I was the first to wake that morning.
I was still reeling in the painful aftermath of learning that my husband of nearly two decades had been living a double life. The father of my three sons, and the man I had built a life around, had been having an affair for almost three years.
I stood lifeless in front of the bathroom mirror, looking for any resemblance to the woman I once was. The woman who — until six weeks earlier — embraced life’s challenges with huge exclamation points. A woman who had thrived on saying “Watch me!” to doubters and had built herself up by overcoming obstacles. This time was different. Overcoming this obstacle wasn’t about conquering a challenge or achieving a goal. It was about leaning into fear.
My life was slipping through my fingers. I was now dissolving into the type of woman I had spent years pitying and unconsciously judging. They were the mothers of my children’s friends and the wives of my husband’s business associates — hell, one of them was my mother! Women who appeared lost in the identity of a man. They were simply going through the motions each day. They were sacrificing their dreams, talents and — in my case — self-worth for someone else’s in order to maintain the status quo.
The night before, over a bottle of wine, my best friend had asked for my advice. She had been dissatisfied in her marriage for years. Now, she and her husband were building a business together and were at odds over the company’s direction. She wanted to develop a new product line. He wanted her to sit back and let him run the company. Her boundless enthusiasm around this new venture was palpable. It was clear she was ready to fly. Yet, it seemed she faced choosing between stepping into her greatness and pleasing her husband to save their marriage.
My advice to my dear friend was simple, “Play it small and let him shine.”
She sat silent. I did, too.
I was living in hell with a marriage on the rocks, scared of the unknown and paralyzed by fear. My new normal wasn’t something I wished upon my worst enemy, let alone my best friend. Perhaps being the “good wife” would save her marriage. Perhaps being more of a submissive one would save mine.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was becoming my mother. Despite having a brilliant career, she lived under the patriarchal order of my father. Outside the walls of our home, she was a force, the very model of a polished, powerful and respected businesswoman. Inside, she was terribly unhappy. While I respected her ambition and tenacity, I secretly viewed her as a coward, never understanding why she allowed him to silence her. The answer was far more complex than a 13-year-old girl could understand. I just know I vowed to never be like her — and yet, here I was walking the very same path and encouraging my friend to follow along.
Truth be told, patriarchal myths still permeate our unconscious. Messages resonate throughout society telling us we can’t survive on our own — that we need a man to be complete. And that if we fail as the matriarch of our family, we have failed as a woman regardless of the success of our career. The shame around this potential failure is immense and ultimately incentivizes many of us to just bandage the wounds and keep the peace.
But, submissiveness is not sustainable. It is self-sabotaging. We must step into our greatness.
Just last week — four years later — Kim and I spoke once again about her issue. She never started that new product line. She took a backseat to her husband and, yes, she is still unhappy. Just as best friends do, I filled her with advice (some solicited and some not). And then I caught myself saying, “You get just one life. Don’t be afraid. Fly!"
It was advice I could finally give because I was living it every day — learning to fly as a single mother and entrepreneur. I had found my strength again and was no longer playing it small. My happiness is no longer defined by my relationship.
It was a rare full-circle moment where I saw that by leaning into the fear, I had found myself again and was stronger and wiser from the journey.
Steph Wagner is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.