The Trials of the 21st Century Wife

It’s not easy being a wife.

Eight years ago, my friend Olivia was planning her wedding. She and her boyfriend Jack had been together for seven years, living together for four. He had proposed on millennium eve, and they’d spent more than a year organizing a lavish party across the country, where most of her large family lives.

However, two months before the big event, with most of the details in place, she called me. “I don’t think I can get married,” she said.

“Well, that’s okay,” I said, snapping into automatic support mode. “You don’t have to. There’s no reason you should marry Jack if you don’t think he’s right for you. Better to realize that now…”

“No, that’s not it,” she cut me off in mid-support. “It’s not Jack. I just don’t want to be married. I don’t want to be a wife. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage my parents have.”

I’ve known Olivia for almost 20 years now, and have met quite a few members of her family. They are from the Mediterranean, and conservative. Girls in the family are expected to become wives and mothers, and make that their priority. Though both Olivia’s mother and grandmother (on Olivia’s father’s side) had advanced college degrees, neither made careers of them. One cousin, Olivia once told me, is a cancer researcher who is making inroads in curing the dreaded disease. But whenever this cousin goes home for a visit, her family won’t stop berating her for being single and childless.

Olivia, a rebel from way back, shocked her parents when she and Jack started living together. Her mother took to calling her long-distance, tearfully quoting Dr. Laura Schlessinger. When Olivia and Jack finally got engaged, she stopped. And it became Olivia’s turn to worry about what she was getting into. “You and Jack are not your parents,” I tried to reassure her during that wrenching phone call. “Your relationship is very different, and your marriage will be very different. It’s what you make of it.”

Olivia wound up marrying Jack, but I don’t think I quite understood the depth of her concern until I got married five years later. That’s when I truly understood what a socially fraught term “wife” is, and how, despite the dynamics of my own relationship — and I find myself happily married to a wonderful man going on three years now — it is often difficult and tiresome to deal with such baggage.

And lately, as the economy quakes and the feminist backlash continues, I worry that the progress wives have made will vanish. True, wifedom has changed in the last century. Just ask Gloria Steinem, who got married at age 63, saying she thought society had made enough strides that an equal partnership between husbands and wives is now possible.

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Dating Games

A month ago I started dating a terrific man whom we will call Jack. He was warm, self-confident, funny and devilishly handsome. He was also a good friend of an ex-boyfriend (who claimed he was still in love with me). It started getting complicated. As I grew more smitten, Jack grew unsure—until he told me he thought we were better off as friends.

Immediately I hit the female resource train and got as much advice as I could: don’t call him, let him come to you, say yes to friendship, say no to friendship, and on and on. I even—and this is something to which no self-respecting thirtysomething feminist should ever admit—bought a $1 Amazon copy of the best-selling book, “The Rules.” For those who’ve been living in a cave for the last decade or so, “The Rules” outlines what to do if you want to win the heart of a man. Rule No. 5: Never Call a Man. Rule No. 7: Never accept a Wednesday date after Saturday. And so on. It is touted as the ultimate of all guidebooks for how to play the game of love. But what I’m really wondering is: Should we be playing games at all?

Fifteen years ago I would have laughed at a book like “The Rules.” In that time, I have dated younger men, older men, divorced men, and men who decided that they should actually be dating the hot guy sitting next to me. I had a man fly from Finland to New York just for a date with me; and I received a marriage proposal from a French expatriate in India who bought me jeweled earrings that “cost as much as a cow.” I’ve had a blast and have memories I would never trade.

But I have also cried a lot. I cried when I attended the funeral of a young woman in her 20s, who died of cervical cancer at the beginning of the HPV epidemic. I cried when I held my girlfriends whose boyfriends left them in the same ways their fathers had 20 years earlier. I cried when I held my male friends whose wives had cheated on them. Through some 15 years of dating, the major lesson that I have learned is: People can hurt you in ways you never expected—and losing love really sucks. This makes one cautious. Wary. Desiring of a guidebook. Unsure of jumping quickly into anyone’s bed. Unsure of committing your heart before you have his financial and health records, know the ins and outs of his parents’ messy divorce, and have thoroughly checked out the reasons why he called his ex-girlfriend “pyscho.”

So my question to all the dating adults out there is this: How do we play the game of love in a way that is both good for us and yet still retains some of the fun of the chase?

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Things You Learn While Traveling Alone

Why do we travel? I suppose the answers could be endless, but I’m going to posit two main reasons: adventure and indulgence.

We pack our bags and go away to exotic (or not-so-exotic) places both because we want to try new things (like camel riding, and sushi, and snorkeling) … and because we want to give ourselves permission to do a few familiar things we wish we could do more often (like order dessert every night, or follow our primal urges with sexy foreigners). It’s a nice combination, really – on holiday, you become your own fairy godmother, and your own motivational speaker. You challenge yourself to be more vivacious and ballsy, but then you also let yourself get away with certain habits and perceived flaws that you work hard to erase in your daily life. And when these forces combine – when you’re harder on, but also nicer to, yourself – something amazing happens: You’re your best self.

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could be that self all the time, instead of just on vacation? What if that best self was the product of different thinking, instead of just a different setting? Well, interestingly, an entire year spent abroad is an excellent opportunity to test such an idea: Is it the exotic setting or the exotic thinking that makes me cooler? In my experience, the setting helps, but the mindset helps more. A few good thinking habits I’ve learned to adopt since spending a year in New Zealand:

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