Years ago, when I was writing for Accent, the women’s page in The Age, I was asked to review an exhibition of women artists.
Among the exhibits was a painting titled The Honeymoon. It depicted a woman as a passenger in a car, with her husband driving.
It made me laugh out loud at the time.
I thought of this often when my husband and I spent a few days in Lorne a few years ago.
At home in Melbourne, I drive myself in my own car, a lilac-coloured Getz, but when we travel together, we tend to take Rob’s car, a sporty Renault – and he drives.
It’s not that I can’t drive it. I had a go when he bought it four years ago, but I am not confident in it, especially on unfamiliar winding roads.
So, like the honeymooner of the painting, I am a passenger on our trips together. On this trip, it seemed a metaphor for the lives of women throughout the ages, and for mine in particular.
As we set off across the West Gate Bridge and along the Geelong Rd, I said, “Remember when we took Johannes to the fairy park outside Geelong?”
“No,” said Rob.
“I think it was called Anakie or something,” I said, trying to jog his memory.
“No…not me”, said Rob. And then I realised that that while I had been a passenger on that particular trip, the driver had been my previous husband.
Rob shrugged off this mistake with a wry acceptance of my past life. But it struck me that while the drivers had changed, the metaphor remained. I was still a passenger.
Now, for the first time, we don’t have a car – there is seems no point in Singapore, a country so well served by public transport. It is also very expensive to get a certificate of entitlement, a useful tool to discourage too many cars on such a tiny island.
But I am still a passenger, metaphorically and physically, only this time the drivers are taxi drivers, who are also educating me about my new home.
The self-named Crazy Charlie, laughs when, as he is dropped off at work, Rob turns and asks him to “take my wife” to Takashimaya, the big Japanese department store in Orchard Rd.
“Ah, you work and she go shopping,” Crazy Charlie chuckles.
I find myself bristling at this assumption, so as we speed off, I make a point of telling crazy Charlie that this is the first time in 35 years that I have not been working myself.
He moves from scorn to pity. “Thirty five years?” he says incredulously, his view of Rob changing from patron to slave driver.
What he doesn’t realise is that now that I am without the responsibility of a job and young children, for the first time I can drive my own agenda.
I can spend the whole day in bedquarters if I want, writing my heart out, or I can go out and about touristing, or meet a friend for lunch (I now have two friends in Singapore). I can go to the museum, do a course, join a group or spend the day at the gym (unlikely).
Or, as on that particular day, I can spend the day buying essential items for the house, and then lunch and write. Anything.
It’s a giddying thought, but also sobering, as for the first time in many years I do not have any independent income.
When I was writing for Accent, we used to joke that every dependent woman was just “one husband away” from the Sole Parent Pension. As a feminist earning good money, I never imagined that I would be in such a position myself, by choice as well as circumstance.
That’s why it was such a strange feeling to put “home duties” on the immigration card on the flight over, instead of journalist. “Home duties” smacks of subservience, while “journalist” suggests subversiveness.
It makes me think about how it must have been for my mother and the women of her generation. Unskilled and without access to reliable child care, they were dependent through circumstance rather than choice. She worked when she could at menial jobs that fitted in with school hours, but the income was never enough to afford independence.
However, unlike my poor mother, who used to wait anxiously for “pay day”, when my father would leave $20 “housekeeping” under the sugar bowl in the morning, I have independent access to household funds, so I am not dependent in the same sense as the women of her generation.
But I am conscious of the fact that my contribution to the household is not financial anymore, and that with Rob working long hours and me at home, the dynamic has shifted slightly.
At the same time, I know that this support is both a risk and a privilege. A risk because it makes me vulnerable and a privilege because I now have a chance to rest and recoup after illness and to reflect on my past, present and future life.
This does not mean I am not doing any work at all. I still cook, clean, shop and do the washing. At this very moment, I am about to dash out and retrieve it from yet another tropical deluge.
For many people, one of the attractions of life in Singapore is cheap domestic help, but I value my privacy and independence too much.
So, I have work to do, but it is work that fills my time not my head.
This means that I am still a passenger of sorts, but also a driver – more conscious these days of the choices available to me than I was when I was young and more willing to take control.
Taking control also means taking responsibility.
It means not just sitting back and enjoying the scenery but deciding what direction you will go in -because if you don’t choose now, one day you will find yourself at the end of a road and wonder how you got there.