handmaidens

In ALL, LIFE OBSERVATIONS by Stephanie Klein37 Comments

I am horrendous when it comes to remembering dates.  I know the birthdays of my parents and my sister and of some random childhood friends (Meryl Glass, May 28).  I twist into a squint when weighing the sound of Phil’s birthday.  I repeat two different dates in my head, trying to determine which one sounds right.  I know it’s in… April?  Yes.  Then I can narrow in on it.  Lea is April 28.  Phil is April 8.  Then I’m sure, but I have to really think about it.  I don’t know my grandparents birthdays, mostly because the whole of my life, our mother purchased the greeting cards for us, reminding us.  "Come on Stephanie, sign the card."  I don’t know for how many years my grandparents were married before my grandmother died.  I don’t know the date she died.  I don’t remember these things, the logistics of the lives lived around me. 

My grandparents were married forever, a lifetime of playing your favorite song on repeat.  In a recent interview about Straight Up and Dirty, I was asked why I believed marriages lasted as long as they did in earlier generations compared to today.  Yes, yes, there’s the whole church argument.  It wasn’t the Christian thing to do.  Even if it wasn’t a church, it was some inherent belief that it was wrong to divorce, that you were a failure because you couldn’t manage to make it work.  As a divorcee, you were filthy almost.  It just wasn’t done.  And then there’s the whole, people cheated just as much back then, but it was accepted.  A blind eye.  People were just as miserable in their marriages, but they didn’t, couldn’t really, do anything about it. While that all might be true, I don’t think it addresses the heart of the question. 

The interviewer, a reporter in Austria, prefaced the question by saying, "Women changed in the last generations (since your grandparents came from Greece).  Is this part of the problem with relationships?"  Basically asking if the liberalizing effects of education and the rights afforded to women in recent years have contributed to the downfall of romantic love.  Is this the reason we’re getting divorced more now than ever?  Is this the reason we’re unhappy?  I have to say, I don’t even know how to answer the question.  I’m all at once disgusted and appalled at the implications.  It sounds like blame. And as a woman, I immediately tense up, wanting to defend women to a woman reporter. 

I’m a feminist. I believe in equal rights for both men and women.  And I know we’re continuing to make strides to get there, but how am I helping?  I am not sure I know what it means anymore to be feminist, and does how I answer this question shape any of it? I stop to really think about it, setting aside for the moment my immediate defensive pose. Women are no longer handmaidens.  It’s no longer the case that behind every great man is an even greater woman.  Now the greater woman doesn’t need a man.  To feel whole, to be accepted in society, to be respected, to be satisfied or happy.  And does this play a part, as the reporter put it, "of the problem with relationships?" 

Yeah, I guess it does.  Because now women know they have every right to feel satisfied in their relationships.  We have the right, not only to express our needs but to also have them met. And we know there’s always an out clause.  But men know it too.  It’s not about fault or blame.  It’s about power.  Power is the ability to have others conform to your wishes.  It’s having authority, influence.  Having more power in society, not as much as men yet, but certainly more than former generations, affords a woman with the ability to fight for what she wants, and what she doesn’t want.   

Enter the power struggle.  I live here with polished silverware and linen napkins.  I eat it daily, collect it’s crumbs with my finger and lick off every last one. Sometimes I fall asleep ignoring it, but I know it’s there.  I hear it breathing.  I live in a state of constant struggle for power.  It’s customarily determined as an early phase in relationships, when people are setting ground rules, establishing how things will operate, or cooperate, between the unit. It’s when we test and establish boundaries.  Usually during this period sensitivities about control are revealed.  I read recently on a self-helpy web site, "Distrust from your unresolved past manifests and there is often a fear of loss of control and heavy judgments of the other person start to show up. Many relationships never move beyond this stage and many end here. This stage is really about building trust."  It’s not only romantic relationships, either.  Look at the way I first responded to the Austrian reporter.  My initial reaction was to be defensive.  And maybe rightly so, but I’m learning that stopping and assessing what’s really going on is critical.

