Everyone, I imagine, has their own unique experience as a widow or widower. Mine is deeply intertwined with feminism.
I joined NOW (National Organization for Women) in high school. I paid dues and became an official member, and my friend wrote an article about it in the school newspaper. A teacher cut it out and put it on the door and then proceeded to tease me about being a member of a “lesbian” organization. Because you know, all feminists must be angry lesbians. That was the extent of my NOW experience.
Me (on the left) circa 1999
The year before my husband passed away, I became increasingly vocal about feminist issues. My husband, who claimed to be a feminist, would roll his eyes. When I would talk to my friend at work in the hallway, he’d tease us and call us the “pigtail club.” Of course. Two women collaborating together must be the equivalent of little girls teasing the boys on the playground.
When he passed away, I felt myself become more vulnerable than I ever felt. I didn’t know how I was going to continue without him. Everything scared me: finances, raising the kids, taking care of car issues, noises at night, etc. I spent 10 years having him as an extra pair of eyes and ears and expertise. We made decisions together.
It was an odd feeling to feel so helpless. After all, I lived on my own before I met him! That woman didn’t need a man to help her. Why was I suddenly a helpless little lamb now?
Over time, I felt stronger on my own two feet. I imagine part of the vulnerability was the shock of his unexpected passing and just pure grief. But I didn’t like it. I remember being at the bank, watching the other elderly widows almost in tears, completely out of the loop about what to do. I myself had a very basic understanding of how my husband managed our investments. There were so many “adult” things to take care of after he died I just didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to start. I wasn’t supposed to have to do all of this on my own. It wasn’t in the plans.
I started a new mantra for myself. Whatever I don’t know, I could learn.
I would learn.
And I would never be that vulnerable again.
Also in the couple of years before my husband passed, I started getting into my writing again. He would take care of the kids while I went to work at Starbucks. This started increasing in frequency after our youngest got old enough to not need me around every second of the day. I liked it. I needed it; I spent too many years only being a mother and a teacher. There were other things I wanted to do. I started doing those things too. I started to get assertive about who I was as a woman and what I wanted to do beyond the house.
Drink some coffee, put on some gangster rap, and handle it
I remember my husband getting annoyed with me once. He said “why aren’t me and the kids enough? Why do you want to get published? Why do you want to bother with politics?”
It’s not a question of “enough,” I stubbornly said. I shouldn’t have to pick.
After all, as a man, he never had to pick between being a father and doing the other things he wanted to do. Why was I being pigeon-holed into the mother label.
When my husband passed, I had to logic everything out. That’s what I do. I logic things. I started trying to look for any little shred of positivity in the experience. It was a big stretch. How can you find anything positive in your husband’s aorta exploding?
Everything kind of fell together. Some students wanted to form a feminist club at school, so I became the advisor. I also began writing about my experience as a woman. And that’s when all of “this” became a feminist experience for me.
A lot of us women spend our younger years dreaming of our happily ever after. Many of us want to find a significant other and have children. Being single is such a drag. Single. It’s definitely a stigma for women. It affects our self-esteem. You start to watch others getting married and having kids. I’m 1/2 Palestinian, and in Arab culture, you aren’t an adult until you are married. I raged against that sexism, but that was the way it was. As a single woman, even once I had a career and was living on my own, I was still relegated to the kid table.
But then one day, when I wasn’t expecting it, the teacher next door approached me, and 2 years later we were married. I was off the market. I could wear yoga pants and he could see me without make-up and there was no stress and he thought I was the most beautiful and intelligent woman in the entire world.
Our last school picture
And then he died, and suddenly I was again being defined by marital status. I felt super self-conscious about my appearance. Widows get slightly more respect than single women because I think people think we have some kind of worldly wisdom from losing our spouse, but I still deal with sexism. People think I need help all of the time, because you know, there’s no man around. I’ve been told I shouldn’t travel alone. Probably most troubling is the feeling associated with being a single mom. Let’s be honest. In this society single moms are portrayed as welfare moms. I was at the grocery store one evening. My kids were acting kind of squirrelly. They were hangry. The clerk asked if I was going to pay with food stamps. I looked him square in the eyes and told him I was concerned what impression I gave him that made him think I would be paying with food stamps. I was dressed professionally. I wondered if men were ever assumed to be on welfare just because they came in with three kids. The clerk diverted his eyes and mumbled an excuse, but I felt it. Nobody grows up and wants to be a 35 year old single mom. If a man is a single dad, he still has a chance. For a woman? She’s got baggage. I spent months agonizing over this death nail. That was it. I’d be sentenced to life living as a nun. Might as well throw in the towel.
First trip as a single mother, Freiburg, Germany, June 2016
It was a reminder about how society pushes us women into boxes. I’ve already been through hell. Don’t even think about forcing me into a box. I’m older and wiser and not going to put up with it.
Becoming a widow has helped me take the time to go back to the drawing board and figure out who I am, not as a wife or a mother, but as me. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time writing out my goals and hopes and dreams. There’s nobody to compromise with, so this is all me. This is who I really am.
I want a cozy home with nice space to socialize with family and friends and garden beds where I actually grow plants that I eat. I want books all over my house. I want to travel all of the time and write and create, to participate in my community, to spend lots of time with my family. I want to eat clean and exercise regularly. I want to help women and Palestinians and people with cerebral palsy and promote healthy hearts. I want to be a NICU cuddler someday, and one of those people who comfort grieving people in the hospital. I want to have a second house somewhere else in the world. I want to get back into backpacking, go whitewater rafting, snorkeling, play better chess, become a Big Sister, attend a Supreme Court hearing, make a quilt, and try to remember all the math I used to know. I want to take my kids to Plum Village and join a travel group when I’m older. I want to speak up more. I want to challenge ideas about how things should work and I want to remove the things in my life that don’t work anymore. I want to say yes to something outside of my comfort zone and join an adventure club. I want to make an effort to connect. I want to publish dozens and dozens of novels and I want to write important essays. I want to nurture my children’s interests and raise passionate humans who help others in the world. I want to have patience and gratitude and make decisions without guilt. I want an Andalucian garden in the backyard and maybe a hot tub. I want to go to Thailand and Iceland and Argentina and Africa. I want to read a minimum of 24 books a year. I want to be good with my money. I want to find love again. I want to help others. I want to live my life without worrying about others telling me no. I want to be a strong female role model. I want to see my kids get older and be a part of my grandchildren’s lives. I want to be a senior citizen who is still creating and helping and learning and mentoring. I want to live for another 60 years.