When I was young and less wise, I thought that being a feminist meant being independent. It meant not sacrificing your needs for anyone else's, and not relying on anyone else for even a smidgen of your happiness or well being. This is not what classes in women's studies taught me, but rather, what my limited understanding of feminism was at the time. Like I said, I was less wise.
I insisted on paying for myself and had actually had perfected a move so that I could put on my own coat without help and without having to hand off my bag to the man I happened to be with, thank you very much.
I got married at a young age to a man who I enjoyed spending time with, and a man who would not challenge any of my beliefs. He was smart, kind, and independent himself, and the two of us functioned nicely as two people co-piloting the good ship "Marriage", a ship that we'd seen on TV enough times to imitate ourselves. I had it all figured out, and put my marriage in a nice neat little box that I could open here and there if necessary. I would see married couples not able to stand just a few days away from each other and I would pity them, while patting myself on the back for being such a great example of a modern woman.
When things started to go south in my first marriage, I didn't panic. The mantra I'd been repeating over and over to myself, almost without knowing, was "I could survive without you", and as things got quieter between us, that whisper got louder and louder, until it was all I could hear. When I started talking to friends about leaving my marriage, they would ask about how entangled our lives were, and I realized that they weren't entangled... at all. Instead of feeling proud, I was horrified. It dawned on me that I might have been doing this wrong. As my (still-married) parents said to me at some point during my sad, bloodless divorce process, what's the point of marriage if you're not rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty?
After my divorce, I took some time off from having a romantic life to begin the tough work of figuring out where I'd gone wrong, and what on Earth I could do to understand how to be a whole person in a relationship. I got to know myself a great deal over the next few months, and figured out that what I was really afraid of was not losing my independence, but of being vulnerable. It was an easy hook to hang my hat on, but I was doing feminism a disservice by putting the girl power label onto my terror of letting someone in.
After a lot of work, I was well-versed in my own fears and goals, and on the concepts of feminism and marriage, and I felt wiser. I learned to walk confidently into relationships with both my eyes and my heart open. Being completely independent doesn't make you a strong woman- it's being strong enough to trust yourself in other people's hands that takes guts. Any jerk can be okay keeping everyone at arm's length.
I started dating a man who was kind, strong, and independent, and together, we learned how to depend on each other. I let him take care of me when I was sick, something I'd never been comfortable with, and he showed me his vulnerability when it would have been easier to keep stoic and untouchable. It was messy and it was gorgeous, and slowly but surely, we made ourselves into a unit, and rewarded our unity with marriage.
I get it now. Marriage, or any committed partnership, has become sacred to me, powerful and fragile all at the same time. It's hard to admit that the end of my first marriage was the catalyst that made me into a more complete person, but I am grateful that I took the time to learn every lesson I could from my divorce, that I didn't just move on blindly, thinking that a new man would be the solution. It was me that needed to change.
I am a feminist. I am a strong, independent, mouthy female who is tough enough and smart enough to know who to trust, and it's an extremely empowering feeling. I even let my husband hold my bag while I put on my coat. I could do it myself, but why would I when he is right there, already holding my heart?