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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Marriage as Partnership: and the debts we owe one another

Nothing says Sabbath like whipped cream.

Hot breakfast has been a long-standing Sunday tradition in our house. When I am most feeling most ambitious, most generous, I produce a leaning tower of homemade waffles, standing over the waffle iron for almost two hours before church. My kids eat them as quickly as I can make them. What’s left of the batch that I’ve sextupled (!) is wrapped and frozen for the week ahead. They might last us through Tuesday.

On my least ambitious Sundays, I make muffins. (Borrowing a word from Mary Berry, I’ve recently discovered an especially “scrummy” recipe here.) Because Sunday morning always promises something as delicious as waffles or crepes, pancakes or muffins, on Saturday night, it’s not unusual for one of the twins to ask as he’s crawling into bed, “What’s for breakfast tomorrow?”

Nothing says Sabbath like whipped cream.

Last weekend, however,  I crawled into bed at 1:30am on Sunday morning, finally home after leading a women’s conference in Northern California. I had asked Ryan to let me sleep late, and to my complete astonishment, I rolled over to glance at the clock at 8:30 a.m. It was going to be a no-waffle, no muffin morning.

Except that when I came downstairs, I noticed the griddle on the stove, the syrup on the table. Ryan, only VERY occasionally the cook in our house, had made French toast. It was not the soft cinnamon bread I usually by from the neighborhood bakery—but it WAS French toast!

This wasn’t the only happy surprise of the morning. When I reached into the refrigerator for cream for my coffee, I noticed the shelves had been wiped clean and STOCKED. My husband had gone to the grocery store in my absence, replenishing the staples of milk and yogurt and bread, even thinking ahead to what we’d have for dinner that night. “Pasta and broccoli?”

I understand that my astonishment betrays our traditional domestic arrangement, and it’s true that our marriage has worked according to a very typical gendered division of labor. Ryan’s career has been and continues to be especially demanding, which means that I have been the primary parent and housekeeper. Truthfully, I don’t usually mind it because I enjoy domestic tasks—that is, apart from the dreaded task of packing lunches (see page 111 of Keeping Place).

Nevertheless, one thing has changed in our marriage in the twenty years we’ve been at this: I no longer believe the home is entirely my responsibility. In fact, I think our marriage is growing as we both look for ways to help each other become and do all that God has called us to, even apart from our roles as spouses and parents. To put it even more strongly, when I didn’t look to Ryan to help support me in my calling to write and speak, trying instead to do it all (at home) seamlessly and independently, our marriage did not reflect the biblical vision of two becoming one. I was stealing from him opportunities to be Christ to me: to lay something down for the sake of love. On this particular Sunday morning I’ve written about here, he laid down sleeping in. He laid down his morning run. He laid down waffles. (Or at least muffins.) He served me, but he also served the 110 women who attended the conference I led. In essence, he served the greater church by taking up a little bit of the housekeeping.

I’ve recently begun reading Fleming Rutledge’s much-acclaimed The Crucifixion, and of course, I started with the acknowledgments. (Because that’s where writers like to begin—with the network of family and friends and colleagues who make the work possible.) Like many writers, she customarily thanks her husband at the very end of the acknowledgments. But her gratitude was certainly not perfunctory. What I heard in her words was the sense of debt she owed to her husband’s partnership, the sense that her work on the book (comprising 18 years!) would have been impossible without him. She talked about his financial support, which paid for her theological education. And then, “on his own initiative...he went out and searched for an office where I would be protected from distractions. He found the perfect one, and paid the rent for nine more years after [my grant] ran out.”

Rutledge continues: “But his financial support was the least of it. Who can count the dinners prepared and eaten alone, especially during the last six months? . . . Who can calculate the management of problems like a broken refrigerator and a flooded garage, with no help from me, during those critical last months?” (Who can count the measure of the housekeeping?)

Finally, Rutledge concludes: “But none of that can compare with the precious gift of a lifelong companion who truly knows and loves the Lord, and who serves the Lord’s church with total devotion. I just don’t know how to even begin to say what his partnership has meant to this book and to our marriage.

May God be praised for all his bountiful gifts.”

I love that. No work of God is a solitary endeavor. In the kingdom, there is always partnership, even if one isn’t married.

Today, I’m thanking God: for whipped cream, for French toast, and for Ryan, my partner in making God’s good gifts of home and vocation possible.