Even in the best of marriages, you can lose part of yourself. (You know, the part that once knew how to change a tire or mow the lawn.) Cathi Hanauer shares how she rediscovered her can-do spirit nearly 20 years after her wedding day.

Woman sitting in car with her hair blowing in the wind
Credit: Guy Le Querrec

One of my biggest fears about getting married was that, by becoming a wife, I would gradually lose my toughness and independence. In my New Jersey hometown, girls quickly learned how to smack a softball or outrun a boy, and being small (I’m five feet one in thick socks), I was especially proud of my skills. After graduating from college, I found I lacked a certain fear gene: I jogged in Central Park at night, and once I was jumped by a man and not only fought him off but also chased him, swearing, when he ran. In my 20s, I lived alone, ate alone, traveled solo, and happily took care of myself. I considered my pluck and sense of autonomy to be my trademark.

Then I met Dan—tall, blue-eyed, calm. At 29, I knew it was time to trade in my free-agent status and marry this man. Still, I worried I would go soft, forgetting everything from how to change a lightbulb (place stool atop chair; climb) to how to explore a new city alone. In my parents’ marriage, my mother cheerfully kept house and rode in the passenger seat while my father made the big decisions. I didn’t anticipate becoming passive. But I feared that if I wasn’t forced to perform various tasks (after all, Dan could change the lightbulb without climbing), I would get lazy and lose my edge.

During our 19 years of marriage, some of those worries have been realized. Yes, we both work and parent our two children, Phoebe and Nathaniel. But Dan drives when we go on vacations and navigates in foreign places while I window-shop and admire other women’s shoes. At home, he handles the trash, the electronics, and the vehicles and mans the yard; I cook, do the laundry, buy the clothes, and play nurse to sick kids. I never notice if we’re low on gas (Dan will check) or remember how many gigs our computers have (Dan will know). Not long ago, it occurred to me that I had become exactly what I had once feared: a less independent version of my former self.

After that moment, I increasingly didn’t like having our kids think that Mom whips up waffles and extracts splinters while Dad programs the GPS and takes us on trips. I wanted to show our kids—and myself—that I was still a strong woman who could handle rugged terrain and succeed without the help of any man, even my husband.

Our dog, Rosie, was rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico as a pup, and Dan and I have followed the plight of the many stray dogs there ever since. Last year, in one newsletter, Adrienne Galler Lastra, who runs the rescue shelter Amigos de los Animales out of her home in Piñones, Puerto Rico, asked for volunteers. This seemed like a perfect opportunity: The kids—then 16 and 13—and I could stay in a cheap motel and walk to the shelter daily, where we would clean crates, socialize dogs, accompany animals to the vet, and help rescue strays. For them, it would mean real work with a great payoff, plus an education about the world outside their Massachusetts hometown; for me, it was a chance to demonstrate my self-reliance.

Dan was amenable—he said he could use some time alone—but looked freaked-out when we pulled away without him. (His parting line: “Do not bring back another dog!”) I, however, was excited. At the San Juan airport, I felt my old swagger coming back as I heaved suitcases into our tin-can rental car. Instead of riding shotgun, I drove us to Piñones—learning fast that driving on Puerto Rican highways involves mostly honking and praying.

I wasn’t even daunted by our scummy motel room—at first. When the kids pointed out ants parading from the kitchen trash bin, I said merely, “We have to adjust our expectations.” I caved only after a giant cockroach appeared at their bedside and they dove, shrieking, onto my futon. In the morning, we departed for a Howard Johnson a few miles away. (Being tough is one thing, but massive insects are a whole other story.)

The next day was in the 90s, with thick humidity and biting no-see-ums. We drove to Adri’s house, where she cares for 40 to 50 mutts. “Come in quickly,” Adri called, Wonka-like, as she cracked the gate to reveal dozens of dogs—big and small, leaping and yelping and barking. Phoebe and Nathaniel looked at me. I summoned my inner Jersey Girl and walked in, wondering if even Dan would have been so cavalier. The kids followed.

Thus began a week of hot, hard but rewarding work. With each day, I felt more confident, more macho—more like the old me. Soon we knew the dogs by name, and they wagged greetings when we arrived. One day, as Adri, the kids, and I headed to the beach to take some dogs for a swim, Adri began yelling at a man who had been dumping trash nearby. The man yelled back, advancing aggressively. Yikes, I thought, but I acted nonchalant while keeping the kids behind me. The situation ended peacefully, but not before Phoebe and Nathaniel could see that their mother wouldn’t flee at a hint of unrest.

Another night, driving us home from an outing, I got lost in a truly dangerous neighborhood. Together we calmly consulted maps and eventually made it back to the hotel. I was pleased: for myself, because I thought I had handled it well; for the kids, because they had seen that sometimes, to experience life fully, you need to take a risk or make a mistake.

We had agreed to transport four dogs and three cats back to Massachusetts so the animals could be adopted. As we boarded the plane, I worried about finding the cat rescuers (who had promised to pick up the cats from the airport), not to mention physically hauling all the dogs through the terminal. Hours later, our party of 10 arrived. The kids and I were exhausted as we team-dragged luggage and pet carriers to the cat people (all present!) before herding the dogs out to the street. And there stood Dan, smiling and shaking his head as we loaded dog after dog into our car. I had never been so happy to see him.

The mutts spent the weekend with us before Dan packed the wagon to take all but one of them (whom we kept and named Rico) to a shelter two hours away. Dan drove. I rode shotgun, eating chocolate and dozing. It was heaven. I had gone to Puerto Rico to get my mojo back and prove something to the kids, and I had accomplished that. But I felt something else when I returned home that I hadn’t expected: gratitude to be part of a well-oiled team.

I’m still happy that the kids and I went on the trip without Dan. He had fallen in love with me because I was independent, and my leaving showed him I hadn’t changed. And when I’m feeling wifely these days, I remind myself that being part of a team doesn’t mean I’m lazy or can’t do something myself. It just means that, right now, I’m lucky enough not to have to.