March 21st, 2008

ozarque figure

Are modern women [and men] miserable?; part three...

Your comments and responses in this discussion have been remarkable; thank you for all the time and energy and care you've put into writing and posting them. I'm not at all sure where to go from here, and this post will be evidence for that. [Unlike the Mulberry Thread, which clearly does know where it's going.]

I have a gut feeling [can't provide you with a link for that] that our culture's core beliefs and principles and perceptions about caregiving really do constitute the end of an important string in the knotted mess of biological gender relations. I have a gut feeling that if there were a way to pull on that string and unravel that knotted mess something important could be accomplished. And if you think that I'm writing in a very odd way here, that's an accurate perception. As I'm trying to write what I want to say, I keep discovering that there isn't any American English vocabulary available for doing that; it's just one lexical gap after another. The best I can do is to just go on writing in this very odd way. And I do think that that's a clue.

Things that a culture doesn't want to talk about, that culture makes it cumbersome to talk about. One mechanism for creating that cumbersomeness is to keep the vocabulary for talking about those things severely limited, so that when people try to talk about them they have to "go on and on and on," so that their listeners grow restless and start demanding that they "get to the point."

If we really did have a thorough and complete discussion about the interface between biological gender and caregiving, it would wreak havoc. Our culture cannot afford to risk the economic consequences -- much less the emotional consequences -- of recognizing caregiving as Real Work [i.e., paid work, entitled to all the legal trappings and benefits that go with Real Work]. It's pretty clear that when there is a lot of money available, caregiving doesn't drag families down; it's possible to hire nurses and nannies and medical professionals and "companions"; it's possible to hire "personal assistants" to see to all the details of the outer edges of emotional work like sending cards for all the appropriate occasions, and hosting family celebrations -- when there's enough money, you can have those celebrations catered. Problem(s) solved.

So you wonder: Do men feel a bedrock obligation to earn enough money to provide all that for their families? Do they feel that that's the Male Caregiving Responsibility? And if they can't accomplish it, do they feel a profound guilt about that failure -- maybe a guilt that only gets expressed with utterances like "Damned if I'm going to take over sending out the birthday cards! That's not my job!" Do men who can't provide what great wealth provides perceive all the vast gaps in the caregiving their families and extended families are getting, and does it cause them great pain? Or have they learned not to perceive those gaps, because they don't want to feel that kind of pain and don't want to feel the perception of helplessness that goes with it?

I'm very suspicious of utterances like "Hey, none of that stuff matters; it's all just a bunch of silly crap!" [Where "that stuff" refers to the array of time-consuming tasks that go into holding a family together even when its members are scattered all over the globe.] I hear men say those things -- I sometimes hear women say those things -- but the body language never matches. The words say "I don't give a damn about all this," but almost always the body language says, loud and clear and touchful, "I'm miserable about this."

And the women go on taking up the slack, doing the work -- and bitterly resenting it. How can you talk about something like this? A man can't say to a woman he loves, "Sure I feel horrible when I see you doing all those things I can't afford to hire somebody to do for us -- and I feel even more horrible because there's just no way I'm going to start sharing that responsibility with you. If I started down that road, there'd be no end to it, and I'm not going to risk that." A woman can't say to a man she loves, "Sure I feel horrible when I realize that I hate you for leaving all of this caregiving work to me; sure I feel horrible when I realize that you're never going to help me with it, and that nothing I could say or do is ever going to change that." Whether the men and women involved are spouses or partners or siblings or parent-and-child pairs -- whatever their relationship -- they can't say those things unless they're willing to wreak havoc. Lay all that out on the table, start that conversation, and there's no way to go back; there's no way to un-say what's been said.

So we do what's called -- accurately and precisely -- "holding our peace."