Yesterday would have been my 8th wedding anniversary, and just over 10 years together. We got married on the same day as my grandparents. I thought their almost sixty years of union would have been good luck. Nope. At least not for me.
Not long before Kenneth passed away, I teased him about our upcoming 7th wedding anniversary. I told him it was the seven year itch, and would we survive? He got mad. He was always very traditional and loyal when it came to family (not hair or music though, haha). I never had to worry about him running off. Until he died off.
As the anniversary approached, I wondered how I would feel on that day. I wasn’t overcome with sadness like I was last year when it was only two weeks after his death and two days before his funeral. I didn’t run off to get a tattoo, like I did last year. I told the kids that it was our “family anniversary,” celebrating the day that we formalized the beginning of our family. We spent the day at swim lessons and then at their school carnival, complete with cotton candy, face painting, and bounce houses. Instead of me getting flowers, I gave Kenneth flowers at the cemetery. I felt a bit of sadness well up in my chest, but then it passed. It kind of just…is. The agonizing grief has faded into tired grief. The kids declared it the “best day ever.” They are way more skilled at not letting the past interfere with the present.
What I’m about to write is probably the exact opposite of what you might expect to read about somebody’s anniversary, especially from a widow who is supposed to be sad about her dead husband. But I’m not one to sugar-coat reality, and like most things in life, it’s never as simple as feeling one emotion. When we take a trip, we are excited about going, we feel sad when we leave, happy to be home, and nostalgic when we look at the pictures. A full spectrum of feelings about one trip. To reduce our experiences to one emotion is to not be transparent about living.
My disclaimer before I continue is that of course I miss my husband and I wish he were here. But like all things, it’s never usually good or bad. Happy or sad. Tragic or fortunate. In life, it is usually all of it.
I’ve noticed that I’ve become more efficient. I appreciate things more. I’ve learned a lot. I feel more. I’m writing more. My house is always clean. I’m more forgiving. I go where I want. i’m more organized and focused. I’m kinder to myself. ‘And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking.
Maybe I’ve had enough time by myself, enough distance from that fateful day, to put everything into perspective about marriage and loss and being single again. I remember in the days and weeks after Kenneth passed away, one of the most noticeable changes in my life was all of the free time I suddenly had, left alone with my own thoughts. I was so used to him always being there. When the kids went to sleep at night, it became just me mulling around an uncomfortably silent and lonely house. Nobody to talk to. Just me and my thoughts and a desire to reconcile the madness in my head. In the mornings, instead of bumping into him as we prepped breakfast and lunch and chit-chatting about school and politics and what we had to do that day, I suddenly found myself alone to do all of the work by myself with time to think.
There’s nothing like becoming a widow to experience a complete identity crisis. I thought I was living the life that I wanted, and then the next morning, that life was gone. I became a 34 year old widow with three little ones. We all know what society thinks about single mothers. So much of a woman’s social status is tied to her reproductive strategies, no matter how bogus some of us might think that is. Not only would I have to grieve my husband, but I’d have to deal with the social ramifications of being a single mother. A societal outcast. I’ve had multiple well-intended people remind me how unlikely it will be for me to find a significant other while I have such small children.
So this was it, I thought. My fate. It felt like rusty nails being pounded into my coffin.
The first year of widowhood passed both excruciatingly slow and quick all at the same time. There were many evenings of isolated thinking. Many early mornings packing lunch and pondering. If I didn’t have three young children, I would have left my job and spent a year somewhere reflecting on a mountain. But alas, I was stuck in the suburbs with obligations and monotonous routines. Being single gave me the space to process without having to use someone else’s filter.
My dismal situation led to an opportunity to engage in deep reflection. It made me think long and hard about who I was, how I felt about myself, and how I felt others perceived me. I knew early on that I was going to think my way out of this. Someway, somehow, I’d save myself. This couldn’t be the end for me. I could take back my narrative.
