Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Self-Respecting Mothers

I've been following with interest this thread at Faith and Family Live on what happens when Mother's Day becomes a "downer," or, more generally, what happens when what is supposed to be a special day or occasion feels like anything but that. Like most who are reading and observing that post and the comments, I believe that two separate issues are being discussed, and I wanted to unpack them a bit over here.

The first issue is what we might call Gift Resenting Recipient syndrome, or GRR. GRR happens when a person--usually a woman--sets up in her head ideas and expectations about what a special day ought to involve, and how the celebration ought to go, especially if she is to be the guest of honor. A prolonged state of GRR is probably responsible for the Bridezilla phenomenon, but even on Mother's Day a minor state of GRR may surface if Mom expects certain tokens of love and apprecation, and doesn't get what she wants.

Now, the one key thing about GRR is that it does not happen when there is a total absence of celebration; that's a different situation, and is the second thing I'm going to talk about. The key feature of GRR is that the woman is being celebrated on her special day, but things aren't going according to her inner and often quite detailed (though not necessarily expensive) plans. So the newlywed husband may take the day off on his wife's birthday, cook her a meal, buy her a cake, and give her a nice card--and she may cry, because to her a birthday party means inviting over friends or family, or being given that little gift item she's been hinting about for a month. She isn't pleased with her husband's "gift" of time, cooking, and voluntary card shopping, because that's not what a birthday means to her.

It takes time for couples to sort these things out--and it can just as easily go the other way, when a spontaneous and generous husband learns that his wife really, really doesn't like being made a fuss of on her birthday. There's nothing wrong with couples communicating these ideas to each other, and it's important that feelings be recognized and dealt with in a marriage.

Of course, if a couple has talked, and a husband is doing his level best to please his wife, and GRR persists, there are a few things the wife might want to consider, some "principles of gifts" which sometimes get forgotten:
  1. A gift is not something we can or should try to control. There's nothing wrong with giving one's husband suggestions or hints, or even a list if he's that sort of man and finds it much, much easier to shop with a few written ideas in hand. But there's everything wrong with insisting that every gift we ever get from anybody (but especially our husbands) be somehow a reflection of our deepest and innermost realities, tastes, ideas, and desires. If you tell your dearest one that you'd really like some kitchen towels to match your kitchen which you've decorated to look a bit like Provence, and he buys towels with Tweety Bird on them because he thinks that's sort of the right color to match the tile behind the stove, you should smile at his willingness to think about the color, and appreciate the whimsy; you should not use this as an opportunity to be grumpy about how he doesn't get your decorating tastes.
  2. It really is the thought that counts. Men don't always "get" women's tastes, and vice versa; I recall a funny piece by Patrick McManus in which the writer explained that women see pretty candles and think of romance; men see pretty candles and think of inefficient illumination. So the fact that one's husband is even willing to venture into parts of a store that don't sell tools, hardware, or electronics is a pretty big thoughtful gesture right from the get-go; analyzing the gift down to the studs, so to speak, to find out what is wrong with this person you've married is a pretty bad approach to take.
  3. It is okay to make plans for your special day, so long as you communicate them clearly. Some women have the kind of husband who asks what she'd like to do on Mother's Day or their anniversary. Others have the kind who are pleased to do anything she likes, so long as they don't have to guess it. If your husband is the "tell me" kind instead of the "let me ask you" kind, then do tell him. If you don't want to spend your anniversary in his boat, or Mother's Day entertaining his mother and his whole extended family, say so. The worst thing is to agree to do something and then spend the day in GRR mode because nobody asked what you wanted to do.
About half the commenters at Faith and Family Live were talking about some aspect of the GRR phenomenon; either they didn't communicate their plans or desires for Mother's Day ahead of time, or they wanted some small homemade token from more than the littlest children, or they expected to be shown their family's appreciation in some way that wasn't forthcoming. And as most over there agreed, these are the kinds of issues that can usually be solved with some communication, some focus, and maybe just a little bit of attitude adjustment on the parts of some who are more prone to GRR than others.

But there was a second, and more serious problem expressed by many women who commented over at Faith and Family. This was the problem of receiving no acknowledgment from their husbands at all--zero, zilch, nada. Not just on Mother's Day, but any day. The Mother's Day pain and sorrow they felt was just like Christmas, their birthday, their anniversary, and every other special day; their husbands just didn't "believe" in all that stuff, and didn't see why they should ever have to tell their wives that they were respected, loved, and appreciated. More than one used the old quote about how "I told you I loved you when we got married, and if I change my mind I'll let you know." That, one gathers, is supposed to be funny.

