I recently finished reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I did skim, quite liberally, many of his more philosophical chapters, which tend to begin with a question like, “What is Power” and end, fifteen pages later, with the conclusion that, “Power is Power.” Overall, though, I loved each page, and loved the experience of sinking, fully, into a rich novel, living each day with the shadows of Prince Bolkonsky, Pierre, Princess Marya, and, of course, Natasha, by my side.
Natasha, a spirited girl, full of vigor and passion and potential, marries happily at the end of the book. She is something of a feminist, insisting on nursing her own children, “in spite of the opposition…who revolted against her suckling the child.” But, Tolstoy writes, when she marries, she “abandons at once all her accomplishments,” for “she had absolutely no time to indulge herself in these things.” In embracing, fully, her home life, she must abandon the passions, talents, and pursuits that had defined her as a full human being.
In my own home, which my husband and I have worked hard to make a space of equals, there is no question that, with time and children, the daily decisions, big and small, have become, more and more, my responsibility. It has been my choice – albeit a choice that seems straight out of Tolstoy’s philosophical chapters, a choice that has felt, to some extent, inevitable, dictated by some Greater Force, making me “subordinate to certain laws…[such as] gravity,” Maternal Love, Responsibility, and, perhaps Guilt, laws with which I did not quarrel “once [I] had learned them.”
A friend recently shared his winking outlook on the subject. He claims that his wife makes all of the small decisions – like where to live, where to send the children to school, what home to buy – and he makes all of the big decisions – like who God is, world peace, and how to split the atom. Another friend often refers to his wife as the “CEO” of their household, and refers any questions he receives from me to her. My husband mused that, in the male view, the woman can be CEO of the home since The Man, secretly, perceives himself as President of the Board. In Israel, where it is incumbent upon all couples to take a religious course before they marry, the woman is often referred to as the “Minister of the Interior,” and the man as the “Foreign Minister.”
Can we have it all? One might have expected that our society would have changed more since Natasha decided to stay at home, nurse her children, and stop singing. Is it inevitable that, in embracing our roles as wives and mothers, we abandon, or significantly modify, or, even, simply forget, our personal dreams?