I was forty-two when I married for the first time. I’d lived alone for most of the twenty years since college, and I had a full life of work, friends, and church. I’d owned my own house for six years, and I’d spent that time making it a home—albeit a home for one. When I married, everything changed.
I moved forty-five minutes away into my husband’s home, which we shared with his three boys the weeks they weren’t with their mom. Moving away meant leaving the church I’d been part of for the past sixteen years—his church became our church and it was different in every way I could imagine from the one I left behind. And though I remained employed by the same company, I started working part-time and mostly from home in a town where the majority of the people I knew lived in the same house as me. I left behind simpler things too, like trading Trader Joe’s and Starbucks for a rural Walmart Supercenter and a locally owned coffee shop that closed at 4:00 p.m. Who knew a forty-five-minute drive was all it took to make it to a whole new world?
These were sacrifices I was willing, even eager, to make as I married my husband. And, really, they barely felt like sacrifices. I love him, and from the moment we decided to share our lives together, we’ve both made changes to our lives for the sake of the other. But what I didn’t understand at the time is that sacrificing for another, even in marriage, doesn’t have to mean losing who I am.
Changing Circumstances or Changing Myself?
These early years of my marriage came to mind when I read an essay called “The Crane Wife” in The Paris Review last summer. The author, C.J. Hauser, masterfully weaves together three different stories: her broken engagement, a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane, and a Japanese folk story of a crane who tricks a man into marriage by pretending to be a woman. It’s a lot for a writer to juggle, but somewhere about two-thirds of the way in, she begins to tie it all together by identifying herself with the bird in the folk story.
“She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs,” Hauser writes. “Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work.”
I felt my breath catch at that last line, because I’d been the one holding the soft end of a number-two pencil to the details of my life for a few years now. Because besides changing nearly all the circumstances of my life, for a while, marriage felt like it changed me too. I rarely saw my friends or family. As the newcomer, I always deferred to Steve’s and the boys’ tastes and preferences. And when I went out on my own—wait, I rarely went anywhere on my own. I didn’t want to miss out on time alone with Steve, and I didn’t want to miss out on bonding time with the boys.
Yet as the legendary story of the crane wife goes, the bird tricked the man into marriage, and even plucked her own feathers out each night, not for her own gain, but for his. The crane made these sacrifices out of love.
The High Cost of Charades
Isn’t this the kind of love Jesus calls us to: laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters? In marriage, yes, but also in parenting and friendship and even in the church. Couldn’t what Hauser calls “self-erasure” be the same thing as denying ourselves and taking up our crosses daily to follow Christ? Does the story of the crane wife cause me to catch my breath because, like Hauser, I see this path of losing myself for others as too costly?
It didn’t take long in my marriage to realize that to change who I am in response to my changing circumstances wasn’t really a sacrifice as much as it was a cop out. It was easier to pretend I was someone else than to do the hard work of understanding how I could love and sacrifice as myself.
After a year of trying to serve my family by being someone I’m not, I realized that was no way to serve at all. Could I still love and serve my family even if I don’t like sports movies and hot dogs? Could I watch sports movies and eat hot dogs for their sake without pretending that I also don’t enjoy art museums, tea parties, and dinners out with friends. If I continued the charade, I feared I’d end up once again like the crane wife, flying away on tattered wings after her husband discovered her true identity—the one she had been forsaking for love’s sake.
I think this is the part of the crane wife’s story I didn’t really appreciate the first few times I read it: the charade. See, the crane wife wasn’t simply a bird plucking her own feathers to care for her husband. Rather, getting rid of the feathers was a necessary part of pretending she was a woman. The fact that the feathers were useful to her husband seems like a convenient coincidence. Not that her sacrifice to become a woman wasn’t significant. Rather, the deceit created the need for a different kind of sacrifice than if she’d simply offered her feathers as the bird she was.
Loving Others Without Hating Ourselves
Throughout scripture, the call to love and sacrifice for others is never commanded in this language of self-erasure that Hauser employs. We don’t diminish ourselves to exalt others. Rather, as Jesus said, we are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
When we spend time with believing spouses, friends, family, and colleagues, we are dying to self but also experiencing the life-changing love and sacrifice of others who are putting aside their own preferences for us. Not all of our relationships benefit from this level of mutuality, and sometimes not even our most intimate relationships. But the call throughout scripture to love, serve, and submit to one another suggests that we should pursue relationships like these wherever we can. These are the people who remind us who we are, even as we are tempted to serve and sacrifice in a way that might otherwise make it easy to forget.
I wonder how the story of the crane wife might have been different if the man had only known the woman was a bird. Could they have married? Well no, probably not—even in folklore. But could he have protected the bird and cared for her? Absolutely. In fact, it was the only way the relationship could have lasted.
It’s an answer I know well from my own life. I wasn’t the only one who sensed that I was changing more than just my circumstances in that first year of marriage. My husband noticed too. And since he knew me—knew who I really was—he was willing to make his own sacrifices to be sure I remained the person he married even as I attempted to die to myself for him and our family. It was as if he took the pencil from my hand, and rather than adding an extra large eraser to the end, he sharpened the lead instead.
Cover image by Leonides Ruvalcabar.