I was absolutely terrified and not sure at all that I wanted to step out of the car and into the church. I was all of 24 years old and about to marry a man whom I loved deeply and who I wanted to share my life with. Have children with. But wife? Wife. WIFE. I felt not unprepared or ambivalent but rather, resistant and fairly resentful of both the word and the reality of “wife.” Or at least the reality I envisioned.
I went into marriage with a fair amount of pre- (or rather, ill-) conceived notions of what a marriage “should be,” what it meant to be a wife and how my life and world would change. Part religion, part society, part too many hours spent reading and watching overly romanticized, conventionally and poorly written beach novels and Lifetime For Women television specials. And part me and my own family baggage and mythology.
My mom married my dad at 18 after being sweethearts (what a term!) since they were about 12. My mom was smart and accomplished and drop-dead gorgeous: she was a cheerleader, played sports, was in a multitude of clubs and was part of the homecoming court. As her high school superlatives said: “Peppy and flirtatious. Scintillation in high gear.” And her yearbook quote: “There’s nothing so contagious as enthusiasm.” We look back on the pictures and couldn’t quite figure out what she saw in my dad, who, at least on the surface, was a geeky Buddy Holly look-alike. But he was charismatic and funny and musical, and apparently, a bit of a bad boy. And he adored her. And she him. Especially at 18.
After they graduated from high school, they stayed local and together. He was off to college and she to nursing school. When they decided to get married, neither set of parents were very supportive. He was the Italian (gasp!) bad boy. She was the Jezebel that distracted him from the priesthood and/or staying at home to care for his aging mother. Nevermind that he didn’t want either of those roles or that she wanted someone and something far and away different from her own family.
She had to quit nursing school. Apparently, those slots were for women who didn’t have a man to take care of them and thus “needed” a skill. She doesn’t talk much about it now, except to laugh off having gone in the first instance, asserting that she doesn’t much like blood or needles or dealing with any bodily fluids. I wonder about all that, since she managed to deal with five children in all our glory, which over time involved all sorts of bodily fluids and messiness, including stomach bugs, oozing rashes, broken bones, bloody noses and the like. You know, childhood.
She changed her name and had five kids by 27. She was wife and mother, but predominately wife, Mrs. Philip D—-: hosting dinner parties, attending a variety of seemingly endless business events where she was ever the wonderfully “peppy” and “scintillating” conversationalist, always engaged, interested and enthusiastic. I don’t know if my perception was reality, but her life and her needs always seemed ancillary to and subsumed by those of my father’s — and of her children. She cooked and cleaned and took care of the home, even though she was fairly indifferent to both, because she was the wife. She was a housewife (a word that I struggle with, mightily, as it suggests that a woman is tethered to an inanimate object, her house, rather than married to a person). In her early 40s, when I was in law school and my youngest brother close to finishing high school, Mom went back to college, not to pursue nursing, but rather, to get her BA in English. She loved the liberal arts: literature, history, women’s studies, art and being on campus. Completely immersed in her classes, in the writing, the reading, her study group, we saw a different side of her, which had nothing at all to do with being mom, or Mrs. Philip D—- and everything to do with Marilyn J. She graduated summa cum laude from the very same institution where my dad had scraped thru 20+ years prior. But even then, with her studies and her honors and the accolades, too often at least for me, she was still known first and foremost as Phil D’s wife.
I remember my parents telling me that marriage was a big step, that I would have to give up a lot, so much of myself to enter into this union, becoming “one” with someone else. But from where I sat, really, my mom — and women period — were the ones who had to give themselves up, change and often lose themselves in the “union.” It seemed more of a swallowing whole of one of the other. I know, I know, marriage is way more complex than that, with every marriage a different arrangement and set of agreements. But I couldn’t, and still can’t quite shake my perception (bias?) that wife is less: less important, less respected, less valued than woman. Subsumed into the husband. And living in Connecticut, too close to where both The Stepford Wives and The Ice Storm took place, didn’t help my visceral negative reaction to the word “wife.”
I had a bold, audacious vision of what I was going to do with my life and still do. At the time I got married, I was working full time and intended to go to law school (I did). We talked a fair amount about my struggle with whether I should change my name (I did). My husband, rightly so, said it was my choice — my name, my heritage, my decision.
We also struggled about how the division of labor would work in our home, given that we soon had a baby and would both be working. We figured it out, for the most part. In the early days, I held down the fort when he was at work, and then he took it on when I went to law school at night. Over the years, and with a second child, we constantly juggled and struggled with the family dynamics and my own constant high alert to ever being put or falling into too gendered of a relationship. Often our fights would be about what I thought my spouse and our marriage was trying to “do” to me — make me a wife at the expense of my own self. But really, it was my own internal battle, my fight with myself.
26 years later, I’m still resistant to the word, preferring spouse, partner or significant other. Or just my name. At the end of the day, “wife” is just a word. What it means and how I live that part is up to me, to embrace or not. To use or not. Just don’t call me Mrs. Kenneth Warner.