“It feels so hard as a woman to prioritize yourself. I feel like it takes about 30 years for women to start thinking of themselves, and by then, a lot of us have made commitments to – and sacrifices for – men who are (rightfully on some level) confused when we start being less okay with putting ourselves last.” – E. Carlton
Lately Sean and I have been having a lot of conflict around our jobs and our responsibilities with kids. It’s been an ongoing project, a piece of our figurative land that we have to keep working and tilling over and over, and just when we’ve planted seeds and watered it and things look kind of green and progress-y, some rodent comes in and tears it up in the middle of the night and leaves us scratching our heads in the morning. It’s a project that started when we had our first child, and one that’s continued as the state of our working lives and family size has changed.
Admittedly, a lot of our conflicts have revolved around me picking fights. I acknowledge this 100%. I hash out the gritty details about who is doing more with the kids and the house and when and where and what parts I think are unfair. Sean is a reasonable man, and while we do fight over these things (yell, cuss, sustain dismissive silences, and then come back together) we are usually able to hear each other and find a middle path. But it’s become more complicated as the years have passed and the children have been added. Sometimes there doesn’t always seem to be an answer for me, and I can see the look of being at a loss on Sean’s face.
Lately I’ve been discussing with my close friends the wide topic of women and family and working and this whole topic of men feeling blindsided by women picking fights about things like this came up.
It occurred to me that I’ve pulled somewhat of a bait and switch on Sean.
For my entire life, I was raised under a very religious umbrella. And during that time, from age whenever-I-had-conscious-memory to around age 22 (when I became a part of a more liberal church group and eventually detached myself from the religious community in general) here are the things I was told about being a woman – the right kind of woman, the one God (MAKER OF THE UNIVERSE, NO PRESSURE) wanted you to be:
You are a helper. You are to be meek. You are to be gentle spirited, quiet, submissive.
This mentality was both overtly spoken and also covertly displayed in a thousand different ways throughout my years in church and private school. Most of the time, by people who I’m sure meant well or were doing what they genuinely felt was God’s will for them. I grew up in a church where women couldn’t lead the congregation in prayer, much less give a sermon. For years I went to an early breaking of bread service in the basement of my church. It was a more intimate, low-key event than the large scale church service that followed it, and people were free to stand and read a passage or share their heart or what God had been speaking to them.
And by people, I mean the men. Once I asked one of the male leaders what would happen if I got up and shared something, because I had some things I had been mulling over and scripture I would’ve loved to read. It probably wouldn’t go over well, he responded matter of factly.
So this is the baseline I am working with – and, if it isn’t glaringly obvious – all of these attributes I was supposed to be displaying in order to be a Godly woman were nearly all completely contrary to my natural spirit. I am assertive, confident, outspoken, and independent. I wasn’t fitting the bill, but I was trying.
Fast forward through 12 years in a private school setting where this was the underlying message for women. It wasn’t necessarily that it was always taught directly to us (though, that, too) but certainly we were taught to be Biblical literalists (or, sort of? pick and choose? I don’t know, but definitely the parts about women being submissive to the husband, women being the body and men being the head, etc. the earth being only 5,000 odd years old, etc.) so you can imagine that a young girl who is being challenged in AP classes and asked to consider what she wants to major in during college is feeling a little confused because, if I also want to get married and that means I need to be submissive to my husband who will have his own dreams, and that I will likely be the primary caretaker of my kids like the vast majority of the women I see around me, how do all those things line up? Do I pick something I really want to go after full-fledge or do I pick being a submissive wife and mom?
Working, it sometimes seemed from looking around, was only for those who were too poor not to. It was not the ideal situation for a woman, and if by chance you did want to work at something, it was a good idea to pick something that meshed well with having children. I was encouraged by several women in my life to move toward teaching or nursing, because, this was a good job for mothers. Summers and holidays off for teachers, and you could be off in time to get your children once they were school aged, etc. Everywhere I turned in my social bubble, I saw women who were working around their husbands and children. It was rare to see a woman going after something she truly loved and asking her husband and children to rearrange for them.
Most women I spoke to seemed to be very concerned that I was forming whatever ambitions I had around the understanding that being a parent would come first for me. I did not see this same thing happening with the young men in my life. At the time, it didn’t seem odd to me at all. It wasn’t necessarily that “Child rearing will be your responsibility entirely!” was being bossily communicated, but it did seem like that was what I was supposed to be excited about, that was the primary conversation piece when I projected into my deep future with others. Did I want kids? I was too young and too deeply influenced by that community to think anything of it. Sure! I want to have children. And I did! But nobody seemed too interested in the other things, or how I would blend those together.
