Who gets to decide what makes a ‘good wife, mother, friend or daughter?’
While married to the father of my children for over 18 years, I thought I was a good wife. It wasn’t until the end when we were so unhappy and the tension was so thick you could put a fork in it, that I wondered what I had done wrong. I organized dinner for the family, even if sometimes it was pizza, the refrigerator was usually full, I drove a practical American-made car and carpooled my daughters and their friends all over my suburban town, bought my new clothes at The Limited and was for a time PTO president and on the board of my temple. I ignored the way my husband hoarded his past and made sure not to ask for too much. I traveled so far from myself that I was lost, invisible.
I thought I was fulfilling the role of a good wife by taking care of my family and community before attending to me, but I was miserable. I sunk into repression and depression.
Years later I came out of it. It took a divorce, lots of therapy, good friends, and loving family who believed in and saw ME even when I couldn’t. It also took serious and honest contemplation on who I really was, what I needed and where I wanted the path in this one life to lead.
This path, this page I was learning to write in the book of my own life, caused a serious divergence between what I had been raised to think and what I knew to be my own imperfect truth. I moved 2000 miles away from my community to begin again after my divorce. I needed a new place to figure out how to tell my story and find the truth inside me. I needed a new place to reconfigure, a place where no one knew me. I needed to experiment and be selfish and self-centered. I needed to find my voice and then learn how to use it.
These actions were exactly the opposite of what I was raised to believe a ‘good’ wife, woman and mother should be. I was not supposed to display anger, be selfish or outspoken, put my needs first, sell the family home, move far from my children, have sex with men that were not love interests, skip dinner, have an empty fridge, drink two glasses of wine while home enjoying a documentary alone or start my own business. I was not supposed to waste time writing, taking pictures, painting, or indulge in things like massage or facials or expensive shoes, or travel alone to Hawaii, Italy and Chile, wander the mountains in New Hampshire or Colorado again, alone, and above all, I must always smile and be graceful. Hide any internal ugliness and grief. Hide what was really happening inside. I was not to be vulnerable. Ever.
I tossed all those ‘should’s’ out the window and began to make my own rules so I could be true to myself. I accepted the consequences and with few exceptions, had no regrets. I repeated in my head, the words of my beautiful therapist, Jan Levine, “any decision made with an open heart is a good decision.”
I regret the time I wasted not letting myself be known while I was pretending to be someone else. I think of all the friendships I missed, opportunities I ignored, time I lost as an artist.
I was single for close to ten years before I married Rob in 2016. Today, I am a shitty wife by my grandmother’s rules, but I am happy and I suspect my husband is more than okay with this.
I am selfish with my time, outspoken about politics and life philosophies, unable to tolerate bullshit, passionate about my work, and I try valiantly not to use the word ‘should.’ I do not believe that my role as a wife is to have dinner on the table, organize our social lives or sit quietly in the background. Rob and I have a relationship that works for us, is real and involves all the upside and downsides of working our asses off to relate authentically. We listen to one another and when we don’t agree, try to find a way to respect our differences and open our hearts to possibility. Sometimes that involves anger, hurt feelings, tears and loud conversations.
I am vulnerable with my husband and believe he is with me. When I encountered tough situations in my previous marriage, I shut down and checked out. But when a human being shuts down, he or she disappears. I’m not doing that again. So when I met Rob, I made a promise to myself that no matter how challenging it might be, I would not mentally check out again. If necessary, we go at it and get down and dirty because we know our relationship will not only survive the momentary challenge, it will improve with our honesty and openness. I once got so angry with him and slammed the refrigerator door so hard that our bottles of milk exploded, leaking milk and glass all over the kitchen floor. And you know what? Even though it frightened me, it felt much better than mentally checking out.
So many women have embodied a similar and absurd set of rules about how to be a good wife, loving mother, doting daughter or great friend. We absorb these ‘should’s’ and live by a bar that we might not question until one day, many of us rebel and wake up asking, “is this really me?”
Is it age? Is it awareness of mortality? I don’t know. All I know is that when you feel the parts of you come together and tell the truth, you touch others and let others touch you, really and truly touch you.
I might be a shitty wife but I’ve never been more true and real and accessible. My heart is open and I get to dance to my own song. This is a good.
Dedicated to Jan Levine and Nan Kenney, two women who lovingly and firmly guided me back to myself. With so much love to you both.