Was I and
By Annelise Goldstein | Why am I marrying this guy? I thought as I received guests at my engagement party. As crucial as the question was, I dismissed it in favor of answering less provocative ones, like what color the tablecloths should be at my reception and whether or not there should be music during dinner. At 26, I considered marriage the next logical step. I had already completed college at Penn, worked for two years, and returned to the University to receive a masters degree.
Two months into my marriage, the question returned. Already we struggled with the reality of our new adult roles. Now the why? resonated even louder than before, and I still found myself unable to resolve this question. An inner voice whispered, You made a big mistake and 200 sets of eyes watched. The voice tormented me. It urged me to do the only reasonable thing I could do: Find a therapist to get me out of the mess I had made.
As I hoped, the therapist worked her magic. I was out of the marriage nine months after reciting the vows I wrote myself. Two years of therapy and 10 years of life experience later, I know the answer to the question: I wanted the role of wife and institution of marriage to provide a blueprint of life. Two degreesfrom Penn no less!didnt help. The world was as wide open as my identity. Who was I and what did I want? I didnt have a clue. However, I had learned enough to realize that marrying was not the way to solve these questions.
Though I corrected my mistake, its not until now, at age 36, that I understand the significance of my therapists parting words, as her soft yet penetrating voice summarized our work together: Youve achieved a sense of self and independence. You have personal and professional direction. You know who you are and what you want. But this, Annelise, is only half the task. To fully become a woman, you must embrace Dependence, Sacrifice, and Servitude. Its where youll find your feminine power.
Though I heard her words, I discounted their validity, writing them off as New Age, embracing-your-inner-goddess rhetoric. I stepped out of her office for the last time ready to take on the world. I thought, What is she talking about? Im a success story. Im entering the world as an independent woman who wont be compromised by others issues, needs, or demands. Life is on my terms.
Today Im remarried and mother to an infant and a four-year-old. On a recent, typical day, as I prepared to drop off my daughter at preschool, I managed to navigate three conflicts. The first was my daughters choice of clothinga turtleneck in 85-degree weather. The second was her choice of ice cream for breakfast because it has milk in it, and milk is good for me. The third was her choice to carry her newborn brother even though I had forbidden her to do so.
After returning home with my son, I faced further challenges. After nursing, a diaper change, and failed analysis of his seemingly inexplicable crying, I sang eight renditions of Hush Little Baby and lulled him into a mid-morning nap. Then I collapsed on the sofa anticipating a few cherished moments to myself.
The telephone rang. It was my husband asking me to read 52 slides for the most important presentation of his careerwithin the hour. Without thinking, I started right away and barely managed to finish and e-mail them back before my son awoke. However, unlike other typical days, at exactly this moment, the wise womans face appeared, speaking her words of long ago: Dependence, Sacrifice, Servitude. With every aspect of my being, I understood. I felt it in the depth of my soul. I was living it.
Its just as she said. Though on many days I feel exhausted and frustrated, I feel more powerful than ever before. In my twenties I believed feminine power could only be achieved through academic and professional accomplishments, by scoring the hottest guy at the party (whether I wanted him or not), and after a good run or intense workout at the gym. And I did get feminine power from these things. In many ways I was a product of the womens movement, for better and for worse. I gained from it the fundamental idea that womens strength is about independence and being in control or in charge of ones life.
As a consequence, the notions of independence and dependence became polarized, black and white. While independence was associated with strength and power, dependence on others was associated with weakness. Today I see independence as only half the story. Though Im still an independent woman, Im also the thread that weaves our family life together. Im dependent upon my husband. I sacrifice my personal needs and desires for the greater good of the family. I serve the needs of others before my own are met. This form of servitude, though, is done out of choice and as an expression of love. Im the life force that ignites and generates energy in others. Im there when they need someone to give love, to care, and to believe. When I would rather lie down and take a nap, I find the energy within to compose 10 silly verses about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet going to a garden party just to hear my daughter giggle and beg, Oh, Mommy, just one more time. Giving of myself has increased my sense of personal power and importance. Im part of the larger circle of life.
My own mother plays this role for me. Despite our occasional irritations and disagreements, she remains a source of energy, propelling me forward. Shes a figure in the background radiating strength. My mother has been there to help at critical, life-defining moments, such as leaving my first marriage after a few short months and becoming a mother myself.
Embracing dependence, sacrifice, and servitude doesnt mean Ive given up ambitions for professional accomplishment (this article was written during my sons naptimes), or scoring the hottest guy at the party (who is luckily still my husband), or the energy from a good run (now pushing a baby jogger, at reduced speed). The independent, self-fulfilling parts of me receive different status for the time being. Rather than being in the forefront, they provide a foundation from which I can now give of myself to others. Its important, however, to offer a word of caution: In the process of caring for others and putting others first, we can lose touch with the core of our being. So before one can gain strength from dependence, sacrifice, and servitude, its necessary to do the important work of establishing a sense of self.
At age 36, Ive achieved a new feeling of feminine power, one I could not have conceived of in my twenties. Not that I dont at times feel bogged down by my present identity and role in my family. There are nights that I lie awake longing for independence and freedom from responsibility. But most of the time, symbolized by the mornings I lie awake in bed with two children on top of me and my husband beside me, I am very much entangled in the meaningfulness of deep connections with others. There is no turning back, nor would I want to. Instead, its even more inspiring to look ahead and consider that 10 years from now there will be another set of themes and a different balance from which my feminine power originates.
Annelise Goldstein C88 SW92 is a psychologist and writer who lives in Denmark.
FIRST PERSON: Essays