How Sephardic Women Are Changing What it Means to be ‘Wife Material’

“I don’t think that I’m wife material,” I said to my therapist last year. I’d been trying to work through my fear of marriage in therapy for years, but it never occurred to me that I’m not actually afraid of marriage — a legal union between two partners — but rather afraid of being a wife and the pressure that comes with it in my traditional Sephardic community.

Some of this pressure is self-inflicted, I admit. I start to feel itchy and claustrophobic when I envision myself walking down the wedding aisle to an unidentified man standing under a floral-adorned chuppah. But other pressures — like keeping a clean household, providing homemade food at the ready when your husband comes home from work, and running his day-to-day errands — are passed down from generation to generation.

My therapist, my best friend, and my mom have all attempted to assuage my fears by telling me that when I find “the one,” settling down won’t seem so scary. But melding fear with exposure isn’t always the best remedy. For me, at least, getting married — no matter how much I love someone — doesn’t seem like a viable solution to overcoming my marital fears.

Even though I have unsettling feelings about matrimony, I do want to be somebody’s partner one day, and I do want to start a family (sometimes in the reverse order). I see girls my age desperate to get married, girls in the bathrooms at weddings wondering aloud when it will be their turn next, and I wish that I viewed life-long commitment with the same enthusiasm. I bring up these conversations with my boyfriend — not because I want to scare him off, but because I feel like he understands both my fear of abandonment and my impulse to run from relationships and the irony in those statements.

The good thing is, he is part of the growing number of men in my community who don’t expect their wives to be shaatra — the Arabic word meaning “a skilled/capable girl” which my community uses to describe “the perfect homemaker.” No joke: There’s even a company called Shaatra Club that makes planners for wives to write “houry lists for grocery lists, errands, or meeting notes.” In their promotional video, you can see a wandering hand writing down a list that includes: “clean attic, plan date night, exercise, and cook spaghetti and meatballs.”

These status-quo priorities concern me because they don’t show the progress we’ve made in my community and society as a whole to move away from these confining roles that we placed on women generations ago.

Thankfully, my social circles have begun to poke fun at that archaic word. “You’re so shaatra,” one might say jokingly to a man or woman who does the dishes or cooks a five-course meal. I feel grateful to be of marriageable age in a time when married women are juggling careers and babies, while their husbands are helping out in the kitchen. When I look at these partnerships, it restores my faith in wifehood. Perhaps I won’t feel trapped or stripped of my independence when my time to wed comes. Perhaps, I have this marriage thing all wrong (a friend once told me offensively not to call marriage a thing because it’s sacred. Sorry not sorry). Just like there are some wives who actually enjoy tending to their husband’s every need, there are those who don’t. And that doesn’t make one woman a better wife than the other, nor does it make those roles mutually exclusive.

Being a wife, to me that is, doesn’t mean giving up so much of yourself that you’re not recognizable. It doesn’t mean changing how you work or how you dress or how you carry on with your day. Sure, it means sacrifice and compromise and giving. But complying to those actions doesn’t have to change the person you were before you got married.

And so, in an effort to fully get over my great big fear of being a wife someday, I spoke to some married women from my community about how they’re redefining what it means to be “wife material” today.

Michelle, age 27:

“Stereotypically, being ‘wife material’ felt like someone who is staying at home and making her husband dinners and keeping everything clean and taking care of their basic needs. But my husband and I split housework with him doing more of the cleaning than me. Now, I think being a good wife is more about emotional support than just the basic cooking and cleaning. Offering to have his friends or family over, splitting holidays with my in-laws… It’s about thinking of each other’s lives in a more thorough way.”

Caroline, age 23:

“When I got married I didn’t realize how much it would entail. Most young wives my age can relate to that. Keeping a clean and functioning household while cooking for my husband and working 3-4 days a week gets extremely challenging (and this is without any kids). But right away, communication with my husband has been vital in all of it! He is very understanding — and not only that — it is his household too, so chores are naturally split pretty equally. I would tell him: Hey I’m feeling really overwhelmed, can you do some laundry and I’ll do the next round? Honestly, he does it without me asking. I think most women my age, at least my friends, are breaking that barrier of what it used to mean to be ‘Wife Material.’ We used to be told that it was doing errands all day, cleaning the house, folding laundry, waiting around for your husband to come home, then serving him a 12-course meal while having a fresh blowout and no complaints. That’s not even close to me and my husband’s dynamic.”

Doris, age 29:

“Since I work at a school, tuition for my daughter comes out of my paycheck. My job also offers a better health insurance than my husband’s so we use my health insurance which is not typical of a lot of wives. We are a dual-income household, which is of itself new to our generation. And that little extra money in my pocket goes a long way in making holiday meals or buying clothing, or family trips. I don’t have dinner freshly prepared because I walk in the door at 5:00. Dinner will not be ready and hot at the table from the morning like my mother did when we walk in.”

Esther, age 22:

“I always thought I’d have to wear lingerie while serving him dinner in the beginning of marriage. Lol it turns out wearing an oversized shirt and stained sweatpants does the trick when you’re confident and charming as hell.”

Header image via CSA Images/Vetta/Getty Images

Bonnie Azoulay

Bonnie is a writer based in New York with works published on Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Coveteur, Man Repeller, Forward and more. She loves wearing fanny packs and laying in the fetal position.

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