Monday, June 15

The Woman Problem: Fixing the Individual

I haven't written anything that I would label "controversial" for a while. I used to all the time--write about things I stood for--but I got tired. It's a lot of work to stand for what you believe. Now I do it a little more quietly and I think I am overall happier to have the weight of that burden (which I had placed on myself) off my shoulders. But I have very strong opinions about many things and I'm sure I probably come off as prideful and arrogant when I make (what I call) accidental generalizations about people and society. (I call them accidental because I know you can't really generalize about anything, but I do when I speak all the time. I'm pretty sure a lot of New Englanders (at least the ones I know) do this. See? There I go again, generalizing...Joking aside, I am much better at expressing and censoring myself in my writing).

With that happy introduction, I wanted to share a very interesting chapter of a piece I read for my English class, called "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan. The chapter is called "The Problem With No Name." If you don't read all of it, you won't get the full impact. It appears kind of long but it reads quick and I found it intriguing so it ended up being an easy read. I will be sharing the passages that stood out to me the most.

(At this point, you might consider pausing a few minutes to read the first chapter, linked above.)

I had many thoughts as I read Friedan's "TFM", but a few things stood out to me.

First is this image of the suburban housewife mentioned below:

My initial impression is that I do not see anything wrong with this "dream image" apart from it being perhaps unrealistic, and that it is supposedly "the envy...of women all over the world." What is wrong with forming an ideal in your mind? People do it all the time when they plan for the future, dream of careers, make personal goals. No, I do not think the image itself is the problem, it is the perception that this woman should be envied by all young American women. Envy, in itself, is a great cause for misery no matter who is doing the envying. It's one of those faults that is practically impossible to avoid, especially in the 21st century when we know almost every detail of our neighbor's life, and yet it can be very destructive when not kept in check. But this is not on society to attempt to do. It is on each woman as an individual to look at those around her and say, "I will not be jealous of others. I will be grateful for what I already have. I will work toward achieving what I want. I will be happy for the successes of others."

Another thing to note is Friedan's mention of "true feminine fulfillment." For whatever reason, this phrasing bothered me. Not because I am offended by this idea--I do not see anything wrong with women being feminine if they choose to be. I also do not see anything wrong with women pursuing the discussed kind of fulfillment or something different. The issue is that we perceive this fulfillment as one specific cookie cutter role that is unacceptable to deviate from when this should not, and frankly, cannot be the case. This applies to women of all roles and positions and statuses. We all let society influence our choices and the result is anger, sadness, feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and defensiveness. We feel we must protect that thing which is ours when it is under attack because it's precious to us. For instance, I feel inclined to defend motherhood the way another woman feels inclined to defend her education and career. 

Personally, my feelings of disappointment or inadequacy in my role have exclusively been developed by the constant and generally merciless judgements from other women, and the overwhelming voice of society informing me that motherhood and wifehood are "not good enough." I have truly wanted to be a mom ever since I can remember. In elementary school, I would tell my teacher that I wanted to be two things: a mom and an artist. It wasn't until I was a bit older that I was informed of the apparent setbacks I would face if I "limited" myself to only becoming a mom. I learned I could be doing more with myself. I could be doing anything I want to do. It was only when I learned this that there arose in me a level of dissatisfaction. What if being a mother was the only thing I ever wanted? Does that mean I "limited" myself? Did I set my sights too low? I don't think so. I think other women set their sights differently and decided that motherhood was the lesser of the available options. But that does not discount my value of motherhood or my wanting to be a mom.

Starting at "Millions of women" Friedan continues: 

This section rubbed me the wrong way. Possibly because it hit a little too close to home. I dream of a number of these things, though sadly dreaming is quite different from doing and even further from doing successfully. These things are pretty much my "highest ambition" but the second to last sentence did not hold true for me--I do consider many so-called "unfeminine problems" outside the home and, though truthfully I do want "the men" (or at least my husband) to make major decisions, I frequently am the one making changes and final decisions within our family. I am definitely grateful for my ability to have a voice in our marriage, though I regularly take it for granted and sometimes just wish my husband wanted to decide certain things on his own. (I must admit that I am truly proud when I get to write "mother" or "homemaker" on a document though.)

At one point, Friedan suggests of the early twentieth century: "Nobody argued whether women were inferior or superior to men; they were simply different."

Friedan says this and yet I read it and glean a negative tone. Why is that? I agree with the words--I am proud of my individuality and differences as a woman. I do not believe my role compared with my husband's to be inferior, superior, lesser, greater, easier, harder, more fun, whatever--it's just different and fits all of these adjectives in its own time and in its own way. 

This part is interesting and one in which I found myself relating to in some ways. I have always found the greatest hinderance to my own happiness is myself. Though I look for things to blame--our small apartment, Dalin, the kids, our location, our student status, our economical status, our social status--I generally find that the problem is not these per se, but my mindset. I am so set on having the things I want when I want them that I struggle to be happy during my downtime when I realize I'm not at a place I expected to be. That can be a hard pill to swallow for me or any woman who realizes her lifelong expectations have not been met so far. And these things are not on others; I can't blame Dalin for my unspoken expectations any more than I can blame my children. I can blame only myself and my perception--my unrealistic perception of what could, should, might have been. 