When speaking of power, I’m not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong in any given argument.  I’m addressing fear, the individual fears we each have, and how those fears can manifest into a constant state of struggle.  Phil, for example, is violently afraid of being controlled and disrespected.  He never wants to feel like he’s being told what to do or that he needs to ask permission for anything in his life.  Clearly he has unresolved issues from his past that play an enormous part in this, even if he does think it’s justified.  And like him, I fear losing myself.  I don’t want to give up being me, not to please anyone, because of my past.  And I associate "giving up me" with making changes.  "I don’t want to be different.  I like who I am.  This is who I am, got a problem with it?  Too bad.  Deal."  Yes, there are nice neat little changes,compact steps we take at bettering ourselves, and sometimes we don’t see it as better.  We see it as "they’re getting their way again!"  We feel subservient, handmaidens to their desires of who we should be and how we ought to behave.  And sometimes it feels  like I need to break away and breathe, to be free to be me, just like the song says.  Not under the thumb of scrutiny, hoping I’ll act more like an "us" than a "me."  Hoping I won’t be selfish.  And I struggle with it.  I fear sometimes I’m not selfish enough.  That I should stand up even more.  And in the face of his communicated feelings, I need to work on being responsive not defensive.  I wonder if my grandmother felt these things.  If she had the same thoughts and never voiced or acted upon them, or if she simply never thought of it.  And that’s the point.

I think the real reason my grandparents generation remained happily married for so many years is because our generation is self-absorbed.  We’re not living through The Great Depression.  We’re pampered.  We have luxuries.  Computers.  Email. Therapists.  And we have… blogs.  We write about our anxiety, we spend our energy reflecting on our lives, introspecting.  Reading checklists about essential skills needed in healthy relationships.  We spend our time analyzing ourselves, determining if we’re really happy.  If we’re growing.  We basically have too much time on our hands.  So we’re far more self-aware than our grandparents were, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re happier.  We have the luxury, and curse, of time to contemplate our lives.  And idleness is the devil’s handmaiden. 

Comments

  1. I, too, went to a women's college. I think that brings out the feminist even more, as we were constantly told we could be whatever we want to be and more. But now that I'm considering returning back to school for nursing, people look down on it- say I can do better. Nursing is a women's profession, I should be a doctor instead, they tell me. But shouldn't I, as a woman, just be able to do whatever I want? We don't have to break stereotypes daily; but working for what I want in life is hardly a stereotype. Frustrating.

    And, yes, blogging is all about thinking too much. But also about procrastinating at work, so keep on writing :)

  2. I've come to believe that the "struggle" that you speak about is essential to relationships. Without them, we become complacent, we take our partners for granted, and in some cases we wake up 20 years later at the end of someone else's life. As long as each of you gets to win once in awhile, you'll be fine.

  3. Funny post and so true. I call the power struggle a phase/chapter in a twosome. I am in it with my current beau and it feels like we are on a see-saw. He gives, I take, I give, he takes, etc. We understand the black & white. Now, we just need to fill the gray. I sometimes wonder if this phase will end, or if it will always be lurking. Time will tell…

  4. Wow – there is really a lid for every pot. I could never have married a man with the issues that you describe Phil grapples with. How do you ever get him to apologize, or do something he does not want to do? I am annoyed just thinking about this day to day.

  5. Just wanted to add something that I learned recently–the statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually no longer true (and the problem was that even when this study was correct, most of these marriages were formed in the 1970s and earlier, meaning that people who were married decades ago just now started to feel that they were in the position to end their unhappiness. I would also gather that a lot of those early marriages were made when people were young and made decisions either immaturely or before they had a chance to know who they really were or who they wanted in partners).

    The number of divorces has been on a steep decline in this decade, and that's attributable to the fact that people who don't want to get married no longer feel compelled to do so, and that people are getting married later when they are able to make decisions that are better for them in the long run.

    Just a good fact to have on hand in case you get asked this question again!

  6. How come we have too much time on our hands yet never have enough time for something as simple as replying to an email?

  7. Having children early on in a marriage can be tricky – even without the added complication of premmie twins. In the midst of trying to figure out how to be a wife, you're also learning what kind of mother you are. Wife… mother… two things you haven't been before (well, you know what I mean) and it's very easy to neglect yourself while trying on all these other 'hats'. You may well discover that the 'power struggle' is not with Phil or fear or whatever, it's just the sense that you aren't doing enough for yourself.

    My marriage started to come apart at the seams at seven years (our first child was conceived on our first anniversary) and it took me a while to realise that the reason I was so unhappy was that I'd become a wonderful wife and mother at the expense of my former self. Ten days on my own in New York city (I'm from Sydney) did wonders – it's our eleventh anniversary next month and we've never been happier. I highly recommend time away by yourself, and if you can get to New York, even better. Have fun.

