Gender Roles and Shame

After a very long day of renewing residency/immigration papers together, I asked my husband if he could help me pick up around the house and sweep the kitchen. He replied that he was beat and just needed to veg for a bit. Almost immediately I was overwhelmed with shame.

I stumbled out to the kitchen and looked around at yesterday’s crumbs all over the floor. I waded into the living room through the piles of laundry the girls had scattered across the floor that morning. Tears pushed at my eyes. What was wrong with me? This was my work, my job. What had possessed me to ask my husband to pull my weight as well as his own? I should be able to keep up with this work by myself, in fact, if I was keeping up with it, the room wouldn’t look like this in the first place.

That was when Ms Pooky threw a glass onto the kitchen floor from her perch atop a chair. I banished the baby without explanation to the basement with my husband, and left her screaming in protest as I stomped back to the kitchen and began sweeping up the shattered glass.

Within a few minutes my husband arrived with the screaming baby in tow, asking if I had dumped the baby on him as revenge for not wanting to help out. I yelled something about a glass breaking, and then we yelled at each other for a few minutes. In the middle of the argument, I remembered my promise to myself to be honest about what I was feeling, and I let it all out.

I told him that I was feeling as if I was the worst wife ever, and that I was ashamed that I had asked him to help clean. He replied that I had just as much right to ask, as he had to say no.


In a lot of ways it was easy to say that I am a perfectionist. People nod their heads and smile knowingly, and they share how they are perfectionistic themselves. Say that you struggle with shame and you get blank stares. And yet the 2 are inextricably linked. Perfectionism comes out of shame, and in the last year, I’ve been discovering the areas of shame in my life for the first time.

Shame is the lie in your head that tells you that you are not worthy of love or acceptance. Shame tells you that you are an inadequate person/wife/mother etc. until you perform to a certain standard. Shame tells you that you are bad, with nothing to contribute to anyone.

I had an understanding of my role as a wife and mother influenced by years of lies told me by my parents, my christian education and reading, and even several years of church attendance to solidify it all.

So many messages: “The woman should be a quiet, meek, keeper at home.” “The wife exists to serve her husband and children, this honors God.” “If you were ever this defiant to the husband you will have someday, that would enrage him.” “The root of all your problems is love of self.” “The wife is to be submissive to her husband, as unto God.” “Greet your husband with a clean home and a smile, he should have no worries or concerns about his home since you should have it under control.” “Your highest goal in the bedroom should be to please and satisfy your husband sexually, if he feels neglected he could be led into sin.”

After recognizing that those lies were just that, lies. It’s been getting easier to reject the shame-filled messages. Now I can look in the mirror without hearing my mom’s “encouragement” to try just one more diet. I can walk into my kitchen and see the counters that have not been scrubbed in a few days, and my first thought is no longer my Dad’s voice saying “ this room is a pigsty”.

It has been such a breakthrough for me to realize that my marriage can be a partnership of mutual respect, I do not have to be a quiet cheerful fake. That my house does not have to be cleaned to the standards of some idealized republished housekeeping book written by a Victorian era woman with servants. That I can let myself be vulnerable in the bedroom, I am not a performance oriented wind up toy.

That doesn’t mean I don’t goals, dreams, or things I am seeking to change and grow through, but now I change for me. I work to achieve the dreams I have for myself, not to become the person anyone else tells me I should be.

It’s hard for me to believe that I am worthy of love just for being who I am. But I know that I am a much better “me” than the “ideal” I was trying to chase for so long.

What are some of the ways you have felt you had to earn love?

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Fundamentalist Approved Feminist Literature
  • priest’s wife

    I'm blessed not to have these feelings of shame- but sometimes my problem can be- I will submit as much as he loves me as Christ loves the Church!

  • Michelle

    Wow. What a great post. While I didn't grow up in a fundamentalist home, I have come to realize through counseling that the way my mother treated me and my siblings is very much like what you endured. my mother would be "embarrassed" of us children if we were the least bit chubby. I mean, she had ME on a diet when I was 2 years old.

    I see it continue in the way she acts about my children. My children's existence (to her) is merely something for her to hold up as, "See, I have the most beautiful grandchildren" but she has no idea of the people my children are. This is just an extension of how she is with us children. When my parents divorced and my mom was left with us five children, she was the loud martyr. "Look at how wonderful I am – I am attending school to become a nurse, my children are well-behaved…tell me what an awesome person I am."

    Even now, when I know there's no way to earn my mother's love, I find myself frustrated every time it becomes apparent. Because I long for a mother-daughter relationship like I see my friends having. I long for a mother that I want to call and chat with and who values me and my family for the people we are and not just because we're this great notch on her belt.

    It seems I may have a blog post brewing. :)

  • Joy

    I love this post on so many levels; yes you get to ask and he gets to say no ~ and then glass breaks and plans change.

