Gender Roles and Shame: Part 2

After my last post about shame, I started thinking about the rest of the story. Maybe we grew up in strange homes, but we both believed that God had created males and females for extremely different reasons and purposes. That it would be going against God’s plan to do anything differently than what was “commanded” for us to do.
We got married at barely 20 years old and went right off to graduate school (yes, my husband was homeschooled and graduated early). He worked a job and took between 12 and 19 credit hours of graduate coursework a quarter. And I was a stay-at-home wife, because being in the home was my place in life and it would be going against God’s plan for a woman to do anything otherwise. We somehow made it through that first year on less than $15,000. He was gone long hours, worked long hours, and did homework late into the night. I puttered around the apartment, I cooked, cleaned, and did the grocery shopping.
At this time I thought we were flaming liberals. I mean, I wore pants sometimes now! And I listened to the radio and watched TV! When I needed new violin strings, I told my husband, after a few weeks, I thoughtfully reminded him that I still needed them. He acknowledged that I needed the strings. I continued to remind him from time to time, and finally after 4 months (somewhat puzzled) he asked me why I hadn’t bought the strings myself by now, if I needed them so badly. I told him that I was waiting for him to purchase them, or at the very least tell me how much I was allowed to spend on them and when. My father had always controlled every purchase, I was used to it, and now my husband was telling me I could choose to buy something all by myself? Wow! We were practically feminists!
I did everything around the house, and after babies arrived and my husband graduated, that pattern continued. But all that has changed in the last 18 months, I explained more in this post. Now my husband understands the sheer amount of work I do, he now contributes to the housework as well. We are learning to work as a team instead of each doing our own separate thing and waiting for the other to do what they are “suppposed” to do.
Even though I now realize how unhealthy the extreme gender roles were, I have been trained my whole life to think that way and so has my husband. It has not been easy to break out of that way of thinking.
I know my husband is willing and able to help, even honored. But sometimes I still feel ashamed of myself when he does work around the house. It is very hard for me to push myself to ask for his help, and on days that we are both exhausted and neither of us feels up to cleaning, instead of letting the house go for the day until a time when we both feel more rested and capable of working on the problem together, I feel guilty. Guilty that I didn’t do everything myself, and obligated to get “my” work done.
My husband struggles to notice what needs to be done without it being pointed out to him (after all he’s been trained to ignore it his entire life). As we’ve discussed life after our 3 year contract in ministry is up, he still feels incredible pressure to be the sole provider for our family, and guilty for wanting to leave our stable ministry job in the first place. He feels shamed whenever we talk about ideas for supporting our little family together, because he was always taught that he was supposed to take care of all that completely on his own.
It is frustrating to find ourselves continually pulled into the old patterns and feeling so much shame and anxiety when we try to think differently, but we are in it together. We are free from the family system’s now, we do not need to consider what “they” would say or do if we make a choice different than they’ve taught us to. We are a team, encouraging each other and doing what is best for our family. Facing all of the work, inside the home and outside the home, together.

  • Linds84

    I think you've already made the first huge step in overcoming this hurdle in recognizing it as a problem. I find your candor so inspiring and I absolutely adore your blog. Take care and have a Happy Christmas!

  • Michelle

    That is exactly what a married couple is….A TEAM…PARTNERS…working together to get through life together. I can tell what a struggle it would be with your backgrounds, but you've made great strides already!

  • priest’s wife

    If you see each other as 'team members' you'll be alright!

  • Rae

    I agree with the other commenters (though I don't want to in any way seem to underestimate the struggle that this is!). I like to think about it in terms of Christ and the Church. Christ doesn't expect the Church to "take care of the home" by herself. And it also isn't as if the Church can just sit around and wait for Christ to bring all the souls to her. It makes me so sad when I see couples where both spouses could be earning money, but instead they choose to have the husband working 70hrs a week and not parenting his kids because they are horrified at the concept of the wife helping her husband in any way other than housework/child-raising! If you can, say, write articles and earn a bit while still maintaining what is most important to you with your girls at home, then go for it! (Of course I'd support you in a fulltime job or anything else, but just tossing that out as more of what I imagine you're considering.)

  • PersonalFailure

    My husband struggles to notice what needs to be done without it being pointed out to him (after all he’s been trained to ignore it his entire life).

    It's not just conservative Christians. My husband is perfectly happy to help me out, but we have very different ideas of what "dirty" is. To me, anything out of place is dirty. A pair of socks on the floor is pure filth! (I've been working on calming down a bit.) To him, actual dirt is dirty, but clutter is just fine. It makes no difference to him whether the socks are on the floor, on top of the TV, in the fridge or where they belong in the laundry basket.

