How we stay together: 'The world is constructed, not natural, and you can construct your own'

Names: Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson
Years together: 14
Occupations: Academic and doctor

When Simon Wilson proposed to Jeska Rees in 2008, she was torn. The couple was living in London, where she was doing her postdoctoral fellowship in feminist studies, and they were on holiday in Yorkshire when he popped the question.

“I was so delighted that Simon wanted to make our relationship permanent, and I was so pleased for him that he was able to go down on one knee. It’s very exciting,” she says now. “But politically I am opposed to marriage and always have been, so it was difficult. I think I said, ‘Yes but no.’ ”

It had taken time to get to that point. They had met years before through mutual university friends. They were both from Perth but Wilson was studying medicine in Adelaide at the time, so he’d often turn up at parties. Rees remembers thinking he was cool: “He was very tall, quiet and kind but hard to get to know. He was quite elusive in a way. He’d just turn up out of nowhere sometimes.”

Wilson was similarly intrigued: “Jeska was very smart, a radical feminist so a bit daunting, [and] very intellectual mixed in with a bit of hard partying and grubby shared-house living ethos.” 

Their circle of friends was fun but intense, with frequent debates and intellectual arguments along with solid partying. Rees remembers doing lots of talking at Wilson, including challenging him about western medicine, but he remained a sympathetic listener: “[Simon] doesn’t say a lot … But then the one thing he will say will be so on point and so thought-provoking that it was absolutely worth waiting for.”

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And in between all the debating, there was plenty of snogging too. 

They were drawn to each other but somehow it didn’t stick. But they kept in touch with emails and mixtapes filled with Britpop bands.

They had much in common: they’re both children of UK immigrants and share an absurd sense of humour. “There are lots of jokes between us that other people don’t understand … Simon took it to the extreme in terms of looking very straight but actually being quite bent in terms of his humour.” 

‘There are lots of jokes between us that other people don’t understand.’ Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson in December 2007.

‘There are lots of jokes between us that other people don’t understand.’ Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson in December 2007. Photograph: Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson

They also had similar politics, albeit very different approaches. “We were talking a lot about how to change society. I was trying to convince Simon that political change was where it was at, whereas, for Simon, [he] was much more optimistic and happy to go with it and make [his] own changes in a small way rather than agitate for the revolution like I was.” 

Things were casual for a while even though Rees visited Adelaide a few times and Wilson spent time with her when he was back in Perth. Rees had asked him out a few times but he’d gently declined. “Throughout the whole entire time while we were inching together, we were both very self-sufficient.”

But in July 2006 they made things official and Rees moved to Adelaide: “We deliberately kept it vague, but actually the decisions we made indicated that it was quite serious. I moved in with Simon straight away in Adelaide. We had a discussion about that, but I had my own room in his house. I think we were testing it.”

After Adelaide, they moved to London, then back to Australia where Wilson completed his medical training. Not long after that, Rees found she was pregnant with their first child and they settled in Castlemaine, where Wilson had his first practice. 

This was, they agree, the most challenging time. They were juggling too many things at once: a baby, a demanding job, and a new home in a country town, far from family supports. Rees in particular struggled with the demands of her new life.

“I felt like I’d made all these decisions quite willingly, but somehow I’d compromised some of my most cherished ideas which were an equal division of labour, non-traditional gender roles. I’d never planned to have children until I met Simon, and then when I met Simon I decided that that was a good idea,” she says. “And then we did it and it was very difficult.”

Wilson was also feeling the pressure. Things came to a head: “Luckily there was just enough glue to hold us together to move and try something new,” he says. “I got burnt out at work with workload and Jess was getting very isolated and angry at home, so we changed completely. We left that country town and came to Melbourne. I stepped down significantly with work and Jess got a job. I looked after the children.” 

Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson  in 2008.

‘We deliberately kept it vague, but actually the decisions we made indicated that it was quite serious.’ Photograph: Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson

Their lives improved dramatically in Melbourne. “I felt like I had a life outside the house and that that was important,” Rees says. “I felt equally that it was important that Simon spent time with the kids and that they spent time with him. He’s always been very hands-on when he’d been at home, but he just hadn’t been at home very much. I happily left them to paint and make biscuits and went off to work.”

They made a point of figuring out how their lives aligned with their values and beliefs. “Being a feminist in a traditional heterosexual relationship is quite hard. I think there are limits to what you can reinvent,”, says Rees. “You are expected to behave in a very … standardised way at work and then you’ve got children who’ve got to have play dates. You’ve got to talk to other parents who might not agree with you. There are all these ways in which your personality becomes compressed.” 

Although it was a difficult time, there was a happy upside. “I recall going through a really strong second honeymoon phase around then because we’d worked through something so difficult and because we were enjoying our new life and feeling the love very powerfully at that point. So it was a really low point and then quite a high point,” Rees says. 

These days with two young children there are still plenty of demands on their time. But they’re better at planning and meshing their lives. Each morning they have a quick meeting to schedule everything. “We understand how important something is to the other. If Simon wants to go for a run, then I know that’s important so just slot that in somewhere. If I say to him that I need to go and do some kind of errand, then we work that into the day too.”

They try to balance their professional ambitions. “It’s about making sure that everyone has professional opportunities with financial equality,” Rees says, “and about telling our children that the world is constructed, not natural, and you can construct your own.” 

Add to that their domestic duties. Rees says: “I think that’s an ongoing negotiation all the time. It’s been very important to address imbalances there continuously.”

But their commitment to each other has meant they do what’s required to make it work: “I need to think about Jeska in my decisions and plans. And I previously have not done that well,” Wilson says. “Commitment has meant thinking a lot more what … my actions or things that I might plan mean for us as a unit, rather than me as an individual.”

They don’t get a lot of time together but what they do get, they spend wisely, going bushwalking or to the movies. “I think we get along so well … that even if there’s only a small amount of time, that’s enough.”

Rees and Wilson with their children.

Rees and Wilson with their children. Photograph: Jeska Rees and Simon Wilson

The lessons they’ve learned over the years has meant their approach to conflict has changed. “I think I’m readier to recognise when I need to listen now,” Wilson says. Rees agrees: “There’s more trust … I think for Simon it was about avoiding discussion. For me it was about going in too hard … We’ve met in the middle now where we both understand that a gentle, honest approach is going to be the most productive.”

While they’ve both changed in ways their younger selves wouldn’t have expected, they’ve supported each other through that. “It’s been a very gradual change. Children obviously change things a lot … You need to have a firm base for them in routine,” Wilson says. Things like mortgages, health insurance and interest rates are the last things these two idealists thought they’d be discussing, but there are advantages: “I don’t think we lost our integrity, but we realised that life is bigger than we thought,” Rees says. 

Reconciling their ideals with the comforts of suburban life still takes effort. “Understanding that nothing’s perfect. Our relationship isn’t perfect. Our political theories aren’t perfect … We need to pick out bits that are going to work for us in the moment, constantly revisit it, and work out where the sacrifice and the compromise is going to be,” Rees says.

“All I can do is understand that I chose Simon because I love him and because we can do amazing things … You live your politics through your actions. And it is hard. I’ve never found a solution, but I comfort myself with the amazing richness of our relationship.” 

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