A letter to my mother: On Marriage and Happiness and Need and Want


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Dear Mom,

I know you want me to be happy. You’ve always said it, exasperatedly, sincerely, beautifully, sadly, kindly, sometimes unkindly if we’re going to be honest: that all you ever want is for me to be happy.

I know it likely hurts you that in social gatherings you feel you cannot talk about me, or discuss with your friends what I’m up to: you don’t know how to take pride in a daughter who is working in sexual health. No one taught you how to do that.  You have also always viewed my life through the lens of potential. This is useful in some ways: it’s good to have a sentiment about goals. A feeling of possibility and hope and things to accomplish – so I can see why from that perspective, what I’m doing right now strikes you as wholly meaningless. I am simultaneously exasperated by and grateful for this sense of future-tense that always hangs over our conversation: Who will you become? What are your plans? Will you, will you, will you?

Sometimes your vision, so rooted in an intangible future also detracts from the present. Your lens of potential necessarily exists like a camera lens, in its far off intent, it
necessarily defocuses the current, the now, the here.

A sense of future is necessary to survive – my depression, as the antithesis of even thinking about a future in any realistic way, taught me that. And a sense of presence in the present is necessary also – and my anxiety (often rooted in those same questions about the future) taught me this as well.

So I urge you sometimes to change your questions to: Who are you? What are you doing in your work that is interesting? What plans have you accomplished/or are already doing?

I know you want me to get married because you believe this will bring me happiness (and, let’s also be honest: social acceptance among your peers) , but please consider this: your “need for me to get married, it comes from your expectation that a woman cannot be happy or love herself if she isn’t being validated by a man choosing her.” (wise words from Zina Mustafa, 2016, in a conversation about how women continually feel this need). This idea is pervasively and unfortunately, perversely, bolstered by nearly everyone in society. 

I want you to know that as someone who dealt with depression and anxiety and who is slowly recovering,am now most days quite happy. 🙂 I am also acutely aware of the particular kind of hell that depression brings in its unhappiness and sheer loneliness. So I want to reassure you that the life plan I am making for myself meets your two criteria that you have wanted for me:
1. happiness, on an internal level
2. social acceptance/markers of success in a social setting (a normal* life)

*sort of

I will only ever get married to a man if I want to marry him.

My standards are high. He must be, like me,  ambitious, politically aware, preferably equally  interested in the arts and sciences, able to discuss a variety of topics with ease and fluency  in those subject matters. He must also able to respect me for my knowledge on subject areas I am familiar with such as biological sciences, as well as feminism/racism/sociocultural sciences. I would also like him to teach me something new, and quite frankly, in my experience in dating men, them teaching me new things has not happened frequently.

This might sound like I’m high maintenance. I’m fine with that because I do my best to maintain myself to high standards and I expect any partner my way to do the same.

This might sound, to you, as though I am asking for too much, or “who are you to ask this much from anyone?”

I’m me. This is what I want, if anything at all, from anyone, because I deserve the best from myself and from others – especially a partner. The thing is, I don’t want a partner desperately though. I am not needy for marriage, because I am not needy for most things in my life, and I will never be needy for most things in life.

What I need, I will get – those are career and life ambitions. 

You and I differ in many ways, Mom. I always found your saying “dad and i are two halves of a whole” incredibly corny and cheesy 😛 I will never think of a partner as “my other half” – I am a complete person, insofar as any person can be said to be complete, and any partner I meet should also view himself as that. I will never think of a partner as “my other half” – I am a complete person, insofar as any person can be said to be complete, and any partner I meet should also view himself as that. (This is likely because I dislike immensely the feeling of reliance on someone else. Whatever I do with my life will be on my own terms, with my money, with my strategising, and my skills.)

I am not a hopeless romantic like you are. I’m learning to value your romantic side though – and I don’t just mean about partnered love, but about your general sense of hope for more, for potential, for “goodness” in a way I don’t think dad or I really do instinctively.

Your orientation to the world has always been this romantic idyllic sense of striving for a perfect reality – through a lens of hope and potential,  a beautiful sense of a perfect reality that is within reach. I think this is what grounds your ambition- a sense of fate and faith and deep sense that perfection is possible.

My orientation to the world has always had a darker, more critical shadow attached to it. I am not sure why. Some people are born without a natural tendency towards that kind of idyllic perspective. It seems unnatural for me. It seems not…impossible per se, but always like the prelude of a dystopian novel – perfect outer surface with something Orwellian lurking under the superficial happiness of the first couple of chapters.

Take even our views on horror movies – which I love, and which you hate. I love them for exploration of human psychology, of even noting what makes me tick, of thinking through strange and inexplicable things. You, I think, hate it because of how they make you feel, and because I think you generally internalise malaise in your environment as your own feelings. Consider too our views on anything on Sun TV – for you, it’s just a nice way to spend time with family, wind down after a long day. The last thing you need from me in those moments is to react to what’s on screen- to you, the actual dialogue and stories don’t really matter, and you don’t see them as anything tied to our world. But for me, I’ll take a horror movie any day over Sun TV because  I find, in Sun TV soap operas, every critical angle, every horrifying sexist garbage detail that underpins so much of the inequity in our world. I find it intimately and inextricably tied to the every day impact of sexism, misogyny, and violence in our world.

It sounds blunt but our orientations to the world can be summed up as follows:
You have a romantic view of the world – and that’s not a bad thing.
I have a critical view of the world – and that’s also not a bad thing.
Both these perspectives have advantages and disadvantages. I think you compromise more than I do, for example – it makes you personable,likeable, easy to talk to. It’s not a bad thing. I tend not to compromise my deepest values – which is something I read also as a strength in myself because I am not easily swayed and can hold my own – does it mean some people won’t like me? Of course it will. Do I need to be liked by everyone I meet? Of course I don’t.

I will not compromise even a thimblefull of my deepest core values – which bring me great joy, peace, happiness, and motivation to do the work I do and work I feel is necessary in this world – I will never compromise even a little bit of these  to make someone else happy.

The fundamental nature of who I am and what I believe will never be on the table for negotiation.

I will only ever get married to a man if I want to marry him.

But I do not and never will innately feel, nor will I succumb to societal pressures telling me, that I need a man to be happy.

I reject wholeheartedly this idea of happiness, predicated on what a man thinks of me, because I am already happy. I tend to be happiest in my moments of quiet solitude, drinking tea, writing an essay, thinking about the world, or out in the world doing work in public health or caring for people’s mental health, and sometimes physical health – the CPR certification I did has come in handy more than once 🙂 I do eventually want to build on my interests in anatomy and cell bio and either enter public health, pharmacy, or medicine. 

My source of happiness is tied to what I do, my desire to wrestle with social and practical problems, my ability to critically think about the world we are in and to move to a point of creating solutions.

This is what I want for my life.

Any partner that happens to come along that happens to be a man, if he meets my criteria, will be purely incidental to a beautiful life I am already building for myself – a life I am building on my terms.

My happiness and vision of success is therefore not tied to men or partnered life in general.  🙂

With love,

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