Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Guess Who: Identity Issues

This weekend I am presenting a paper at an academic conference about identity.  The formal title is, Finding Myself in the NFL: An Autoethnographic Exploration of a Divided Self.  In non-academic terms that just means that it’s about the identity conflicts that I experienced when I was a graduate student in Florida while Craig was playing for the Seahawks in Seattle.  

Preparing for my presentation has sent my mind wandering and wondering about who I was then, how it changed me, and how I see myself today.

How do our relationships affect how we feel about ourselves, how others see us, and even who we become?

Until I met Craig, my main identity was that of an academic.  I was in my first year of graduate school with at least four more in front of me.  I never cared whether or not my shoes matched my outfit, only if I was prepared for that week’s classes.  I wasn’t focused on pleasing a man, but I was happy to entertain the idea of a man who could find a way to fit into the life I’d established for myself.

In December of my first year of graduate school, I went out to dinner with Craig and fell passionately in love with him.  Three months later he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.  That evening, we were in his bedroom in Indiana discussing the future of our relationship. 

“I still have four years of school in Tampa and it’s my dream to teach, to write, to be a scholar.”

“I know that – and I love your dream. Everything will work out,” he told me, “I promise.” I didn’t believe him.

“I believe in your dream too,” I told Craig, “and I will support your dream wherever it takes you,” I promised him.  As soon as I did, I wondered if I would be able to honor that promise. Can I hold on to my career aspirations, the aspirations that have become so ingrained in who I believe myself to be? Do I even want to be the girlfriend of an NFL player?

The following week, I scheduled an appointment with my academic advisor to talk through my dilemma.  He listened patiently as I described the scenario and weighed the pros and cons. 

“Will you kill me if I go to Seattle?”

“I wouldn’t kill you, but you might be disappointed. Follow your heart, but don’t lose your head.”  

A few weeks later I chose love over logic and made the decision to move to Seattle, telling myself that I would still be an academic, focusing on studying NFL relationships.  Once I’d made the decision to move with Craig, I was thrust from the comforts of a predictable graduate school life into the unknown and unfamiliar world of the NFL.  

My first real friend in the NFL was Melissa. Her husband, Grant, played on the defensive line with Craig. He was a veteran starter and took Craig under his wing.  About a year into our marriage, we were all together playing bocce ball. We played in teams as couples.  After we won, Grant said “Team Wistrom will beat you next time,” as he and Melissa gave each other a high-five. 

Grant moved closer to Craig and asked, “Are you team Terrill or team Binns- Terrill? 

“We’re just team Binns today,” I teased. “We take turns using our last names.” Melissa looked at me as if she felt sorry for Craig. 

“Remember what I told you? They need to feel like men. You really need to change your name.” 

I was confused. My husband, a professional football player, needs me to change my name to help build his masculinity? Who feels more like a man than an NFL football player?  

Looking back, Melissa was probably just passing along what she had learned from her time in the NFL: individual identity was not valued.  To fit in as a “good wife,” I would need to sacrifice my personal desires and identity for the betterment of my husband. 

I was being instructed that day that the correct response in the world of NFL wives was for me to change my last name and to keep my mouth shut to protect my husband’s masculine status among his teammates.  I saw Melissa seeing me as a sub-par wife.  By keeping my last name, it was clear that in the world of the NFL I did not measure up.

Before graduate school, I hadn’t even considered keeping my last name when I got married.  But nearly every female professor in our department had kept her last names.  It seemed like the thing that educated women should do.  Looking back, my resistance to change my name was likely a combination of my academic socialization and a response to my feelings of invisibility (compared to my husband’s hyper-visibility) as an NFL wife.

The values of the NFL and Academia are different.  The progressive politics of academia encouraged me to think like a feminist: don’t submit to a man, don’t dress up for a man, keep your own identity, your dreams are just as important as his. The NFL valued women who were feminine: Let your man feel that he is in control, do everything you can to make his life comfortable, his job and health are most important, looking good for him and submitting to him will help keep him faithful.  

As I spent more time in the NFL, I became more like the other NFL wives I knew.  In fact, after having our first daughter, I changed my last name from “Binns” to a hyphenated “Binns- Terrill”.  I told myself that it was for a more evident shared identity with my daughter.  Before having our second daughter, I changed my name “for insurance purposes” to Rachel Terrill.  But, three months after she was born, when I walked across the stage to commemorate earning my Ph.D., they announced my name as Rachel Binns Terrill.  

Perhaps I have settled on a compromise somewhere between what I learned I should be as an academic and what I should be as an NFL wife. My time spent in both worlds strongly shaped who I am, what I believe, and who I want to be.   

After spending years unable to identify fully as an academic or an NFL wife, I now feel that both are a part of who I’ve become. Now, I’m no longer an NFL wife and I’m no longer a graduate student.  But my time spent navigating both identities helped met to feel confident in who I am today... A future professor, Journey and Jocelyn’s mom, Craig’s wife... Rachel Binns Terrill, Ph.D.

After writing this blog, I can’t help but wonder...are we as Americans too shifty with our identities?  Perhaps the lack of a strong cultural identity has left us susceptible to this shifty-identity syndrome?  

Has your relationship changed how you see yourself?  By allowing our identities to be shaped by others, do we lose parts of ourselves?  Do we, perhaps, lose the very parts of ourselves that our spouses first fell in love with?  Could this be why so many marriages fail in America?  

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately; mainly about how society has raised this female generation versus what is expected of us to be a, "good' wife".

    As an educated women, I crave the gratification of obtaining career goals and accomplishing my dreams. However, the idea of the 'second shift,' or the duties that are assumed when you take on the role of a mother and a wife, is daunting. And i know that the life I want for myself is going to contain certain duties beyond that of being a 'bread winner'.

    There are a number of articles out there claiming that the American society is shifting from a patriarchy to a matriarchy. Scholars are saying that because more women are obtaining bachelor's degrees this country will eventually see an uprising of a female dominated business world. (

    So what does that mean for the traditional American family, or the American dream, if you will?

    It's difficult as a young adult to try to imagine what my life will be like in ten years, even five years. It's hard for me to shape my self image and form the woman I want to become if I have no idea what that entails. Should I be more focused on educating myself and gaining tradition masculine personality traits (i.e. dominance and fact based conclusions)? Or should I be more focused on becoming the woman I know my future husband would want to raise his children and begin a new life with?

    I feel as if I can't have the best of both worlds because I wont be 100 percent dedicated to either. On one hand, past generations of women have worked too hard for me to throw away the opportunity to be an educated women making my own money and having a professional career. On the other hand is it possible to do that and to have a successful home life? What's going to make me happier, healthier and more fulfilled?

    It's a struggle, but it's a struggle I know I share with millions of other women in this country and the rest of the world. And I agree that this shifting self image has a lot to do with the condition of our marriages. It's a difficult task to be completely satisfied if your spread so thin.

    I think you do an excellent job of crossing the border between the professional world and home life. I really admire your work and I'm glad to see there are women out there that can wrestle this issue to the ground! Thank you for sharing!