I had been crying regularly for three weeks when Michael gave me the ultimatum.
"Either you quit something or I'm going to quit it for you." His voice was filled with compassion, but it also carried an edge. "You're going crazy, Ann, and you're taking me with you."
I burst into fresh tears. "I can't quit anything, Michael! I have to work and I'm not quitting school and you know I'm not going to stop being involved at church! And—and—there are always dishes! I paused for a second before continuing, "We're only three months into marriage and I'm already failing!"
It had been three months since Michael and I had gotten married. In that timeframe, I had started graduate school as a full time student, was working two jobs, had responsibilities at church, and felt the new and added burden of trying to keep our apartment sparkling and make dinner every night, not to mention trying to learn what it meant to be a wife. I was trying to do it all and was, in my mind, failing—the apartment was a mess, I was too exhausted to cook on most evenings, I was fighting to stay up on my graduate work, and I was constantly stressed.
"Ann, you're not failing!" His voice softened. "We are not failing." Michael was concerned. "Where are all of these expectations that you're putting on yourself coming from? It's not like I care if everything is perfect in the apartment or if dinner is on the table every night. Who are you comparing yourself to?"
And the lightbulb went on: my mom.
My mother is one of my best friends. She is bright, beautiful, and has more energy than anyone I know. She is also a spectacular wife, employee, hostess, small group leader, cook, and church member. On top of that, she only needs about five hours of sleep every night to be able to get up and do it all over again.
In that moment, God revealed the expectations that I had unwittingly—and unconsciously—placed on myself. Somewhere, deep down, I went into marriage believing that in order to be a "good wife," I needed to be my mother. I never spoke the thought, never even realized how much I believed it, but it was coloring our young marriage.
My mother is a fantastic cook, and as a child, Mom had homemade dinners on the table nearly every night, so I assumed I should be able to do the same thing. Mom always got the dishes done after dinner, so I thought I ought to be doing that as well. She worked part-time and was completely capable of opening our home to school and church groups in the evenings, and so I expected the same thing of myself. It wasn't that my mother or my father or even Michael had required these things of me—they all, in fact, told me to not put so much pressure on myself. But my mother was the model that I grew up with, and I had internally swallowed her wonderful capabilities and took them on as expectations for myself that neither God nor my husband asked of me.
Michael squeezed my hand. "Ann, I didn't marry your mom. I married you."
That night began a process of allowing God to come into my heart and change the expectations that I had placed on myself.
My own identity as a wife
A conversation with my mother on the phone continued that process. I was talking with her about making dinner for my husband and my sister, who lives near us. Being from a family who loves food, we started talking about the details of the meal.
"So what are you making tonight?" Mom asked.
"Chicken pot pie, I think." I hesitated. "And I found a pumpkin bread boxed mix at the grocery store that I'm going to try." As far as I knew, my mother had only ever made pumpkin bread from scratch.
My mother's response shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. "Great idea, honey! When you find something that works and saves you time, go for it."
"Yeah." I paused. "Yeah, it is great."
Apparently, she could tell I was uncertain. There was a smile behind her voice. "Anything you can do to simplify your life is wonderful, Ann. Take advantage of things like that as often as you can."
"Thanks, Mom. It's good to hear you say that."
And it was. So along with pumpkin bread mixes, this is what I am embracing in myself. I am a woman who requires at least seven hours of sleep a night, a woman who doesn't need to have a perfectly clean home, a woman who is happy to pop a frozen pizza in the oven, a woman who needs time every week to be rather than do.
I decided to quit one of my jobs, and—by God's grace—started learning that the definition of being a "good wife" is one that I am going to be carving out for a long time. Now, seven years later, Michael and I are still growing in our roles as spouses, learning the give and take of being married. God has enabled me to see that who I am (and who I will be) as a wife may be very different than who my mother is as a wife. Not better or worse, just different.
Knowing my identity in Christ
This is a lesson that I've needed to continue to learn. The world I live in is constantly telling me that I'm not good enough in one way or another, or that I need to be someone different than who I am in order to be a "good wife." Because while I will never be my mother, I will also never be a lot of other things. I will never be a gourmet cook for Michael or our family. I will never have an immaculately clean house. I will never wear a size 4 dress. I will never look like a fashion model. I will never have it all together all the time. But I will feed our family fresh and healthy food. I will provide a safe and loving home for my husband and daughter. I will wear lovely and appropriate clothing. I will stay active and strong. And I will be okay with being a work in progress.
As a wife, I will never be my mother, and I will never be my sister. I will never be my friend Gwen, and I will never be anybody but myself. Being a good wife, for me, means being a good wife to Michael, the one particular man out of billions that I married. And I believe that God has equipped me to be the best wife for him, just as I believe God has equipped him to be the best husband for me. I don't need to be someone else—anyone else—to be a good wife. In fact, I need to be exactly who I am to fulfill all of the purposes God has for my life, and being a wife is part of that.
There is another side, however, to this process of becoming secure in who I am as a person and as a wife. Because the flip side of being content with my own gifts and quirks is that I do need to change—but not into a different size dress or into a gourmet chef or even into my mother. I need to change more and more into the image of Christ. I cannot write off my sin and my selfishness simply as the fact that I am being "myself." I can't avoid transformation because my brokenness is "who I am." On the contrary, anything in my life that does not reflect the love, compassion, and grace of Christ does need to change. But the only one who I am being made in the image of is Jesus himself. No other expectation—from myself or from the culture I live in—should shape me.
And as I continue to learn what it means for me to be the type of wife God created me to be, I am finding that I have more respect for my mother today than I have ever had before. I understand that she did a great amount of challenging and meaningful work for our family. Now that Michael and I have a child, I admire her even more for the love and sacrifices she poured into us. Within that respect for her, I am discovering freedom in my own heart and life. Loving and admiring my mom does not mean that what is best for my marriage is for me to be exactly like her. So as Michael and I seek to walk in God's love in our marriage, I've found that while I'll be using my mother's recipes until the day I die (pumpkin bread recipe excluded), the best thing for us is for me to be free to say that I'm not my mother—I'm myself, with quirks and capabilities of my own. And that, Michael reminded me, is exactly why he married me in the first place.
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