Today we were discussing gender relations. In my limited Spanish, I tried to argue that while the basics of the gender roles are the same between this country (from what I’ve seen and heard) and the United States, the effects are different. As always, the US is hugely varied. Norms can differ enormously between different subcultures. But in general, this country reminded me of what I’ve heard of the US in the seventies. More relationships based primarily on physical passion, early days of feminism; the stereotypes are still very strong. Not just different gender roles but the specific role of women is seriously looked down upon. Ironic given the mutual dependency of caretaker/domestic women and childishly dependent/breadwinner men.

S tried to argue differently. Yes, there’s machismo in the United States. Yes, a single mother is perceived negatively.

“It’s less than ideal.”

S: “Yes. Less than ideal.”

I asked M, “Is it a scandal here if a woman is a single mother?”

M: “In the villages, yes. A big scandal. And for any single mother, it’s her fault – why couldn’t she hang onto her man?”

“See?” (to S). “It’s different here. Very different.”

Then I asked M, “How common is it here for a couple to be like a partnership? Where the man and the woman respect each other?”

M: “That’s the ideal marriage! It’s rare. Now a days, if a man and a woman study together or work together, and they build a relationship and then decide to get married… That’s good, and it’s more common these days. But still very rare. I know maybe… four or five couples like that. …It’s still very common that people get married because they feel they have to. Because the girlfriend is pregnant.”

This argument had arisen from a discussion of divorce proceedings, specifically alimony in cases where no children and no abuse was involved. M and I were both instinctively against the “maintain a style of living to which the person has become accustomed” situation, citing perverse incentives and the absurdity of an adult not being held accountable for his or her own decisions, especially now that education between the sexes is much more egalitarian.

S, who has serious health issues and has spent the past several years gaining education rather than work experience through the support of his wife and is now contemplating a separation while suffering unemployment in a dismal global economic situation, was strongly in favor of alimony. He’s in favor of governments providing material support to their citizens in general.

With his recent physical handicaps, his increasing age, high education level, stagnant work experience, and the deteriorating economy, he can’t pick up jobs the way he used to. He’s suffering an identity crisis. He places great stock in education and knowledge as indicators of worth.

I didn’t want to directly criticize his approach to his own problems, hardly knowing him, so I didn’t, but I was thinking… “Sometimes you just have to suffer. Especially as the economy gets worse and worse…” I was remembering men I had met in homeless shelters. Men who were intelligent but for constellations of reasons had lost their footholds. For S, all it would take would be a divorce with no alimony, failure to find a good job, depression, and then a descent into alcoholism followed by harder drugs.

And I still couldn’t bring myself to feel that his wife should be legally obligated to support him for the rest of his life. Until he reaches sixty-five and the government takes over.

In the meantime, I’m seeing firsthand and in an intimate setting what incipient desperation looks like. I’m renting a room from T. She made a good living in the tourist trade, but these days tourism is slow. She’s relying more and more on the savings she had accumulated over the past several years. Recently she took a big risk in renting space for a shop. Every day of commuting to the market burns through more and more money – and then the money for supplies, and more for all of the unexpected structural work that appears to be necessary. It might be a year before she starts making a profit – if she can hold out long enough. Between the shop, the tourism work she still does when she can find it, and helping her daughter with her small grandsons, T is running herself ragged, and it looks like it still won’t be enough.

Sometimes T sets aside food or paid housework for a friend of hers, whose family is bordering on destitute. Three women: A cheerful grandmother; the haggard, underfed mother – T’s friend; and a young daughter, remarkably bright, cheerful, outgoing, and ambitious – and desperately in need of serious dental work that the family has no hope of being able to afford.

I don’t know where the father might be.

As for the father of T’s children – he used to be a good man, but success changed him. He and T were never married, and she discovered that with his wealth he was supporting two other women – a legal wife and family and also a concubine in a different city. T cut off all contact. She raised her children with the help of her own family, and until recent years, they were doing just fine.

Many of T’s current problems have to do with her daughter. A is smart and serious, but as T puts it, she’s a magnet to bad men. The father of her first son is now a transvestite drug addict. Their son is almost four years old now and has no contact with his father. The father of her second son, her newborn, works hard but makes hardly any money and doesn’t support her or the new baby. That burden falls to T. Meanwhile, the four-year-old has become violently jealous of his mother’s relationship with her boyfriend and with the new baby.

A might propose to her boyfriend in the interest of creating a stable home life for her children. T burns with shame and indignation at the thought of her daughter having to beg her boyfriend to marry her. She also worries that the man will not be a suitable role model for her grandson but instead will make his home life even more miserable than it already is. In addition to his emotional problems, the four-year-old has severe allergies and runs a real risk of working himself up into a deadly tantrum some day. There is medicine that would work as a prophylactic, but of course it’s expensive. T worries about him night and day.

Obligations: Legal, Moral, Societal.

Cascading consequences.