–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros
Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.
Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.
But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.
I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.
I think it’s time we redefine our gender.
The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.
And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.
This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.
I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?
If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.
As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.
Sometimes, I feel resentful.
I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.
And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.
How do I change the terms of engagement?
I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?
In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.
When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.
Where does that shame come from?
I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.
And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.
I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”
I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.
I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.
I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to.
If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.
I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.
I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.