    Understandably, this leads to some tension, but I am learning to calm down and he is learning what sets me off.

  • ‘Becca

    I'm so glad you are making progress!

    While your background is crippling in some ways, it may help to realize that some of our society's expectations of men and women poison everyone, even those of us brought up with liberal, nonsexist ideas. We may have been *told* that men and women are equally responsible for family life and equally entitled to career success, but at some level the belief that a woman's worth is measured by the cleanliness of her home is still there. I know mothers who are doctors, lawyers, etc., but still feel personally responsible for every moment of their children's lives and are frustrated that it seems impossible for their husbands to share equally–it's not about the time put into it but the inescapable awareness of the child's needs and schedule and stuff; fathers seem able to escape that, even oblivious to it.

    There's evidence of gender differences in the brain which may explain some things, but I think social roles play a bigger part than people in the mainstream of our supposedly post-feminist world realize.

    What impresses me about your husband is not only that he's gotten more involved in parenting and housework, but that he seems so good at nurturing *you*, able to see what you truly need and willing to give it to you. That is a rare skill in men. Even men who do notice the needs of others sometimes are afraid that being too helpful in a nurturing sort of way will make them less manly.

    I have been in the exact situation you described in Part 1: I'm exhausted, I ask my partner to help with something that's normally my job, he tells me he's too tired to do it right now, and I go into that tailspin of shame. Then I try hard to get the job done to prove that I am worthy, simultaneously resenting the expectations I feel loaded on me and resenting him for whatever I think a man should do that he has not done recently (even if I never asked him to) and resenting him for not feeling as obligated to do this task as I do. Often it becomes obvious that I'm upset, and sometimes that brings us to the moment when, as you said, "He replied that I had just as much right to ask, as he had to say no." You wrote as if his saying that was a turning point when you realized how warped your thinking was, and maybe it was for you, but for me that point often brings a wave of despair: "You don't understand! It's easy for YOU to say no! It's easy for YOU to ask for help! I don't really believe that I have a right to ask! When you say no, that just proves to me that I shouldn't have asked!!!"

    I have a hard time asking for what I need and believing that I really deserve it. And *I* have a feminist upbringing, an involved and nurturing father, a degree from a very egalitarian university, a full-time job outside the home, and a partner who had all of those things but at the moment is unemployed so has lots more time for housework than I do! Why is it that I still feel ashamed of my *self* when there is dust and clutter in my home??? It's crazy, but there it is, and I relate so strongly to what you are saying.

  • Kate

    Gender roles are tough. We don't always know what we were raised with until we see others. My husband was raised with pretty traditional division of labor, and I was not. My dad does more cooking and cleans as much as my mom. And both worked (different hours) and cared for us kids.
    Here's the hard part. In my marriage, we often find ourselves in pretty traditional roles. I fight it, but, my husband works long hours and cannot do many things around the house.
    I think what you said about shame is so spot on and amazing. It's hard to learn to let go of shame, to not equate what we do with who we are.

  • Young Mom

    Rae- I actually can’t imagine getting paid for writing! I’ve never thought of what I write as worthy of payment. :) We’ve actually talked a bit about both of us working part-time while he is re-training, because you are right! The man working 70+ hours to keep the woman in the home is terrible when it means he cannot participate in family life at all!

    P F- So true! Thanks for pointing that out, we’ve found that since our communication has gotten better we can understand where the other is coming from so much better. But there are still times we make assumptions of what the other person is seeing/thinking based on what we see or think.

    Becca- Wow! That is interesting. I’ve found the root of some of my shame based on how I was taught to perform as a woman, and my subsequent failure to live up to it. But shame can be rooted in many different things, and I really get what you are talking about when you say you have a hard time feeling worthy of being helped. It’s not really tied to gender, it’s just expectations period. Why is it so hard for some of us to ask for help? In the past his statement would have made me feel the same way you described, but recently I’ve been starting to understand that I have the right to say no as well, so this time it was encouraging for me. My husband and I have joked that as oldest children who are hard-wired to be pleasers, we need a course called “how to do what you want to do”. Thanks for sharing.

    Kate- I think there are also seasons of life, back when my husband was working his way through school and I was home alone, it would have been silly to ask him to do anything, and even now in really busy times he can’t get to much. The difference is, that back in the day he would have gotten angry if I didn’t get to something I was “supposed” to get done, and now he understands that we are in it together. The shame is very crippling though, and I find myself slipping into depression whenever I start thinking through that mentality again, it’s a hard habit to break.