CTBHHM: Having a Nervous Breakdown? Selfish Woman!

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 156—159

“I’m About to Have a Nervous Breakdown.” That is how Debi titles this bit, which closes out her section teaching young women “to be sober.” This should be interesting, right? Well . . . as you might expect, she basically spends the whole time telling women that nervous breakdowns are their own damn fault for being so selfish and that they need to purpose to stop having them. Yay. As she often does, Debi starts with a letter, prefacing it with this:

This letter shows how not getting our way often causes us to have a nervous, troubled spirit instead of the quiet (sober) spirit God expects us to have.

Because apparently nervous breakdowns are the results of “not getting our way.” You know, selfish spoiled women that we are. It couldn’t be the number of children Debi advocates women have, or that she expects them to be permanently selfless in every sense of the term (including lacking an actual self!), or the financial struggles or the difficulty keeping up with homeschool work for eight children under twelve. Oh no! It’s all about “not getting our way”! It strikes me that this is the same simplistic and silencing approach the Pearls take towards children. You’re upset? You’re having a tantrum? Stop being such a spoiled little brat! How the toxicity of this thinking isn’t clear to Debi is astounding.

Anyway, here’s the letter:

I heard you article read publicly called “Carnal husbands, Cranky wives, and Cantakerous Kids,” while at a seminar in Knoxville. It was the first time I realized my anxiety controlled my husband and was a reflection of my lack of confidence in him. As we left the seminar and were fighting traffic, my husband spoke up that we needed to stop for gas. Miles passed and still the traffic was bumper to bumper. Suddenly we were free and in the mountains with no place to buy gas. I was in an extreme state of turmoil. I had worked myself up to a state that I wanted to scream to him to go back into the city and get gas. I could see the gas gauge; it was totally empty. I kept quietly raging to God that “this was the exact reason why I had to take control, since he is the most irresponsible man and does not make wise decisions. I felt that I should tell him what to do.” I was so nervous, I was almost sick, but for the first time I kept my mouth shut and looked interestedly at the hills. Ten miles up into the mountains, we finally came to an exit that had a gas station, and my husband turned to me, smiled and said, “What’s happened to you? You’re not a nervous wreck like you usually are. I’m so glad you’ve learned to relax. Isn’t life more fun when you’re not so full of fear? I’m proud of you.” I had to stop and think. Even if we had run out of gas, would it have been a tragedy? I could see that I had turned many things into monsters. I had the opposite of a meek and quiet spirit that we are supposed to have. I have learned not to let my fears and irritations over uncertain circumstances control me, and, much worse, my husband. I am learning to lean on my husband.


I can actually sympathize with this letter a lot. I’m much like Sara when Sean and I go on road trips. Usually I’m tense and upset because we’re running behind, and I hadn’t planned to get off as late as we did. Sean tells me it’s okay, and to try to relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the moment. And he’s generally right. However, there are a couple of things completely missing here. For one thing, this isn’t a gendered thing. In some couples, it’s the husband who gets all stressed out while the wife is the one saying “it’s okay, take a deep breath and relax, it’ll be okay.” In fact, our close friends Joe and Natalie are just like that—Joe stresses out over everything and Natalie is always telling him to relax and just enjoy life. Inserting things like authority and submission into this makes no sense at all.

But also, Sara’s completely missing that there’s a middle ground. She thinks her options are keeping her mouth shut and not voicing her concerns on the one hand or telling her husband what to do and controlling and dictating to him on the other. To some extent, this silence/control dichotomy is a product of the very gendered nature of a patriarchal marriage. What Sara is missing is that she can say “We’re so low on gas and we don’t know when we’ll find a gas station if we keep heading out of town, do you think maybe we should go back into town and get gas?” or even simply “The fact that we’re about to run out of gas is stressing me out.” It’s possible to communicate and to discuss an issue without one person controlling the other person or telling them what to do. But Sara doesn’t seem to be aware of that.

Of course, a reading of the article Sara cites explains why this may be. In it Debi tells women to never never never disagree with or criticize their husbands in front of their children and to never never never say anything that might sound patronizing, ever. Given that Sara and her husband believe they’re supposed to have a patriarchal marriage, even Sara offering advice might be seen as her patronizing her husband or criticizing his actions, something the article says she’s not supposed to do. Basically, the Pearls’ marriage advice completely short-circuits actual communication or discussion and makes it impossible.

Finally, the correct response to anxiety and stress is not always to just relax. Sometimes the correct response is to do something. What if a woman’s husband doesn’t have a job, and they’re running out of money, and he’s not lifting a finger to job search? Is the correct response for the woman to just let things be rather than being anxious or worried, to just relax and take life as it comes? Or is the correct response for her to encourage her husband to get a job, do some looking for him, or even take a job herself if he is unable or unwilling to find work? Anxiety is the body’s way of saying something is wrong. Sometimes that short circuits and the best response is to try to relax, but often times there’s a real problem that needs fixing and the anxiety stems from that. In those cases, something needs fixing, and ignoring that isn’t going to change it.

Anyway, back to Debi:

Many women lack biblical soberness, as seen in the way they treat their houses as shrines to be protected, rather than as spaces in which to enjoy their families. They get emotionally upset if the carpet gets messed up or if the kids accidentally spill milk on the couch. They become emotional wrecks over their physical surroundings.

I’m sorry, what?! Does Debi have short term memory loss, or does she just think we do?

Debi only recently got through shaming Jill for not “planning ahead” enough to have supper on the table and the house clean when her husband got home. In that section, she had this to say:

I have had many sick babies, and I know sometimes it was not easy, but you can get the house in order and meals cooked and keep everything running smoothly all the same. As mothers, we will often be stressed over a sick child, but that is no reason to neglect our other duties. A sober wife makes herself the match of every circumstance.

