I was driving to Salem with some church friends for an event, when we got on the subject of TV shows that represent good values. The driver, Jake, was a larger man in his late 40s. Nice guy with a good sense of humor, but tends to stick to his opinions. The other, Ben, was in his 60s. Balding and a jokester. He tends to talk a lot about politics.
Jake, the diver, said, "The shows that I watch with my kids are the old ones. Leave It To Beaver and Little House on the Prairie. Those ones really show family values."
Ben nodded and said, "Yup. They just don't make shows like that anymore."
I was in the back seat, listening. "Those shows did more harm than good for families," I said.
Both men went silent. I couldn't see their faces, but I could tell that this was either something they didn't want to hear, or were shocked by. I hear a lot about older shows, honestly. Perhaps it's just the crowed I hang out with. Perhaps I spend too much time with conservative old men. But a lot of people tend to really glorify older sitcoms as a real representation of what family life ought to be. But the fact is, family life has never been "Leave It To Beaver." It's always been a little grittier than that. I think I realized this at a young age. After my father left, I'd watch reruns and feel tightness in my chest. At the time, I didn't really know why, but thinking back, I think it was because these shows put up on the screen something that I didn't have... a traditional, happy, functioning, nuclear family. I was the youngest, and I was home alone most of the time because my mother worked several jobs, and older siblings worked too. We needed the money to support the family.
Jake grunted, "I don't see how that's the case. Those shows really help make families stronger."
"I think that was the original intention. But that isn't what happened." I went on, telling that that what those shows did was bolster a false reality.
"Not every woman was as serenely happy with their role as housewife as June Cleaver was on TV, and the fact that they weren't caused them to suffer anxiety and depression." I said, "And men would look at their wives, and wonder why they weren't as together as June, and come down on them for it."
We talked about the subject for a while longer, but I don't think that Jake or Ben ever really believed me. Eventually, we changed the subject.
I thought about this conversation a lot that day, and it reminded me of about two years into my marriage when I asked Mel, "Do you think our marriage is normal?"
Mel thought about it for a moment and said, "I don't know. I mean, I think it is."
"I think it is, too. But it doesn't look like anything on TV," I said.
"Do you want it to?" she said.
"Sometimes," I said.
Mel had a scared look when I said that, like I was putting our marriage up against some idealized reality. And I will be honest; it took me some time to give up on the hope that my life would resemble something TV had shown me.
I think that this can be a real problem with marriage, regardless of the era. People tend to idealize it. They look at images of how a marriage should be according to TV, Facebook, Pinterest, and anywhere else someone goes to give you the cleaned up, mopped down, sparkling world that they want people to think we all live in. But the reality is, marriage is messy. It's filled with dirty dishes and drop down, drag out stupid assed fights over who's turn it is to change the baby's diaper, when in fact, the real problems is neither of you have slept well in three days because the baby has the flu.
I suppose what I'm trying to say here is I've never come home to my wife cleaning the kitchen in high heels. I've never sat in front of a fire, read the paper with my feet up, and had my son come to me with a problem and I knew the right answer. Most of the time, I don't know the right answer. Most of the time, I get frustrated with my kids. Sometimes I come home, and my wife hasn't had the chance to do her hair because it was summer break, and she spent all day trying desperately to keep the kids from fighting.
If I expected my life to be like what I saw on TV, I'd quit. I'd move on. I'd keep searching for something better. Something more. But the fact is, real married life isn't like anything on TV. It's what you make of it. The reality is gritty and real, and filled with children having meltdowns, and sweat pants, and dirty dishes. It's about being willing to pitch in and help where it is needed, whether that be washing the laundry, or finding an extra job to help make ends meet, regardless of your gender role. It's about being able to see through all of this, and realize that your partner is doing the best they can, and even though they look weary and unkempt sometimes, they are still the most wonderful person you know, because they are in it with you. Marriage means looking past the dirty dishes and the long work hours to see happy children and paid bills, and realizing that by working together, you are doing something truly amazing... raising a family.
Marriage is both the hardest and most rewarding thing I've ever done, and rarely has it been like a TV show. I've been married 10 years, and it took me a long time to come home and not expect a clean home, or happy kids, or a wife in a dress and high heels. And I don't want to speak for my wife, but I have to assume that she had to come to terms with similar revelations about me.
Real married life with children is a messy thing that changes everyday. It is stressful and rewarding. My advice to any married couple is this. Ditch your expectations because they are probably wrong, expect the unexpected, spend more time looking at what your partner is doing rather than what they aren't, and don't compare your marriage to anything you see on TV.