Before I invite you to peer over my shoulders as I look into the mirror, a basic tutorial in the terms JMW, rigidly enmeshed and angst is in order.
JMW is the acronym for Jewish Married Woman. JMW does not apply to any and all women who have received their ring and the oath of security their husbands promised them in exchange for their loyalty. It applies to women who, like me, are enamored with the love of married life, as if it were living, breathing carbon monoxide and demanding physical care. Peering into the mirror becomes trivial. Talking to friends frivolous. Cooking a gourmet meal is now pivotal. And watching that dinner plate, as a lab scientist would his vial, becomes an art, a science and a raison d’être. To see if the string beans are devoured before the rice, if the rice is shuffled around in polite refusal, if the chicken elicits vigorous chewing, is to observe the secrets of the universe, miraculously exposed to the human eye.
JMW has symptoms, which appear about two weeks after its onset. The symptoms have regulated patterns. One’s sheitel, newly purchased with sparkling eyes at the chicest salon in town, dips dangerously low on the forehead, nearly diving into those very eyes, which now wear a matte, dreamy gaze. One is usually pregnant, but refuses to take its side effects seriously, wondering instead why they shiver at every breeze and no longer desire to scour the dishes. One looks longingly at their spouse, even though that spouse is now available, within arm’s reach, every day, in the same house, sharing a life. One loses interest in old and favorite jokes, laughing instead at one’s spouse’s inane jibes. My sister was the one who coined the term especially for me. She diagnosed me with the illness.
When she did, I shrugged and said, without omitting a touch of pride, “I am a Jewish Married Woman. Am I not? You are the teenager. I remember when I was like that.” Eons ago, I might have added, even though my twentieth birthday had not yet relieved me of being nineteen.
Rigidly Enmeshed is the act of becoming one. It does not apply to any two people who want to share a life of togetherness, where respect allows both to become who they really are. It applies to men who instead of honestly allowing their spouse to be intimate with them revel in the security of falsehood. It applies to women who, like me, cease to exist, so that oneness now means that there is only one person who counts. Enabling the spouse’s activities becomes more important than performing one’s own. Overlooking his faults, even the ones that hurt, is virtuous. Nodding vigorously to the things he says, while refraining from offering a counterpoint is de rigueur.
You may understand this term, but let me demonstrate why it came into being for me. The wedding, which has continued past the midnight mark, is over for the guests who belong in the outer circle of well-wishers. I’m a cousin, so I belong on the men’s side now, where the mitzvah tanz will be performed. My aunts and cousins are worried that the grammen will take too long, boring them. They are therefore equipped with a bag of Twizzlers, nutty chews and after dinner mints and the party begins. While the badchan starts with the pathos about grandparents long gone, we laugh about how Mrs. Nieman said, “May the bride be happier than me.” While the badchan segues into discussing the uncles who will now hold the rope and dance with the kallah, we start laughing the way tired people do, about the soda exploding streams of gas, about a high heeled shoe undone that flies too far and can only be retrieved from the ballroom barefoot. The badchan is starting to perform his comedy routine. We just laugh. These are the times family togetherness is made from.
A face appears near the women, it is my husband. A screwed finger demonstrates “come.”. I fish for my heels. I get up from the chair. I walk over to him, proudly feeling the eyes boring my back, observing my stance with my new husband. Our stance is okay. I laugh at his joke. His joke is on the expense of the badchan, a family friend. “Let’s go,” he says. I glance longingly at the women who’ve surrounded me, who’ve laughed with me, who’ve listened to me and who remember the smell of spearmint in Zeidy’s apartment on Friday afternoon, when he flavored his snuff. My husband has already turned toward the main entrance. I go. I follow him into the night, my heart in the hall. All the while, to assuage my loss, to forget that the next opportunity to sit around with family will come in six months from now, I agree to his theory that the badchan is shallow of brain. I’m rigidly enmeshed.
Every day is a fresh opportunity to enmesh with increasing rigidity. Again, a wedding. This is the time when all my friends, like me, are going under the chuppah. I’m wearing my makeup, which, if I’m to be honest with my blush brush, and my brush blush alone, I do to garner that coveted compliment from my husband, “you look good.” I’m wearing my sheva brachos dress, the one gathered to one side, about which my friend commented “your husband must be drooling over you.” At the wedding, I dance with the grace of a woman who imagines she’s being observed.
My mother, who feels acutely the pain of letting a daughter grow into another stage without her involvement, comes over and sniffs with self-importance. “Udela just told me you are the most attractive woman in this entire hall.” Udela is nothing to take eyes off from either. I feel good.
At home, my husband is waiting. I tell him, as I take off my heels and then my sheital, that according to common opinion, I was the best-dressed woman in the entire hall. His shrug shrivels me up to the extent that I look into the mirror with a new pair of eyes, more judgmental and demanding. I demand of myself that my makeup be flawless, that my smile be welcoming but sophisticated, that my eyes deliver just the right mixture of bright confidence. But nothing I ever do undoes the shrug. Nothing I ever do brings forth the desired “you’re gorgeous.” I wait, rigidly enmeshed.
My sister notices, because I say no when I mean yes. I borrow clothing from people’s closets instead of buying my own with money I earned because my husband thinks buying is a waste. I think he’s smarter than me even though he hasn’t proven it in a concrete way while my own history has solid backings to the claim. I make myself small so he can be big. I fit myself into the small space he has for another human being, so that we can be rigidly enmeshed.
Angst is anxiety, apprehension and insecurity, but not of the garden variety found when owning up to one’s mess or journeying with kids in the passenger seat. It’s a despair that swallows you up; you don’t want to acknowledge you’re in the monsters mouth. You cease to feel, instead.
I’m already squelched, though I don’t know it. In my mind, to be or not to be ceases to be the question. Replacing it instead is: to be loved by him or not to be loved. We sit under the stars. We eat ice cream. We talk about other people- safe topics. I laugh a lot. When we go back home, I note he enjoyed himself. To be loved, check. I say something about my brother. I happen to like my brother. My brother is an intense sort of guy, driven toward his goal to learn the most he can, to be kind, and to know what happened three hundred years before he was born, in some by now G-d forsaken town in Europe. My husband copies the way my brother likes to stand, one hand in the breast pocket of his coat, the other hand behind him, eyes intensely focused on the object of his attention. I laugh because the imitation is accurate. Not to be loved, check. I start rejecting my brother in my heart.
I reject myself as well. The main course of my Shabbos meal consists of a single chicken wing. Why hum in the kitchen, cook the food I love, to comments like “I’m so full I could vomit?” In the kitchen clearing off the table, I secretly eat more. My opinions shrivel up inside me before gestation lest they appear on my lips. I answer, “I don’t know” to most questions.
I am a still desert, every sprout of vegetation has wilted and died. In the vastness, windstorms of anger and helplessness billow and bury me in its dunes. It is in this climate that life starts changing. I become a mother. I take on another job, undertaking to supplement our income. Throughout it all, I’m alive by virtue of my husband, a parasite of his meager vitality. I’m easily overwhelmed by a baby’s incessant cries or by a colleague’s question. I wonder why. My sister calls it angst.
The above jargon, coined so kindly by my concerned sister, while not the most sinister words, is inflected with a special enunciation to accentuate its accuracy. We say it and we laugh. We bandy it about on other people as applicable. But the terms, as well as the realities they represent, sink in.