The backstory of PLUS ONE involves a midlife crisis and a thankfully abandoned plan to open an artisanal bead shop.
My midlife crisis started innocently enough, with one of those weird stray thoughts that float like confetti across your everyday consciousness. Beads are nice, I thought. What’s not to like about beads? Especially in bulk, sorted into heaping tubs, as glittering and colorful as fish eggs—you could spend your whole life in a bead shop and never once get bored.
Then came another thought: Why aren’t there more places to buy beads? When you stop to think, it’s kind of outrageous that the city is chock-a-block with storefronts peddling e-cigarettes and soy cappuccinos, but go looking for a nice polymer-coated glass bead and you get bupkis.
I should point out I’ve never once actually beaded. I’m not even all that crafty. But pretty soon there I was, obsessing about opening…an artisanal bead boutique.
The bead shop was my rock bottom, my cry for help.
I’m a writer and husband and father of three, but during those strange few weeks in which I was building an imaginary empire of beads I wasn’t sure who I was. I’d been a reporter, author, speechwriter, web developer and music supervisor. I’d dabbled. Like a lot of guys my age (40ish), I’d followed my strong feminist mother’s advice and followed my bliss, drifting from one vaguely-creative, not-particularly-remunerative pursuit to the next.
Meanwhile, my wife Jenji had been working in television from the moment she left college, steadfastly banging out script after script, mastering her craft and building a career like the uncompromising high-achiever her mom raised her to be. And after a long string of brief employments and failed pilots, she created the Showtime dramedy Weeds. Then she doubled down with the Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black.
As her career took off, the income I contributed to our community-property marriage ceased to be a real factor. And so I did what many partners of successful spouses do: I offramped. I got domestic. I handled carpools and home repairs and travel plans. I helped out at school and got serious about diet and exercise. I spent many blissful mornings at a coffee place with a small and exotic cohort of men married to women whose success, income and public recognition surpasses their own. Plus Ones, I called them, after the small-print at the bottom of the fancy invitations that came addressed to our wives and girlfriends.
I was having fun and enjoying my time with the kids, but I found myself dogged by insecurities. I got twitchy when filling out insurance forms asking for “primary cardholder.” I was prone to odd outbursts of aggression—peeling out in the minivan at carpool, mowing down kids at a Laser-tag birthday party, getting whiplash after leaping off a rooftop into a swimming pool.
Which is right about when I developed my sudden interest in beading.
Thankfully, I snapped out of it. I can’t recall precisely how the spell was broken. Maybe it was a conversation with my more level-headed spouse? I can picture my lovely wife raising an eyebrow, employing a certain tone—however it happened, I got the message. The enterprise I was imagining would be, if I played the movie to the last reel, the saddest bead shop in history. It would chug along for awhile into the day I realized I actually didn’t give two shits about beads, beading or beaders and the whole thing had been a limp, harebrained and ultimately doomed effort to give myself something halfway interesting to say when asked at a dinner party what I “do.”
Instead, I started writing again. Not out of desperation or boredom, but with the rare and welcome sensation that I’d stumbled into a story that needed telling, one about male caretakers and female breadwinners. I wrote about guys learning how to hold a house, women who feel the tug of work and family and how it feels to ease off the professional pedal and settle into a support role. I wrote about men who cook and caretake and sing backup for their front-and-center provider wives.
For the first time in my career I wrote without an assignment or editor, without any idea if what I was writing would be published. It was terrifying and thrilling and even therapeutic.
I started with actual events and real people, but soon went far beyond my own experience, unspooling all the insecurities I felt as a caretaking guy and following them to their most dramatic ends. Like me, my hero flailed. Unlike me, he acted out all his worst impulses. He cavorted with a young woman, kept secrets from his wife, neglected his kids and indulged in behavior too awful to mention (let’s just say he dabbles in reality TV).
In short, I had my midlife crisis on the page so I wouldn’t have it in real life. And I have to say, as an alternative to the usual route of substance abuse-slash-sexual peccadilloes, I highly recommend fiction. Writing your way through your midlife freakout is not without its difficulties—try explaining to your wife and kids that the characters in your book may look and act a lot like them but they’re really, truly, honestly not— but I managed to come out the other side without buying a stupid sports car or flinging myself at a waitress or otherwise blowing up my life.
Now that the novel is done and out in the world, I’m back to playing support spouse, holding the house while my wife wins the bread. I’d like to say I’ve worked through all my issues, that I’ve come to wholeheartedly accept my role as Sensitive New Man.
But the truth is I still butt up against painful bouts of masculine anxiety. I’m embarrassed in a way I can’t quite explain that my wife shoulders the burden of providing for our family. I know in my head that my contribution at home is important, but I still feel a knot in my gut when my day’s work amounts to three carpools, a camp enrollment form and a dinner menu. I still get panicky when I’m asked to hold my wife’s purse on the red carpet.
Nora Ephron was typically right-on when she tackled this topic back in 1972, arguing that no matter how evolved men and women became, we still lug around “dreadfully unliberated” fantasies. For her, that meant flying into a rage when her husband failed to hail a cab or flag a waiter (She also admitted to the occasional “prepubescent rape fantasy,” which pretty much sums up 50 Shades of Grey, does it not?).
“The (women’s) movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don’t know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds,” she wrote. “I wonder how we will ever break free from all the nonsense we grew up with.”
Which isn’t to say things aren’t better now that I fictionalized my way through my midlife masculine funk. I’m happier and more secure in my role as caretaker in a way I never was before. I found my way to an obvious, too often unrecognized truth: no one, man or woman, should be diminished for looking after a family. Support spouses are too often marginalized, made to feel dull or unimportant—this is doubly true for guys.
I could go crazy bashing my head against my own male ego, gnashing my teeth that I’m not the man I thought I’d be… but meanwhile I’ve got three delicious children and an incredible spouse and a community I am doing nothing to protect or improve with so much self-involved agitating. Whether it was fate or luck or the rewards won by two or three waves of front-line feminists, I find myself in the sidecar of a fast-moving vehicle piloted by a badass woman.
And in my rare moments of sanity, I know better than to measure my success against my wife’s. Not only because when I do, I feel like taking to bed for a week with a carton of Mint Milanos. No, the truth is that well beyond her place as a power partner and breadwinner, my wife is my soul mate, the woman I believe at my core I am meant to spend my life with. Holding the purse is still hard, but when we take our kids for Vietnamese pho on Saturday mornings, I eat the noodles and she slurps the broth. Our insanities mysteriously align. I may be a Plus One, but there’s honestly no one I’d rather be added on to.