Betty Duffy

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Virile Womanhood

My husband has the flu, so I took the trash out tonight. Seems we forgot to put it out last week, and the Christmas wrappings of this week meant I made several trips from the garage to the end of the driveway. It was cold, and I was glad to have boots that are impervious to wet snow, and an olive green down “Fargo” coat that I inherited from my grandmother. Being dressed appropriately in the snow gave me a little thrill, probably something like a man feels at having the right tools to complete a job. So I stayed outside a little longer. Shut the barn door that keeps blowing open in the 20 mph winds, and abutted it with rocks and rebar. Walked the fenceline. I felt like such a man.

I’ve always been the type to take charge in a vacuum. When no one else can do the job, I’ll do it, and do it well. Several years ago, my husband was out of town when two feet of snow fell. We had just sold our tractor, and everyone I knew who had a plow on their truck was cashing in on the weather to bail out the acres of Wal-mart parking lot. I had four kids at the time, and no choice but to imprison the baby in his crib, put a movie on for the kids, and go outside and dig.

I fancied myself Vigdis the Viking Lady from Sigrid Undset’s “Gunnar’s Daughter.” She skied across the Nordic countryside and mountains for three days with a baby on her back, fleeing from her enemies. I think she even cut off her own finger when she suffered frostbite. Me woman. Me strong.

I had a post up earlier on the male sexual overperception bias (misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest), but I took it down (temporarily), because I think I missed the point. I’m not really as concerned about how my friendliness will be perceived as I am about how my particularly female strength should be used.

I was remembering a female drug rep who used to come into the OB’s office while I waited, pregnant, for my appointments. She wore power suits and high heels, and rolled her wares in a briefcase on wheels. With her narrow hips and sharp elbows, I thought, “I bet she always makes her sale.” I had an envy of her strength and confidence that was all wrapped up with her status as a “working woman,” and as such, I presupposed her embrace of feminism and her own sexual prowess. But I don’t think it’s so cut and dry (strong woman=sexy-power-suited feminist).

As I reject so many tenets of modern feminism, I’ve made the mistake of falling into a sort of feminine wimpiness that does not have roots in Christianity. What it amounts to is a sense of helplessness when my husband is around. Changing a diaper is never just changing a diaper when he’s in the room—suddenly it’s an event, requiring assistance: “Can you just hold the baby’s hands out of the way? Can you toss me the wipes?” I can’t bring in the groceries by myself. I can’t pack up the car. I can’t put the kids to bed. I can’t do anything by myself. Why? Because that wouldn’t be fair.

And then something happens, and he can’t help, and I’m suddenly just as strong as I used to be. Or some third party threatens me or my family, and I feel emboldened to take down my adversary “judo style,” as my sister-in-law put it. I have these instincts, and I have this strength because God gave them to me. Mewling around the house like a helpless twit is not a valid expression of my “non-feminism,” it doesn’t honor my “feminine genius,” and it annoys my husband.

My mother-in-law likes to say that marriage is never a fifty-fifty prospect. To be happy in marriage, both spouses must give a hundred percent and expect nothing in return. I find it a bit ironic that when I occasionally adopt the fifty-fifty mentality, a concept that seems relative to the women’s movement, I actually end up feeling and acting weaker. I maybe even “play weak” to inspire the action and assistance of others.

I went back to the Sacred Spain exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art today, and I’m glad I did, because I saw so many things I didn’t see the first time. One painting in particular caught my eye today: a portrait of Madre Jeronima de la Fuente by Diego Velazquez. She’s shown staring confidently into the eyes of her observers. A Poor Clare, she was the foundress of the first Catholic monastery of Manila. The intense gaze of her portrait, the caption said, “communicates her status as a ‘virile woman.’” She exhibited exceptional strength in her “deeds undertaken with a courageous and virile heart.”

Madre Jeronima wasn’t pretty, but I bet she always made her sale. And she did it in a man’s world, with a Crucifix in her hand. Her expression puts me in a mind to rise to the occasion of my vocation, taking out the trash and all.



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14 comments:

wifemotherexpletive said...

AH!! what a great post, so well encapsulating a daily struggle I've been having about feeling one's own strength. so timely for me, thank you. Thank you.
I'm off to do more than my fifty, and with the strength I was born with...

Janet in Toronto said...

It took me quite a while to figure this out, probably about half of my 26 year marriage. Wonderful post!

I'm all for the 100%-100% marriage!

