CTBHHM: The Bitter, Critical Woman

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 178—180

This section is weird for me. Why? Because, well, I found myself agreeing with it, for the most part. And not just that, but I found it speaking to my own personal life and experiences. This week we are looking at a letter, and the one sentence of commentary Debi attaches to it. This is still in the chapter on women loving their children, which make it odd, because at first glance (and second glance, and third glance) it has very little to do with, well, women loving their children. But enough of this introduction. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Dear Pearls,

I would like to share my story with you. It is simple but probably common, and it needs telling.

I’m not going to speculate about the authenticity of this letter, except to say that most of these letters follow a very specific formula. Perhaps that’s because people write this sort of thing in a formulaic way. I really can’t say.

When I was a child, I was always aware that my mom was distrustful of my dad. If one of us children did a bad thing, she was quick to deal with us, “so Daddy will not whip you too hard.” If Dad was going out to buy something, she would worry outloud that “he will be foolish in how he spends the money.” When he got laid off, I remember her saying over and over, “I guess I need to learn a trade. Someone in this house has to work.” I cannot fault her in any area of motherhood. She kept us fed, clothed, and warm. But when I think of my mother, I think of a worried, fretful woman who was always ticked off at Dad. Our house was tense. I have only a few memories of her smiling. I cannot remember a time when she sat in Dad’s lap or danced around the room in playful fun. He was not a mean man. I remember hard whippings, but not harder than the neighbor kids got. I remember him being interested in me. He taught me how to do simple, fun things, but because of her, I always avoided him. All of us kids are grown now.

There are plenty of relationships that work this way, and it’s toxic. No good can come from a relationship where one party is continually tearing the other down, and a home filled with tension and constant worrying is not a good atmosphere for a child—or anyone else for that matter. I do have to say though, I’m turned off by the author’s glib defense of her father’s beatings. It’s totally possible that her mother had good reason to be protecting her from her father’s beatings. Of course, the rest of this—the constant barbs about money and work—these things do suggest that there was more going on here than just that.

My brother did great in life. his marriage has been good, and his children seem well adjusted. When he was growing up, he was gone to work with Dad all the time. Us girls never went with Dad, and so we were at home listening to Mom talk about how hard our life was.

I get that this sort of thing can happen, and that calling out cases where a father is good for his children while a mother is bad for her children is important, but coming in the context of Debi’s book, where women can do no good and men can do no evil, this just rubs me the wrong way.

All of us girls had terrible youths, and we had bad marriage troubles. Our kids have not done well. We don’t talk about it much, but we know Mom played a big part in our misery. She still lays all the blame on Dad, although we know he was just an average guy.

An average guy who beat his children, that is. I’m actually really curious to know more about this family. Did they homeschool? I know of homeschooled boys who stopped doing school of any sort when they hit their teens and instead went to work with their fathers full time on construction crews or other manual labor.

I always knew I did not want to be that kind of wife and mama. I wanted my children to remember me as loving their dad and enjoying life. I did not care if we lived in the back of an old van and ate junk food, I wanted my children free of tension and the feeling that their dad was a dummy who had to be tolerated. My first marriage ended after a few short months. I was determined when I married again that I would do it right. When I got married the second time, I lost my way and didn’t even know it. When I realized that we would have to move because my husband’s company was down-sizing, and he was out of work, I packed in bitterness, while silently accusing him of not being a good provider and forcing me out of my lovely home. Then one day I looked up at him and saw the same lost look on his face that I had seen on my dad’s face a thousand times when mom was “taking care of the family.” I was just like my mom. Something inside of me broke, and I hated the “wonderful person that I was.” It was then that I remembered my promise to myself to never be like my condemning mom.

The weird thing about this is how much I can identify with it. I get uptight and stressed when things go wrong. In contrast, my husband Sean is laid-back and take things as they come. Sean is also a bit absentminded and sometimes takes a while to get around to the things he’s said he’ll do. My tendency is to nag, or to let resentment simmer. I’ve learned over the years of our marriage that my own attitude plays a huge role in how we work together and in the tone of our family. If I get upset over any imperfection and forget to actually look at the awesome man I married and see him for who he is, I am unhappy. More than that, I then treat him poorly. Our whole family suffers. In contrast, when I maintain a positive perspective on life, keep my eyes on the big picture and what is important and what is not, and occasionally just step back and go with the flow, I am happier—and so are Sean and our children. In other words, this bit really hits home for me and reflects some of the things I myself have learned over the years. And given that this is coming from Debi, it feels weird.

