Sixteen years ago, fresh off a tour as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, I met my husband. I fell in love and changed my life plans. I didn’t return to China or travel the world as an aid worker or take lovers in places like Morocco. Instead, I got married in a church in Washington DC, found a bouquet of lilies on my pillowcase that night and agreed to travel the U.S. instead of the globe.
Fourteen years later, I’m sitting in my bed with a dog sprawled out beside me and a sick child, writing between ibuprofen doses and requests for ginger ale. I feel grateful to be here, in this house in my bed with a sick child and baseboards that need to be cleaned and a Zumba video I plan to do mid-afternoon.
But it hasn’t come without cost, and there was a time when I thought the cost was too high, the price for marriage and kids and the luxury of writing from my bed too stiff.
The price, I felt, was losing a significant chunk of myself.
I didn’t know, when I first married, that long-term relationships can take a toll on one’s self because I’d never been in a relationship longer than about a year. I traveled, went to schools in different states, moved between divorced parents and lived a wholly nomadic life in which I consistently cut ties and made new ones, so the idea of being with one person was both romantic and a little fuzzy.
Mostly, it was romantic.
I thought of all the years we’d spend together traveling the world and discovering new restaurants and flopping on the sofa in some kind of love-filled haze. We’d go to art museums and meet for coffee midday, when we both had breaks from work. The kids we’d have (whom I never seemed to mentally realize needed 24-hour care) would be well dressed, with smart little haircuts and polished shoes.
Basically, I was imagining being William and Kate, without the jewels.
I don’t need to tell you it didn’t work out that way, jewels or otherwise. With Army moves, my own career withered because it turns out researching international aid isn’t a big thing in, say, the suburbs of Sacramento. My visions of a baby playing happily in a playpen for hours-on-end were immediately crushed within weeks of giving birth. Suddenly, instead of going to my office in downtown DC, I was still in my pajamas at noon, sticky with breast milk, my hair askew, trying to read The Economist but somehow getting sucked into Elmo’s World.
Then, two years after the birth of our second child, my husband deployed for 14 months to Afghanistan.
I was home with a two-year-old and a four-year-old, just the three of us, in a town where I barely knew my neighbors and had no close friends; any family was a 16-hour car ride away.
After a few months of adjustment and re-learning to balance the checkbook (seriously), I sat down one night, looked around the house and cried. I was lonely and scared. I didn’t know what to do with myself after the kids were in bed and the house was clean. I didn’t have a friend to call. I didn’t have hobbies or interests. I didn’t have a job to consider or even a garden to weed. It was just me, my kids and three toilets on perpetual rotation.
That’s when I realized that somewhere between that church ceremony in DC and the last pack of Pull-Ups, I’d lost me.
I decided I could either spend the next year of my life bemoaning my loneliness and sinking further into isolation, or I could use the time to rekindle myself a bit, not to go back to the person I was before marriage and motherhood but to at least grab her hand and say: hey, girl. Let’s do this thing together.
So, I made a list. I figured I had 52 weeks ahead of me to do whatever I wanted, so I made a list of 52 things I’d always wanted to do. I baked an angel food cake and made challah. I bought expensive, lacy underwear. I rode in a motorcycle sidecar and read The Old Man and the Sea. I got a spray tan and looked like I’d just rescued a box of kittens from the burning basement of a house in Boca Rattan.
In short, I got busy getting to know myself. I knew who I was as someone’s wife. I knew who I was as the mother of two toddlers. I knew who I was as an Army spouse.
But I had no clue who I was when all of that quieted down, when night fell and I sat alone.
I learned a lot about myself over the course of that year and then more still when my husband returned and we had to figure it out, all over again.
Here are 7 Lessons I Learned on Finding Myself during that year:
1. Giving up ourselves happens slowly, at a true snail’s pace. It’s not an overnight manifesto of intent. It happens when we compromise over where to eat for dinner or whom to invite for Christmas. It happens when we start hiding the truth about our feelings, even if those feelings are about something trivial. It happens because we want to be loved and keep the peace and not upset the apple cart, so when we wake up one day and can’t remember which restaurant is actually our favorite or what we want for dinner regardless of someone else’s preference, it’s easy to miss. It’s easy to miss because the process is full of good intentions, love and sacrifice that feels noble.
2. There are limits for everything, even good things like noble sacrifice, love and good intentions. There is a line, sometimes tissue-thin, between compromise and concession. In the end, martyrdom doesn’t do anyone any favors, least of all ourselves.
3. Losing ourselves isn’t a blame game. I made choices to acquiesce, to give up my career and stay at home with my kids, to sign on to military life and to sometimes eat at Applebee’s. The point isn’t to blame or to point fingers but to understand not just how it happens but how to change it. I’ve never found change to be effective in hostile conditions, my finger pointed anywhere but at my own heart.
4. Time to connect with ourselves isn’t a luxury; it doesn’t need to be pushed aside until everyone else’s needs are met. This doesn’t mean you have to sit at massage parlors with girlfriends, sipping champagne between hot stone treatments. It can be as simple as an hour to read a novel or hit the yoga studio or even just sit in your bedroom, quietly and without distraction, for some much-needed rest. But that connection is necessary for overall health and well-being, within or outside of our relationships.
5. It’s entirely possible to have a healthy relationship and have our own friends. All too quickly, when we form long-term relationships, ‘I’ becomes ‘we.’ We can meet for dinner. We’d love to attend the party. We thought that movie was excellent. For years, I thought all of my friendships had to somehow coincide with my marriage, that a friend could only be a friend if her husband got along with mine or if my husband somehow approved. The reality is that, as my own person, I will have many friendships, and some of those friendships won’t include my husband and are not dependent on my marriage. Letting go of the idea that my relationships outside of my marriage had to fit within some hazy, ill-defined parameters was incredibly freeing. I no longer make friends based on any merit other than: do I like and wish to spend more time with this person. Period.
6. None of us really stay the same. I realized during that year, and in the years since, that I change all the time. What I liked in my 20s no longer suits me. I have different tastes, styles, inclinations and routines. There is no set me. I am forever evolving, which is scary sometimes (change is always hard, even within ourselves) but also exciting. I no longer feel set in stone. I am fluid, and my relationships are fluid as well. I found out that long-term relationships can bend without breaking when we’re honest about who we are, even if that person has shifted slightly from who she was when she said ‘I do.’
7. Disagree isn’t a dirty word. I’m not sure it was conscious, but over the years of marriage, I whittled myself into a person who could agreeably live with another person, whose personality fit with his and who didn’t rock the boat. I began eating foods my husband liked and omitting foods he didn’t like from my cooking repertoire. I began spending time flying in small airplanes because that is his hobby, completely ignoring the fact that I hate small airplanes and find flying boring. I began drinking white wine, even though I love red. Slowly, my own likes and dislikes just morphed with his until it was unclear what I really did like after all. During that year, I got back to my own preferences, and when he returned, I realized he doesn’t care if I prefer red wine, include peas with my dinner or sit at the airport and read a book rather than do take-offs and landings. Shockingly, I was the only one who thought any of that might be an issue.
Perhaps Ernest Hemingway said it best:
“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you’re special too.”
Taking a step back from my long-term relationship, from my marriage, enabled me to see how far I’d withdrawn from myself and how scared I was to truly acknowledge the woman I was rather than the woman I thought best fit that relationship. I’m grateful to have had those 14 months to myself, hard as they were, because they enabled me to remember I’m special too and I can honor that myself.
BY Amy Phariss - June 19, 2018
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.