In marriage, so much of who we are has to pass through the marriage filter. Would my husband be okay with it? What time should I be home? He didn’t like this or that. He wanted to go there. I wanted this but he doesn’t like it, so we had to choose that. Compromises involve concessions that don’t always feel true to the person we once were. We forget the person we were. That person becomes buried under time. We assume a new identity that is shared with our spouse. Until something happens.
My husband was the one who died, but I felt like in a lot of ways I died too.
Except I could reinvent myself. There could be rebirth for me, if I wanted it.
And I knew that I did.
Maybe the life I lost wasn’t necessarily the be all, end all in the narrative of my life. Maybe there could be positive gleaned from a horrific experience. I don’t know what it looks like, but there had to be value in the person I was becoming in my new life.
An identity crisis is not unique to widows. It happens to all of us. It’s just that widows go through the crisis of one day being married and sharing their lives with somebody, and the next day not, with no choice of their own. It’s a shock to body and mind.
But we’ve all experienced having our sense of self pigeon-holed into someone else’s projection of who we are. They want to define our narrative. We are led to believe that our narratives just kind of happen. We become passively complicit in the loss of ourselves, floating through life with the rest of society, accumulating labels over the years.
We’re too bossy. Too lazy. Too messy. Too radical. Too loud. Too idealistic. Too soft. Too drama. Too quiet. Too crazy. Too pretty. Too ugly.
I find myself fighting labels now more than ever. Awful ones that make you want to walk the other way, like widow and single mother and bitch.
They will judge me by what I say. How I look. What I do. Where I go. Who I associate with. What I believe. For my biology.
As a woman, and especially as a mother, we seem to be targets for unwanted opinions and generalizations. Everyone else apparently knows better than us about how to live our lives.
We are born a blank slate, uniquely our own person, but the moment we enter this world until we take our last breath (and for some even after death), we are subjected to the onslaught of society’s opinions about how we live and who we are. It pushes its way into the narrative of our lives. It attempts to define who we are without our direct consent. Some of us are better than others at handling the imposition.
We should get married. We should have children. We should do this. We should do that. We should, we should, we should. But nobody asks us what we really want to do, nor are we in the habit of creating the space and time to contemplate this heavy question. Often we don’t think to challenge social norms. It’s just the way it has always been.
But there is always a choice. We can roll over and accept whatever is handed to us, or we can take back our narratives. We can fight to unbury our true selves from out beneath the rubble of the societally-imposed narrative.
In the quiet space of my newfound singlehood, I’ve thought a lot about who I am, who I was, and what the future might look like for a pathetic widow like me. The truth is, we seem to have made being single a societal plague that one must strive to avoid. Marriage is glorified but being single means there must be something wrong with us. Something missing. Same for people without children. They get a zillion questions from curious people about why they wouldn’t want to reproduce. Why wouldn’t you want to do what everyone else does?
We live in a society that values bad relationships over being alone. So we settle. We stay. We concede and we tolerate and we live our lives without knowing what it takes to be happy.
Nobody talks about how marriage is one of the biggest hijackers of our sense of self, or how boring most parents become when they have nothing to talk about except about their children.
We get married and our personal narratives are abandoned, replaced with a family narrative. Everyone acts like that’s the way life is supposed to work. It’s like a Vanishing Twin Syndrome, but for couples. One person becomes absorbed into the other. They are no longer individuals, but a unit.
Our spouse and children become our hobbies. We get addicted and attached to them. Codependent.
Having a personal narrative consumed with the lives of other people (even the humans I gave birth to) seems like a lazy way to live. How easy it is to hide behind being Ethan’s mom or Kenneth’s wife. It was easier not to have to make decisions alone. It was easier being able to pass tasks off onto somebody else. It was easier to blame each other. It’s so easy to say you can’t do this or that because of your kids. Crutches, that’s what they are. Crutches that prevent us from having to walk on our own and take responsibility for how we lived our lives.
The problem with basing your entire identity on your relationship with others is that you can’t control those others. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they leave. Children grow up. Children get their own lives.
