The year I graduated, I was named most likely to get married and move to Italy. These words were written in our high school yearbook alongside the names of other students, most of whom were most likely to do much more remarkable things. Most likely to get rich, most likely to be famous, most likely to become a doctor etc. What is truly curious and noteworthy about the aforesaid moniker, is that I am the one who submitted it to the yearbook committee. This is not typical yearbook protocol, but I wanted to make sure I was memorialized in the right way, in the way I saw myself. A combination of self-consciousness and shame had prompted me to exempt myself from yearbook photos in grade 9, 10, and 11-before this time I was still childish and blessedly unaware that I had so much to be ashamed of. Now, having reached grade 12, I finally knew who I was and I wanted the world to know too. I was a young woman who had the power to find a husband
It is not accidental that the best way I could think to honour myself, that the highest praise I could imagine giving, related to my ability to get a man. My parents really did not prepare me with the life skills necessary to live in any other way. Neither of parents ever even said the word ‘university’ while I was in high school, let alone helped me prepare for it. My dad often urged me to find a partner who was older and had money. They loved me, but their own conventional upbringings had left them unable to even imagine there were skills that might be useful to a woman apart from the ability to get a husband. In my family, a high premium was focused on learning to be likeable, which is code for being able to get and keep a man, for being able to operate fluidly within a patriarchal system, for grabbing any little piece of power available, at whatever the cost.
It wasn’t just my parents. Our world is set up to tell girls and women that ‘marriage is an achievement’. In her book Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie extols parents ‘never to speak of marriage as an achievement’. I would like to have this printed on a t-shirt and given to every little girl. Thinking of marriage as an achievement, as ‘the’ achievement, is so damaging. It implies that a woman’s worth rests on a man but it also ties a woman’s happiness to something over which she has very little control, and then it tell her it’s something she can control. What could be more maddening?
These messages are so insidious. I only recently realized how much of the first thirty years of my life were covertly devoted to trying to land a husband. I was studying, had many projects about which I was passionate, had talents that I was cultivating, but if I am honest, what felt most important was always my romantic relationships. They alone had the power to lift me up to my highest point. They alone had the power to completely devastate me, to turn me into a human snow globe, full of anxiety and pain and self-doubt.
In her book We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of a woman she knows who owned a house, but sold it, as she feared it might intimidate potential husbands. The things we do, the ways in which we compromise ourselves, in order to ‘achieve’ this societal goal, in order to win the prize of a husband, they are all the worse for the fact that they operate below the surface of consciousness. In order to make men like me I have spent countless hours laboriously blow-drying my hair (I have A LOT of hair), I have pretended to like jazz, I have eaten eggs, I have worn shoes that were uncomfortable, I have slathered my body is tanning cream and ruined countless bedsheets in the process, I have worn thong underwear and garter belts, I have exposed my skin to UVA rays in tanning beds, I have spent hundreds of hours at the hair stylist and thousands of dollars going from ash blonde to jet black and everything in between, I have worn three bras to create the illusion of cleavage, I have allowed men to call me “schmoopy”, I have gone bike riding (I hate bikes!), I have been snowmobiling. Worst of all, I have pretended to know less, to be less interesting, and to be so much more interestED than I ever was. I have allowed my voice to be distorted and silenced. And why wouldn’t I? Everything in my life set me up to believe a husband was the answer, the only answer. A husband was the greatest achievement and it is understandable that a person would sacrifice everything for the most worthy achievement.
Maybe these things are easier to say now that I am married. Ironically, getting married liberated me from the anxiety of never finding a husband, which gave me the mental space to think about what I actually wanted to do with my life. I know this might not be a popular thing to say and might not sound very feminist, but being married has allowed me to consider what it is that will actually bring me happiness, and what it is that I really want to achieve in this life.
Don’t get me wrong, love my husband-and not just for his utilitarian value. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We need people. We need each other. The bond between a husband and wife, or wife and wife, or husband and husband–lets just say partners-can be profound, however I see nothing to suggest it is uniquely qualified to satisfy our needs for support or companionship. For example, I live with my brother and sister. We are all very close. We are a unit. In many ways, my relationship with them is infinitely more reliable, deeper, and certainly more unconditional than my relationship with my husband will ever be. My point is just, that we need not-and should not eschew commitment or relationships-but instead should be willing to consider different options for commitment, different options for building our necessary social connections.
And then, critically, there are the things in life we can achieve. They need not be professional or career-related or tied to finances. In fact, many of the most fulfilling achievements are relational–for example, being a parent and bringing up a kind, sensitive, awake child. But what is so important, and what I have only just recently realized, is that little girls must be helped to build pathways to these achievements, pathways over which they have some control. I can think of no greater recipe for insanity than telling a child “you must obtain X in order to be happy” when X is something over which they have no control (save if they are willing to entirely subvert their own desires for the desires of another). And even taking the subversion of the self into equation, even with the Jazz and the fake tanner and the high heels and the bike riding, when it comes to finding a husband there are really no guarantees. Wouldn’t it be better to teach little girls how to secure their own happiness through the pursuit of things they can control? Through the pursuit of things will don’t require them to submit themselves? I think of how much pain and money and time and energy I might have saved if I had truly understood the limits of my own power, if I had only been empowered towards real achievements.
The best and most interesting and most beautiful women I know are single. When I talk to them, I try to show interest in the other facets of their lives-even though I remember how all-ecompassing the search for a partner can be. I also try to show compassion for how difficult it can be to take the road less travelled, how tough it is to do things differently, to challenge the current state of affairs. Sometimes I tell them it fucking sucks. Really it is the system that fucking sucks. I also try to let them know that I understand how much they want a partner and that I hope they find this partner, but that their ultimate happiness and worth as a person is in no way contingent on finding this partner. I want them to know that I don’t think ‘marriage is an achievement’. Quite the contrary sometimes. Sometimes marriage can be a concession, a submission, a surrender, a weakening, a lack of options. I want them to know that I think challenging the status quo is an achievement. I want them to know that having the bravery to ‘not choose the wrong person’ or to not choose any person at all, tells me a lot more about who they are than a ring on their finger. I hope that if at some point I find myself not married or otherwise single, they will remind me of the same things.