The Real Life Vegan Wife was born out of my need to explore a part of my identity that was systematically snuffed out at an early age: What it means to be in a successful lifetime partnership with a man, while maintaining personal and business success and happiness. If I’m struggling, I knew that many other women must be struggling too.
My upbringing encouraged me to be smart, ambitious, confident, and laser-focused on two things: Going to college and becoming “successful” in the working world. It was a new time – I could grow up to be anything that I wanted to be. I’d tell my dad I wanted to be a librarian or a hairstylist, and his response would be something to the effect of, “A lawyer would be better; do something I can be proud of. A hairstylist isn’t changing the world anytime soon, so think bigger.” The phrase “You’ll never get rich working for someone else” echoes in the back of my mind to this day, even though that ideology conflicts with the college to entry-level-job model he emphasized. I suppose the end-goal in his mind was for me to end up being the boss after all was said and done. He never explained to me the emotional cost, all I knew was that I was the first in my family to go to a university, and it was a privilege. I remember appreciating his encouragement and his faith in my abilities, but feeling trapped by this “freedom” to be anything I wanted to be. The unspoken piece of that conversation is that marriage and family is no where a part of it.
My Mexican mom left her family and the city behind to move with my Dad to a rural, white-washed country town. The plan was to raise a family there. She stayed at home with my sister and I while we were small, and I remember those days as being some of the most happy of my childhood. Looking back on it now, I’m sure it was a tremendous financial struggle for my parents, but as kids we felt like we had everything. We could play outside all day making forts and riding bikes – we had more books than we knew what to do with, and my mom turned the large addition to our mobile home into a playroom for us. I estimate about a third of our home’s liveable space was dedicated to our make-believe. I was encouraged to have a strong imagination, and to dream as big as I could.
As we got older, things changed. The emphasis on learning and dreaming turned to a strong focus on hard work and discipline. My parents bought a house; my mom wanted to be a preschool teacher. Sacrifices were to be made. What I didn’t realize at the time was that as I watched my mom work all day, then shut herself in my parents’ bedroom at night to study, she was choosing to prioritize herself and the long-term stability of the family. It appeared that my dad was being forced to reassess his identity, while watching old traditions fizzle out. Although she was doing what was financially necessary for the family at the time, and what she wanted to do for her own personal happiness, what was visible to the rest of us was that dinner wasn’t on the table at six. My dad tried to support her endeavors, but struggled. For me, this created a confusion between what my dad taught me women could be: Anything, and what his expectations (and arguably society’s expectations) of my mom really were: Do everything. Then carry that tremendous guilt around with you everywhere, when you inevitably fail at an impossible task. And as my dad worked harder and longer hours to make ends meet, the pressure to “Not end up like him” grew. My parents would separate permanently four years after purchasing that house.
Clearly this specific anecdotal experience could be analyzed in terms of household gender roles, the gendered division of labor, the acquisition of the “American Dream,” access to education and child care, and the list goes on and on, without even taking my parents’ racial and socioeconomic backgrounds into consideration. As someone who subscribes to Intersectional Feminist Theory, the temptation to complicate each and every occurrence is my normal, but the journalist in me says to focus.
I internalized their struggle, and didn’t begin to realize it until marriage became a possibility for me. I watched our household cave under the weight of being stuck between “traditional” family roles and the reality of what working families can feasibly accomplish. I watched my parents live these ideas out at the cost of our family. What I see now, is that as girls, many of us grew up being told to dream big, but watched our households crumble as our mothers tried to dream a little, and our fathers tried to sort that out.
So I shut it out. The possibility of marriage in my life. The idea that I’d ever have my own family. The thought that I’d ever be trapped by these archaic expectations of women and our roles, or forced to compromise my dreams, drove me the opposite direction. I did those things I was expected to do as the first female with these options available to her in my family, which is a huge weight within itself. I left for college at 17; I graduated in exactly four years, with honors, I went to trade school, put in the honest work, and now I own my own business. I work in the beauty industry though – sorry Dad. I thought I had freed myself from the homemaker cage, but in doing so, built a new one (the workaholic cage) and plopped myself down right inside of it.
Before I met my husband, whenever marriage came into my mind, I met it with fear and pushed it away. Kids have never even been an option on the table. Checking accomplishments off of my professional and educational list is what mattered to me most, the men in my life always taking second place to what I thought were my life’s aspirations. If they didn’t comply, I’d move on. If I felt that they stood in the way of any of my plans, I wouldn’t compromise or change my path, I’d push through regardless of how this affected us or them. This isn’t an admirable feminist quality, this is a bullheaded inconsiderate quality. I had taken what I knew to be necessary to survive as a woman in today’s professional world, and translated it directly into my personal relationships with men.
Nope. It doesn’t work like that.
Which brings me to my husband. I wanted to marry him immediately. That sounds crazy, but it took one date, maybe two to figure that out. All I knew is that I wanted to be with him forever and I’d never felt that way before about anyone. There were many factors contributing to this I’m sure – timing is the biggest one. I was ready to meet him, simple as that. And we are happy, and I love him more than anything in this world. So the struggle becomes harder to be the best wife I can possibly be, because he deserves it. For the first time ever, my number one goal is to excel at marriage and I have no idea how.
I had successfully avoided the “Women can be anything, therefore women are expected to now do everything” in my life until now by systematically choosing one path: Work only. But now I’m thirty years old, finding myself on a new path. I had made it this long without having to confront my biggest fears. Will I have to sacrifice my business success to be married? Will my husband expect me to live up to some unreasonably “wifely” role to the detriment of my happiness? But the biggest and the newest fear: Will I fail him because I don’t know how to be a wife? And unfortunately the answers are all gray and blurry, with few resources to help. And it’s neither of our faults because neither of us knows what we’re doing.
I scoured the internet during the year that led up to opening my business, and looked even more frantically during the first year I was open, for other women out there starting conversations about this. For the non-religious, feminist woman, there are few resources. I had been taught that it’s my duty to forge forward, continuing to pave the way for future generations of females to follow us – in business. If I sacrifice all else, it’s for a greater purpose and cause. It is a privilege that I even have these opportunities, so don’t complain. As if that weight isn’t heavy enough, I think that many of us simultaneously internalize the guilt we feel for being partially responsible for the dissolution of the “traditional family model” in this country. Because even if we are not overtly blamed for it, disagree with it’s history and execution, and even if our partners are supportive and wonderful, the tone carries throughout our lives, and permeates throughout every decision we make.
Rather than my inner conversation about working late ending with thoughts of making money, helping my community, or fulfilling my own personal goals, I feel guilt that I’m not home contributing to the household in some way. Rather than feeling accomplished after finishing household errands, I feel guilt for neglecting work emails. We ask ourselves how we spend every day working as hard as possible at everything, yet we still feel inadequate – like failures both at home and at work. Spinning our wheels. Never quite good enough.
The Real Life Vegan Wife wants to start that conversation. How do we break free from that guilt? How do we honor our mothers and grandmothers sacrifices while simultaneously being grateful for our husbands? And how do we navigate and honor all the facets of our identity without relying on others to define them for us? We’ve been asking ourselves if we can “have it all,” but not how we can happily have two things: a job and a family. Is that really “it all?” These are huge, complex, emotional questions. And my hope is to create a positive space where expectations from ourselves and others can fall away, and we can actually just exist.