But we need to go on, because what you’re getting here is a redemption narrative.

I had bought your The Joy of Training DVDs and marriage tapes months before our move, but had not watched them. I knew the time had come. I settled down in the living room among the boxes, and before long the whole family had joined me. We laughed and laughed at the big old mountain man telling the funny stories. We sent the kids to their rooms and finished up the Wives Honor Your Husband tape. My laughter turned to weeping, and my kind husband held me in his arms while I begged for forgiveness. I cannot tell you how changed our family is. My husband is thinking of starting a business. He has wanted to for years, but my fear of failure has held him back. NO MORE. If we end up living in a van, that’s OK. I am sad for lost ground with my children. More than anything, for my daughters, I want to break this ugly chain of bitter, critical womanhood. I have asked their forgiveness and found they were glad to be over the tension. They know that from now on, they are going to have a mama who thinks Dad is great, even when he is not what I think he should be. He really is a great guy. I am so ashamed when I think of all the earthly hell I have put him through. Our children are going to grow up secure in love, NOT secure in a spotless house, insurance paid, and name-brand clothes. Life has never been so good. Better late than never. From all of us, a great big thanks.

Shelia

Okay, here’s the thing. When I said that bit about realizing the importance of maintaining a positive outlook rather than a critical demeanor, well, that all goes hand in hand with communication and compromise. If I simply willed myself to be joyful and let anything and everything roll off my back, that wouldn’t be healthy. Maintaining a positive outlook does not mean not talking to Sean about things he does that bother me or areas where I think we could work together more effectively.

I suppose I would say it like this: Debi seems to suggest that there are two options, “bitter, critical womanhood,” or permanently positive smiling yes-women. There are more than two options. It’s possible to avoid being bitter and overly critical without being sacrificing things like honest communication. And whatever happened to iron sharpening iron? Constantly cutting each other down is a problem, but building each other up does involve a willingness to be truthful about each other’s weaknesses.

This really does make me think of the Pearls child training advice. Over and over throughout To Train Up A Child, the Pearls what really actually is bad parenting to task. Yet instead their offered alternative—enforced absolute obedience from infancy up, backed up by beatings with a rod—is no better and even arguably worse. What they don’t seem to realize is that there are other ways out there other than permissiveness backed up by angry slaps on the one hand and complete and absolute authoritarian control bordering on a police state on the other.

The other thing that’s bugging me is that too often in evangelical and fundamentalist culture, women are silenced by being proclaimed “bitter.” If they call people out, or make a stink about something that really does matter, they’re called “bitter” and minimized, dismissed, and neutralized. The word “bitter” is a tool that is used in evangelical and fundamentalist circles to stifle women’s voices. So yes, I think that the sort of constant cutting down of a partner described in Shelia’s letter is toxic, but I worry about the messages evangelical and fundamentalist women reading this book may come away with. They may end up believing that being dissatisfied with anything about their husbands or challenging any of their husbands’ actions is automatically being a “bitter, critical” woman and therefore something to be avoided. And that sort of silencing is a problem.

But we need to switch topics before we close, because I think it’s really easy to forget the ostensible focus of this section. This section is supposed to be about encouraging wives to love their children. I bet you had forgotten about that for a moment until I brought it up! So far, Debi hasn’t actually talked about ways for a mother to love her children that don’t involve going through a third party—the children’s father. Here is the only sentence of commentary Debi offers on the letter discussed in this section:

Shelia is obeying the words of God; she is loving her children by loving their dad.

How is a woman to love her children? By loving their father. Now yes, I agree that it is healthy for children to see their parents modeling a healthy, mature, and loving relationship. However, in light of Debi’s constant focus throughout her book on women binding up their entire lives, identities, and wellbeing in their husbands, Debi’s incessant assertion that women must show their children love by showing their husbands love just rubs me the wrong way. Also, I’m pretty sure that the Bible says that women are to love their children by loving their children’s father . . . exactly nowhere.

Fortunately, I just glanced ahead and we do eventually move on to other things in this chapter. In future weeks we will learn about how mothers of large numbers of children can ensure each gets individual attention and about how mothers can protect their children from sexual abuse. Stay tuned!

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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