Since my past has found me, I seem to be defining my life by my many roles: wife, mom, writer, teacher, ex-rebel, ex-Jersey girl (though you're never really an EX-Jersey girl). None solely describes me, but each one gets me a little closer to answering the question: if I’m not who I was back then, and I’m not exactly who my current friends and colleagues think I am, who am I? Here’s possible identity 1: wife.
One of my primary roles is "wife." It’s a good thing. I love my husband. I like my husband - I suppose that bears saying since that’s not always true. What does it mean when people say they "love" their spouses, they just don’t "like" their spouses? What’s the point of spending the majority of your time with someone you don’t like?
Then again, the people I know who say things like this don’t spend the majority of their time with their spouses. Is that a symptom or a cause? Maybe this isn’t an issue for us because my husband and I are both on academic schedules. Perhaps we have more spare time than other people. It’s great, though I do get jealous when the kids and I start back to school public school on January 2nd and my husband’s semester doesn’t start for another few weeks. It doesn’t help that he’s always saying things like, "Oh man! Ya know what I have to do today? (pause) Nothing!" It’s a good thing he’s cute.
Whatever the reason, we’ve managed to get this far and still be best friends. After almost 20 years, we still crack each other up on a regular basis. I’m talking full on belly laughs, too - the kind that make you spit out the Diet Snapple you’d been drinking. The kind that grip your whole body, leaving you gasping for breath while tears roll down your face. The kind that get you kicked out of Lamaze class (twice). In my defense, some Lamaze instructors take themselves way too seriously. In any case, maybe I just got extremely lucky, but being a wife is a good gig. It’s a role I’m totally comfortable with.
There are times when I play the "faculty wife" role, however, and that hasn’t always been a comfortable role for me. It’s taken me a long time to get over the fact that I’ll never be a put-together, reserved, string-of-pearls-wearing faculty wife.
It’s strange that this is my perception. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, and I’ve never looked at any profession as only for one gender. In fact, one of my closest friends, a woman, is also a college professor. Perhaps I’ve seen too many movies in which universities are staffed largely by older white men whose wives can pull off the Jackie Kennedy look without seeming like they’re trying too hard. I suppose it doesn’t matter why I’m stuck on that unattainable image. I am. But it’s just not happening. No matter where I go, I’m still clumsy, outspoken me, and after over a decade, I’m getting to where I’m okay with that.
For instance, my husband was the commencement speaker at graduation a couple of years ago, and I ended up sitting next to a dean at a luncheon with campus higher-ups and members of the board of trustees. During the luncheon, while gesturing during a conversation with the dean, I managed to throw a piece of bread at myself (buttered, of course). The hunk of bread bounced off my chest and landed beneath the dean’s chair. After saying, "Boy, you can’t take me anywhere," I dove under the dean’s chair and retrieved the bread.
It occurred to me later that I probably should’ve just left the bread there, but it was right next to his foot, and he was going to have to either step on it or kick it under the table. Plus, I threw it, so I picked it up. It seemed fair. This did involve diving under his chair, which I’m sure looked interesting from his wife’s perspective. I’d have been embarrassed if it wasn’t the sort of thing I do all the time.
At the end of the luncheon, as I stood up, my purse bumped the back of my chair, which flew backwards across the polished wood floor and toppled over. Loudly. Everyone in the room turned and looked. The dean, the college president, the members of the board of trustees...everyone. My husband laughed, said, "There she goes, knocking down furniture," casually righted the chair, and we moved on (and no, there was no alcohol involved).
Well, at that point I did get embarrassed. Throwing bread at yourself is one thing, and knocking down furniture is another. I blushed and squirmed and reminded myself that I was a crappy faculty wife... until I conjured up a memory from the summer before.
I’d been sitting in the shade while my kids swam when something glinting in the sun caught my eye. It was the dean, bald head shining in the sun, swim trunks akimbo, going down the water slide with his kid at the local pool club. I’m not sure why, but this memory made me feel less like the schmuck and more like one of many schmucks. Not that a bald head or a graceless trip down a water slide with a kid makes someone a schmuck, neither does. It’s just that we’re all only human. I throw bread and knock over furniture, and other people splash around like otters looking very un-dean-like. None of it’s all that important. So, I got over the whole chair thing before we’d retrieved our coats.
Once again, I was unable to pull off the put-together, reserved, string-of-pearls-wearing faculty wife thing, but for the first time, I was really okay with that. I guess I’m settling into this role, after all.