Clearing My Head: Nichole’s Story
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Mark Ingle.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nichole” is a pseudonym.
(I wrote this thinking I would share it with friends that didn’t know what it was like growing up the way I did, but I found after writing it down that what I really wanted was reassurance that other people had experienced the same thing, and that this isn’t all in my head, that other people were taught the same things and had the same reactions.)
If I’ve seemed like an angry feminist from time to time, it’s because I was angry, and frequently am. If it seems like I’m overreacting, it may be that you didn’t grow up a woman in a sheltered, patriarchal, conservative Christian subculture.
I knew from a young age that it was better to be a boy.
The dress code was my first clue. I had to wear skirts and dresses. They were certainly awkward garments for an active child living in the country. I had to keep my hair long, too. Sure, boys weren’t supposed to wear dresses, but since dresses were inconvenient anyway, why did that matter?
It wasn’t difficult to see, as I grew, that boys got to do all the cool, important stuff as a matter of course. No one had to sit me down and say ‘this is life for boys, and this is life for girls’ because I could plainly see that futures were different based on your gender and that a girl’s future was to be domestic.
There were certainly plenty of subtle and overt ways in which gender roles were enforced. God was an enormous, central figure to my existence and God didn’t want me to have the same life that boys could have. God wanted me to be domestic. Being a wife and mother was the most important thing a woman could ever do, and if she did not become a wife and mother, whatever she did with her life was merely a consolation prize.
Men served God, and women served God by serving men and their children.
Certain things did change along the way. I was eventually allowed to wear pants and cut my hair short. I was never discouraged from working or going to college, but the message I’d been steeped in made it clear that those things weren’t truly important. You could be a wife and mother without them.
Sacrifice and service. These were terms that were applied to men, as well, but their sacrifice and service somehow never involved the drudgery of domestic life, being primary caregivers for children, doing laundry, cleaning, and cooking. It might have been easier for me to accept this message of domestic service if I had actually enjoyed any of the things involved. I did not. I hated taking care of children, I hated laundry, I hated cleaning, I hated cooking.
God didn’t care if I hated these things. In fact, God was more likely to want me to do things I hated because it would help me become less selfish and more like Him. The less I focused on what I wanted, and the more I focused on what God wanted, the more worthy I would be as a person. Dying to self, that was the term.
The more I emptied myself of my own desires, which were selfish because they were my own, the more I could be filled with a desire to do what God wanted, until eventually it would be a joy to do what God wanted. My heart would be transformed.
I wanted very much to please God. I wanted very much to be a good person, but I was certain I was not really, truly a good person, because I wanted things for myself that God didn’t want for me. I wanted to be an artist, a writer, a world traveler. I wanted a social life and I wanted excitement and intellectual stimulation. These were all worldly things, not Godly things. These were all things that had nothing to do with being a wife and a mother. These were temporary, earthly things, and I was supposed to be focused on eternal, Heavenly things.
But you can be a wife and a mother and have all of those things, you might be thinking. But here’s the thing – you have to fight to keep those things in your life after you become a mother. You have to set aside time for them, time which could be spent on domestic chores and child-rearing instead. I believed it was selfish of me to fight to keep these things in my life when they were not central to what God wanted from me as a woman. And what God wanted from me was for me to empty myself of my selfish, sinful, earthly desires so He could fill me His righteousness.
I was never happy about any of this. My internal existence was one long, agonized struggle to accept what God wanted for me when it had no resemblance to what I wanted for myself.
For some reason, God had put me into a woman’s body, without a desire to be maternal or domestic, with an independent spirit and intelligence equal to or exceeding that of the average man’s, but He expected me to stifle all of that in order to learn to submit my will to someone else’s will – all for His greater good.
By the time I got married, it didn’t matter that my husband had been raised in a way that made patriarchy and male headship more formality than reality. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t demanding I submit my will to his. I simply assumed he’d been raised with the same teachings I had; the teachings that God demanded I submit my will to my husband. Even outside of patriarchal, conservative Christian subcultures, our society teaches men that they are expected to lead and to take the dominant role in relationships. Because I did nothing to counter that, believing it was wrong for me to try, our relationship naturally fell into a pattern in which he steered our life in the direction he wanted and I went along with it, until it was not our life but his life.
To anyone that was not raised in this subculture, this probably sounds really strange, and you may be questioning my intelligence that I would accept any of this instead of telling those around me to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. I can only say that I was steeped in this, from a very young age, and that these influences were all brought to bear through the vehicle of parents that were sincere in their beliefs, that loved me and were trying to prepare me for a world that they felt was dangerous to my very soul.
And I sincerely believed the world was dangerous to my soul. I believed that enjoying life and doing what I wanted with my life was dangerous to my soul. To follow my path, instead of the path God had for me, was to be rebellious and ripe for temptation, and to be tempted was to risk giving in to temptation and becoming transformed into a selfish monster that cared only about herself.
I was transformed. Not into a sweet, loving wife and mother that took joy in being domestic and in submitting her will to someone else’s will. I was transformed into a husk.
I had drained myself of everything I had enjoyed and everything I had liked about myself.
I’d given up my autonomy, my financial independence, my slim body, my art, my writing, my social life, my education, my time. I spent my days doing chores that I hated as passionately as ever. I loved my husband and my children, the latter more intensely than I could ever have imagined myself to be capable of, but that love did not make things easier. If anything, that love made things harder, because I knew that if I walked away from this life that was destroying me, that hurting my husband and my children would only destroy me that much faster.
Where was my promised joy and contentment?
It was all a mesh of lies, woven from a thousand tiny threads all aimed at teaching me, a woman, to preserve a status quo where I gave up my power in order for men to have and keep their power.
If God exists, it had never wanted me to be subjugated in this way, it had never wanted me to give up enjoyment of the life I had in hope or fear of a nebulous afterlife. It had never commanded me to submit my will to another human being’s will – that command had simply come from other human beings. It was taught and enforced and reinforced by human beings.
Fuck those other human beings. They can sit on a dry corncob and spin. Somewhere inside me are the remnants of the woman I once was and the woman I could have been if I had not spent my life twisting myself into a pretzel in the belief that I was pleasing God. I’m going to work on gathering those remnants and weaving them into a woman with a will and a life of her own, who is not selfish or evil simply for having desires and wanting particular things out of life, this life, here on Earth.
So if I seem angry from time to time, that’s because I am angry.
Patriarchal Christianity tried to kill what makes me, me, and it almost succeeded.