Womanhood: An unattainable ideal?

I’ve had a hard time getting back into the swing of things since winter break. I’ve been incredibly tired and overwhelmed and just unable to get done the things that needed to get done. I can’t tell you how many times this week my wonderful partner insisted I go to bed only to stay up washing the dishes or straightening up Isa’s playroom.

I felt horrible.

Yesterday, I called Mi.Vida from the car, mentioned how exhausted I was and apologized for how much slack he’d been forced to pick up in the last two weeks. I didn’t realize I was fishing for a “don’t worry, it’s fine” until one didn’t come. When my desperate, “but you’ve had to do so much, I feel so bad, I know I’ve really dropped the ball lately,” was met with (what felt like) a stoney silence, I was mortified.

It wasn’t just that I felt truly sorry for all that Mi.Vida has been doing, it wasn’t just that I was worried he was genuinely angry at me for my short comings, in that short silence I felt the irrevocable judgement that no words could ever convey. I was doing a shitty job. I was failing, as a partner, as a mother, as a woman.

I hung up the phone and promptly started sobbing.

Yesterday Mel posted a critique/discussion of Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady, using it as a jumping off point to explore “how we define womanhood.” Her post artfully weaves the movie’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher with her own impressions of how we define womanhood and then judge all woman within that definition.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mi.Vida’s silence stung so sharply because I took it as a judgement on my capabilities – as a mother and a partner, as a woman who is supposed to be able to do her job, maintain her home and care for her child. When I can only perform two of those jobs well (or at all) and leave the third to languish, I have inherently failed as a woman.

I don’t think we realize how much we expect of ourselves as women, and how conflicting those expectations can be, until we force ourselves to examine our situation carefully and honestly. The reality is that in this day and age, women are expected to be wives, mothers and career women. While not all women chose (or are able) to take on these roles I would argue that it’s socially expected that they do, at one point or another. The choices* not to commit to a spouse, have children, or pursue a career are commonly used to qualify someone; those circumstances are mentioned because they are seen as modifiers, they single that woman out.

As mothers, women are not only expected to love their children unconditionally but cherish spending every waking moment with them. The role of mother, and the children that distinguish a woman in that role, are assumed to provide all of life’s satisfaction and then some; her children should be enough, in and of themselves, to guarantee her happiness. As mothers, women are also expected to be not just capable of, but exceed in, the distinct arts of feeding, nurturing, educating, soothing, discipline, imagination and play. It is also presumed we can, and will, keep the house clean, the laundry folded and nutritious meals on the table. All of these many and incredibly varied responsibilities are shouldered by every mother in our society today.

As wives (or partners) we are expected support our husbands in much the same way we support our children. We’re also expected to be there for them emotionally and intimately, as friends, lovers and partners. Even though our hearts supposedly belong completely to our children, we must find space to provide unconditionally for our husbands as well. We also must share financial responsibilities and work as a team to ensure the general happiness of everyone in the family. Oh, and it would be greatly appreciated if we could maintain our girlish figure and good looks too.

As if that weren’t enough, women of the 21st century are also expected to pursue a career of some kind, less they languish in the monotonous, simple-minded routine of the stay at home mom. Women who have no plans for themselves outside of the home are considered to lack ambition and are sometimes even pitied. What will they do when their children are in school? What will they do when they’ve left for college? As women we are expected to thrive as mothers but are found lacking if that is all we do. As productive members of society we are expected to do more, use our minds, make something of ourselves.

Of course not all women play all these parts, not all of the time, but I would venture to say there is an expectation that we will preform all of them at some point in our lives, and many are attempting to excel at all three for the entirety of their middle aged years. How are we supposed to succeed when these roles are at war with each other? How can we ever be dedicated mothers and wives when our careers pull us away from our husbands and children? How can we take advantage of our education when we do so at the expense of our family? If we want, or are forced, to do all three we are setting ourselves up for failure.

And here is where the guilt comes in, and the judgement – the condemnation of ourselves that turns outwards in the disapproval of others. If we can never satisfy our own standards, we better find everyone else lacking as well.

Let me use myself as an example. I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t cook but I don’t cook. I don’t like to cook and in a stroke of what I consider to be pure genius, my partner and I made an agreement in which he does ALL the cooking (and meal planning) and I do everything else, effectively solving years of disputes about who does what around the house. For us it’s a perfect arrangement–I am forever grateful for my husband’s efforts in the kitchen and he commends me for all I do around the house. Oh, and did I mention I never have to cook?

Every once in a while it comes out, the fact that I don’t cook. Sometimes I let is slip, sometimes I declare it proudly, but no matter how it makes its way into the conversation it’s always met with the same looks of bewilderment, indignation, or pity (many times simultaneously). The questions are always the same, though only sometimes uttered, How can she call herself a mother? Or a wife!? Isn’t it every woman’s job to feed her family? Her poor husband! I could never do that to my partner or child! Does she think she can get away with this?! When I admit that I don’t cook I automatically drop a peg in the minds of most other woman; by relinquishing this traditional obligation I have forsaken a part of my womanhood. I am effectively less of a wife and a mother.

Right now it’s 3:47pm. My daughter has been up since 3:29pm. I didn’t immediately go to her because I was writing this post and I wanted to finish. What does it say about me, that I chose my own fulfillment over my daughter’s? Does it even matter that she has been chattering away, completely content in her crib for the last twenty minutes? Surely I should be judged even more harshly for the fact that I didn’t spend this morning–or any morning this week–with her and am effectively wasting a precious half an hour of possible together time. Obviously this act qualifies me as less of a mother: how can I possible love my child with all my heart when I don’t take every opportunity to be with her?