In addressing this issue, Friedan shares the common responses being offered by women: "'There's nothing wrong really," they kept telling themselves. 'There isn't any problem.'" She continues with more examples:

"Sometimes a woman would tell me that the feeling gets so strong she runs out of the house and walks through the streets. Or she stays inside her house and cries."

The words of these women really hit me because they described the precise feeling I get sometimes. It's this antsy, restless, fed up feeling that makes me want to run or cry or disappear sometimes. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it feels as though my world is falling apart. I still feel love for my husband and children, but it's this feeling of being trapped or cooped up and I hate it. 

Another more pressing reason these words hit me is because they revealed to me that I don't know how to be myself anymore. I used to--before I got married and during the first year or so of marriage I felt like I had that part of me together. But once I became a mother especially, the individual part of me--the part of me that enjoys reading and writing and painting and organizing and laughing--disappeared a little. I was so focused on doing my job and doing it well, that I forgot--or more likely, did not realize--the importance of caring for myself. I never get my hair cut, my nails done, or even just go shopping for myself. I don't just buy the things I want to eat or have for our home. Suddenly I am weighing every decision for our family as a whole with little regard for me. 

That is not Dalin's fault. Nor my kids. Nor my church, even though we are encouraged to put others before ourselves. It is my fault for not taking care of my own needs sometimes. When my needs are taken care of, I find I am a better wife, and a happier mother. I get more joy out of being a housewife when I am dressed nicely, fed healthy foods, and when I have been given that short time for myself to get ready in peace. I think it would be unrealistic to expect this to be an everyday thing. In a perfect world, it would be, but we live in a crazy, chaotic world where things rarely if ever go according to plan. But even if these things are accomplished every other day, I find myself a much happier person. 

Friedan continues (at "A young mother"):

This has been true for me as well. Particularly recently as I've approached the completion of my Bachelor's degree, I've struggled to see the purpose of my education when I do consider myself "just a housewife." I understand that a degree may and probably will be useful to me at some point in the future, but I am already working at my dream job so what use is this degree to me? When I think this way, however, I undermine my abilities and my potential. If nothing else, I hope that earning my degree will inspire my children to do the same. I have not had many examples in my life personally of people working to the completion of their degrees and so this is something big for me and for my children. I hope they will look at me one day and think, "My mom is an intelligent woman and her degree has absolutely benefitted her as a wife, mother, church member, community member, and so on. I want to follow her example."

The words of these women burned into my brain. I related so well to each one, particularly the first which admits "none would give up her home and family if she had the choice to make again." It is a hard job. There are days when I wonder how I am going to do this for much longer, never mind the next 25+ years.

What I have determined, however, from the words of these women are the following things:

I am not alone in these feelings. Occasionally, I need to take time to be myself and enjoy being myself. I will not always feel happy or satisfied every single day but that is normal and okay.

If the members of the church have one overwhelming flaw (and it is so very, very rare that I feel I can contradict the church in any way) it is the notion that we should be happy all the time. And this is coming from a generally very positive, cheerful person! I find it interesting that Utah contains the highest percentage of mentally ill and depressed adults in the country. Whether this is coincidence, a true problem, or merely the perception of a problem, I cannot say. But I have to wonder whether there are truly that many depressed people living here or whether this statistic is in part because of the large LDS culture in which many members seem to expect to feel happy all the time. Though happiness is ideal, we should know better--that this life is intended to try us and that although we should try to stay positive through our trials, it is both okay and normal to have sad periods in our lives.

Again, this paragraph emphasizes the effects of society and of our culture (and not just Mormon culture) on women in the home. As much as I would like to blame society fully for the idea that the house must be perfectly in order and well-decorated with our kids dressed nicely and squeaky clean and our days full of adventures and interesting items, I can't. Because as much as our society perpetuates this idea of striving for marital/domestic perfection, it ultimately comes down to us and our choice to go against the grain and give ourselves permission to not be perfect. This does not give us permission not to try. We learn nothing and will be no happier if we do not try, but we should all work on not caring so much about whether we are being judged by others. People are going to judge you no matter what. You can appear to be doing everything right and there will still be those who are critical. I can think of a perfect example of this. I know a mother who is just wonderful in every way. I admire her so much and her energy and positivity inspire me to become better myself. On the other hand, I know someone else who knows this same woman and who could not be more critical of her! In my mind she can do no wrong, and in the mind of someone else, she could do no right. That's just the way it is and it is far too much work to try to impress everyone! 

This next bit is interesting:

How many wives do this?? How many mothers?! We have lost who we are in our care of others and that has a negative impact on us. I do this myself! I have told many of my mother friends that most nights when my husband is working, I don't bother cooking dinner--it's a waste to cook for myself! It's unnecessary effort. I feed my children and just scrounge about for myself. I do the same thing with going out. As soon as my husband is home from work, I'm ready to go out and he's ready to stay in! I get so frustrated about it because I feel this pressing need and desire to always be with him and he is perfectly happy to be on his own. 

