On being a lady

Get yourself some water and a comfy chair because Kristi’s about to get long-winded. I’m sure this is just the first of many installments on stuff about being a woman and how women are viewed in our society, etc. It’s something I reflect on often in different settings and have a lot of thoughts about, and I love hearing different perspectives on it. Full disclosure: this entry was triggered initially by a question in a Bible study, which I’ll get to later, and it kind of spiraled into half my lunch the other day being spent scribbling down a rant in my tiny notebook, which I am attempting to translate here. This isn’t intended to be a rant but rather a tiny exercise in exploring how our society views women, and especially how many of us have been socialized to expect the role of women in the family unit and the workplace to look. I’m really interested in how people’s different upbringings, values, races, and cultures give them different experiences of being female and how people view the ideal role of women in the workplace, the family, friend groups, education, and other institutions.

This is coming from the perspective of me, white, twentysomething, cisgender, straight, midwestern-with-Christian-influenced-values woman so it is obviously limited. But I believe all of our viewpoints are valuable in having conversations about this stuff. So if I say something that offends or excludes or is inaccurate please call me out (gently and with love). Here we go.

So I’ll start with a brief foray into my time as a young working professional woman so far. I am a feminist, politically liberal, grew up with divorced parents and strong female role models, and I was a sociology major so I feel I was generally very aware in college of the things women face in this world, specifically American society. Being all of these things, there are certain expectations I have of myself as far as how I carry myself, how I think about things, and how I see my own and other people’s actions reflecting their beliefs. So it terrified me the other day when this thought crossed my mind: “I’ve been wearing a lot of cute outfits to work so far, but many of the women in my area of the office have been out of the office on vacation or working from home, so the outfits have been pretty much wasted because no one was around to appreciate them.” *Please don’t stop reading- this post isn’t just about clothes.* When I observed that thought (after the initial WHAT IN THE HECKIN’ WORLD ARE YOU BASING YOUR OUTFIT CHOICES ON??), I definitely wondered where it came from. I don’t particularly enjoy picking out clothes to wear for the day and I definitely didn’t think I based my decisions on what other people would think of them. Of course, all of us think about that a little bit at the back of our minds (or the front sometimes), but I don’t consider it my main motivation at all, especially since I get pretty embarrassed when someone compliments my outfit. Mostly I thought I was considering what would be comfortable, what was appropriate for the day (hiking? getting groceries in the South? professional? formal? moving furniture?), and what looked good to me.

Yet I had the above thought. Week 3 of work. Wondering if it was “worth” it to wear my cutest outfits if no one would appreciate them. How much does this come from being conditioned by society to need affirmation for the clothes I wear or how I look in general? I’m certainly influenced a lot these days by the social construct of dressing professionally. Side note on that, I’ve concluded that summer might be the one season where women actually benefit from our many clothing options compared to men (in the business professional dress code world). Picking an outfit presents a challenge for me some days, and I’ve concluded many times that it’s so much easier for men- just grab pants and a shirt literally every day and in almost any combination. But in summer, when it’s really hot, I get to opt for a dress or skirt many days and avoid pants while men are kind of stuck- win for women!

Okay, back to how this post wasn’t supposed to be about clothes or ranting. There was this section in our Bible study this week about women’s roles and occupations not being as “monolithic” as men’s historically. The section was titled “A Woman’s Role…” so as those who know me can imagine, I practically rubbed my hands together and thought, “Here we go, what is this Bible study going to say and how can I refute it.” I was assuming I would not agree with it because the role of women in the Church is one of the issues I struggle with most in my faith. So the study says, historically women have faced “unique challenges” when it comes to vocation. That is, women (in most family structures) don’t just have a job out in the world- they also do a lot of volunteering (anything unpaid, not just organizing bake sales), they come home and make dinner for the family a lot of the time, AKA second shift for my sociology buffs.

