Thought Starters

Flowers, Gardeners, and Perceived Imbalances

A cartoon of a hand holding a flower while its being watered

On Taking Creative Risks, Minimizing Resentment, and Staying Married

My husband and I have been together for ten years. He is open and kind. I love him right down to his bones. I believe he loves me right down to my bones too. Still, we fight. More often than not, we fight about effort — perceived imbalances of effort. I am doing more than you, one of us will essentially say, and that’s how our fights usually begin.

I suppose this is why the flower-gardener idea got our attention. The flower-gardener idea, which we first heard in the movie “I, Tonya,” states that in every relationship, there is a gardener, someone who is selfless, supportive, and nurturing, and a flower, someone who soaks up all the gardener’s efforts in order to bloom and be fabulous.

When I asked my husband who the flower was in our relationship, he said that I probably was, because I was the one writing a book.

Was I really the flower? I couldn’t shake the assertion. And so last week, while my husband was in the shower and the kids were throwing Legos at each other, I asked him if he’d let me interview him about my alleged flower-ness. He opened the shower curtain and said that he would, adding, “I mean, if we can’t talk about it, we’re in trouble, right?”

So we talked about it. For about one hour on a bright Saturday afternoon, we sat next to each other on our old, blue couch while our kids were napping, and we talked about flowers and gardeners and which each of us was. Here are a few takeaways from that short but challenging conversation.

We Both Feel Like Gardeners

Of course I didn’t really want to talk about my alleged flower-ness. What I wanted to talk about was how I was actually the true gardener in all of this. Sure, I was writing a book, but what kind of flower cleans the toilets, changes the diapers, does all the laundry — all while billing as many hours as a freelance copywriter as I do?

Similarly, my husband felt certain that he was the gardener. After all, he was the one trapped in giving mode, every day juggling long hours and politics and all manner of issues as a design manager at a large company — all to support me and the kids.

In the end, it was painfully obvious that we’d each spent the majority of the hour vying for head gardener, or head martyr, status. It was as if each of us was dying to say to the other, “Look! Look how much I am doing for us!”

I’m not sure what this means. Maybe we both feel like gardeners because neither of us enjoys nurturing. Maybe we both really are gardeners because that is just what you both have to be when you have young children. I do wonder, though, if the real reason we both wanted to lay claim to the title of head gardener is because deep down, we both have a sense for the challenges that come with being a flower.

Being a Flower Isn’t Easy

What is a flower anyway? We struggled to define it, though we felt that it likely had something to do with individualism—with taking action to achieve something you want. “It connects to your values,” my husband said. “You figure out what you care about, and then you take action to support your achievement of those things.”

Unfortunately, for many of us, having the self-awareness to identify our values and the confidence to act on them is a tall order. It may be so tall, in fact, that we shy away from it. In other words, we might be more inclined to assume the position of the invisible gardener than to do the soul searching and cliff jumping required to be a flower.

Here’s another part that makes being a flower hard: the fear that, in doing what you want, you are bringing down your partner. I know this feeling. Sometimes working on my book feels so self-indulgent that I can’t make myself do it. In those moments, it is the feeling that I am sinking — I mean sinking — our family financially that paralyzes me.

My husband knows this feeling too. He felt it a few years ago when he took several months off to pursue a passion project. He said that, during that time, he felt that fear — the fear that his pursuit of his dream was negatively affecting me. We both agreed that being a flower while in a relationship was its own little special kind of hell.

Small Bursts of Flower-ness May Be Best

So what’s the workaround? Can a person be a flower—pursue their values—and stay married? We of course don’t really know. We’re only ten years deep. But we did identify that flower-ness in small doses may help minimize resentment. We discovered this, oddly enough, by identifying when my husband’s frustration with my book hit its peak.

When we first sat down that day on the blue couch, the first thing I asked my husband was how he felt when I first started writing my book. He said he hardly noticed. “I don’t even remember it,” he said. “You just started working on it a little each day. It wasn’t like a big change.”      

But then our conversation shifted to August—the month last year when I took on no billable work as a copywriter in the hopes that I could finish the book. “August was hard,” my husband told me. “I feel like on the whole I have been supportive, but August was frustrating. August was hard to support.”

What did the other 23 months that I’ve been working on the book feel like to him? Interestingly, my husband said that he “admired” how in those other months, I “found little spots of time to fill in, a few minutes at a time to keep the momentum going.”

If he admired my slow-and-steady approach but felt frustrated by my grand, overt flower-ness in August, then perhaps slow and steady is the way to go if you aim to both work on an unfunded book and keep your gardener’s resentment at bay.

Flower-ness May End Once You Get Paid for It

There’s no sense in saying that money didn’t play a role in our conversation, because it most certainly did. As my husband pointed out, when I am working on the book, I am “making a deliberate decision to earn less in order to do something that I want,” which of course impacts our combined resources as a couple and causes him frustration.

But what if I sell the book? What if I have something to show for it in the end? Would I still be the flower then, or would I be a persistent gardener who ultimately added some money to our collective pile?

My husband has considered what it might be like if my book sells. “There are days that I dream that Oprah is going to put your book on her list, and we’ll make all this money, and then I’ll get to quit my job,” he told me, as if the chance of major revenue from the book is how he justifies my working it in his mind. “But there are days when I feel that that will never happen, and that I am a sucker for supporting this for so long.”

Maybe We Are Both Interstitially Flowers

When we sat down on the blue couch that day, we set a timer for one hour. We did this to bring a level of control to an activity that had the potential to get out of control, but also to ensure that my husband would have enough time to work in a bike ride that afternoon.

When the timer went off, I closed my laptop and thanked him for being “emotionally available enough” to do what we’d just done. He stood up from the couch and said that he thought the conversation had gone well, and that it was something we probably could not have handled as a couple five years ago. Then he disappeared into the basement to get his bike.

While he was downstairs, our youngest woke up. I got him out of his crib and brought him down to the couch so he wouldn’t wake up our oldest. My husband returned from the basement and rested his bike by the door. I asked him how long he would be gone, and he said about three hours.  

He left the room, then returned with his helmet. As he synched the chin strap, he told me that he realized how much I did for our family. “Maybe the book will sell, maybe it won’t,” he added, “but I want you to keep working on it. It’s like a gift that I can give you. Just like you’re giving me the gift of this bike ride.”

I wished him a good ride, and he left. I felt a little bit like a gardener who had just sent her flower off to bloom through physical activity. But at the same time, I knew that tomorrow would come, and at some point in the day I’d likely open up the large file on my computer that is my book, and in doing so, our roles would reverse, just as they have so many times before, and I’d be the flower again — if only for 30 minutes or so.