I had coffee with a friend, who we’ll call Kira, recently. Kira is a whip-smart mom of two who has been married to her husband for something like five years now. Kira, like me, is proudly feminist. (Yes, I’ve just said the f-word on the internet. Yes, I do feel a little bit like I’ve said Voldemort instead of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and am willing a malevolent spirit upon me.)
Over the course of catching up with each other, we started talking about the roles we play in our relationships and how we do or do not like them. Kira and I both agreed that we naturally assume a caretaker role in our relationships– making sure our homes are clean, our families are well fed, and all parties involved are tucked in at night– because it is the best way we know how to express affection for our families. It gives us the warm-fuzzies to know that our loved ones are taken care of. We can relax when we know they’re relaxed.
We also both discovered this urge to express affection sometimes makes us feel really, really bad about ourselves.
Kira and I explored this further and came to the same conclusion: as women who like to think of themselves as proud, strong, self-sufficient, and feminist, we feel guilty when we look around at our romantic relationships and marvel at how much we put other people before ourselves. We feel like we’re failing at being the strong women we want to be. We feel like we’re failing to set a good example for our children. We feel like we’re failing other strong women in our lives because damn they’re so strong and independent and fierce and we don’t feel that way. We feel like we’re neglecting ourselves. We feel like we’re getting taken advantage of because we see the same loved ones that we’re taking care of live out their lives with less worry and stress (thanks to the time, energy, and thought we put into taking care of them), then look up and go “What about all the things I wanted to do? What about me?”
THE DANGER IN DICHOTOMY
I’m assuming (reasonably, I think) that other women who identify as caretakers or proud, strong women feel similarly. That they, too, de-prioritize themselves when they enter into a committed romantic relationship because their focus shifts from me to us, then realize what they did a few months later and react abruptly as they try to bring their focus back to me. What was once a system of us in the relationship becomes a system of you versus me, especially in times of simple disagreement or miscommunication.
This approach to relationships is not healthy for women. (I say it’s not healthy for women because I am a woman and so the lens through which I view the world will forever be the lens of a woman, but really it’s not healthy for people.) But, since we’re so swept up in getting to know and love our partners, we either ignore or are completely oblivious to the need to express the “What about me?” lurking in the back of our minds.
And then when we do realize the “What about me?”…we feel guilty about feeling guilty. If we truly loved the people around us, shouldn’t we be at peace with giving up a part of ourselves in support of others? If we truly loved the people around us, shouldn’t we be at peace with not feeling like a “good” feminist?
EDUCATION OF COMPROMISE
The Man and I recently had a discussion about our future– financial planning now for future expenses like marriage and family and retirement. Our financial assets have not been consolidated; my money and debts are mine, his money and debts are his although we both contribute equal amounts to our mutual expenses on a monthly basis.
So, when The Man started talking about my money–even in the abstract–I lost it. I lost it because I am tremendously proud of how much I have my finances in order and because that the “What about me?” lurking in the back of my brain exploded on the surface.
How dare someone, especially my male romantic partner, stick their nose in my business? I’m not accountable to anyone, much less him. I spend time and energy taking care of him. I can do whatever I damn well please with my own resources.
Do you see what the problem is here? The problem is not that I want to look out for myself. The problem is that my first reaction as a
partner human being should not be to want to open my mouth and say “Well, that’s none of your fucking business!” Lashing out defensively does no good in almost every imaginable scenario. No; my first reaction as a human being should be to take a deep damn breath and think about why I’m feeling what I’m feeling.
(Thankfully, I didn’t express my feelings as bluntly as I thought them. What I did do–sit in silence as I stewed on my feelings, then begin to get defensive at a normal noise level, then have a complete mental breakdown over feeling guilty and feeling guilty about feeling guilty–wasn’t a very productive alternative, though.)
And I will fault feminism for my inability to start a reaction with a deep breath because feminism is so easy to turn into a black-versus-white, us-versus-them framework. I will fault feminism for being so easy to misconstrue, consciously or unconsciously, into a framework with only two sides because anything that drives a wedge between two sides can do a tremendous amount of harm to both.
What I need, and what I think we all need, is an education of compromise. This doesn’t mean accepting that you’re going to have to sacrifice part of yourself when you form close relationships with others. This means accepting the need to compromise with others by clearly and consciously reassessing our limits on when we are or are not okay with compromising with ourselves.
I could have spared myself the emotional rollercoaster if I hadn’t been pushing the “What about me?” part of myself further and further back into my brain. If we can recognize the “What about me?” part and give it the attention it clearly needs, we cut ourselves some much deserved and necessary slack.
OK, brain. You’re following the path of most resistance and it’s not making you feel good about yourself. Let’s get back on track. Let’s figure out where we are and find the right, most sustainable path. Let’s learn how we’re going to compromise internally before we’re asked to compromise externally.
You can do it.