Recently I read a piece in which the author, a woman, was discussing the notion that she, as a woman, had to be, “everything to everyone.” She was reflecting on the idea that the roles that are central to her existence are defined by how they relate to other people. Mother to her children, wife to her husband, and so on. It got me thinking about the roles I fill and how the vast majority of them are indeed centered on the needs and feelings of others. A mother, which often requires complete selflessness. A wife, through which I have learned that of key importance, is learning how to negotiate another human being’s needs and feelings. Add to the list daughter, friend, employee, and teacher and there are few, if any, roles I play that are purely for my own hedonistic desires. Even writing, which is something I do because I truly love it, has to happen around the schedule of my children’s sleep habits and my work commitments.
This reminded me of an incident that happened several years ago in which I introduced a female colleague to another colleague as someone’s wife. I used her name first, as in, “This is Jane, Dr. Jones’s wife.” (Note: names have been changed) Immediately after I said it, I could feel her energy change next to me. I knew as soon as we were alone, she would gently but firmly chide me for calling her someone’s wife by way of introduction. She is an accomplished woman, with a career of her own, and I absolutely recognize and respect her in that way. But the person I was introducing her to knew of her husband and his work, so it seemed natural to relay their connection. At the time I didn’t think much of her strong reaction to my referring to her as this man’s wife. After all, she IS his wife. I know she is proud of her husband and have heard her speak extremely highly of him on many occasions, so why is it such a big deal to highlight the fact that she is married to him?
Years later, thinking about my own roles as a woman, and how hard it can be for women to carve out their own identity in a world of motherhood, wifehood, and all the rest of it, I totally get it. I mean, I sincerely get it. I have fallen into the habit of trying to be all things to all people, and quite frankly it sucks. Why should I have to be everything to anyone (my kids included)? Why should I not be singularly concerned with being everything to myself? Why are women so quick to label themselves as someone’s mother, or wife? Ask yourself this: How many men have you met, say at a work function or in a professional setting, who have introduced themselves by saying, “Hi, I am Joe, Jennifer’s husband.” It doesn’t count if you are meeting a girlfriend’s husband or boyfriend for the first time. I mean, meeting men who have no connection to you through a woman. Those of you who are married or in a relationship, ask your significant other (if the significant other is of the male variety) to go one week only introducing himself to others as your husband or boyfriend or cabana boy, or whatever it is they are to you. Ask them if they would be willing to do it. If not, ask them why? (I know, I am stirring up some trouble now). I bet it has something to do with the natural desire to put our own accomplishments, or career title, or other self-defining characteristic on display when meeting someone for the first time. I get it. But it seems to me it is rare for a man to put those personal accomplishments on the back burner when meeting new people, and very common for women to do so. Is it just because we women so love to gush about our sweeties that it feels more important to recognize that bond when meeting new people than to toot our own horns?
So I propose this: All of us ladies, married or not, mothers or not, are really single ladies in the sense that we are individuals. We are separate from our spouses, our children, and everyone else who wants a piece of us. That is not to suggest that we should abandon our roles as mothers and wives and friends and say, “screw you,” to the whole damn world and spend the rest of our lives alone, drinking cosmopolitans, binge watching Downton Abbey, and shoe shopping. Wait…that sounds pretty freaking amazing, maybe I should reconsider….No, no, no. We don’t need to completely disconnect ourselves from those we love. But I for one spent over 30 years feeling like I was defined by my usefulness to other people. I dedicated a lot of time to thinking about things such as, 1) Am I a good enough girlfriend? 2) Am I a good enough wife? 3) Am I a good enough teacher? 4) Am I a good enough mother? And so on and so on. Never did I ask myself, am I getting enough from my husband? My friends? Are the people around me recognizing me for who I am, not for what I can do for them? If all of these people were to disappear, how would I define myself? I don’t say this to elicit any, “Aw, poor baby, you are such a martyr,” type feelings or comments. I am simply observing that being a woman is often synonymous with being a giver, and with defining ourselves as satellites to someone else’s planetary being. Floating around them, providing gravitational stability, influencing the ebb and flow of their tides, but never really asserting our own independent significance in the system.
OK, this is the part where women who love their men and love being introduced as so and so’s wife or girlfriend or old lady are going to tear into me and accuse me of being a man hating bitch and a detached mother. But quite the opposite is true! I love my kids, I love my husband, and I love nothing more than sharing their accomplishments with those around me. All I am suggesting is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be introduced as something other than someone’s wife. Wanting someone’s first impression of you to be of YOU as a single person. As an individual. As a woman with value, and worth, and kick ass accomplishments all your own that don’t necessarily include pushing small, screaming humans out of your lady parts. That’s what I mean by “single.” I am not connected to any other human being inseparably, whom I rely on for my very existence and belong to completely. No. I am a single, solitary woman who happens to have a lovely husband, two beautiful, clever kids, and family and friends. They are very important to me, but they do not define me. It might seem like being the best mothers we can be requires us to drop everything at any given moment and bow down to the whims of our children. Sometimes it does, like when your child is puking his guts out in the middle of the night. But other times, it is perfectly appropriate, and I would argue preferable, to let your kids know that you are involved in something else and cannot be their everything right now. It is perfectly appropriate to tell your spouse the same damn thing, and you should probably start doing that sooner rather than later. The truth is, the day will come when my kids want nothing more than to get the hell out of my life and build lives of their own, and I will survive because I am a fully functioning human with or without them. I relish the thought of that day, because if I am doing a decent job as a mother, they will be fully functioning humans too, and will go forth into this world and tear it up! It will be so much fun to watch them discover their true selves. So why shouldn’t I discover mine? Why shouldn’t we all?
And so, all you single ladies, married or not, what defines you? What do you love about yourself? If someone asked you to describe your single most valuable asset, and it cannot have anything to do with another person, what would it be? How would you want people to remember you after you are gone? Good wife and mother are not bad things to include. But after 40 years of getting to know myself, if that is all I can assert about myself, and all others can assert about me, then I haven’t done enough to promote my single SELF! I haven’t examined my own personal strengths, passions, and uniqueness enough. I haven’t shouted loudly enough, “Hey, I am not just someone else’s. I don’t belong to anyone but me.” Do we really want our children, our spouses, or our friends, to see us as everything to everyone…but ourselves?
Relationship status be damned. I am a single lady. An individual. A woman. A writer. A runner. A teacher. A geologist. A music lover. And if that ain’t enough…a wife and mother too.