Growing up, my mom was always the ultimate example of exceptional mother and wife-hood. She was beautiful and efficient, managing to take care of both a house and four rambunctious children while still putting a family dinner on the table every night.
During her time as a stay-at-home mom she committed fully to the role: she would sew us blankets, hand-make our Halloween costumes, embody both Santa and the Easter bunny during their seasons, and always threw my siblings and I epic, themed birthday parties.
I still remember being shorter than the counter and craning my neck up to watch her mold bread dough into the shape of dog bones for my sister’s 101 Dalmatians birthday. Later, for a Lion King-inspired event she hand-sketched and colored the main characters on large rolls of newsprint paper, taping them to the walls like guests at the party.
My mother was a crafty, Pinterest queen before the concept itself existed, and I always idolized her as the peak of wifely and parental success.
It’s no wonder then that when I married at 22 and held myself to the same standard, I watched my self-esteem spiral with my failure to ascend the pedestal. To me being a wife meant becoming the housekeeper and cook that my husband deserved, and being a mother meant devoting the majority of my time and energy into making my children’s lives both balanced and magical.
I assumed I’d feel gratified with these roles in place, that my husband and I would seamlessly slide into being one of those content couples I grew up idolizing; he the obliged breadwinner, she the happy homemaker. He husband, she wife.
Even before we’d married we had established this well-worn dynamic, and because we had witnessed it with our own parents and relatives we were sure that it was necessary for both success and satisfaction.
Maybe that was our biggest marital misstep—thinking that marriage was about shaping ourselves to fit defined roles rather than creating a unique partnership that suited our individual needs.
Ultimately, this dynamic we’d created didn’t stick. And, because our entire foundation was based on it, our relationship soured along with the roles. Afterwards, I spent a long time trying to understand what was broken within me that had prevented me from finding contentment in the wifely position we’d established, to see with clarity what had made me unable to fit happily within it.
Perhaps it was because I’d never realized how much work marriage would actually require, that decades of romantic comedies and soul-mate chatter had taught me that simply being a wife and mother would equal fulfillment, the work just a mindless side-note.
Or maybe it’s that millennial undercurrent that coursed through my upbringing, creating not only a sense of entitlement but also a struggle to connect genuine success with the time and effort it takes to get there—that undeniable need for instant gratification that our social media-centered culture has entrenched in the majority of us born sometime after 1980.
But mostly I think it's about the fact that I never actually asked my mother (or any of my friends’ mothers) what their lives were really like, never pried beyond how they appeared on the outside to discover what they felt like on the inside. I never asked them if they were happy. And that’s understandable because society didn’t either.
Only recently has it begun seeping into general consciousness that perhaps stay-at-home moms and housewives aren’t as content as previously assumed, and that despite the idealized and almost saintly image, these roles can be both entirely thankless and non-compensatory, usually devoid of sick days, vacation time and requiring enormous personal sacrifices.
And for some wives and mothers that’s OK; I admire these women because they’ve managed to find happiness in one of the most stressful and often isolating roles. But for me, it never worked; despite my own mother’s success in that arena, it wasn’t a suitable position for me.
I think, ultimately, that’s what all of us wives, mothers, working moms, stay-at-home moms, moms with help, moms without help, proud feminist married millennial women must remember: in the end, we need to exercise our right to choose what works for us, and embrace it unabashedly.
We must cast aside any notions of right or wrong, and replace them with an acknowledgment of individual needs and limits.
Now a single mom, I’m determined that if I ever marry again I will first decide what being a wife actually means to me, and I will redefine the role in a way that suits my sensibilities rather than the other way around. I will shake off the shackles of my upbringing and choose a partner who accepts my unique ways; most importantly, I will tear down that inaccessible pedestal, and learn to accept them too.