What I learnt from living with men by Saradha Koirala

Last night my partner and I reflected on our year. 2018 was a good one for adventures and achievements, but our highlights centred around creating a home together: broadening our repertoire of dinners, creating nooks for movie watching; cosy corners for cats, digging spots in the garden from which we’ve been fed season after season, planting flowers; furnishing my writing room and making space for when my mum came to stay. I’ve lost count of how many homes I’ve had, but this is the most at home I’ve ever felt.


I didn’t grow up living with men. I grew up with one of my best mates, who left home when he was eighteen, and my mum. For a significant few years when my brother and I were teenagers, my mum’s partner, a woman, lived with us too. Men were on the periphery – they were the fathers of my friends, they were my teachers, they were the gentle friends and colleagues of my mum and her partner and the extended family members who lived elsewhere. They were what my good friends and brother would grow to become. But they weren’t a big part of my young life.


Given the rather conservative New Zealand communities we lived in, friends’ dads tended to stick to traditional gender roles. They worked hard, they conversed little, they had interesting pasts as rock musicians and bikies that they never talked about. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer, watched TV, fixed cars in their spare time. At least this was the cardboard cut-out version of them I was privy to as a friend of their sons and daughters.


I was quietly fascinated by this kind of family unit – it was novel and appeared straight forward: Wedding photos on display in the living room, the mystery of the parents’ shared bedroom, well-kept house in the suburbs, a couple of cars. My friends and their mums seemed to know instinctively when to talk to Dad and when to leave him be. There was consistency, predictability in his movements and reactions. His needs and expectations from his family appeared to be easily met.


Growing up – particularly in the early days with just my mum and brother – expectations were that we would all chip in. Recently an aunt commented on a facebook thread where I was extolling my love of bike-riding and my mum was recalling teaching me to ride as a kid, that “It’s a mum’s job.” Well, duh, I thought, who the hell else was going to do it? As far as I’ve ever been concerned, my mum has been completely capable of doing anything that’s ever needed doing as a parent. I’m sure it was hard work for her, though, and having my brother and me take turns to cook, do chores, take some responsibility, was a necessity as well as a life skill she wanted us to value.


I started living with young men while flatting as a student. Some of them had grown up in the kinds of families described above, others hadn’t. Often, I found them messy and inconsiderate, sometimes I didn’t handle this well. It was a strange context in which to learn to be an adult, each of us coming from a different understanding of what it means to live with other people.


But perhaps these early experiences were less about gender dynamics and more about socialisation. This was my first lesson. No one would say outright that they expected me as a young woman to be the one who cleaned the bathroom, for example, but somehow I felt like I was the only one who valued cleanliness, saw the need, took responsibility and eventually did it.


From the frustration I felt around living with people whose cleanliness thresholds differed from mine, I learnt about my own expectations, my own standards. I would like to say I learnt to be more tolerant or to communicate my needs more clearly, but alas, this was a long way off for me.


In my twenties and thirties, I lived with men as partners. In the first of these cohabitations, we set expectations for equal share of work around the house, took turns to cook for each other and were considerate of the amount of stress day jobs had on each of us, as well as our needs for creative space and solitude. I would like to say I learnt my limits around my introversion here, but it probably took a couple more years for that to happen. But I did learn to share space, as small flats were all we could afford, and valued being able to build a home with someone out of desire to be together, rather than necessity of rental conditions.


The next time I lived with a man, it was for a much longer time and the things I learnt changed again when we parted ways. When we were together I learnt to be very independent, I learnt that generosity can often go unnoticed and certainly unreciprocated. I learnt what it’s like to do too much, to choose to pay extra rent because your partner’s not earning us much as you and then watch him spend money on personal ventures and playstations. I learnt what it’s like to feel like you’re supporting someone when you thought you were getting into something equal. I learnt how my model of living with someone had always been about ensuring their needs were met, perhaps as my mum had always ensured my brother and I were provided for before she looked at what she needed. There was rarely anyone there to check in on her needs.


So I learnt to be self-sacrificing. The next man I lived with knew this about me. He knew about the previous relationship, he knew my ex. He spoke about it in a way that made sense to me and assured me I deserved better. He also used that knowledge to his advantage. Anything I felt uneasy about, he could point back to a past relationship experience and pin it on that. Nothing was ever his fault.


Living with this man, I really learnt the limits of self-sacrifice. I gave up my job, the life I’d made, many of my possessions and moved to another country to be with him. This was my choice, of course and I had it all under control, but it meant I moved into a situation with nothing of my own and turned from a once very independent, self-sufficient person into someone who needed things. Living with this man, I learnt what I had always feared to be true: my needs are a burden to others. And unlearning this has taken time too.


Living with anyone is an exercise in compromise and tolerance. It involves examining your expectations and figuring out which are values you need to hold onto and which are habits you can be flexible with. It sometimes means coming into someone else’s space or making room in your space for someone else. It sometimes means creating an entirely new space altogether.


The man I live with now is generous and open. I moved into his house with a few things that have been with me in all my homes: books from childhood, lamps from student days, a famously enormous bookshelf that was shipped across the Tasman at great expense. These things anchor me here, but the things I haven’t brought with me, the things I’ve learnt to let go of, have perhaps been the most significant in ensuring I can finally feel at home living with someone else.


Saradha is from Aotearoa/NZ and teaches English and Literature in Melbourne. She is the author of three poetry collections and a young adult novel.