I am not blaming my initial career path on those influences, because I did enjoy Spanish and I personally felt a general lack of direction on a career. The internal monologue for me at 17 was something along the lines of, “I’m good at Spanish, kids are ok…*shrug*, I guess I’ll be a teacher?” (Really who can blame someone at 17? What does anyone know at 17? That’s for another day…) And when I did teach, I enjoyed it. But I guess I am saying that the overarching and underlying influences I had around me led me to not take myself very seriously. It wasn’t that I was forced into pursuing teaching, but maybe that nobody challenged me to pursue anything else with the confidence that I could actually achieve it. I think my dad tried – he enrolled me in art classes and often encouraged me to take that path, but he was the only voice in that direction in a very large sea of people communicating the opposite. It was a persistent, subtle message, I suppose. And for most of the messengers passing this message to me, it was passed along in a benign way. Loving, even. We see life differently, we see how women and men co-exist differently. But I see that method of raising women as harmful, now.
And so I entered into marriage with these conflicting energies — I was passionate and driven, so I was excited to pour myself into something (teaching), but also there was that subtle undertone that ultimately, Sean was the “head of the household” and I would “follow where he led” etc. and also the whole issue of how I had never really taken myself seriously enough to boldly ask myself what REALLY lit me up professionally – and then go after it. If I were being entirely honest, I would say that a year or two into teaching, I felt pretty convinced that I would just quit once I had kids. I didn’t say that out loud because I didn’t want people to think I was a quitter, but I just didn’t enjoy teaching as much as I thought I would. Plus, that’s what women do, right? I just didn’t feel that passionate about it, so, why not just be a mom…or…whatever. (General Directionless-ness 101.)
Also of grave importance in this discussion was that I had absolutely no clue what it really meant to be marrying someone who would later be a doctor. Sean being a doctor didn’t even feel real to me until probably his residency stage, and we had been together since undergraduate, before he had even been accepted to med school. I was just so young. I had no concept of what life would look like for him or, consequently, for me. I didn’t know any doctors or what their lives looked like. So I should mention that it’s true to some degree, that part of the conflict Sean and I presently feel has nothing to do with gender and a lot more to do with professions. He is a doctor, and that required many years of sweat, money, and sacrifice – on both ends – and this same conflict would apply to some of Sean’s colleagues that are women. Their job will probably take precedence over their spouse’s despite the fact that their spouse is male (provided their spouse is not also a doctor) because they will make more money and getting them their cost the couple more, financially and otherwise.
But there was still the other aspect: that all this time I had been quietly told that I’m to be soft, the helper, the domestically busy, the second fiddle. That it is attractive and endearing and what I was made for – to enjoy cooking, to serve my husband (that phrasing was thrown around a lot) to make a home. Throughout my twenties, I grappled with a whole lot of my religious upbringing. There was a lot to it that I didn’t seem to be fitting into anymore, and most of the way that Christianity (or, in the least, the brand of Christianity I grew up with) viewed and treated women was one of the bigger issues for me. I spent my early twenties trying to force Sean to be more of a “leader” for us than was ever natural for him in most ways, and I’ve spent the latter half of my twenties working to unravel those knots I tied with my own hands.
My friend was right: How can Sean not feel a bit sabotaged now, when the first half of my marriage was me trying in many ways to fall in line, be the helper to achieve his dreams, and be generally clueless about who I was or what I even wanted on a fundamental level?
One of the fundamental things Sean has consistently boiled our conflict down to is asking me, ok but what do you really want then, if not this? And honestly — in the past few years I’ve had to stop and say, DO I EVEN KNOW? I don’t feel like I was given (or gave myself) the space to seriously ask myself such a question, really. It feels like I was just sort of pushed through the system and rocketed in the direction of “nice lady motherhood” before I even had the chance to open my eyes and look around and figure out if that’s really what I wanted. And – I know I always say this, but I’ll keep saying it so you know – Two things. I DO want to be a mother. I just also want to be other things. And, I am not disparaging the calling of motherhood or those who feel exclusive motherhood is their calling. For some women, it is. But for some of us, it isn’t. And those are both ok. Different, and ok.
So, there has needed to be a lot of learning happening, on my end, with myself. At nearly 30. What DO I want? How DOES that fit into the life I’ve already created with this other person? What does mutual respect and pursuit of passions look like here, in light of our chosen professions, our children, our responsibilities? What is ACTUALLY FAIR of me to expect from Sean, given our history together and where we currently stand in the life we’ve created?
At the end of the day, I’m left with two things: I picked a good man, and if you don’t like where you’re standing, move.
You are not a tree.