The way the study approached this issue was by framing it as if this was something women used to deal with in the past, and it says, “women have sought to balance a more organic collection of intertwining roles,” instead of pursuing one primary occupation. Now, I’m going to get nit picky and take issue with the way they phrased it, because a huge part of feminism is revealing the places the subtleties of how we talk about stuff lend to keeping women in less valued roles and limiting their potential. I would argue that most women, and not just historically but today, don’t “seek” to balance these things but rather are expected and forced to balance them. This has pretty much always been and is still a thing. Is it good or bad? I think that’s for each of us (women AND men) to explore for ourselves, taking into account the value of choice. It’s important to me here to acknowledge that tons of women, maybe even most of them, do not have a choice in how their time is spent especially in regards to balancing occupation and family.

So there was this question in the Bible study about how it would affect their careers and families if men adopted a more “woven” approach like women do. Woven as in seeking to balance multiple roles instead of getting to have career as the primary focus. I say “getting to” because most people don’t question whether a man should value his occupation, but it’s still somehow a big deal for a woman to be career oriented. The only word that came into my head after reading this question was “ENRICHED.” There is literally nothing that would be lost by having more men intentionally seek to balance their roles like women historically have done. From what I can see this is definitely happening more in couples these days and men’s and women’s roles aren’t so extremely cut and dry as they used to be, but we are far from having a society where men and women are totally equal. In fact, I don’t want to just say that men’s lives and their families and careers would be enriched by seeking balance, because I think all of us could do a better job of this and that ended up being my main lesson of the week.

For the sake of this post, I’m interested in the perspective of the working mom because that’s what I’m familiar with (shoutout @ career women around me who helped raise me) and what I hope to be someday. Most working women have all this extra responsibility when they come home from work every day. That’s the second shift- after working a full day at a full-time job, moms come home and have a whole other job to do: food, laundry, bills, doctor’s appointments, homework help. I’m definitely not saying dad’s don’t fill these roles, I’m just sharing a concept that’s been studied and found to be true for how working women spend their time. There isn’t a day off from having kids and being responsible for the household once you’re a parent. To fellow middle-class people: think back on your childhood- when you got home from school, soccer practice, club meetings, etc., did you ever not expect dinner to be served? No, and your parents probably came through for you like 98% of the time (shoutout @ parents, I’m finding it hard to motivate to feed myself after work let alone others). In many family structures, no matter how equal the couple considers themselves, the woman is the one primarily responsible for preparing meals, keeping the household clean, taking care of laundry, and tons of other often unnoticed responsibilities, including taking time off from her job to take the kids to appointments, and to take them home from school when they are sick, among other things. That time off from her job likely costs her something- depending on her occupation, she may have to make up those hours on her project or sacrifice seeking promotion to higher positions in order to be able to drop everything and tend to her family. Not to mention the barriers women already face in the workplace just for being women.

I would also like to say here, most moms do not have the choice of being a stay at home mom, full-time mom, or whatever you call it, and many of those who do have the financial freedom to do that still choose to work. That has been something that I struggled with a lot the past few years as I made more friends whose moms were stay at home moms the whole time they grew up- there seems to be this unfortunate disconnect in our society where stay at home moms are judged for not being as busy or contributing as much because of not having a formal occupation, and working moms are judged for not loving their kids as much for spending time at work. It’s really cool if your family is financially able to have one parent be home with the kids and the other working, or some combination where the parents can take turns. It’s also a huge privilege and vastly determined by race and class to even have that option.

