Stop Saving the World and Load the Dishwasher

Posted on June 15, 2011 by


guy doin dishes

This is not Nicole Cooley's husband, who is off saving the world.

My husband is in Cambodia, and I am mad.

Against my better judgment, I yell at my children, slam dinner dishes on the counter, let the laundry pile up in the bedroom till I’m ready to scream.  I can’t sleep, I don’t want to eat, I want to talk to him but with the twelve-hour time difference it’s not possible now. He’s already left for the day to start his interviews in the field.

I’m not mad at him; I’m mad at myself.  I’m mad that I want him to come home and take over his part of the household work.

I fell in love with him, in part, because of his deep commitment to the world outside himself, outside our life together. I loved that he wanted to change the world and help people, that he wrote books, articles, essays, newspaper op-eds about how to understand and stop genocide.

So why am I so furious as I load the dishwasher?


Here’s a little back-story. The first year we were married, my husband and I lived apart, on opposite sides of the world.  We were graduate students.  He was doing a year of fieldwork in Cambodia and I was writing my dissertation and teaching in Atlanta.

The year was very hard—though it made our marriage strong and we felt we could survive anything together after it.  But the year was also punctuated by wonderful trips where we met up in Thailand, in China, in Hong Kong, and in Cambodia, maxing out our credit cards and having wonderful, albeit short, adventures together on the other side of the world.

While he was in Cambodia then, we couldn’t talk to each other except on very rare occasions because phone calls were astronomically expensive—email did not yet exist in Cambodia, though sometimes we could send faxes.

And so we wrote many, many letters—and I fell in love with my husband all over again through his words. (Now collected in a black leather bound book we keep in our closet.)   He described his life in Cambodia, the people he met, his work, and I told him about my life in Atlanta.  When his letters would arrive, I would head for a local café and sit with them for hours, pretending I was on a date with my husband.

It was a hard year, but now I realize something incredibly easy about it: I only had to take care of myself.  I could sit in that café for hours, I could meet up with friends whenever I wanted, I could stay up late reading and writing. I could eat cheese and crackers for dinner, go to a spontaneous movie, drive around Atlanta crying, wallow in my sadness with no interruption.


“It’s not like I’m on vacation,” my husband tells me. “It’s not fun studying mass murder.”

I know this. I’ve been to Cambodia, and I am deeply involved in my husband’s work. He is interviewing survivors of the Cambodian genocide and attending the genocide tribunal.  He is doing work that will make the world a better place.


Now when my husband goes to Cambodia things happen like this:  it’s the morning before work and school and we’re on Skype.  The girls alternate shouting things at the computer screen and drifiting in and out of the room. Breakfast and lunch needs to be made, socks to be found, homework collected.  I am trying to take care of them, work at my full time job that is located in Queens, two hours on public transit from my home in New Jersey, arrange babysitters, deal with the girls’ crying that my husband is gone, and do all the tasks he normally does.


When we were younger, my husband and I imagined a marriage of total equality. We had the same job, I reasoned—we are both college professors—so there was no reason one of us (me) should do more around the house or with the children.

After some difficult months when our first daughter was born, we devised a system: there is mama day and dada day. On that person’s day, they do everything: make the meals, clean the house, drop off and pick up the kids, deal with bedtimes. The other person has the full day to work.  Our flexible schedules allow us to work this way, and the person running the show at home can work from home that day.

The family is a wonderful joint project. In it, we can have full-time careers in which we are deeply invested and spend time with our children.

Yet, each time my husband goes to Cambodia, I forget all this.  And then I start thinking my bad, selfish thoughts.


Now, as my husband’s next trip to Cambodia approaches, in a week, I’m trying to change my perspective.

We are so lucky. We both have work we love, and we are able to do that work and .be with our children. And the truth is, when my husband is gone, I have companions: my daughters.  I’m not driving around Atlanta crying alone.

And so I vow to myself that I’ll work on being angry.  I’ll start by deciding to forget the dishwasher.

I’ll set the table with paper plates for dinner. I’ll sit down with my girls, and together the three of us will write him a letter.

(Image by IkaInk)
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and is the author most recently of two collections of poems, Breach (LSU Press 2010) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books 2010). She has also published two other collections of poems and a novel. She has received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, American Poet, and Callaloo, among other journals. She directs the new MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York where she is a professor of English. She lives outside of New York City with her husband and two daughters. Her website, featuring her work, as well as upcoming readings and events, can be found here.

Posted in: Marriage