I don’t think anyone ever taught me what it means to be a wife.
As my September wedding approaches, this is something I think about fairly often – maybe more often than I’d like to admit. My brain says it isn’t a question I should have to ask, isn’t something that can be taught. After all, there’s no one “right” way to be a wife. Isn’t the freedom to be anything we want – and to wife any way we want – part of what I’ve been fighting for when I shout the endless shout that is the call for women’s rights?
But the deepest parts of my heart sometimes wonder is this something I’m cut out to do?
Many, many things in my history suggest it is not. When I used to bring boys home in high school, my mom would say to them – jokingly – “Now, you know she’s messy, right? She’s messy and she can’t cook worth a lick.” Both of these things are true, and so even if I knew she was joking, they stung just the same. My mom has always been a brave woman, a tough woman, an absolute bear of a woman. She has never been afraid of doing anything wrong, of being anything wrong. And so she didn’t know the joke would sting. She didn’t understand, I think, how deeply I fear that I am constantly wrong, constantly a mis-fit for anything I try.
As a kid, I knew that I was smart. But that was the only thing I really knew about myself – smart and maybe a little stubborn. I held onto it like a shining talisman. “I’m smart. I can do anything because I’m smart. I don’t need anything else. I don’t need anyone else.” I said it to myself over and over again. But in the back of my mind were all those things I couldn’t do – the things that I thought might form a wife, might make me into someone a person could love. Because in the world where I grew up, that’s the true accomplishment for someone who is beloved – the accomplishment of becoming a wife.
I was embarrassed to want it, but somewhere deep down, it was the only thing I wanted at all.
When I was in graduate school, I was sitting outside one night with some friends from class, drinking beers on someone’s porch. My friend Henry – 10 years my senior and someone I not-so-secretly admired – suddenly threw his long legs up onto my lap. I stared down at them, then back at him, reflexively annoyed at the gesture. What the fuck do you expect me to do with these? my face said. “That look,” he said, shaking his head at my appalled visage. “Sharon, I’ve always figured you aren’t the kind of woman someone comes home to at night to put their feet up.”
I’m still not entirely sure what he meant. Two years later, in our living room in our Los Angeles apartment, my best friend and I would analyze his words, cut them into little pieces and examine them. “Was he right, do you think?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she said. “I come home to you all the time and put my feet up.”
I still wasn’t sure, but it seemed somehow as though the words had meant “No one is ever going to want you to be their wife.” It was the later-life equivalent of “But you know she can’t cook worth a lick.”
When I was a churchgoing girl, I was also not the kind of girl you looked to as a potential wife. It had nothing to do with the vague air of lesbian about me – at least I don’t think so. I always thought it had more to do with the fact that, no matter how badly I wanted someone to pick me out of a crowd and think I was dating material, I just couldn’t keep my damn mouth shut. But my mother couldn’t either, and someone had picked her out of a crowd.
Sometimes I looked to the Bible for examples. I loved the Virgin Mary; she was mostly what kept me going to church, even though I was technically Baptist and probably not supposed to worship her. But she wasn’t really lauded as a wife. Her magic was more about the prayer I’d heard my Catholic friends recite – the prayer that suggested she was the one looking out for other women. I loved her because I thought of her as a protector, a pillar of strength. That wasn’t really what a wife was supposed to do, was it?
The search for Biblical wives came up again this past Mothers’ Day, when I was visiting my grandmother (the one who still doesn’t know I’m getting married). We went to her Sunday school class. There, they talked of a famous Biblical wife – Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was purportedly barren for decades (maybe longer; we always got told Biblical people lived to be 200) before her husband Zacharia learned from an angel that they would have a child. That’s her claim to fame – not being able to have a child, remaining faithful, and then suddenly falling pregnant. At least, that’s all I’d ever learned about her. It’s what they focused on in my grandmother’s class that day. Most of the women in the Bible we’d learned about were mothers, in one way or another.
The woman teaching the Sunday school class turned to the women – all of them age 85 or older. She asked them to reflect on Elizabeth’s story, and to ponder times when they’d doubted God. But under the surface, in between the lines of the stories they told, I could hear the doubts. I thought about these women, generations older than me, and what they might have learned about being wives – and how closely those lessons connected to the lessons of being a mother.
I thought about my grandmother, who is stubborn and tough and loud like my mother. She is tall as a tree – nearly 6’ if she’s an inch – and commanding. I wondered what she had been told a wife looked like. Her mother-in-law had been the consummate wife – feminine, kind, gentle, and adoring of her husband. What must it have been like to marry into that family, a tough, brassy woman with tall hair and taller confidence. What must it have been like to wonder, deep down, if you were going to be held to a standard you’d never conquer.
I thought of the other Biblical wives my grandmother must have learned about as a child. And then I thought about the story of Ruth.
A few months ago, two of my friends got married. We were talking one day about their ceremony, and about their decision to have a minister perform the ceremony rather than a justice of the peace or a secular ordained person. The wife of the pair joked that she loved having the minister perform the ceremony, but that she did have to debate with him a bit about which scriptures he would include in the ceremony. Ministers really love that Scripture from 1 Corinthians – the one about how “if I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am nothing”. But she didn’t really want that scripture. “If he was going to include one, I wanted it to be the one from the story of Ruth.” I knew exactly the Scripture she meant. I’d recited it hundreds of times as a kid. “Whither thou goest, I shall go. Whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge.” “But that one’s not really about a wife,” she said, offhandedly. “She says it to her mother-in-law.”
