friends), he would say goodnight and go upstairs to bed. He could be very introverted. But when it came to his friends, he was always ready to hang out and participate in group activities.”
What did you think about the feminist movement?
Barbara: “I always believed that women should have the same fundamental rights as men. But I didn’t think that women should be like men. I didn’t understand why some women didn’t want to look like women anymore. I found that absurd. I saw some women without bras and didn’t understand it. Of course, I didn’t think women should be wearing corsets any more, but some women didn’t want to be beautiful.”
Renée: “There was no feminist movement in Haiti, so when I got to America I thought women were losing their minds—what with burning bras. But the longer I lived in the US, I began to understand what the movement was about. Haitian women who had moved to the US suddenly had a voice because of the feminist movement, which is a big deal because in Haitian culture, what the man says goes. In fact, a lot of Haitian men—even my father who I thought had been a saint—had mistresses. It was widely accepted.
“I know of a few marriages that ended because women started to open their eyes once they got to the USA. Haitian men used to make jokes about women’s liberation. And whenever we women wanted to do something out of the ordinary they would say, ‘Oh, so now you’re liberated too?’
“When we lived in Canada I was working and my husband didn’t have a job, so he cooked. I was so proud that I wrote my mother-in-law in Haiti and told her. Well, she wrote back and told me she didn’t approve of her son cooking for his wife.”
While you were having children, abortion was a huge issue. What went through your mind?Barbara: “I remember the slogan ‘my belly belongs to me.’ That stands out in my mind, as well as the women who protested in the streets at the time. I remember a colleague who went to Holland in the early 1970s because she didn’t want to have a baby. Even Catholic girls went to Holland [to get abortions]. I was personally against abortion because I believed that when a child wants to come to the world, it should be allowed. I also thought that a person should do something against getting pregnant if they don’t want a child. But every woman has to decide for herself. If abortion became illegal again, women would die again trying to do it secretly.”
Renée: “I’m Catholic so it was hard for me when I had to go to work and assist (as a nurse) in so many abortions. I didn’t have time to go to church because my children were too small, and then there I was at work, where we had one abortion after the next once it became legal. It was like a factory. I remember how it shocked me. There was one woman who was married and she just didn’t want children. It wasn’t that she had too many, it was just that she didn’t want any. Some times there were young girls, 14 or so, and I could understand situations like that. But that married woman, I don’t know, it seemed too casual to me.”
What’s the biggest sacrifice you made in your marriage?
Barbara: “I put my personal ambitions aside. I stopped developing myself. I wanted to be helpful to my husband and support his career. I gave up nursing and worked in his (jewelry) store. I always made plans to do the things I had interest in, like read good literature and go to Switzerland to go to museums, but something always got in the way. I always had to work in the store or help him in some way. Everyone told me I should do something for myself. But I always asked, ‘when?’ I was always helping my husband so he could accomplish his goals. But that was like a bottomless pit. The more I tried to support him, the more he added something new. He joined a choir, always had things to do on top of the store. We had both been active in forming the Green Party in our town (Freiburg) and meetings were late, so at some point I stopped going to meetings because I didn’t want the kids to be home alone. So he went. He overextended himself and I was always there to help him.”
Renée: “He didn’t want me to go to work after we’d been in the US. He said I shouldn’t leave our children with a ‘stranger’—that mothers were meant to stay home with their kids. I remember to this day when I had to go take my nursing license exam and I couldn’t find the registration papers that I’d had long before. I think he hid them. I did stop working for a period of time. And when I went to school, it was originally for him—to learn to type his letters. But even he was proud when I got my degree.”
Did you ever think of divorce?
Renée: “One time I asked him for a divorce. We’d been fighting about his mother constantly, who had been taking care of the children while I worked. His family was always so involved in our life. ‘This is not working,’ I told him. And he said ‘ok,’ but nothing happened. So one day, when his mother was getting ready to go home after babysitting, I told her she didn’t have to come back. When my husband came home, I told him what I’d done. He wasn’t happy, but it saved our marriage.”
Barbara: “Yes, sometimes now more than before. But then I think there is something that has kept us together. Something between us belongs together. Sometimes as old people it’s even harder to be together. I would never remarry. If he were to die, I would never want to bind myself to a man again.”In 1994, your husband suffered a massive heart attack. What went through your mind when you thought you would lose your husband?
Barbara: “Right before he had the heart attack, I’d had another one of those realizations in which I made plans for myself and the things I’d wanted to do. I had just come back from a trip and he told me he’d been feeling sick all day long. The next day we went to the doctor and discovered he was having a heart attack right then and there. I was so angry, I told him ‘There you go. There is your heart attack.’ He had to be resuscitated twice. And I had to keep up the store—the place that I had never wanted to be—while he recovered.”
“I thought about all of his annoying ways and thought, no matter how much he complains, I hope he pulls through.”
In 1995, you suddenly lost your husband in a car accident. What did you worry about most?
Renée: “I worried about being alone. I worried about finances. I worried about isolation. I thought I died too. He died so suddenly. The children were out of the house, out of college and we finally had time for one another. And then he was gone.”
What advice would you give to young wives?
Barbara: “Women should create a space for themselves. It’s difficult when you’re bound to your husband. If I had known this back then, I would have tried to train him, force him to accept that I had my own desires.”
Renée: “It’s very difficult. You can be your own person in a marriage but you also have to realize that marriage is a give and take. You’ve made a commitment to each other. Don’t lose yourself, but don’t be selfish either.”
- In Part VI of this series, Renée and Barbara discuss raising their children. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty, in Part III, they shared how important education was in their lives and in Part IV they relive the difficult decision to leave home . - Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as "parallel histories from different worlds." In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, "They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget."