May 24, 2018 by Julia
My ten-year-old daughter recently made this portrait of me, and it wasn’t even for Mother’s Day. It shows me with six arms, simultaneously doing the dishes, changing the bedding, reading a book, listening to music, giving the kids snacks on the couch while they yell, ‘Mama!!!,’ and cleaning the bathroom. There might be some other activities in there, too. I’m not sure. My first reaction was, “Oh! She noticed! I’m not invisible while doing this stuff all day, after all!” Cue the relief at being seen, the pride in what looks like a job well done, with a flattering side of cultural consumption in the book and music.
My second, internal reaction was, “Why is this me? It’s because I’m a woman, isn’t it?” Cue the resentment. Now, where do I put this resentment?
It’d be so simple to place the blame entirely on our patriarchal culture, but I have this troubling suspicion that part of me wants to be the lady with six arms. I also need to complain about it. Why would I need to do these million things, and also need to complain about having to do them? Is the doing of them in my DNA, as a woman? Is the complaining because I’m taken for granted, as a woman? My guess is that men feel similarly about the cultural expectations placed on them. That they feel the pressure to fill the traditional gender roles from the inside and the outside, like women do.
No one really knows why (gender normative) women and men are temperamentally different from each other. Stuck on the question, I Googled it. The science on how our brains and hormones work differently is thus far inconclusive. But two things seem apparent to most of us: We are born different. We are also made different by cultural expectations and pressures. These influences on our identity are too fundamentally intertwined for science to determine which is more powerful in making us who we are.
This mysteriousness is hard for me. I like to figure things out, and to understand social groups, and to be aware of why I make the choices I do. As a curious, impassioned feminist who somehow ended up in a very traditional gender role of stay-at-home mom (and writer), the idea that my female biology is making at least half of my choices for me unnerves me. And the idea that men can be excused for bad behavior because “boys will be boys,” is wrong.
Biology gets used in arguments that dis-serve both sexes all the time. It’s no small thing that most of the “natural” skills assigned to women are some form of serving and nurturing others – while the inherent abilities assigned to men involve the gain of power, money and glory. Whether you embrace or look down upon some of these “gender-specific” qualities depends on your viewpoint, but most of us don’t enjoy being pinned down into a type of person because of our sexes. Regardless, our social structures have been built around these ideas of gender.
And therein lies the danger of traditional gender roles. They’re too confining. But what if we must fight not only social conditioning in resisting gender roles, but our own biological urges, too? Can our biological urges be bad for us? Well, yes, obviously they can be – we just tend to think about them in terms of preventing violence, or eating too much, or irresponsible sexual activity. Most of our biological urges are there for a reason, and they can be happily indulged in moderation.
But what about the female urge to sacrifice for everyone around her? You don’t see people trying to temper that biological urge, and you don’t see men being told to temper their tunnel vision when it comes to lofty career goals, either. Some of our biological urges have been a little too helpful to society, if soul-sucking to women. Those are the biological urges that get praised on Mother’s Day, a day when all women get lumped together into a nameless, faceless sacrifice for the good of humanity: Thanks, MOM! Couldn’t have done it without you! (Yeah, we know. And we cry because it’s so true. Also, we love you, honey.) Meanwhile, the male biological urges tend to pay better in the workforce and garner a lot more individual recognition.
Men don’t get asked if it’s possible for them to ‘have it all,’ because our culture is structured so that a man’s career is his ticket to everything he might want: a mate to make his life better, money to provide for a family, personal pride. Historically, a man supports his family through his ambition, not in spite of it. A woman’s ambition will often get in the way of her duties. A man’s ambition IS his duty.
In contrast, we look at the lives of famous, accomplished, self-made women like Beyoncé or Reese Witherspoon, and assume that their current lives are only possible because of the vast teams supporting them. We focus on how they must pay people to help them juggle the female obligations of homemaking, child-raising, maintaining social ties, and being beautiful. We don’t talk about the stylists, nannies, chefs or housekeepers of famous men, because we’re so used to women handling all these things for men, anyway. There is no novelty in men having a team to support them. We take it for granted that a support team is every man’s right, because how else can he conquer the world?
You can no longer tell a woman that there is a vocation she can’t do. But you can saddle her with a million tiny obligations to the world, so that she never quite makes it in that big, focused work. It’s like when Cinderella’s evil stepmother says, “Sure, darling, you can go to the Royal Ball tonight – after you do this impossible number of chores!” (Evil laugh.)
My question here, is: Is the Evil Stepmother the patriarchy, or my own female biology? The answer must be both. Surely, the world is set up this way in part because men have the physical advantage, and it served them well in the past to have women handle the boring stuff while they went on adventures. But if I am willing to admit the most truthy-truth, it also seems possible that because women carry all the reproductive burdens, our brains might be more attuned to taking on other burdens, too.
We are more likely to respond to the baby’s cry in the dead of night, more likely to be bothered by clutter or mess in our homes, more likely to sacrifice ourselves in the care of others. Heck, we already share the insides of our bodies to grow people – what’s another load of laundry? In the workforce, we are drawn to positions that serve the community, too – teaching, nursing, administrative work, social services.
So maybe women sacrifice in part because we can’t help it. It’s obviously good for those who benefit from our services. But is it good for us? The answer is super complicated.
I don’t think I am overstating it when I say that women in general feel simmering resentment over all the crap we must deal with. Just listen in on any girls’ night, which is one of the few places women aren’t serving others. You don’t hear this when men get together to talk, if they even do that. But it’s also true that women are more emotionally healthy and maybe even happier than men. Doing all this crap for other people does fill a major void in our lives. It ties us into our lives so tightly that we never forget how much others need us, and to be needed is good thing. Men may feel untethered, because they feel that everyone else can go on without them, except for the monetary support they provide – and women almost never feel this way. We feel that everything and everyone depends upon us. Both mental states can be a blessing or a curse. (Men, we do need you for a lot more than your money, by the way. Duh.)
But why can men ignore these practical concerns that give women purpose, but also eat up all our time, energy and morale? Women ask this question a lot. Is it male privilege that enables a father to sit on the couch with his phone while the kids are still awake, dirty, bored and hungry? Is it male privilege that allows him to spend all his time pursuing a career goal while his wife handles everything else? Or do they really just not see things the way we do? (Again – do we blame the patriarchy, or biology? Again – probably both.)
Women also wonder: how did we end up being the home life manager with all the answers, here? Can we ever escape our managerial duties? Can we ever just walk out the door without leaving behind a trail of packed meals, instructions, lists and schedules? Can we ever eat in a restaurant without our phones on the table, waiting for the next texted question about whether we have an extra toothbrush in the house, because our son just dropped his in the toilet? When do get time off from the constant job of womanhood?
This state of being is fine for most women, and really, not that bad, until one day it is, and then at that moment we are DONE. SO DONE. LEAVE US ALONE. Are those moments of breakdown worth a major social upheaval? I think so, yes. These breakdowns can be indicative of an inequality between women and men that bars our partnership and love for one another. Women are volcanoes, and the pressure is underneath us, waiting for its moment. We see it in all the nagging TV wives. We heard it in our mothers’ voices of exasperation. We need to be heard, we need to be seen, we need to know others care about the little things, too, we need help.
Womanhood, like manhood I suppose, is an ambiguous state. We love the work we do, but we also take on these burdens because no one else will. What would happen on birthdays or Christmas without us? I mean, we could suddenly quit, and most of us have caring husbands who would then stumble through the motions for us, but we would be plagued by an overwhelming sense of failure as a woman. Unless that’s just me. (I know it’s not.)
I get confused by sudden anger over these issues, because I have gladly chosen my current life, and most of the time I love it. My husband and I both work throughout the day, equally hard in our respective traditional gender roles, and we both rest in the evenings. Between the mundane tasks, I struggle to fit writing into my day; in the same way, he struggles to fit fulfilling work into his day in the office. He is a good, caring man, and in the big picture of our lives I think we work equally hard. Maybe it’s just that the world doesn’t value or support our work equally.
I see these inequalities, and I am not sure what to do with them. Do I just report them as I see them? That doesn’t seem like enough. It’s like stoking the fires of the gender wars and then saying, “Welp, my job’s done here. Have fun with that!”
I don’t understand my own female complaints half the time, and I think this is common for women, too. If we chose our lives, why do we feel this resentment about our lives? We are supposed to be free, but we don’t feel free.
This is all I know about making things better:
It’s easy for sensitive people like myself to get overwhelmed by the big picture of women’s history. If I cannot pair righteous anger with a positive action, social injustice will take a major toll on me emotionally, even when it doesn’t affect me directly as a victim. I will get depressed on behalf of others and lose sight of what’s good about my own life. (In addition to the female burdens, I carry a large amount of liberal guilt which must be distilled into something useful, for someone, at some point.) Sometimes, when I step back and look at my own life, I am surprised to find that I don’t want to change a thing.
But as women, we must be careful not to pretend things are okay for us, just because other women have it so much worse – have you heard about HER husband?!? It’s worth looking at our own frustrations and seeing if there is a way we can share them with the men in our lives, rather than letting them fester. We can talk about the unfairness in general, cultural terms, but again – when it comes to making change, we can usually have to start with our own relationships. How does sexism affect us personally? And that is usually what a partner will want to know: “What did I do, here? Am I guilty of all these things you’re talking about, or are you really just that into social justice for women right now? Also, what are we having for dinner?” (Hopefully, he’s saying that last part as a joke, which would only be funny to certain women, in certain situations, for the record.)
We can and should ask for the help we need, out of a genuinely vulnerable place. I asked Dennis this year to be responsible for helping the kids with their homework after dinner, and that has been HUGE for me. He also takes the kids to the bus stop in the morning. Yes, I do everything to get them literally out the door, but he takes them from the door to the bus stop, and somehow, this is HUGE, too. Women do so many little things that when someone helps us on a regular basis with these little things, they can be a HUGE morale boost.
Also, it helps to just look our individual personalities and needs, as partners. It doesn’t matter what the science says about what we’re good at, or what political trends tell us we’d be happier doing. What matters is what our own, wholly unique hearts and brains are telling us. When we want to change the world, we can start by following our own hearts, living our own truths without shame, no matter how it upends the world’s expectations.
This is me: I want to be a successful writer so badly my skin hurts when the writing’s not going well. The air around me vibrates with frustration, longing and self-loathing when I can’t do the work that is just for me. I feel at times like the obligations of my life are swelling up like a bouncy house in a closet, in which I’m trying to write, and the writing keeps getting pared down until it’s barely even visible, anymore: an hour a day, a half hour, five minutes of scribble in a notebook. And then there are days when I write all day long – like today – and I wonder if I will ever get anywhere with my writing, and I feel isolated and miserable, and I can’t stop writing. Sometimes writing is really hard, and it makes me cry, and yet I love it and can never give it up.
Also, I want a bunch of things other than good writing. You know – a life.
And honestly, I think most writers feel this struggle, male or female. Who cares if females, in general, feel it more, because of all that emotional, invisible labor? Well, I do, sigh. But what can I do, except write a too-long, very confused and contradictory blog post about it, which I MUST post or lose my mind, maybe work it into a novel, and then bring it back to me, as this woman, with this life?
The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to write for six hours every weekday, anyway. So, in my life, I might as well handle the homemaker stuff with the rest of my not-writing day, and do it as well as I can. My husband’s work provides all the financial support, so I provide the majority of the “other” family support, and that seems fair to me, if we’re both taking time off on weekends and evenings, which we do. Besides, I enjoy supporting my family most of the time. And I don’t have to do the stuff that doesn’t matter to me, personally – like being extraordinarily well-styled, or getting my kids into the most elite schools or activities or having a ton of money to keep up with the Joneses. I can shed that stuff like a fur coat on a hot day, and focus on the things I DO care about – keeping a nice house, planning out travel, holidays, birthdays, my family’s mental and physical health, memory-keeping, getting a creative moment each day, etc. And if I feel myself breaking down under the weight, I can ask for help from my male partner, rather than adding another thing to the list of What Women Deal With Too Often.
In the meantime, I will be practicing my own tunnel vision when it comes to big personal goals, sink dishes be damned. I will try to sit on the couch with my kids and do nothing, sometimes. And men should practice their multi-tasking and unpraised service to the world, if they want to help women out and hopefully improve their own lives, while they’re at it. I want my son to see that men must care about little things like putting their stuff away, and that it’s an honorable thing for a man to serve others even if he doesn’t get accolades for it. I want my daughter to be able to tune out the world’s needs and unreasonable expectations of her, sometimes, in pursuit of what really intrigues her. I must show her how it’s done.