Defining feminism as the belief that men and women should live equally and be treated as equal and full human beings, I adopted the title after becoming a wife and mother. And I found myself shocked, even angry, at how much my life was expected to change as a wife and mom versus how little my husband’s life was expected to change when taking on the same responsibilities and titles.
As I grew in my womanhood and thought more critically about why I was so taken aback by my marriage experiences, I realized that from a very young age (innocently playing with my toy kitchen and dolls), I was being groomed to be a wife. And for most of my dating life, long before actually getting married, I assumed that role.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being raised to be a good wife and mother. I come from a long, strong line of Southern women who take great pride in caring for their families. But I wish that, along with being instructed on how to “take care of my man” and babies, I was also taught that everyone I date, like, or even love, doesn’t automatically deserve my “wifely” gifts and services. I should’ve been taught to spend that time and energy caring for myself. It’s the lesson I’ll teach my own daughter.
The topic of playing wife comes up often with women (and men) I talk with about love. An older, married girlfriend, Caroline, often admonishes my stances on feminism and says she believes feminism confuses “the roles between men and women”—so much so that women are now trying to prove themselves to men instead of the “natural” other way around.
While I don’t subscribe to calling the way we’re socialized regarding gender “natural,” I do recognize that how we’re socialized, and what’s modeled for us, does determine how our relationships play out. I remind Caroline as we debate that every woman’s endgame isn’t marriage, and that for many women, withholding certain behaviors and desires until relationships reach a “certain point” inhibits their autonomy.
Contemplations on autonomy and my own badass “I do what I want” attitude aside, many women (including some of my own friends) do follow the script Caroline mentions. They buy into the ideas that Black men of a certain caliber are scarce, and therefore feel they have to go above and beyond to prove themselves worthy of a ring and a formal, longstanding commitment. And this is where I take issue with cooking and cleaning, and being a shoulder, and life-coach, lender, etc.
Beyond possessing and operating with certain traits and characteristics (like kindness, honesty and determination), we shouldn’t be proving to anyone that we’re worthy of their love and commitment. Furthermore, what do these services look like on the other side? If someone is asking you to prove you’re “wife material,” what benefits is he offering in return to prove that he is “husband material?”
I very rarely hear that conversation happen—the one where men discuss how they need to prove to their potential mates that they are worthy to be husbands. The conversations I do hear, however, tend to center on women who were of great service to their partners, who supported them and did everything that wives supposedly do, but never received the ring and “happily ever after” they hoped for.
And what if it works, this playing wifey? My good friend Donovon once told me that men want to marry me because I “behave like a wife.” When I asked him what that meant, he said I was genuinely warm and agreeable; that I know how to “cater to” the men I love; that I’m extremely giving. What I realized after listening to him was that none of those traits really pointed to me as a person as much as they pointed to my ability to be of service to a potential, or current, partner.
The fact that what made me a good choice as a wife had nothing to do with who I am is what made feminism attractive for me. I, essentially, was erased from my own narrative, and I deserved to take up space in my relationship and in the world.
We deserve to take up space. We deserve to be desired and formally committed to because we are just that f*cking dope. Performing “wifely duties” shouldn’t be used as bait to trap some guy who only wants you because of the help you can provide him. Save all that wife work for an actual marriage; you’ll need the reserve.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.