But we are still here.
When I ask the students in my class to tell me about what they like, I tell them they can’t say sleeping or eating. Duh. We all eat and sleep. We all go to the bathroom too. And most of us have family, whether it be parents, siblings, offspring, spouses, whatever. Are any of those things really something to put on our resumes? If you go to a job interview, do you tell them immediately that you are a parent and a spouse? Are these personal attributes that measure our worth and appeal as human beings?
And yet we let it consume who we are.
I’m not trying to disparage parenting or marriage. I’m a fiercely loving mother of three. I’m the woman who wanted children since my childhood days of cradling Cabbage Patch Dolls in my arms. I opted not to go to law school because I didn’t think being a lawyer would allow me to be the kind of mom I knew I would want to be. And I had a mostly happy marriage to a man I would still be married to if he hadn’t died. But I’m not just a mother, and I wasn’t just a wife.
I had to lose my identity to realize that I didn’t want to drown in domesticity ever again. Even though I don’t think I was as bad as I could have been, I still recognized parts of my life that was not the way I really wanted to live. Now that I have one foot in the family life, and the other foot in the single world, I don’t quite fit into either world. I don’t want to spend my social time talking about potty training, but I also don’t have the luxury of hanging out at bars and not planning my life around sitters. I’m somewhere in between. I don’t feel adequately understood, but I’ve become at ease with that. I feel less of a need to be understood and more interested in determining my own narrative, on my terms. It’s part of understanding your mortality and realizing that you have one shot at making the most of your life.
I guess the first moment I realized that my life wasn’t as bad as I thought was when my annual anniversary photo book came in the mail. I’ve been making one every year since we got married, using it as a way to look back on the previous year of our marriage. Now I’ve turned it into a family book. I flipped through the pages, looking at pictures from Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, a trip to Legoland, the Aquarium, holidays, hiking, our house, the kids’ activities, birthday parties, the kids’ artwork, and outings. I closed the book and felt guilty. I had spent the last year feeling like my life was terrible, but the photographic evidence proved otherwise.
The family we knew had ended, but it evolved into something new. I had it ingrained in my head that the old version was better, the one that included my husband. But in a world where there are so many things beyond our control, we shouldn’t be measuring the value of our lives based on simplistic standards of better or worse, good or bad. There is no one way to live. There is value in everything.
It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in marriage. I had a mostly positive experience being married. I was lucky enough to be married to somebody who was constantly in awe of me. It was a time when I could be myself around somebody who accepted me completely. He knew all aspects of who I was. He understood the nooks and crannies of my mind, for better or worse. He understood my dreams and goals. He knew exactly what my shortcomings were, but he cared more about my strengths and potential and would support me no matter what. He was somebody who wanted me to succeed. He was also a great co-parent.
Nobody understands me the way that he did. The other people in my life usually only know a certain aspect of who I am. They know the professional side of me. The neighbor side. The daughter side. The friend. The mother. Only my spouse (who I worked with) knew what it looked like when all of these aspects of my identity intersected, creating the authentic narrative of who I was. We all have an innate desire to be seen for our true selves.
Despite having a positive experience, I think it is irresponsible to not point out the negatives of marriage. There was a lot I didn’t like. Even in the best of circumstances, marriage inevitably involved bargaining, compromise, acceptance, and concessions. Two individual narratives do not happily intertwine with longevity without some (or a lot) of mess. You will have battles of the wills. I also find it can lead to avoiding having to write your own narrative. It’s so much easier to make everything about the family. Being true to yourself, to really know who you are and what you want to do and be known for, is something that takes a lot of hard work. It’s easier to selectively post edited snippets of your life on Facebook so the world thinks you’re the happiest married couple on Earth and everything in your life is Pinterest Perfect.
Except, we all know that a parent living vicariously through their children or a person who sacrifices their life to cater to the life of their spouse are people who aren’t living true to themselves.
But we would never admit that. Instead of calling it like it is, we think it’s great parenting. Loving marriages. To think otherwise is nothing short of treason to social conventions.
