Twice in as many days I have been told that I should be open to change in my life and look for a mate. One well-meaning friend and her mother spoke again about getting me to color my prematurely grey hair. And my supervisor at work told me that I should not let the child rule my life. Sometimes, like today for example, I feel they are right. My child who turns five tomorrow is a tyrant in the making, he figures he owns me. When I went on a long-deferred bike ride with him this afternoon, I could not even ride in a circle of twenty meters around him, and he did not want to ride next to me complaining it is too hard. In fact, I can hardly call my outings with him exercise because I normally ride so slow, that I always feel a breath away from toppling over. Not fun at all.
Yesterday I started thinking about relationships again. After breaking up the only dating experience I had since my divorce, I have come to the conclusion that I do not have it in me anymore to invest emotionally in a new relationship, with all the insecurities it brings. If I were ten or even six years younger maybe I would have had no other choice than to go through the endless questioning of am I beautiful enough, tall enough slim enough, or hot enough to be marketable with men.
Today, I do not want to market myself as a commodity or promote my female assets and attractive appearance. Yes, I may be open to love again, but it is a different type of love that I am looking for. When I was still brand new on the marriage market I settled for a second-hand candidate, who is much older but far less mature, so I got duped twice. Had I married the boy next door from back home, I would have had the wonderful comfort of being with someone I have known all my life, growing with him and through him. I gave this transformation process my best shot with my ex, and I changed dramatically to adapt to him, but even that hasn’t helped keep my marriage together. Today I feel I have neither the time nor the energy to learn about someone and adapt my personality to suit him, least of all a man who has never gone through the journey of a marriage.
When my supervisor raised the subject, and she is perhaps the nosiest woman this side of the Atlantic (a quality that comes naturally to almost all women of a certain age, from a certain are in the middle east), I brushed off her suggestion of having a boyfriend by saying that it is hard for me to shake off my conservative Arab identity and adopt a free attitude to casual relationships; I only wanted to protect myself from her nosiness. However, I feel that my excuse is not that far from the truth. Middle Eastern culture is one that expects a woman to mold herself to the wishes of her partner, so a traditional relationship is not entirely a 50-50 partnership, the woman does two-thirds of the work while a man, a good one that is, can get away with one-third. For a long time, women have resorted to various dubious methods to overcome this particular mindset, and they usually get their way by rejecting their men in bed, or denying certain privileges. These soft-power devices can only be used in traditional settings, and are thus becoming less prominent in the modern world. Nevertheless, the traditional role of women in a marriage will take longer to evolve into an equal partnership. Men still expect women to meet them more than halfway on most issues, and what is worse, is that mothers raise their daughters to lower their expectations in regards to partnership in marriage, thus repeating the cycle endlessly.
My parents have a traditional marriage. The role of my mother was mostly confined to raising the children and looking after the home. Thus, I was raised with these lowered expectations and carried them into my marriage. It took me almost seven years to realize that when things went wrong in my marriage, it was not because I could not cook, or did not keep the house up to the standards of my husband. After years of desperately trying, I understood that my marriage was a disaster, not because of my failure to meet the golden criteria of my ex. It just shattered because I was with a man who expected me to change completely to please him, while he was never ready to do so. The lesson was tough, and it took me too long to learn. That is why I am forever afraid to fall into the same trap. And that is why I am afraid of this traditional Arab identity to surface if I ever let my guard down and entered into a partnership where I felt the tiniest bit inferior.
This is perhaps what killed my relationship project. It came down to a woman in the middle of her life, and a younger man who is still starting his first test-run. I feared that at some point I will have to change too much, or sacrifice too much to make it work. I feared that I would be obliged to make myself look younger, maybe try for another child at the eleventh hour, or change too many of my ways to be accepted as a possible partner.
My friend’s mom already flashed the warning signal in my face. No matter how much men tell you they like you the way you are, they always love you in younger or prettier versions. This was true in my experience, and unfortunately it doesn’t even stop at the color of the hair, it went beyond to influence, taste, friendships, and private activities. Even how long you stay awake every night after husband falls asleep.
If my life was a Hollywood movie, I will meet tomorrow a single father, a blameless victim who is trying to rebuild a family for his kid, or stumble upon a long-lost male friend, who has finally found the courage too look for me after he became free himself. But, eish, as we say in South Africa, Hollywood this isn’t. It is just the drudgery of everyday life, and no matter how I wish for it, It is impossible to have an already broken-in husband, without first going through the pain and blisters of trying to fit a boyfriend. If I really wanted a mate, I will have to go to square one, and look amongst the junk, the flotsam of broken marriages, or the ones nobody bothered to pick in the first place. Try to sift the one genuine gem from mountains of fakes, and go through all the idiocy of dating, pretending, and trying to please. No sorry, not for me. I am particularly proud of who I am now, and where I am. I did not arrive here without pain or sacrifice, and I am comfortable and happy in my own skin. My gray head of hair suits me fine. My boy is my buddy and my companion and I enjoy being around him, most of the time. When the time comes for him to spread his wings and leave me for his own set of friends I will resort to my work or the activities I normally never have time for. I will not be different from many of my single childless friends, I will still be happy. I will not change to catch a man, I will not change to please or keep a man. I will only change to please the woman who looks at me from the mirror every morning, because she is the only person who is guaranteed to stay with me for the rest of my life.