Friday, May 7, 2010

On giving up my identity when I got married

I am somewhat embarassed to admit that I made the mistake of giving up my individuality when I got married the first time. My parents had a fairly traditional marriage with Dad working and Mom staying at home to take care of us and the household. I guess I absorbed the values that the woman's place was in the home, and the man's was to dominate and take care of the woman. The wife was to subsume her interests to those of her husband's and family's. This was not a healthy situation for our family, but I guess Mom and Dad didn't perceive any other options. I don't think either of them questioned it. Mom is a very strong woman with myriad talents and interests. I think she would have been much happier had she pursued them fully during her early years rather than waiting until she got divorced.

When I met my ex-husband, I was in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, living life to the fullest, at the top of my game. I was studying how to teach foreign languages in the elementary school - a matter I was passionate about. I was very interested in photography and took 100's of pictures a month. I journalled everyday and thought about becoming a writer. My life was spread out in front of me in multi-colored splendor.

My ex was quite open-minded and liberal and free-thinking - after all, he went to Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college to admit women and blacks and had absorbed the radical ideas being espoused there. He was not my impediment.

He was a writer and a photographer - he never could quite decide which passion to pursue more fully - and a very talented one at that. It was his intention to write books for a living. He has managed to publish several, but he doesn't quite live of their royalties yet. The point is that he really is quite talented and has pursued his passion strongly.

When we fell in love and I saw how intent he was on becoming a writer or photographer, something in me made me give up both of those interests. I thought that we couldn't both do them because it would be threatening to him if I were more successful than he.   (Or that's the excuse I told myself subconsciously for giving them up.)  At some level I thought my job was to support him emotionally and logistically as he became the writer he wanted to be.

At least I didn't give up teaching!  I know I was born to teach.  I don't think there's anything that could have kept me from doing that, but I am also aware that that is traditionally a "woman's" profession.  I had determined that I wanted to teach German in the Elementary School so I could help children see how cool foreign languages are so they would grow up wanting to learn them and travel and get to know people from other cultures, thus spreading tolerance and acceptance.  At the time, there were four schools in the US where German was taught to such young kids, and there were several schools overseas.  I got a job at one of them, at the American International School in Vienna, Austria.  I taught German, Beginners to Native Speakers from K-5th grade.  It was perfect!

And I supported my husband while he wrote.  For two years.

Until I got pregnant.

At that point, my entire focus turned inward.  I was no longer very interested in teaching other people's children.  Instead I wanted to stay home and care for my child.  And I wanted my husband to support me.  I expected him to. 

There was such a dichotomy in my thinking - on the one hand I was an emancipated woman, happy to support my husband as he pursued his passion, happy to work at a job I loved, ready to become the Vice President of a corporation (never the CEO, always the Vice President in my fantasy) AND I wanted to stay home with my children and take care of them while my husband supported us successfully.

It must have been very confusing to my husband at the time who,  I think, mostly expected me to be the CEO of some corporation or another and support him while he worked on his novels.

Because I wasn't able to consciously access this dichotomy, we weren't able to talk about our expectations.  Instead my resentment and dissatisfaction grew.  He got a job a year after our son was born, but it didn't pay well enough to support us.  In the interim, I had begun tutoring to bring in a bit of income.  The tutoring turned into a well-paying gig which allowed me to work part time and earn enough to bring in about 50% of our income.  I enjoyed doing the work, but my heart felt wrenched each time I had to leave the house to go to work.  I was angry that I had to work.  I felt guilty that I couldn't stay with the kids.  I was mad that my husband didn't earn enough to support us.  He and I didn't talk about it, so I still don't know what he thought about it all.

Sadly, the resentment and disappointment, (along with myriad other issues, of course) caused rifts between us which were unbridgable by the love we'd once felt for each other.  We'd started out with common interests and passions, both intellectuals interested in a life of the mind, both artists intent on expressing ourselves in the world.  Out of ignorance and the desire to be a "good" wife and partner, I'd let go of my own rich inner life and striving for a successful life in the world and had begun expecting him to succeed enough for both of us.

It was not a good basis for a powerful partnership.

Unfortunately we ended up divorced.

The good thing about it, at least, was that, left to my own devices, I took up where I'd left off all those years before.  I began creating again - writing, photographing, painting, making things out of polymer clay, teaching, saying my mind.  I am once again empowered and clear and straightforward.  The things that attracted my first husband to me, and which I repressed, are there again.  My children have gotten to see me as a powerful woman who stands up for herself and her beliefs and rights.  That might not have been the case if I'd stayed married.  I don't know if I could have made that shift within the marriage as it had become.

When I got married to Chris, my wonderful second husband, I wasn't sure I could be an artist AND a wife.  Those same beliefs were still there, though they were more conscious.  Thankfully, Chris would have nothing to do with that nonsense.  Even as I would query whether I could continue to be an artist, Chris would take me down to the studio in the basement and ask me how I wanted the furniture arranged or he would buy me a flat file to store my work in.  Almost before I knew it, I was in my basement creating, longing to have a beautiful studio like I'd had in my previous house.  Chris supported me 150% in building a gorgeous space and in spending all the time I need to in there creating.  He has kicked loose the idiotic fears and beliefs I had that I couldn't love him fully and be a good partner AND be an artist.  My creativity actually enriches our marriage, as does my joy and satisfaction at doing what I should be doing in this life. 

If I weren't doing my art, I think this marriage would go the way my last one did.  I get so grumpy and cranky when I'm not creating, I snarl and complain and am not nice to anyone, much less myself.

Ida Turnbull was so accurate when she wrote almost 100 years ago, "There can be no great union where an individuality permits itself to be ruined....  No two people can work out a high relation if the precious inner self of either is sacrificed."

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