    I grew up in a home where love was communicated very conditionally, I now understand that my parents probably loved me completely ~ but one of my biggest ghost from the nursery is believing that only when I'm 'good' do I deserve love. Luckily I have a husband who tries hard to remind me that I'm loved just as I am.

    Thank you for being you ~ and sharing your thoughts and reflections with us.

  • PersonalFailure

    Nice. I have to be nice all the time, even if I don't feel like it, even if the other person really does not deserve it, even if it's killing me.

    Even knowing how messed up this is I have hard time turning it off and expressing what I really feel.

  • Um Abdullah

    Gosh, I could have written this, my dear. And it seems as pregnancy month 10 is quickly approaching, more and more needs to be done and less and less is actually getting done. Add in the hormones and I am a mess of emotions, crying (quite literally) over spilled milk. And My husband is standing there flabbergasted "why are you lying in bed crying". How do I explain "Because you said the people at the mosque said your appearance was "good" in a survey, rather than "excellent" and you talked about your clothes not being taken care of and not ironed often enough. And although you never said anything about me, I hear what you are not saying. And I don't have the freakin energy to do basic things at this point, let alone add in ironing every day, five times a day!" Instead…I just cried some more and went on about the house always being dirty and how I am inadequate…
    sigh. May God make it easy for all of us. There is just so much complexity involved in being a house-wife that I never imagined. It takes so much more discipline than working a 9-5. ha ha

  • Em

    Most of the time I hear of these emotions termed 'Mommy Guilt', where our understanding of what is expected of us is so high that no one could fulfil them and thus we continually feel guilty.

    I've noticed that this 'Mommy Guilt' can become particularly loud when my body fails me in some silent manner and 'doing it all' becomes physically impossible even though it *looks* as if I should be able to.

    In my case I know that I could do better then I am but I'm too afraid to find out exactly where my limits actually. It's easier to be somewhat sloppy and lax then to actually try as hard as I can and KNOW rather then strongly suspect that I'm not capable of 'doing it all'. :-(

  • MV

    Wow, so, I've been frustrated with myself today for being so "behind" in a lot of the ways I still try to earn love. I haven't sent out Christmas cards, the laundry is piled high on the bed, and I still have Halloween decorations up with the Christmas ones. I'm generally not good at doing things in an orderly fashion ("But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner" is running through my head). Like putting away one set of holiday decorations before opening the bins of the next. This was one of the first years I've even felt free to decorate for Halloween, so this whole "Nightmare Before Christmas" thing we have going on is very strange for me!

    Thanks for the good reminders!

  • Rae

    So great of you to work through these things rather than just stuffing the emotions down and trying to function today (what I am most often tempted to do).

    I think that I know what you mean about shame. I used to apologize to my sister every night for "being such a bad sister" and feel like a complete failure at life as I fell asleep. Perhaps it has something to do with the natural stress of growing up in a large family? And I wasn't even the eldest!

    Thankfully I somehow did not fully internalize the idea that I am really responsible for all of the domestic work. I would completely fall apart if put in your position. Which isn't to be negative, but rather to express the fact that I really, really admire the ways in which you both cope and move forward to make things better. Perhaps your husband will move forward as well and someday honor your work as much as his own. You *are* worthy of love regardless of what you do, but what you do with caring for 3 little ones and being pregnant is worthy of the greatest respect!

  • Hillary

    Thank you for being so honest!

    I've always found it interesting that shame is the first emotion Adam and Eve felt in the garden, and the only emotion that Jesus despised as He went to the cross.

    Sending hugs…

  • Maria

    You write some really terrific posts.

  • Young Mom

    Michelle- Alot of the fundamentalist lifestyle is heavily based on performance, and how everyone else will see/judge your parenting and your lifestyle, so I can see how you would see the comparison. It is so frustrating to have “love” that is so conditional, and it has been a huge part of challenging myself to value people for who they are, not for what they do for me.

    Joy- I’ve come to realize the same thing, my parents did (and do) love me.

    Um Abdullah- It’s so hard to feel as though you are failing, especially if you get that feeling from the religious community. What I’ve found most helpful for me is to try to remember who really counts, that would be me, my husband, and my kids. No one else matters. And my promise to be honest about everything has been a challenge, but also a major growth in communication. The last month of pregnancy is rough! Hope it gets better for you!

    Em- I think we are probably all “capable” of doing “better”. I just struggle with feeling that I am lovable even when I don’t do everything I am capable of.

    MV- Hope it keeps getting easier for both of us to remember.

    Rae- I think it is more related to what makes your parents accept you, than just a large family thing. I found that approval was largely based on my performance and attitude growing up, rather than just loving me for being me, it was more approval based, and complete approval was very rare. Both my husband and I have come so far breaking out of the gender box!

    Hillary- Wow, that is a fascinating thought about the cross.