And then she wrote an entire section on planning ahead when cooking. In that section she said this:

Sometimes, maintaining a good relationship with your husband simply requires the performing of simple tasks, like having a good meal ready on time and a clean house, even when it is not easy or convenient to do so.

And then she wrote a section telling women to go back to the 1950s. She included this tip on preparing for your husband to return home at the end of the day:

Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. Then run a dust cloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too.

So first she tells women that it is their duty to keep their houses clean and orderly for their husbands, and that there is no excuse for failing at this . . . and then she says it’s wrong for women to become upset when their houses become disorderly messes? It’s okay for a husband to expect a wife to keep her house clean and orderly, but it’s not okay for a wife to expect she should be able to keep her house clean and orderly? I mean, seriously?

As a quick aside, I do want to address Debi’s actual point. It’s true that as a parent you can’t expect your house to always be in tip-top perfect shape. I’ve been working extra hard in recent weeks to keep our apartment in some semblance of order, and have been making sure everything is straightened and put away before bedtime. Even with that, it’s more than a little discouraging to feel like I just cleaned the kitchen, and then I turn around and it has suddenly descended into chaos again. I recently acknowledged to myself that our house simply won’t be quite as as clean as I would like it until the kids are grown and gone.

However, I do think it’s reasonable to strive for certain levels of cleanliness. Too much mess stresses me out and makes it hard for me to function, and I think that’s true for a lot of people, men or women—and that’s not bad or unreasonable. Sally is already conscious of cleaning up when she makes a mess. It’s not draconian or backed up with a stick, it’s about teaching children respect for both their home and for their parents’ needs. I respect my children and their desires, and I ask that they also respect me and my desires. At age 4, Sally can understand and should respect my desire for her not to color all over the walls. However, I also understand and respect her desire to draw on large canvases, so I direct her to our giant whiteboard. 

Anyway, back to Debi lecturing selfish women for caring too much about the state of their homes.

If you have that problem, let me ask you, how would you feel if your husband provided nothing more than an open barn in which to deliver your first baby? That was the case with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Do you think God could have used Mary to be the mother of Jesus if she allowed herself to become an emotional wreck when her environment was not calm or orderly? Think of the teenage girl, Mary, clinging to the back of a bouncing donkey, contractions pulling at her exhausted body, while her desperate husband searched for a place for her to deliver her child.

You’re not happy with your lot in life? Guess what?! It could suck a lot more! Who do you think you are to expect a clean and orderly home?! Mary didn’t have one when she gave birth to Jesus, so why should you?! Who do you think you are?! I mean, isn’t that basically what Debi is saying? That it’s not legitimate for a woman to want a calm and orderly environment? That wanting that is selfish and unreasonable? And yet, in a previous section she had this to say: “As wives, our life’s work should be to perfect how we may please our husbands.” Because men get to have a servant waiting on them hand and foot, and that’s totally not selfish! Grrr.

Many have speculated as to what virtues Mary had that prompted God to choose her to be the mother of our Lord. I can tell you what she was like.

Because Debi can read minds and characters across time and space. Totally.

She had eternity in her heart. She was self-possessed, thoughtful, and was always learning to make wise judgements. When a young woman learns to be sober, she will not live for immediate gratification. She will appreciate those things that will last for eternity.

I agree that it’s easy to get caught up in day to day annoyances and forget to take a deep breath and enjoy life. I even agree that it helps to keep in mind what really matters and what doesn’t, and what will matter ten years from now and what won’t. It helps to put things in perspective. But, there’s a problem here that actually stems from Debi’s theology. I grew up believing, like Debi, that it’s eternity that matters, and that shitty situations in the day to day were unimportant. This is why too many evangelicals see sending people Bibles as more important than sending them water and other supplies. It’s eternity that matters. So what if they’re living in an unsanitary shack, if they know Jesus they’ll go to heaven and that’s what matters, right? That sort of perspective gets in the way of bettering one’s life in the here and now.

And here we reach the end of this section. The basic summary is that having a nervous breakdown is the result of being selfish and wanting things your way instead of being able to relax and just take life as it comes. She completely and totally misses that her teachings that women have to perform perfectly for their husbands, whether it’s through perfect obedience or through always smiling or through keeping the house and children spotless and the proper food on the table, might actually contribute to or help create nervous breakdowns in women who follow her teachings. Her solution—to just relax and take life as it comes—only works if a husband is okay with having supper late, and Debi has already made it clear that that is not acceptable. In the end, Debi tells women that nervous breakdowns are their own fault for being so self-centered without, apparently, realizing that a nervous breakdown can actually result from giving and giving and giving until you lose both yourself and your sanity.

Debi finishes out the chapter a poem her daughter wrote. I’m not going to add commentary. I’ll leave that for you lot. 😀

Mountain Ma and Pa

By Rebekah Pearl (age 16), April 1991

O, so much ter do,
So much ter be done.
The work’s never through,
An’ da work ain’t much fun.
No thanks fer yer labor,
No pay fer da job,
Jest, “What’s fer supper?”
“How ’bout corn-on-da-cob?”
Ya mop an’ ya sweep,
Ya dust an’ ya shine.
Then turn around,
An’ what do ya find?
His shoes on da floor,
His coat on da chair,
His rear in da couch,
An’ his feet in da air!
So ya kick off yer shoes,
An’ ya throw down yer broom.
An’ ya wink at yer ole man,

So he’ll make ya some room!

This is why my Ma and Pa are happily married!

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