Jen­ny Fel­don is the author of Kar­ma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Man­goes, Bol­ly­wood and Water Buf­fa­lo and was named one of BlogHer’s Voic­es of the Year in 2012. She lives in Los Ange­les with her hus­band and two chil­dren. She will be blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I was sit­ting on the couch in my tiny apart­ment, try­ing to decide between take­out Thai and take­out sushi for din­ner, when my hus­band walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were mov­ing to India.

India, the country.

We were new­ly­weds. I was fin­ish­ing my grad­u­ate degree and dream­i­ly plan­ning a future that involved a writ­ing career, a cou­ple of kids, and a brown­stone in Brook­lyn, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in that order. My life was defined by the cat­e­gories I fit into: a writer, a new­ly­wed, a city girl. Being a house­wife in a for­eign coun­try ten thou­sand miles from home was not sup­posed to be one of them. 

Still, I’d promised to love and trust and fol­low my hus­band to the ends of the earth. I got my diplo­ma, quit my job, and stepped onto an air­plane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-pre­pared for the jour­ney I was about to take.

Every­thing I did in my new role as an expat house­wife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new cul­ture were awk­ward and half-heart­ed. I spent too much mon­ey on gro­ceries ($20 dol­lars for an expired jar of Ragu pas­ta sauce), let the laun­dry pile up, stared sul­len­ly into space at my husband’s work din­ners instead of being the charm­ing, sun­ny cor­po­rate wife I thought I’d be. With­out my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a par­a­sitic hang­er-on in a very for­eign world. The new cat­e­gories I’d imag­ined for myself — house­wife, jet-set­ter — turned out to not fit so well. And with­out those labels to define me, I lost myself.

Except lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a les­son about iden­ti­ty that was equal parts painful, pro­found, and life-chang­ing: I hadn’t real­ly known myself at all. I was so busy paint­ing a pic­ture of who I thought I was sup­posed to be, a set of per­fect labels to live up to, that I nev­er learned to look in the mir­ror and see who that per­son actu­al­ly was. 

When I set myself free from all those labels — even the ones I loved, like writer and daugh­ter and wife — I began to under­stand the big­ger pic­ture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white box­es I’d spent much of my life believ­ing I need­ed to fit into.

With so much debate about lean­ing in,” and the insur­mount­able tasks of find­ing bal­ance and hav­ing it all that have become part of today’s con­ver­sa­tion, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grate­ful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of think­ing you need to choose one of the dif­fer­ent worlds you actu­al­ly float between. 

Fit­ting snug­ly into the house­wife” box or the expat” box didn’t hap­pen for me. And, lat­er on, the moth­er” box and the writer” box didn’t turn out to be per­fect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dream­ing they would be. Those roles are large­ly defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the offi­cial descrip­tions. Sense of self comes from the choic­es we make and the things we do. When I stopped fight­ing against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to cel­e­brate the things we were, I became whole again. 

As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a house­wife, or to give up lov­ing New York City in order to love Hyder­abad, too. A lit­tle bit man­go, a lit­tle Big Apple, a lit­tle bit writer” and a lit­tle bit mak­er of awe­some turkey lasagna”: the real me was a col­lec­tion of the pieces I’d cho­sen to be.

As a part-time work­ing mom, I strug­gle to jus­ti­fy my choic­es and bal­ance my pri­or­i­ties, but the essen­tial first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still con­sid­er myself a part-time house­wife, even though I nev­er did learn to roast a chick­en or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career — not iden­ti­cal to the one I’d have if I ded­i­cat­ed all my resources to work­ing, but one that makes me feel suc­cess­ful and ful­filled. I am a moth­er — not the same one I’d be if I ded­i­cat­ed all my resources to par­ent­ing, but still a moth­er I’m proud to have become.

Get­ting on that plane to India and becom­ing an acci­den­tal house­wife changed my life for­ev­er, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expec­ta­tions, and sac­ri­fice, and per­spec­tive. But los­ing myself in India, and then find­ing myself again, was the best part of my jour­ney. My path toward self-dis­cov­ery remains flu­id and per­pet­u­al, but my choic­es aren’t black or white any­more. Now when I look in the mir­ror, I can see the small parts as they come togeth­er to make up my whole.

Read more about Jen­ny Fel­don here.