What Exactly Is A Wife?

Bride before ceremony
Image by PeterJBellis via Flickr

I’m a new noun!

The word husband is also a verb, which I really like — to till, or cultivate. A good marriage is a living thing that demands attention and care.

Wonder why there’s no equivalent verb for being a wife…

Becoming someone’s wife means a lot of things. You might cover parts of your body with henna or scars. You might have to show everyone the blood-stained sheet after your wedding night to prove you had been a virgin beforehand. You might move into your in-laws’ home and become their virtual slave.

For a feminist and someone who had been divorced for 17 years, it’s an odd feeling to be a wife again. It feels good! I realized it was a piece of myself I was holding in abeyance.  I’ve finally heaved a sigh of relief to have closed a door that remained open; we’d been engaged for eight years.

Three older women friends from church, congratulating us both, said they all knew it was me — and it was — who had been the reluctant one, not Jose, which most people (sexists!) assumed it must be. My first marriage, which lasted barely two years after five together beforehand, did mean leaving behind my career, family and friends in Canada to start again, at 30, in New York in a recession. It was terribly hard and lonely.

When I joined Jose at the altar two days ago, I was meeting an old, dear friend of eleven years, a man whose character I know and trust, a fellow journalist — not the glittering but controlling doctor I married the first time. This time, I already had a career in the U.S., my own identity certain, my accomplishments sufficient to capture that most valuable of real estate, a New York Times wedding announcement.

I also wanted to arrive at the altar feeling terrific about myself, after a rough few years. And this year has been a wonderful ride: “Malled” published, its sitcom script awaiting CBS’ approval for a pilot, offers of chances to consult, new magazine clients. I finally felt like the old me again. Now I could become a full(er) partner.

When you marry, or remarry at 54, that walk to the altar feels very different than it did for me at 35. If you have kids (we do not), they’re grown up and may have kids of their own. You’ve lost friends to premature death; we lost 12 in two horrible years. You’re facing your own health issues or those of aging parents.

My mother, glowing and thrilled in a yellow silk dress last time, is now in a nursing home with dementia and did not attend. My stepmother, with whom I always had a tough relationship, has been dead for four years. My Dad, healthy and strong at 82, looked fab in a bow-tie and double-breasted navy blazer, his new partner Mary, in a saffron yellow silk jacket — just back from Hong Kong and the marriage of her daughter.

Intimacy and constancy are, for me anyway, more precious than ever.

Canadian journalist Ann Kingston examined the world of wife-dom in her 2005 book.

Here’s a recent essay about the issue from the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

The marriage is happy, the husband fantastic. But the word “wife” remains itchy and ill fitting. When my husband’s work took us to a foreign country for a year, his colleagues tried to make sense of my presence. Neither employee nor local, I was an appendage, and experienced a shrinking each time I was branded as such. “Oh, you’re the wife,” the colleagues would say, followed by a smile of tolerance, even kindness, but never excitement. “Wife” eclipsed all of my other identities: Writer! Runner! Mother! Parking-ticket fighter! No further investigation was required: Wife was my beginning and end, alpha and omega.

What does being a wife mean to you?

12 thoughts on “What Exactly Is A Wife?

  1. Lisa

    Congrats again, Caitlin! I’m so happy for you.

    Here’s a question though, as I was having this discussion with some divorced/single friends on Friday–why marry? My friends are in their 40s, and having been through bad marriages/relationships, they don’t want to get married. They have kids, and one is in a committed relationship but doesn’t see any need to take that extra step to marriage. She says that since she hadn’t reaped that many benefits from being married the first time around, she didn’t see any reason to get married again! So, if you can share here, what made you decide to remarry?

  2. The wi-fi where we are is spotty. I wrote two long replies already and both got lost…

    Short answer: legal and practical considerations (plus love.) I need access to Jose’s SS and pension (not possible unmarried) as my income in no way matches my hard, relentless work; I face major surgery with hip replacement and need that status for him to deal effectively with drs. etc; we were being taxed to death on my use of his company health plan unmarried…

    The year has offered many epiphanies, some of which made much clearer to me that my family of origin is not the place, certainly at midlife, to seek support. He’s been my family for a long time.

    I fully understand why some women never re-marry. But I wanted to. It took me a long time to feel confident in myself; to not feel so vulnerable; to trust him; to trust in our large and strong social networks. I married when I had no job, few friends and few U.S.-based networks. You have to feel very sure of yourself to partner (again.)

  3. Congratulations, again! That is a wonderful photo of the two of you. My thoughts on what being a wife will mean to me, once himself decides to actually ask me will come in the form of an email when you aren’t meant to be on your ‘honeymoon’! 🙂

  4. Congrats you two! 🙂

    I’ve been a wife for about 8 years now, and I still sometimes catch myself being surprised when saying “husband.” I never wanted to be married, but we too, got married for mostly legal considerations (residency status), and also putting my parents’ anxieties about living together out of wedlock (shock and horror!) at ease. Marriage, to me, meant/means women selling themselves into willing slavery for some man, as it is what I observed growing up. I have always loved the idealised version of a husband and wife being much like partners in crime. What I’ve seen of wives is that they become an independently functioning limb of the Husband. I know each relationship is different, but it’s just never been too inspiring. Suffice to say, I’ve a big chip on my shoulder about this being-wife business, even after almost a decade of not being my husband’s remote limb.

    My poor, long suffering boy on the other hand, just wants to live happily ever after. Every once in a while he reminds me that my issues are mostly in my head, and I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to.

    Rather exciting the NY Times wedding announcement, except i have to say, WTF were they thinking, concluding a perfectly happy announcement with how your last marriages ended?! Inappropriate, much?

    1. I hear you! There are too many lousy marriages out there that it’s hard to see the good ones, and it’s even harder to see the moving parts that *make* them good. But I also fault women, a lot, for choosing crummy men and staying with them. We all have choices and one choice is to kick their ass when they are being an ass. Then, if you have to, leave!

      I love the partner in crime mindset. We laugh a lot, and I enjoy that. I spent the last few weeks pleading “Don’t change!” before we married, as we get along so well. But one has to have some trust.

      The NYT are insane, no? Not at all clear why that data has any relevance to anyone.

  5. We celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary last month. Being a wife has meant lots of different things over the years. This role has taught me countless lessons about love, commitment, identity, family, trust, sharing, communication, honesty, and kindness, sacrifice, and forgiveness. It’s one of the greatest blessings of my life.

    1. This is so beautiful….and happy anniversary!!

      We’re spending this week at the home of my best friend from high school and she is celebrating her 25th. this month. Three of my friends have long marriages like this and I find them very encouraging. You need to know they’re not only possible, but well worth doing.

      I know that intimacy doesn’t grow by itself. You have to create the hothouse that allows it to flourish.

  6. As a wife twice and divorced twice…my experiences as a wife were not good ones. Although I would still love to have that very special man in my life, I am happy and content with myself, and wonderful friends (which extra specially includes my brother & best friend).

    Caitlin, I am so happy for you and Jose to have found each other and now sharing your lives as husband and wife. Congratulations!

  7. I had to stifle a giggle (or a dejected sigh– I can’t decide which one) reading that last sentence in the NYT wedding announcement. Who wrote that??

    The picture is great, though– you both look very happy and content!

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