I went to my 20th high school reunion on the same day I went to a high school open house for my oldest child.
At the reunion, our name tags had our pictures from our freshman year in high school. There I was with my bangs nearly flopping over my eyes, my entire future unscripted and unknown. I pressed my name tag onto my blouse and thought about my oldest son, with his hair flopping down across his forehead, how he’d be turning the same age as I was in that picture in just a matter of months. In some odd way, I felt as if he was becoming a peer.
I don’t feel all that different from the girl I was in that picture. I remember everything she liked and wanted for herself. I remember all her hopes and dreams and fears. I’ve certainly changed, my priorities and values have shifted, but that young girl is still with me. All I have done for that last twenty years is sleep and wake up, and life has happened around me. I got married, earned degrees, moved, had children, moved some more, and then finally returned to my hometown. Through it all, the years just passed without any sort of fanfare. I wish we had to crank the gears on some giant clock or push time forward in any sort of physical way, because this sunrise-sunset business crept up on me. Wrinkles just showed up on my face; grey hair appeared out of nowhere; and my waistline decided it had enough. After three children, it was done shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size.
Whenever I accompany my husband to a work dinner, someone invariably asks me, “And what do you do? Are you also a physician?”
Like many writers, I struggle with claiming that title, so I rarely mention it. I almost always quip that I’m employed by our three kids, or simply state that I’m a stay-at-home mom.
The reply is often, “That’s the most important job in the world,” or “Sounds like you have your hands full,” as if I’ve just confessed something that begs for affirmation. I’ve often wondered what it is about mothering that calls out the inner cheerleader in people. I’ve never once regarded one of my husband’s colleagues with wide eyes and said, “I bet that keeps you busy!”
I didn’t write this summer. Not only were my children home from school all day, but it was Ramadan and we were finally moving into the house we’d been rebuilding from the foundation up for close to two years. It was too much to juggle, the boxes, the hunger, the thirst, the late night iftars, and I thought it would help to declare an official break. Maybe then I could stave off the frustration of trying to write and not getting anything done.
Even when I took a short break for a writing fellowship in Aspen, I came home and got right back to not writing. I unpacked boxes, made arrangements for our unfinished deck, and refinanced our construction loan. At night, I revised my long lists of to dos, filled with subcontractors to call, items to order, items to buy, items to return. During the day, I went from room to room, organizing closets, washing linens that had been in storage for two years and putting them away, asking myself about every mismatched towel, table cloth, and drape, “Why? Why did we bring this?” I waited for the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter, the painter. And still I didn’t write anything. I didn’t look at my manuscript, only rarely scribbled in my journal, and hardly ever read. “This so much better,” I reminded myself. “Get everything done now and then you can focus in the fall.”
But that frustration I thought I was avoiding by lowering my expectations never relented. It chased me down daily if not hourly. Coursing in the back of mind was always this loop of accusations: “You’ve lost your way this time;” “You can’t be a serious writer if you can take such long breaks from your work;” “There must be a minimum word count a week that distinguishes the real writers from fakers like you.”
It was my first time meeting a new friend’s spouse. We’d just finished dinner at our place, and my friend and I were in the kitchen, washing dishes and packing up leftovers. Our husbands chatted at the table while our children played in the living room, happy one minute, squabbling the next. After they left, the warmth of their easy company had lingered, and so I couldn’t have been more surprised when the next day, she called me, apologizing. “I am sorry my husband was so quiet last night,” she said. “I hope you didn’t take it the wrong way.”
I hadn’t noticed a thing, but I’d recognized every word she said. I could have said it myself. In fact, I had, many times. During the early years of our marriage, I watched my husband, Hadi, in social settings as if he was on display to the world as the man I picked to marry. I looked at his posture, watched him in conversation, and tried to imagine what people thought about him. Did they think he was a great guy and consider me lucky or did they wonder what we were doing together?
In seventeen years of marriage, my husband and I have lived in one foreign country and three different states. At each of these locations, we’ve changed our homes at least twice, shrinking and expanding from a tiny apartment to a bigger apartment, from a smaller duplex to a larger high-rise, from a modest townhome to single-family home. And, within each of these homes, we’ve been different people and a different couple.
Our first apartment was a one-bedroom in Santa Clara, California with carpet so stiff it seemed to crunch when you walked on it and a kitchen so small that only one appliance could be opened at a time. For the year that we lived in that apartment, I was a busy student, wrapping up my last year of college while applying to graduate school. My husband, Hadi, was applying to medical school while working. On some weeknights Hadi cooked. Other nights, we ate out. But in both cases, these meals had to be rushed. I had to get back to studying because weekends were reserved for visiting my parents over an hour’s drive away. School and family had always been my priorities; it seemed only natural to me that my husband would follow, the next in line.
During my last year of college and my first year of marriage, my husband, Hadi, did most of our housework. He bought our groceries, made our dinners, and did our laundry. I expected this: my father assumed similar tasks whenever my mother was working toward another degree. There was a subversive element to this that I appreciated. Both my husband and my father defied the stereotype of the patriarchal Muslim man; both my mother and I were far from being subservient Muslim women.
Then, quite suddenly, our roles reversed. Hadi and I had planned to attend graduate school together in the upcoming school year, but Hadi’s only acceptance was at a medical school in Mexico. After much back and forth, I put graduate school on hold and moved with him.
Within months, my whole world became cooking and cleaning with the exception of a few hours of part-time teaching. I didn’t know how to translate this turn of events into anything but failure. On visits home, I struggled to explain what I was doing after college to my peers and former professors. Once, when a customs official asked what I did for a living, I paused for so long that she asked me to open up my bags. When I finally realized she was patting down my suitcase in search of drugs, I confessed that I had been too embarrassed to say that I was, for the moment, a housewife.
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The division of labor in our household is wildly disproportionate whenever we are trying to get out the door. I get everything and everyone ready. If we’re traveling, I pack. Picnics, I pack. Dinner invitations, I pick out everyone’s clothes and prepare a dish to share. Birthday parties, I buy the gift and wrap it. And, maybe I’ll throw in a load of laundry, take out the trash, and clean the kitchen. My husband, Hadi, has his list, too: He gets himself ready and loads up the car if I haven’t gotten to it first.
We’ve been married for seventeen years, but these moments can still fill my mind with the words always and never. Hadi is always late. He never helps us get ready. I always have to do everything all by myself. I never get to take my time getting ready so I always look like a harried mess.
Most of the time, Hadi knows what I am thinking. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he’ll say as we’re getting into the car. Sometimes I say, “Yes,” and spew every frustration that comes with doing too much for too many people. Sometimes, I fume wordlessly, a quiet grump in the front seat. But on better days, I remember this truth: The very thing I hate about my spouse in one context is the same thing I love in another.