And that makes me realize this is me. It's my fault that I feel this way. I have lost the sense of enjoyment I used to get from being alone. I feel insecure when I am alone. I feel bored and needy. I think that I need my husband to have fun. While it is okay to want to be with your husband (of course), it should also be okay to be alone. I once had a wonderful conversation with my lovely English professor, Jacqueline Thursby, which has stayed with me. We were discussing how we have a great deal in common (despite 50 or so years of age difference), particularly in our interests, when she mentioned that many of these hobbies of hers developed after she realized she needed to keep herself occupied. Her husband, she said, was a quieter, calm type (sounds familiar!) who is perfectly happy to be on his own and read or go fishing or do some other activity all by himself. I couldn't believe my ears. "Dalin is exactly like that," I told her. Then I admitted to her that I hated it because I hate doing things without him. Sister Thursby comforted me, and stated that she had felt the exact same way during the early years of marriage. It was her husband's personality that prompted her to develop a range of her own hobbies and interests, particularly gardening she said. I decided I wanted to be exactly like her (in that respect especially). 

I have to tell you I felt very freed when I read this paragraph. "The chains that bind her...are chains in her own mind and spirit" Friedan says. I felt freed because this confirmed what I had suspected all along and what I have always been trying to teach myself. The choices and opinions of others are not my own and that is okay! As I explained before, I am responsible for my thoughts and my behaviors. I can let the judgements of others tear away at me and break me down, or I can do the happier thing and build myself up by focusing only on what is right for me. It reminds me a little of what my cousin told me about her parents parenting style. She said that they parented each child individually, not collectively. What was right for one, was not necessarily for another. Doing what is right for you alone is not easy, especially in such an invasive age. But I do believe that living life with this mentality will bring greater happiness to a person.

So is there a problem? Is there a problem for all women? I didn't know a problem existed until I was told there was one. But now I can admit that I see it. I see that the problem, for me at least, is myself. When I allow myself to be influenced by the voices and decisions of others, I adversely affect my own happiness. Not every woman has this problem. And this problem is not exclusive to mothers. I believe there are some who are truly happy in their role--whatever it may be, and that is wonderful. I also believe that we choose our fate when we allow outsiders to influence our dreams, goals, values, desires (because we are allowing it, whether we like it or not). It is not as simple as just being positive or choosing to be happy. It is choosing not to let others make us unhappy. It is choosing to pursue our desires for motherhood or a career or both even when it goes against the mainstream.

We will never make everyone else happy. I think when we all finally realize this, then we will be.

If you have any comments, questions, problems to address, kindly leave them below!


  1. I don't have any comments about much of the page, but one part of it hit me. I'm not grown up and when people ask me "What will you do for college" or "what will be your career" I say, "well, I'm looking into English or photography" when what I really mean is that I'm going to be a mom, and I'm going to write about and for my kids and I'm going to take photos of them and that's all I want to be. And while reading this I realized that I've stopped saying "a mom" because people give me this weird look like "yeah, of course you want to be a mom, but what do you want to DO?" and I've always thought, well, it's enough to be a mom. It's what I've wanted to be my whole life. And that's going to be my career, hopefully. As you said, "I could do anything I wanted to do." But what on earth is wrong with being a mom? I almost wrote "just a mom" there and caught myself in time-I'll never put that. It's not being "just a mom" it's being a mom. And that's enough to be. And I mean, look at Mary. She was "just a mom" but SO much more. (I'm Catholic which is why I say that...I know you're Mormon and I don't know what you believe about Mary, but for me she is very much what I want to become in my life :) ). Sorry for ranting! Your paragraph just really hit home for everything I experience too.

    1. I LOVED that, Lynna! It's so true, it should never be "just a mom." And you are absolutely right about Mary. She still raised Jesus Christ to be a man and what could be more important than teaching and raising the next generation to be the best possible people? I love how you quoted me "I could do anything I wanted to do"--it's so true, and I chose to be a mom. That should tell people how very serious I take my role and how important it is to me. Thanks for your great comment!

  2. Dear Olivia, I liked your post a lot. I loved that you could be critical with yourself and reflect your believes! I loved your thoughts on motherhood! I have the same strong feelings about being a mom. I want to raise my kids and help them to develop to the best version of themselves! And that should be highly recognized in our western modern world, where we have less and less kids and need more and more workers (I am European...), but it is very hard. And a lot of times I find myself feeling guilty that my husband needs to do all the work in financing our family and that I can simply always do what I love - being a mom. (these thoughts aren't coming from him, he is cool :), that's simply my impression and the impression that society makes me feel). Don't you ever experience these feelings?

    1. I completely agree with you! I love being at home but I feel that same guilt at times that I don't contribute financially. I'm always trying to think of ways I can do something I love to make a little money from home. It is hard not feeling valued by society and I definitely relate to you. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves and our families is focus on what we do well and continue to try and improve. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me!!!


I absolutely love to hear from you & will reply if I can!