I was sitting on the couch in my tiny apartment, trying to decide between takeout Thai and takeout sushi for dinner, when my husband walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were moving to India.
India, the country.
We were newlyweds. I was finishing my graduate degree and dreamily planning a future that involved a writing career, a couple of kids, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. My life was defined by the categories I fit into: a writer, a newlywed, a city girl. Being a housewife in a foreign country ten thousand miles from home was not supposed to be one of them.
Still, I’d promised to love and trust and follow my husband to the ends of the earth. I got my diploma, quit my job, and stepped onto an airplane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-prepared for the journey I was about to take.
Everything I did in my new role as an expat housewife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new culture were awkward and half-hearted. I spent too much money on groceries ($20 dollars for an expired jar of Ragu pasta sauce), let the laundry pile up, stared sullenly into space at my husband’s work dinners instead of being the charming, sunny corporate wife I thought I’d be. Without my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a parasitic hanger-on in a very foreign world. The new categories I’d imagined for myself—housewife, jet-setter—turned out to not fit so well. And without those labels to define me, I lost myself.
Except “lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a lesson about identity that was equal parts painful, profound, and life-changing: I hadn’t really known myself at all. I was so busy painting a picture of who I thought I was supposed to be, a set of perfect labels to live up to, that I never learned to look in the mirror and see who that person actually was.
When I set myself free from all those labels—even the ones I loved, like writer and daughter and wife—I began to understand the bigger picture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white boxes I’d spent much of my life believing I needed to fit into.
With so much debate about “leaning in,” and the insurmountable tasks of finding balance and having it all that have become part of today’s conversation, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to choose one of the different worlds you actually float between.
Fitting snugly into the “housewife” box or the “expat” box didn’t happen for me. And, later on, the “mother” box and the “writer” box didn’t turn out to be perfect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dreaming they would be. Those roles are largely defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the official descriptions. Sense of self comes from the choices we make and the things we do. When I stopped fighting against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to celebrate the things we were, I became whole again.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a housewife, or to give up loving New York City in order to love Hyderabad, too. A little bit mango, a little Big Apple, a little bit “write”” and a little bit “maker of awesome turkey lasagna”: the real me was a collection of the pieces I’d chosen to be.
As a part-time working mom, I struggle to justify my choices and balance my priorities, but the essential first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still consider myself a part-time housewife, even though I never did learn to roast a chicken or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career—not identical to the one I’d have if I dedicated all my resources to working, but one that makes me feel successful and fulfilled. I am a mother—not the same one I’d be if I dedicated all my resources to parenting, but still a mother I’m proud to have become.
Getting on that plane to India and becoming an accidental housewife changed my life forever, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expectations, and sacrifice, and perspective. But losing myself in India, and then finding myself again, was the best part of my journey. My path toward self-discovery remains fluid and perpetual, but my choices aren’t black or white anymore. Now when I look in the mirror, I can see the small parts as they come together to make up my whole.
As I write this post in August, I’m aware that the High Holy days are approaching. I recall the teachings of the rabbis at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California where I’ve been a member. I’m wondering about that “still small voice” that resides somewhere inside me. Where is it, maybe hiding in my throat, balanced on my vocal chords and waiting to speak, embedded in an artery at some juncture between my heart and my foot, or in both places?
I know. Not likely.
The thing I loved about living in the in Bay Area all these years with its confabulation of marvelous music (Yoshi’s in Oakland for superb jazz), techies galore (try Tech Liminal for expert help in getting your WordPress on), food (wonderful restaurants everywhere and note to reader, I miss baguettes slathered in creamy butter), museums (Jewish Museum,Oakland Art Murmur for a museum of the streets), incredible vistas (drive along Highway 1 to Bolinas), and a list that could fill up the remainder of this blog post, is also the thing that wore me out. With the constant availability of physical and intellectual riches and feeling like I could never miss an event, I found it difficult to know my own priorities. I guess I had a classic case of burn out.
The Bay Area with its swirling diversity of all things made possible, also made it difficult to hear my still small voice, especially at a time when my muse was advising me to dig into new territory. With a greater maturity that age and experience brings, I felt ready to begin that exploration, much like the way Rabbi Isaac Luria and his followers advised that a person only study Kabbalah after developing some serious life chops.
Can I hear my voice more clearly in Monroe, Louisiana where my own true love resides, where I enjoy daily bike rides around Bayou Bartholomew and watching the neighborhood kids stride across the bayou ditch, hunters in search of small prey?
I’m told that to skin a squirrel, you must nail its head to a tree, slit it up and down its middle and pull off its fur.
There’s something reassuring about the specificity of those directions.