And therein lies the rub. No where, not in one of our defining roles as women, is anything mentioned about our own happiness, our own fulfillment. Good wives, mothers and career women are never supposed to put themselves first. There is always someone else who depends on us, someone else whose needs have been determined more important than our own. The role of individual is sorely lacking from our understanding of womanhood. Maybe if we created some space for who we are as unique people, we could make room for all the other parts we play, giving them the opportunity to merge into a more cohesive (and forgiving) entity.  Maybe then we could define ourselves as mothers, partners and career women in a way that works for each of us, individually and as a whole.

I believe womanhood can be significantly less confining, but only when it is emphatically harder to define. 

What do you think?

Are we brave enough to change the definition?

For more on this topic – and to be reminded of why we’re all RAD! – check out Jjirrafe’s post at Too Many Fish to Fry.

*Obviously one does not always have a choice to become a wife, mother or career woman. Not having that choice, and the damage it does to a woman’s identity within the confines of the traditional definition of womanhood, is an important discussion, one that sadly did not fit in today’s post but that I do hope to tackle some day.

11 responses

  1. Whoa… fantastic post and a lot to think about here. I think this is the part that I’m chewing on the most: “No where, not in one of our defining roles as women, is anything mentioned about our own happiness.” If we’re going to look at our founding fathers, they certainly put that in the definition of what it means to be an American male (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). Is it still part of the definition for the average man today? Or is everyone sort of expected to let go of happiness in order to get everything done? It feels like there is more and more and more to get done, especially without someone who is a dedicated homemaker. If you’re working during the day, you’re not cleaning, so when is that getting done? It’s getting done during what was traditionally that pursuit of happiness time.

    • You guys are my writing heroes right now (and well, always 🙂 ) Mel, your posts this week have just been incredible. And this response blows me away, too.

      So much to think about. Must ponder much more. I’ll be back.

  2. What a great post. I’m a new mom struggling with this quite a bit. My spouse is very supportive in that he also gets up with the baby at night and he’s watched her for entire days when my schedule is less flexible than his (and doesn’t call it babysitting). Yet, there’s a sense for both of us that he’s supporting me rather than being equally responsible. At the same time, I’m responsible for almost equal income earning and a great deal more household tasks. In some ways, I wouldn’t want to share the responsibility more (I don’t want him touching my laundry, I don’t trust him to keep our files), but all of those things are part of my trying to be and do everything. I was frustrated by lowered expectations for me in the work arena as soon as I got pregnant, but I’m starting to think that is where it has to give, and I feel guilty about that for the women who come behind me. Oh the guilt!

    BTW, I think it’s awesome that you don’t cook! I’m always envious when I meet a woman whose husband is the cook in her family. My husband and I simply both lazy cooks. I probably try more than he does.

  3. Pingback: What Is Womanhood Now? | Too Many Fish to Fry

  4. Right. Womanhood is almost always defined “in relation to” a traditional gender role of servitude. In relation to spouse. In relation to child. In relation to career, but then also in relation to family. Whereas masculinity is defined in terms of an individual. Interesting … I’d never thought about it that way before.

    But yes, this is where I fall down … feeling like I fall short in my “in relation to” roles.

  5. Sigh. I think I’ve been thinking a lot in this vein lately (you probably noticed). What amazes me most is how we do this to ourselves. Often, I am the one who chooses to take on more, who tells my husband “don’t bother, I’ll do it”, who ignores my own feelings to help the family. And I find I’m happier when I do that, because it removes a lot of conflict. But I’d really, really, like it if he took half. And I’d really, really like it if my parents stopped commenting on how dirty my house was and realized that I work more than my mom did when she had little kids, and I can’t afford to hire a cleaner like she does/did. When is this going to change??? It’s been going on too long, for all of us.

  6. This is such an amazing post. Thank you. It’s something I am working through as well.

    As much as I am grateful for the Women’s Lib, I also think sometimes, “Thanks so much! Now I get to clean and cook and spend the entire day at a thankless job, too! Thanks for thinking ahead!”

  7. I was born selfish. I have always had a strong propensity to put my own needs right up there with the needs of others. I always felt bad about that until someone pointed out that you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help those around you. (OK, I still feel bad because it’s not socially acceptable to put one’s needs high, but that’s how I’m built).

    So when you said you spent an extra 18 minutes finishing a post, I’m thinking, “Yay! You go girl!” And while you’re going, girl, you’re teaching your girl self-sufficiency.

    I’m with you on cooking, too. We should never room together. Unless we’re on diets.

  8. Hi, I’m writing to let you know that I was really moved by your comment to Nicole’s post about “She’s not a mother. She’s Nothing.” In particular:

    “I recently wrote a post about how women are defined by their relationship to others. As women we are first and foremost daughters, wives and mothers. There is very little room for who we are as people. Women who don’t have kids are more defined by who they are, by what they love, by what inspires them. Our culture doesn’t know what to do with that. We just don’t. It’s sad and it messes with mothers too because those of us who want to be seen for who we are, outside of being a mother, are generally shut down. I can’t imagine how hard it is when you can’t fall back on the mother identity though, it must be incredibly difficult.”

    I’m in my late 40s and have a 2 year son, and as much as I adore being his mother, I’m often overwhelmed with my insecurities about not being able to DO IT ALL.

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