I had forgotten completely about the story of Ruth – in part because it’s part of a book of the Old Testament – the Testament my Sunday school teachers didn’t lean into very often. But my friend was right: Ruth’s great profession of love was made to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi lives with her son and his wife; but when her son dies, she prepares to return to her home town. Ruth tells her she will go too. When Naomi says no, that she is prepared to leave alone, Ruth professes her dedication to the woman who is now her family: “Whither thou goest, I shall go.”
I heard that verse hundreds of times as a kid, and every time forgot that it was part of a profession of dedication from one woman to another.
When I was dating my last long-term-girlfriend before Stacey (my fiancee), I pretended not to care about that kind of dedication. I pretended not to care about being a wife. I was grown; I had given up silly notions. I shouldn’t need someone to marry me in order to prove they cared. It shouldn’t matter to me what the status of my relationship was. I didn’t need to care whether my girlfriend was willing to make professions to me – as long as we cared about each other.
I wanted to believe I had matured from the girl who’d sat in church wondering if she’d ever make a good wife. My past sense of expectations had been shattered, I thought, when I came out of the closet. I could break all the rules. I could date long-term in a casual way, without needing things.
Then one day, I was in the midst of a deep, dark panic attack. I don’t get them as often as I used to, but they still happen. I’m an anxious person, and some things have happened to me. Every once in a while, that means my brain goes to a fairly bad place. And when it’s in that bad place, I need a rock to cling to.
I not-so-secretly fear that these attacks make me more than a burden to the people who love me. I know it can be rough to see someone you love in the depths of the despair brought on by anxiety. And I know it can make a person feel awfully helpless. So for a long time, I tried not to tell my girlfriends when I was having one. I tried to find any rock other than the people who loved me. I would turn to books I love, reciting lines I’d memorized over and over and over until I could feel the ground again. I would pick up my cat and tell him, “It’s okay, I’ve got you” as though he were the one having a fit. And, in my darkest of moments, I would allow myself to get a bit spiritual and imagine my long-deceased grandfather standing near my shoulder. When I was young, he was the person who always told me he believed in me, and something about that lingering memory has held me to the ground when I’ve needed it.
But this one time, things had gotten too bad. I’d let the panic go too long without addressing it, and I was breaking apart. This time, I needed a rock that was human. I needed a living person to say that it was okay. I needed proof that a flesh and blood human cared about me – something that is hard as hell to prove to a person in the throws of panic.
I had just been at my girlfriend’s house – was in the car driving home when the panic set in. We’d had a rough couple of days – hadn’t been communicating well, hadn’t really been in sync. We’d both been dealing with a lot. And in that moment, all I could think was that I needed to turn around and go back to her place, knock on her door and ask her to hug me. I needed so badly to repair whatever gap I thought existed between us, so that I could reach out and ask if she believed in me. Because this time, the poems and the memory of my Pop just weren’t doing it.
I pulled over into a parking lot, texted her to let her know I was coming back, just for a few minutes, that I just needed her to answer the door and hug me. Then I turned around and headed back – tore into her parking lot, ran up the stairs to her apartment. I knocked on the door, then realized I’d never looked to see if she’d responded to my text. Nothing. I knocked. Nothing. I waited.
And then the voice of the panic crept into the back of my head. You are insane, it said. This is insane. You’re about to pick up the phone and call her, aren’t you? You lunatic. You’re such a needy lunatic. I didn’t care. I fought off the voice. I needed just to talk to her for a minute. Surely that was okay. Maybe she just hadn’t heard me. And so I picked up the phone. It rang, and it rang. Voicemail.
“Hey,” I think I said, “I’m sorry. I just – I turned around and came back. I just – I needed to hug you and I needed you to tell me it’s going to be okay. But I guess you’re in the shower or something. Anyway… if you get this, call me? Okay.”
Desperate and crazy, I thought, as I walked back down the stairs in tears. Such a lunatic. This is too much to ask of anyone, to put up with this. You’re always going to be just over the line of crazy. Like some clingy girl in a movie.
I went home to my cat. I read my books. I cried my tears, and my talismans eventually worked. They always do. And by the time she called me back, I didn’t care that we didn’t really talk about it – that she never really said what she was doing or why she didn’t answer. We both just ignored it, like everyone ignores the things they don’t really want to deal with.
But I knew. In the year following, we drifted further and further apart. And I knew that I was too much – I’d asked too much. That clingy, crazy side – I had let it slip out.
You’re not the kind of woman someone comes home to and puts their feet up. Crazy. Messy.
When I have dark times now, I think of that moment, and of how much my life has changed. That voice is still there, and it still tells me I’m crazy, and needy, and weird. It still tells me I’m simultaneously too much and not enough.
That voice definitely thinks I am not wife material.
But then I think about the promise Stacey has made to me – the promise that she will be with me, no matter what – that she will be the rock when I am drifting. Whither thou goest, I shall go. And I think about Ruth, and the reasons that Ruth’s story seems like the story of a wife – because even before we were allowed to claim it with a name, women have loved each other with a depth and a strength unmatched. Whither thou lodgest I shall lodge. We have show dedication and fearlessness to one another across centuries, unbound by the structures of traditional relationships. And I don’t have to be afraid that I’m not following the rules – because we’ve been making and our own before we had words to speak them.
For once in my life, something feels stronger than that voice. The rules I was taught about women created that voice. But the love I feel from other women can break it.
And that’s what being a wife means to me now – being strong enough to withstand the nonsense we’ve been taught, the wicked voices that tell us we aren’t good enough. It’s standing up and shouting but we will be who we are anyway.
The only person who can decide whether I’m wife material is the person who asked me to marry her. For her, I am enough. And I would follow her anywhere.
Whither thou goest, I shall go. And whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge.
Because I love you. And I always will.