Last week I posted information about a study concerning the impact of Alzheimer’s on women. Since then I have found myself thinking in a more deeply personal way about how I have been impacted, specifically in terms of my sense of identity as a woman.
My (even) more self-centered than usual thoughts are flowing after spending a weekend with an old college talking and eating non-stop (the eating important since the setting was New Orleans).
Jane and I explored the challenges that shaped us over the last thirty years and the directions in which we are currently evolving. We talked a lot about whom we have each become and why. It turns out that we have remained alike in many ways—our politics, our private and social ethics, our taste in food, even our TV preferences.
But there is a major dividing line: I have a husband and children. She doesn’t.
In college, despite high ambitions and avowed feminism, we shared a tendency to let men we loved take over our lives including those ambitions. (Ironically, the fact that we were at different times drawn to the same young man brought us closer as friends.) In our twenties, we each married a charismatic if self-absorbed man with big ambitions of his own.
Then our life paths diverged.
Jane’s marriage lasted only a few years. After the divorce, she went on to have an extremely fulfilling life with an exciting career and plenty of important friendships and relationships. After Jane’s early marriage to a dominating man ended in divorce, she went on to have an extremely fulfilling life with an exciting career and plenty of important friendships and relationships. She has her regrets, but she has developed an amazingly strong individual identity, which includes confidence that she is a woman who can take care of herself. She is not certain that she could have become that woman within the confines of a marriage.
My marriage—to Ralph—has lasted and my primary identity became tied up in being a mother and a sometimes resentful wife struggling not to be overshadowed by Ralph’s powerful personality. I fought to forge my own identity, eventually publishing several books including my first novel.
But I never put my ambitions first and in our shared life, I usually let Ralph get his way in decision-making. I would rail against the decisions he made—like to move us to a farm or buy a certain car—but I always went along. And when one of Ralph’s decisions went bad, as they sometimes would, I could always think not my fault.
Jane did not have that luxury. She had to make every practical and metaphysical decision concerning her life on her own, and then she had to live with the consequences.
So now she is a woman used to making decisions for herself, used to the tension and the fear and the joy, and I am a woman learning to make those decision for myself and for Ralph.
Making decisions alone requires a mental muscle I never adequately developed and now have to exercise. Ralph no longer has any interest in making decisions. Along with memory loss, his mild cognitive impairment has caused a major personality change. He is the passive one who cheerfully, and without the resentment I used to feel or any questioning, goes along with whatever I say.
I am not downplaying the reality of Ralph’s cognitive impairment and its negative aspects. But learning to cope with Ralph’s condition has created a potential for growth for me as a woman. It is scary and intimidating to be the decider, also liberating. I am learning what Jane learned over the last thirty years: to be strong-willed, self-reliant, independent, and in charge of my own happiness.