I would not choose this life of far-flung domestic servitude. But I did choose to marry him. I do, I said. And I’m not one to break promises. So I’m here, in a remote corner of Africa, as an obediently trailing spouse. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I rail against it, and I flail about trying to draw some sort of more substantial self from the dust. I am a Reluctant Housewife. Sometimes I call myself a writer. Sometimes a designer. Never a housewife (though that indubitably is what I am; without his earnings, we could barely afford to eat).

My daughters, much better educated than I, and better traveled — I have made sure of that — always call me a writer. Because they are proud of my writing? Ashamed of my reality? Or just because they are loyal and kind?

I was married young, and shortly after that I became a mother, thrice, in quick succession. It was only when the youngest was 4 that I found the time to raise my head above a parapet of diapers and sleepless nights, school runs and lunchboxes, and write. Informally. Freelance. From home.

My mother, a formidably intelligent voracious reader, trod precisely the same path before me: married at 23, a mother by 25. Like me, she never had a career. I have wondered often if the surfeit of impotent intellect is what pushed her toward catastrophic depression?

I ought to have known better then, right? My mother surrendered her completeness to her role of fulltimewifeandmother, at the mercy of others’ whims, always. That explains my dislocated geography. I’m not here because I want to be; I’m here because he is.

And therein lies my greatest difficulty. I am a hostage to my own choices; I said I do and I meant it. If I’d had my own career, I would have had some leverage upon our decisions, I would have borne fiscal value, confidence. But I didn’t, and I don’t. It isn’t that he is a bully — not at all — it’s that common sense and economics must prevail. After all, there are bills to pay.

And it is that dependence, the fact that my husband is the fulcrum of everything I can or can’t do, that is difficult for me. I thought about it less when the children were little — their insistent demands endorsed my stay-at-home role. If I couldn’t do it, we’d have had to hire somebody who could. But I swing wildly — frighteningly — in a void now that they’re older.

I adored being at home for and with, my children. I  felt lucky to be able to immerse myself in their lives, and teach them to read, to ride a bike, to swim. I was fortunate that I could afford endless hours at the tired end of the day just to listen. Not all mothers have that time. They can’t always attend school assemblies, or meetings with teachers. They don’t have the time to champion husbands in their careers, as I have done and continue to do (and squirm with uncomfortable recognition when I’m labeled a corporate wife).

But they also don’t find themselves sitting on the sidelines when the main show is over and their children are grown.

A career would have lent ballast and provided tangible substance (useful as we women face middle-aged invisibility). It would have defined me as me — as opposed to his wife, their mom. But I made other choices. They are choices I live with, but don’t want my girls to mimic. I urged them to apply to the best colleges, I encourage them to develop careers; one in education, another in journalism.

My mother and hers taught me that good marriages — and I think mine is good, mostly — take work and sacrifice. My daughter says, “I hope I have a marriage like you and dad one day,” and I worry I’m making it look too easy. My own secure, happy childhood lent me the tools to understand, most of the time, what to put in place to give my kids the same. But those wonderful women — partly because they were women of their times — never encouraged me to pursue a career. Perhaps young feminism seemed experimental? Or too radical. Imagining you could have it all, be it all — partner, parent, professional — was a long way off.

I am honest with my daughters, telling them “I love your dad, I love being married to him, I love being a mother, I loved being able to spend your formative years at home with you. But this, now, this is hard.” This is emptying-nest redundancy, the fear I have not made sufficient contribution, have not maximized my potential as an individual. I tell my daughters they can have it all. But I tell them that if they are smart they won’t aspire to have it all, at the same time.

I reflect on what I have taught my girls, not consciously or earnestly, just as a consequence of our circumstances — the value of a sound, supportive, loving union between two adults, the merits of a mostly happy home. And academically, at least, I have delivered another lesson: the importance of developing themselves professionally so that they always have a piece of themselves. To hang onto. To fall back on.

To draw upon for definition if ever they begin to feel a little shapeless, as I do now.

Rowan is a freelance journalist. And, obviously, mother.

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