I always wonder why it is considered good parenting to show your kids (through the way that you live) that once they grow up they too will become a parent whose life amounts to chauffeuring small people around, catering to them like maids, and having no real interests or skills other than keeping the fridge stocked and managing the family calendar. I can’t be the only person to wonder about this.
Why are we so terrified of showing the true colors of marriage? Like death, we shy away from revealing what living really looks like. I know Van Gogh didn’t paint toilets, but he also didn’t have a platform like social media to constantly push out fake narratives about living.
If you want to know the truth, marriage puts constraints on your time. It can suck away your attention. It can reduce your life to Costco trips and diaper-changing rotations and squabbling in the car about the most inane topics. It can lead to simmering resentment. It can cause you to compromise away non-negotiables and make you have amnesia about the things you once wanted but gave up in the name of the family. It can make you selfish and entitled. It can dilute who you are, and we so easily smile and pretend that it’s all okay because we have these amazing families and lives and everything smells like roses until you look at the divorce rate in this country.
I often wonder if I am okay with living the rest of my life alone. At the rate I’m going, and the more I dissect it in my head, it seems less likely that I will agree to anything less than what I think I deserve, which means it may prove to be immensely difficult to find someone with a similar perspective (in addition to me having three young children, which everyone keeps reminding me is a major detriment to my social calendar). I won’t give away the person I’ve fought so hard to become just for the false security of companionship. I would also never downgrade, or contemplate settling, just for the sake of companionship. Being a widow has taught me that I can stand on my own two feet and face my scariest days alone.
And yet I still believe in the benefits of marriage. I had a mostly good experience with marriage, which means the good parts of my relationship outweighed the bad parts. We cannot reduce a complex relationship to a simple word of good or bad. It was fun, boring, dramatic, supportive, loving, bitter, resentful, admiring, tiring, inspiring, companionship, friendship, angry, adventurous, and a lot more words to accurately define what marriage was like for me.
There are many benefits of companionship, when done in a way that stays true to yourself. I still believe in the institution of marriage, despite the fact that I’m realizing that I kind of like being single too. We can be good partners and good parents without sacrificing everything. We don’t have to choose between this or that, but rather it’s a balancing act. When we work to strike the right balance (an ongoing process), I think it makes us better spouses and parents and people.
I know that if I ever get married again, I will be a better partner. I’ve learned so much about relationships from losing mine.
My narrative involves a dead husband and three young children, but there’s so much more than that. I am the only person with permission to write my narrative. I will protect that right until I die. I hope my narrative will be long and filled with memorable experiences and feelings and people and places. I want it to involve frequent plane trips around the world, gardens, libraries, and copious amounts of time spent with my children. I want a cozy home with purposeful space to socialize with family and friends. I want books all over my house. I want to learn, create, and participate in my community. I want to exercise regularly and eat clean. I have many more backpacking trips to make, whitewater rafting to experience, and snorkeling to do. I want to be a NICU cuddler and I want to comfort people in the hospital experiencing death. I want to play better chess. I want to attend Supreme Court oral arguments. I want to take the family to Plum Village and learn to meditate. I want to join a travel group. I want to say yes to something outside of my comfort zone and get better at saying no to the things that don’t speak to my heart. I want to publish dozens and dozens of novels and be a 90-something year old who still feels the insatiable desire to create more. I want to nurture my children’s interests and raise passionate humans who help the world. I want an Andalucian garden and maybe a hot tub. I want to be a strong female role model. I want to inspire and mentor young people.
None of this requires that I am married.
It would be nice to meet the right person again, someday, but I only want to share my narrative with somebody who has their own compelling narrative, who isn’t interested in consuming mine, and who isn’t seeking other human beings to make his hobby.
I don’t do downgrades. Only upgrades.
Whether this happens or not, I want to be known as a person who contributed good in the world. A person who lived the way she wanted to live. Not just a mom. Not just a widow. A human being who lived each day fully.