Last spring, I was asked to write and share an essay for The Story Show. Riley, inspired by his friend Heather King, brought this event to our community as a way to encourage people to write and to bring money into some of the many worthy charities found here. Below is the essay I shared that evening. It sort of revolves around the idea of me, a feminist, choosing to move to Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: Laura Mae’s Photography)
You know that thing where you say you’re a feminist? You say it loud and proud, and to the dismay of some of your family members? You say it at holiday dinners in order to get an eyeroll from your uncle? You steer conversations toward the topic of feminism. You explain to anyone who will listen that the true definition of feminism is equal rights and opportunity for all people, so therefore, you insist everyone should actually be a feminist?
You wear a Ruth Bader Ginsburg shirt with delight, hoping someone asks you about it so you can school them on the fierceness that is the Notorious RBG? Where you believe that Gloria Steinem might be a literal goddess? That thing where most of your shares on Facebook originate from feminist blogs?
I know that thing. But, despite the fact that I kept my name when I married, I was dependent on my husband for meaning, for validation, and for purpose for a ridiculous amount of time.
The realization that I might be living an anti-feminist life came to me suddenly, on a chilly fall day in 2009. I sat in our office, staring blankly out the picture window that has a view of our postage stamp-sized back yard, our pleasantly vintage neighborhood, and the jewel of Albert Lea, Fountain Lake. Our unstable computer desk, which was a handed down hand-me-down, was arranged so that as we were working on the computer we could look out this window.
I remember crispy, colorful leaves piling up in our backyard. I was sitting, staring out that window, feeling confused and defeated. My husband had just dropped a bomb on me that shook the foundation of this already shaky marriage.
I had this belief that there were 2 kinds of marriages: those in which the concerned parties wanted to be together all the time and those in which the concerned parties were unhappy.
Based on this oversimplified rubric of marital happiness, I would ask myself “Why does he want to golf so much?” And “What am I supposed to do while he is playing cards?”
So, when Riley casually revealed his plan to live in his mother’s basement – four hours away – for an entire summer, so he could work for some baseball team, I started to wonder if it was truly necessary for us to spend every single minute together. In fact, it briefly crossed my mind whether I should spend any more minutes with him. Like, permanently. But, I also had this ache in my gut telling me that I needed Riley. I needed him to validate me. And, I was ashamed of this feeling. What kind of feminist was I?
As I sat in stunned silence, pondering what to do, Riley’s face as he described this summer job flashed through my mind’s eye. The excitement in his expressions–I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. But, what did that mean for me? I didn’t want to go with him. Without Riley for a summer, what would my purpose be? I imagined myself doing a whole lot of nothing, and I wasn’t good at doing nothing.
Around that same time I was reading a book — about, what else? … feminism. This book tells the stories of real women around the world, and how, once in the position to influence their communities, everything just started to get better for EVERYONE. The author calls the readers to action: Do something to make this the rule rather than the exception.
Suddenly, what I should do became as clear to me as the fact that Shirley Chisholm should have been our first female president: I marched downstairs, and said to Riley, with feigned confidence “I am going to volunteer internationally this summer.”
That’s how I found myself leaving for Cusco, Peru in June of 2010 to volunteer at an orphanage for girls, ages 5-18.
On weekends, I would explore the countryside with new friends who had roots all over the world. In my 3rd week in Peru, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I traveled to Machu Picchu along with a few of those new pals. Following a railroad track through the ink black Inca night, while hearing what I imagined to be Pumas stalking us, and picking up stragglers from Sweden and Texas along the way. Vividly, I remember looking down and realizing I was jumping from railroad tie to railroad tie, 30 feet above a quickly moving stream. You have to understand: I won’t even go down a spiral slide at the park with my children. What if I miss the landing? I could get hurt. I don’t take many physical risks.
I tested my mettle without Riley. Our marriage did not crumble with our time apart. In fact, it strengthened our bond because I knew myself better. I had confidence in who I was with a partner, or without a partner. I no longer needed Riley. He was not my purpose. I was, however, choosing him. It’s like Beyonce told Oprah: “Make sure you have your own life before you become someone else’s wife.” I was ready now to be the wife I was meant to be: a wife free of traditional conventions that did not fit who I was as a woman.
After Peru, I had intentions to do something epic every few summers, as my teaching salary allowed. However, soon after Peru, 3 unexpected little people happened, and I haven’t been out of the country since.
This fall, I will be taking my first international sojourn in 6 years as we relocate our family to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The feminist irony is not lost on me: we are moving to a country where, as a woman, my freedoms will be limited.
The job offers came to us on one of those frigid January mornings in Minnesota, so we knew we had to take a few days to consider our options. Our defenses were low. It was a gazillion degrees below zero in Albert Lea. We looked up the temperature that day in Dhahran: 77.
Honestly, I didn’t need to make a pros and cons list. I didn’t need to mull it over. I just knew. I spent a few days convincing my husband that I, his feminist wife, wanted to move to a conservative middle eastern country. This time, I didn’t have to feign confidence when I told Riley what I wanted.
A lot of things about this decision baffle our family and friends, and even we are surprises by our own audacity. But, there is one thing that is certain, which I learned from my time in Peru: we will come out of this adventure closer to one another and more aware of who we are as individuals and as a family.