There’s a line in the 1994 version of Little Women that I based a lot (maybe too much) of my early dating life on. It’s when Jo March — patron saint of girls who don’t feel “girly” and want to grow up to be writers — turns down a proposal from her best friend, Laurie, by saying, “I can’t just go be a wife.” These words, while implied, are not explicitly said in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and I was irrationally upset when I didn’t hear them. I realized in that moment, in a dark theatre in December, Oh shit, I’m about to go be a wife.
I’m getting married in September. We’ve been together for eight years. For about seven of them, I told him not to propose. It was my first serious relationship. He was the first to meet my big brothers and my parents. The first person I called “my partner” because I hated the word “boyfriend” (I physically recoil at the word “fiancé"). Before him, I would spend Valentine's Day with my girls every year and feel smug that I had remained single, independent, and free from societal expectations. Then, as the cliché goes, I fell in love. I’m about to marry a man because I love him deeply and because I want to legally bind our lives for reasons I can’t really explain other than that it feels right, but I still reject the idea of being a wife. Me? A wife? That doesn’t feel right.
Me? A wife? That doesn’t feel right.
For years, I can’t just go be a wife would ring in my ears every time someone would say something to my partner like, “When are you going to come around? Put her out of her misery!” As if I was the desperate damsel waiting with bated breath for this man to finally put a ring on it. When we were alone, my partner and I would laugh it off, and I’d gently remind him not to propose — until one day I stopped reminding him. And I started subtly letting him know I wouldn’t mind if he did. Sometimes before bed, I’d jokingly propose to him. He’d say, “Stop trying to steal my moment.” As much as I usually rail against traditional gender roles, I decided I did want him to propose to me. I don’t know what changed. At the time, I convinced myself that I just wanted to put on a pretty white dress and have a party. “I love compliments and attention,” I’d quip when friends asked why I changed my mind. Secretly, I think I always knew I’d marry him.
He is, by all accounts, a Good Man. He’s smart, funny, and kind. He meets all the basic low standards a committed straight man is supposed to meet. He is faithful. He compliments me, unprompted, and not just on my ass, but he still does that sometimes, too (get you a man who can do both). He cooks and he cleans. But he’s also a man who far and above exceeds the low bar society would let him get away with (as he should). He does pretty much all of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in our household. He remembers facts about Beyoncé just because they are important to me. It’s not unusual for him to look at me from across the couch and say something corny like, “I can’t believe I get to spend the rest of my life with you,” and then go back to watching Peaky Blinders leaving me to wonder how my man so frequently speaks like he’s a character from a romance novel.
I rarely say these nice things about him out loud to anyone, because it’s obnoxious to gloat about how great your partner is, but also because I often take his reliability for granted. He is unconditionally supportive of my career — so much so, he moved across the country for me and put dreams of his own on hold. He does most of the caregiving for our dog, Apollo Creed. He is also, by all pop-cultural definitions, a Good Wife.
When I think of the word “wife,” I frequently go back to Judy Brady’s 1971 essay, “I Want A Wife,” in which she facetiously details all the qualities she wants in a wife, based on antiquated gender roles. “I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook,” Brady writes. She ends the essay with, “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?” When I announced our engagement on Instagram (like a proper millennial), my caption included the joke, “I’ll be a terrible wife. He’ll be a great one.” He doesn’t love it when I make that joke. Who would want to be a wife?
I never did. The word “wife” to me always stood for domesticity and obedience. Growing up with traditional immigrant parents, my mom did most of the cooking and all of the cleaning and caregiving. My mom worked too, but my dad got to be a workaholic and that was it. Being a husband seemed like the dream. Plus, the wives I saw in pop culture routinely put their dreams aside for their men. Being a “wife” equalled sacrifice. And once you gave up everything to become a wife, your man would just talk shit about you to his friends and call you a ball and chain. No, thank you.
Of course, the role of the wife in 2020 has evolved, and many of my friends love the word and what it means to them. We now know that a wife doesn’t have to clean, cook or even have children at all — and we know that women don’t need a ring to show their worth. In fact, the number of women marrying is in steep decline.
I think part of the reason I didn’t think I’d become a wife before I met my future husband (a word that doesn’t hold as many negative implications) is because, statistically, Black women are less likely to get married. Almost 40% of Black women in their 30s have never been married, a significantly higher number than their white counterparts (single women over 30 are also reportedly happier than married people so there’s that). No wonder I never thought it would be in the cards for me. I was wrong.
The weekend he proposed, I was preparing to interview bestselling author and New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, about her book Trick Mirror. The final chapter, called "I Thee Dread," is about weddings and marriage and outlines all the talking points I used over the years as to why I was abstaining from both: that straight marriages benefit men more than women, that it’s a heteronormative tradition rooted in misogyny, and that it’s just another way the patriarchy holds us down! In a tone mocking her own anti-marriage rants, Tolentino writes, “She’s the one who has to wear this tacky ring to signify male ownership and she’s supposed to be excited about it, this new life where doubt becomes this thing you’re supposed to experience in private and certainty becomes the default affect for the entire rest of your life.” YASSS, I thought. Then, I repeated Tolentino’s words to my partner the night before he proposed. He brushed them off and did it anyway. Certainty has always been his default affect.
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Today, we’ve been together for 8 years. A few days ago, we decided to make it a lifetime. ⠀⠀ . It’s also this man’s birthday. Now I actually have a good reason to make it all about me! For real, I’ll be a terrible wife. He’ll be a great one. Thank you @jtghoward for being a better man than I’ll ever deserve. Happy birthday. 💗 ⠀⠀ . PS. Shoutout to my broken nail and the random tourists who sneakily took the second pic. Bless. 🙏🏾
The thing is, I am certain I want to marry him. Now. Maybe in a few decades, I’ll change my mind. The fact that I have that choice is comforting. I like that it feels like we made this decision together, as opposed to marriage being a thing I said yes to because my vagina made me. Even though I had never dreamed of the moment someone would ask me to marry him, I have proven to be the girl who gets giddy when a man is on one knee as tourists squeal in the background. Who would have guessed that I’m the basic bitch who can’t stop staring at her ring? I never dreamed of my own wedding but I assumed that if I ever did it, I’d be the chill bride who just went to City Hall rocking a white suit and sneakers, then go for Thai food with a handful of friends afterwards. Turns out, I’m the bride who can’t get her guest list down to 120 and who went to Kleinfeld to get her extravagant dress (I even squealed, “I’m saying YES TO THE DRESS!” with vigor). I hate wedding planning, but I also love complaining about how much I hate wedding planning. And, honestly, I can’t wait for my wedding day. Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but I think I secretly like being a fiancé. Shudder.
I like that I am choosing to be his wife, in spite of hating everything the word stands for. I’ll be his sturdy, dependable, career-driven husband and his loving, doting wife, and he’ll be both to me too. I still won’t do any of the cleaning though. Put that in the vows.