Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Do You Know What I Lost?
In the Victorian era there was an image articulated of female sexuality: virginal and yet motherly, soft, lambent, with liquid eyes and a charming sweetness that flowed out of every pore. Her mind could be easily overtaxed by complex ideas, her sensibilities offended by the rough world of politics or by the exigencies of the marketplace. She was to be kept in a protected world, cared for and provided for by her husband, given the space and the means to fulfill herself as a wife and a mother. This bourgeois Victorian notion of femininity, and its descendent -- the picket-fences housewife of the '50s with her shiny-happy-children and her apple pie – have come to be associated by some conservative women with “traditional femininity.” These feminine stylistics which were articulated at a particular point in history, in response to a particular set of cultural concerns, have come to be seen by a small subculture within the Christian world as timeless, enduring, essential. The Catholicism that I came to know in the early years of my marriage was heavily shaped by these beliefs. I would become truly woman, would help to build the Culture of Life, would conform myself to the image of the Virgin Mother by sinking myself into the spirituality of the housewife. Obviously, as John Paul II pointed out in Mulieris Dignitatem, women could participate in other areas of social and cultural life – but many of the Catholic women I met seemed to subtly imply that these activities were best undertaken by single women, or women whose children had moved out of the house. While I had young kids, my vocation was to stay at home and secure my salvation by making an offering of all of my small, domestic sacrifices. One well-meaning priest actually advised me not to bother with writing, because my energies were supposed to be directed towards raising my family and being a good wife. So I tried. I became a grand-master at the art of children's birthday cake decorating. I accumulated a vast wardrobe of ugly, swishy skirts and grew my hair long. I tried to formulate a coherent strategy for permanently slaying the laundry monster. I convinced myself that by crucifying my talents and personality I was becoming humble, holy, submissive to the will of God – more like Mary every day. Yet this did not produce the expected fruit of marital bliss and domestic harmony. I became increasingly frustrated with my children, and terrified of becoming pregnant again. My husband and my male friends started complaining that I had completely lost my personality, that I no longer had anything interesting to say. I became sexually frigid, perceived even the most loving advances as reductionistic and lustful, and I went to the marriage bed like a martyr to the pyre – as a good and chaste Christian woman ought. My prayer life became increasingly shallow and ritualistic as I tried to buy God's love with rosary marathons and holy medals. One day, as I was falling asleep, I realized that I had just gone an entire week without having a single interesting or original thought. I was lying in bed laying plans for how to get the marker stains off of my coffee table, when I realized that this was not right. I wasn't good at being a housewife. It didn't complete and fulfill the deepest longings of my feminine heart. I had become Virginia Wolf's self-deprecating “angel of the house,” crucifying myself for absolutely nothing. As I cried myself to sleep, I thought, “Finally, I understand what feminism was really all about.” (part 3 of 12)