Miranda said...

I'm a new reader, and very much enjoying your blog.

I was pleasantly interested until the diaper illustration, then WAIT! THAT'S TOTALLY ME! Three children under six, and I'm just fine until my husband comes home. I guess I have some thinking to do...

Seraphic Spouse said...

Men like feeling useful, though. Perhaps asking for help, when you can do everything fine on your own, is a kind of gift.

TS said...

Madre Jeronima looks like she's gonna whap somebody upside the head with that cross.

Speaking of strong women, how about that Sandra Bullock character in "The Blind Side". Something else.

BettyDuffy said...

Seraphic, I had the same thought, having read "Fascinating Womanhood" several years back. But for some reason, perhaps the tone of voice I use, perhaps the particular services for which I ask, my requests for assistance do not inspire benevolence in either my husband or myself. Not sure how to make it sound right either, "I'd like to give you the gift of providing me with assistance."

We have very traditional gender roles. I stay home; he goes to work. I do housework and childcare, he fixes windows, mows the lawn, and does the "man-stuff." He knows how necessary he is to the workings of the household, which is probably why it comes off as more of an insult when I suggest he assert his usefulness by acting as my manservant.

Rather, a gift he likes to give me, is the offer of his help, without being asked. But I have to allow him the opportunity to offer that gift without beating him to the punch.


TS, I wish I had the opportunity to tap my purse and say, "I'm always packin.'" I also wish I were always packin'.

Kristin T. (@kt_writes) said...

This is SO very true: "I find it a bit ironic that when I occasionally adopt the fifty-fifty mentality, a concept that seems relative to the women’s movement, I actually end up feeling and acting weaker."

While the ultimate goal of the women's movement is an important one, it's unfortunate that the path to attaining it has been backwards in so many respects.

Young Mom said...

"What it amounts to is a sense of helplessness when my husband is around. "
That made me laugh! I know what you mean, I can juggle all my babies alone when he's not there, but I sure like to involve him when he's around!

Karyn said...

This entry was spot on! Sometimes I think I act more feeble when hubby gets home because after spending all day nurturing kids, I want some nurturing myself. But instead of just asking for some alone time or some snuggle time, I ask for help changing diapers!

Ute said...

Seraphic, BettyDuffy,

I'm a military spouse and have to do without the help of my husband (other than encouraging words) for a whole year. During this year, my husband NEEDS me to be independent and self-reliant. But when he comes back, he needs me to let go and let him help out to prove that he is indispensable in our family. It's a difficult change...
I guess the key is to always aks "how can I add love to this situation?" By asking for the help I really need at the moment, or by freeing my husband of additional chores?
I hope I'll remember when he comes home...

Lara said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I can really relate to much of what you wrote (and am about to go shovel that last of the wet slush off the driveway in my husband's absence - something I'm not sure I could "manage" if he were here.)

My friend and I went to the Sacred Spain exhibit 2 days ago...wow, how incredible! We thought that nun's portrait was intense. I'm thinking she may have whacked a few knuckles in her day :-)

redheadtalkyone said...

I'm guilty of picking up the "feminine wimpiness" when in conflict of my Christianity vs. modern feminism. The way that you said provoked me to me to think of how so many of the women in the bible were completely Bad Ass, if you'll pardon my French. If not in rebellious nature, then due to the strength of discipline that they have ingrained in their lives.
I've been struggle with getting restless while being home at break, desiring a lot more for my life. I forgot my faith was suppose to be the most exciting.

Marie said...

Yup, it's all in the attitude. Changing the diaper cooperatively is lovely, but for me it's often like you describe, almost another blow in the "you didn't do your part" war we wage against each other when we're tired and have no one else to blame.

I already knew it was wrong of me, but it hadn't struck me that it was weak of me. You're so right.

In outside situations, though, like shoveling snow or fighting with administrators, I often find myself letting him take the lead not because I can't do it myself but because his way of being strong is a steadier, more consistent way. Mine is furious spurts. It does the job well in a vacuum, as you say, but for the long haul I think it would either kill me or someone else. . . .

Marie said...

Silly and kind of old fashioned question, too, but regarding virility. . . .once upon a time, a man standing next to his wife and five kids would have felt no need to prove "virility", right? We're so accustomed to children being considered a modern weakness, but is there something deeply instinctive that tells us a woman with five children is inherently virile, too?
(please forgive if that's personal at all . . . )