  8. I am a 29 yr old woman who has owned my house since I was 26…bought all by myself. I have no desire to be married and have decided that I do not want to have children. I cannot tell you how many family members and friends say that these views will change once I find the right man. I find nothing wrong with MY CHOICES. I know that they think that I NEED a man to support me and that angers me to no end. I saved $30,000.00 in 2 yrs so I could afford to buy my own house and not depend on a man to do it for me. If I should change my mind one day and decide to marry, I hope everyone knows its because I am truly in love, not because I need someone to take care of me.

    LOVE YOUR BOOK AND YOUR BLOG.

  9. I thought idleness was the devil's workshop. Or playground. If Satan has a workshop, a playground AND handmaidens, dude's got to be doing something right.

  10. I feel that to some extent we are still influenced by the past. Even though women are a more independent and can fend for themselves these days, there is still a subtle underlying form of male dominance and brainwashing that males are more important etc. Of course it is less than it was but it is still there a little because it has been passed on though the generations, even though it may be decreasing. I think at least for some of us there is a fear of putting the man first and losing our own identity. Maybe we have seen that this has happened before and told ourselves we won't lose ourselves like that again in another relationship. We know ourselves and that if we don't remain vigilant this could happen – not in an obvious way but in a more subtle way that we generally don't see until one day we suddenly realise that we have put their needs etc above our own and have been living our lives to please them rather than a balance of two people. I have also been through and go through the power struggles. I find it is a bit less at the moment which is great but I think that is because I didn't back down about the things that bothered me about him and he didn't really back down either. For me I didn't like him making comments all the time about something I hadn't done – i.e shut the door in the bathroom, don't put this here or do that etc etc. I couldn't bear it because I felt it was a little domineering and also I have a bit of an anti authority thing. In the end he knew he had to stop making so many comments and I had to try a little to stop doing the things I knew annoyed him. So, a bit of give and take – but this was the result of an ongoing struggle where we knew the ohter wouldn't back down and so had to compromise so both of us could live with it. Anyway, that is my experience.

  11. I think the real reason marriages lasted in our grandparents' era was that their roles were so clearly defined. When the wife was a 'good' homemaker and mother she was respected both within the marriage and in society as a whole. I don't care how much is talked about a stay-at- home mom being the hardest job it does not gain respect or interest from anyone anymore. Feminism has taken a step backwards – he who makes the money is the only one worthy of attention – unless of course you choose to inflate your boobs and stop eating. Wow …. we've come such a long way!!

  12. Cell phones, the internet, cookies, web history, text messages—it has doomed us all. Everything is too easy and too simple now we do have too much time but not enough all at once. We are so over stimulated we just can't stay home together and enjoy each others' company. Woman are too sexy and men are too charming these days. Having an affair was never easier, the same with finding greener pastures and something newer and faster and better. Sometimes I envy the dumb.

  13. "bitches like that make me weep for what could be- if we could all, sisters everywhere, black, white, yellow and brown, put our shit down one time, unified front, the force of the female race, mobilized, moving as one…"

    This blog entry reminded me of this quote in a movie for whatever reason.
    Support your fellow, strong women, that's the best way you can make a difference. So many women are catty and mean towards each other, jealous and downright ruthless.
    It's sad. I wish it wasnt that way.

    Marriage, schmarriage

  14. I have just decided to enroll in a MAIS program in Women's Studies for this exact reason. I would give everything to have a hour with my grandmother to talk about relationships and marriage. I lost her 5 years ago and I don't remember the date. I feel the void…the empty space that she left in my soul. I don't know why I feel that she would have the answers. Maybe I am better off idolizing her love and her choice to make a marriage work for almost 61 years, rather than hear her say it was hard and she had unhappy days, months even. I am blessed that I didn't every see any of that. All of my memories of my grandparents involve love…love for me and love for each other. Because of them, I do believe that that kind of love still exists.

    I do want a love like that…even if it means dealing with the issues behind closed doors so that others see our love and know that it is still possible. Especially in a world where love is something that has a socially exceptable out clause, I need to feel and live that hope so that someone can watch me do it and know that it can still be done.

  15. This was a fantastic post. I am dealing yet again with matters of the heart (why can't I be a eunuch for crying out loud) and this was simply salient.

    Cannot wait to see you and babies in NY!

    xo,
    K

  16. What about Abigail and Lucas' birthday? That one should be etched in your brain forever, no?

  17. Women leave unhappy marriages now days because they CAN! Back in the day, women had to put up with whatever their man threw their way (cheating, drinking, abuse, whatever)and just be happy with raising the kids. I'm sure that today's men are quite frustrated with us, knowing that we can leave if they give us any shit. It has changed the dynamic of marriages — it's better for women, worse for men. Probably why not as many people get married now.