If your family did/does things totally different from traditional gender roles and you feel like everything is truly equal, that’s awesome. I applaud that and would love to hear how that looks and what it takes. But right now I’m making observations about the vast majority of families. Even in couples that consider themselves to have equal responsibilities, the woman does more work almost every time- how is that possible? Well, men tend to overestimate how much time they spend on household responsibilities, while women underestimate how much time they spend on that, because we’re socialized different. If women grow up seeing the example of the wife doing housework and the husband focusing on work and resting more when he’s home than the wife, then that’s the norm. When we grow up we consider it normal and think surely we aren’t doing vastly more work than our partner. We could debate all day about men and women naturally having certain preferences and strengths but I don’t want those to be reasons why we just do things the way they’ve always been done and don’t take the risk of questioning the status quo many couples fall into. I’d like to clarify here that despite the habitual and traditional language I’m using toward heterosexual couples and that I’m focusing on men vs. women, I think this attitude of wanting equal responsibilities stands for same-sex couples, too. Any couple getting into a pattern where certain responsibilities are delegated, without intentionality, exclusively to one partner or the other, I think loses something. Also, reality check, not to be a downer, but if you’re with someone you might not always be able to depend on them taking care of things for you that you didn’t bother to learn how to do or think you are incapable of doing. You could split up, no longer live together, someone could get injured or pass away, etc., and the other person should be able to pick up those responsibilities and be okay. This is my soap box for strong, independent people who know how to do laundry, schedule a dentist appointment, cook an egg and change a tire, gosh darn it.

Yes, specialization of tasks can be efficient and play to hour strengths and preferences- heck, that’s the whole point of how companies work with hierarchies and shared and divided responsibilities. But in terms of relationships and families and giving everyone the choice to seek a balance between our many jobs in life, all I’m trying to challenge you toward is questioning the patterns you find yourself in and talk about them with real words. Like, if you’re always the friend who initiates hanging out or catching up on the phone, acknowledge that because otherwise your friend doesn’t even have the chance to change something that might eventually bother you. Or if you’re filling a role in your household like taking care of the bills or laundry or cooking or social calendar planning and you realize you’re doing that more out of assumed responsibility than from actual conversations where you shared your preferences and strengths, do something about that. It can be little stuff or huge stuff that we try to sweep under the rug or don’t even acknowledge ourselves that leads to damage in our relationships and eventually in our self-concept, because we bottle up frustrations and start to think maybe we were wrong for thinking we could ask for what we wanted.

Communication is essential in all relationships- dating, marriage, friends, family- and if we don’t talk about how we divide up responsibilities, and if we don’t each at least know how to take care of a responsibility even if it’s not usually “our” job, damage can be done. It can be quiet damage that takes years to show, but ultimately I think we deprive ourselves of peace and rest and harmony that we all deserve by not taking proactive steps to have balance in our relationships. I think any of us who claim to want equality for all people should start in our own lives and check if there are places where we aren’t speaking truth about what we want or need, or maybe where we are not allowing someone else to get his or her way because we think “this is just how it’s supposed to work.” Some things that are important to you might go unnoticed by others, and vice versa and our most powerful tool to overcome misunderstandings is conversation. There’s a good chance if something bothers you, the other person doesn’t even know it, so step up and say something.

I’m not sure how to sum this up except I want us all to have enriched lives where we have the choice to intentionally find a balance between our jobs and responsibilities and relationships. We are so lucky to have all of these things around us- workplaces and homes and loved ones and educations and so much more- but they also each require energy and attention and it takes work to get them all in harmony. Honestly, they’ll probably rarely all be in harmony but I think there are places each of us can make an effort to move in that direction and we each have to figure that out for ourselves. I hope you can find something in your world that challenges you and press into why- for example me trying to figure out why it pisses me off when a guy in a movie comes up behind a girl who looks sad and says “Whoever he is, he made a big mistake,” like WHY DO YOU ASSUME A WOMAN COULD ONLY BE SAD BECAUSE OF WHAT A MAN DID OR DIDN’T DO- WE HAVE A LOT MORE THOUGHTS THAN JUST ABOUT YOU. It doesn’t have to be social or political or anything, but I think finding the little things that make us tick and figuring out where that fits in to our larger self-concept and how we approach the world helps us grow. Anyway. Rant over. To be continued another day…

Something I’m thankful for this week: The silent servitude of family- shoutout to parents for driving all the miles and building all the furniture and providing sustenance and humor to help my place feel more like home.

Song of the week- The Heart by NEEDTOBREATHE

Book of the Week- A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, borrowed from the office shared library

Goal of the week- Wake up early and exercise

Advice for the week: Be you. You are awesome. Also eat cookies.

 

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