For many of these moms, Mother's Day is just one reminder that they're a nonperson, a doormat, a glorified domestic servant who doesn't happen to get a paycheck. And because the husbands treat their wives this way, the children often start to do it, too. Make mom a card? Why bother? Offer to help with dinner? Nah, that might set a precedent.

That Christian men treat their wives this way is scandalous, but sadly, it's not uncommon. I'm not saying that every family is honor-bound to celebrate every holiday on the calendar; I know some couples who agree to skip Mother's Day and Father's Day on the grounds that these are artificial secular holidays, and so long as the couples agree, and that's what works for their families, no problem. But that wasn't the situation being described by the women who posted--their husbands never celebrate them or honor them or take a moment to express love and appreciation, and the wives are supposed to accept that as a normal masculine trait. Or, sometimes, the husband will be guilted into buying a card or some flowers, but he'll complain about it the whole time, and think that this token more than fulfills any obligations he has, and good grief, isn't dinner ready yet?

This is wrong. It's not wrong from some touchy-feely Oprah-pop-psychology basis; it's wrong both from a human basis and a Christian one.

"Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church..." isn't optional; it's the ordinary duty of a man toward his wife. Christ gave the ultimate gift to the Church; He laid down His life for her--He died for her. The man who refuses to show his wife that she is important to him with a few small gestures of love on a handful of occasions during the year is not in any sense modeling this love of Christ in regard to his wife; he is failing to love her even in a fully human sense, let alone in the way that is expected of Christian marriage. His neglect of his wife makes it easy for her children to despise her, and to treat her the same way that he does--as a person whose needs, desires, thoughts and feelings may be ignored, or even mocked. Serene in his sense that he is right to "skip" all that "silly stuff" about holidays, he demands her love and attention while withholding his own--because women need to be assured that they are loved from time to time, and this assurance, if you'll forgive me for mentioning it, cannot take place only beyond the bedroom door.

Love must be fed, or else it will starve. A man's love is fed by his wife's attention to him, by her acts of service in terms of cooking and cleaning, in her willingness to consult his tastes and arrange things according to his preferences--and sometimes by her own generous gifts to her husband on occasions when he is to be honored; few men will admit to "needing" these occasions, but not many of them would be willing to give them up altogether. A woman's love is fed similarly; she is as human as he is, and needs some visible signs on occasion that her husband is still willing to put her on that pedestal where she stood when they were first dating; not that it is necessary, but because it is very nice, and very appealing to her sense of romance.

So my heart breaks for these mothers whose self-respect is being destroyed by their husbands' unwillingness to endure a moment's inconvenience in order to tell her that she is still special to him, that she is still loved and honored by the man who promised he would do those things.


Dawn said...

Your second point is heartbreaking. My dh was like that and so I joined him (couldn't beat him) and over time he has become more attention-giving. I think he needed the space and time to feel like he wasn't be coerced. A pleasant surprise for me, though, when I'd given up on such attentions. It was part me giving up for my own sanity and part respecting him for who he was.

I haven't followed that thread b/c I've learned from experience that women complaining about their husbands, even justifiably, sows small seeds of discord in my own spirit that eventually grow into resentment.

Thanks for sticking up for them based on how Christian husbands should treat their ladies.

Baron Korf said...

That second concept is totally alien to me. I was raised that Mother's Day weekend was like a second birthday and holiday just for her rolled into one.

runnermomtx said...

I'm cutting & pasting this blog to email to my husband --- along w/an apology. I embarrassingly admit I was a GRR this Mother's Day & it was b/c I expected he could read my mind. He did many things - including buying me an Ipod so I can listen to my favorite priest on podcast! - but he didn't do some other things & so I was disappointed. I am so blessed to have such a wonderful husband who only wants to see me happy. Thanks for posting this --- & now, on to confession!

Paula in MN said...

I haven't followed the discussion at all, but there is a third point. I'm one of them. Due to court ordered visitation, I did not have my children on Mother's Day. Like you, I don't need a special, hallmark day to feel like a mom. However, it was and is difficult to hear about the wonderful days everyone had with their kids and I wasn't even able to talk to mine, because the other parent wouldn't let them call me. I'm sure I'm not the only mom who went through that this weekend.