    Love your blog, Stephanie.

  18. The reason we divorce and our parents did not is because WE HAVE JOBS. We have our own money. My mother never worked – my aunts never worked. They could not imagine having a life without a man bringing home the 'bacon'. Today, if he does not make the grade, you can divorce him, and you won't be destitute. In my mom's day, you just suffered. And that is the truth.

  19. completely agree about the self-absorbed thing. we are given so many things that satisfy us temporarily that we are led to believe that our happiness is the thing we should strive for most. i think long ago people realized when things got tough that they made a choice and a promise and they just embraced that. now i think we're told we should be happy all the time, so we fight having to give up anything or compromise thinking we have rights to things that we really don't. it's really in the embrace of self-sacrifice that relationships (like your grandparents') become strong and sweet.

  20. I've struggled a long time about what it means to be a feminist. The best I have come up with is the the following: "Being a feminist is recognizing and exercising your ability and your right to make your own choices." This doesn't mean any one thing/choice…it means making the choice that's right for YOU and making it on your own….it doesn't matter if that choice is to be a housewife or a career woman or someting in-between. The point is that it's YOUR CHOICE. Choice is the key word.

    I'm divorced and remarried and the best marriage advice I've gotten is not to forget your manners…say please and thank you to your spouse and treat them with basic respect. I realize there is a lot of gray area and there are still times when you get so made you could spit nails, but it helps to remember that everyone needs respect. It helps me keep my temper in check when I feel like exploding. Plus, as adults we should all realize that we don't get our way all the time…but we also shouldn't be walked all over. Most people know the difference.

  21. Eloquent entry, Stephanie.

    A great friend once told me, "Marriage isn't a 50/50 arrangement. You must each give 100%. And if one of you isn't giving 100% in one moment, hopefully, the other one is." (I thought this was the best advice I'd ever heard; until she and her husband of 10 years got a divorce! I guess one of them got tired of giving…) However, I still believe it to be true.

    The first year of marriage is all about defining boundaries and working out issues. You are doing fine! Keep up the good work.

  22. This is a manifest every woman should read!

    If a marriage fails and there´s no other woman involved in the divorce it´s always the woman´s fault. No matter how bad he treated her: She´s the reason.

    At which point ´feminist´ became a cuss word?

  23. Good post. I don't know if I agree with the final conclusion, nor the premise that it's based upon (that we have more time), but I liked the way it flowed.

  24. I'm surprised anyone has to ask. Women are more likely to get divorced now because they CAN. They can support themselves. They're not social pariahs.

    Thank GOD we no longer have to put up with terrible, abusive marriages because there are no alternatives. Thank GOD we now know we deserve better.

    I'm divorced and remarried, and I did it right this time.

  25. What a fantastic post. It puts to words the feelings I deal with every day in my relationship… Thank you.

  26. I don't think people are getting divorces because they are more self-absorbed than before, or because we have more free time. Rather, I think it's like J said, people are more likely to get divorced because they can. More precisely, the legal process is much simpler, the custody arrangements are fairly standardized, child support enforcement is very rigorous, and there is no social stigma outside of conservative religious circles.

    Like J, I too am thankful to have had the ability to leave a marriage where I was exploited and unhappy. And like J, I'm divorced and remarried, and I did it right this time.

  27. the constant wonder if i am being selfish enough or too selfish is always on my mind. and it is amplified when you decide to move away from everyone you know and love to the other side of the world because you simply want to. and explaining that to those people you have left makes me feel so selfish but on the other hand, i've been brought up to think that i can have it all. time will tell, i suppose.

  28. I think you could have made your point(s) better if you had, early in your essay, recognized that women must assume "equal responsibilities" to be able to achieve "equal rights". With respect to power and control within marriage, neither is desireable nor achievable. What we should be striving for is to SHARE equivalent, not equal conflicting rights, power, and control within a marriage. However, both parties have to understand these distinctions and be willing to accomodate them. If my now deceased wife of 35 years and I had understood any of this, I might today be looking back with some satisfaction on our marriage.

  29. Even though I am not married-shacking up- I feel as if communication is key to our next step. Lately, I feel like I should be planning my escape route-move out and on to better pastures. My first inclination is the sex… totally lacking in making me feel good. I'm terribly sad about our future.

  30. After reading Unhooked Generation–that last sentence really resonated with me. Thank you for reminding me if I want a healthy happy relationship–I have to be selfless.

    I have to remember I cannot have my cake and eat it to. Sacrifice is the name of the game.

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