A DIFFERENT TAKE ON MOTHER’S DAY


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In South Africa we traditionally had very specific gender expectations and prescriptions for mothers. These prescriptions were often linked to and reinforced by religious ideas regarding gender roles within marriages. Men were seen as the head of the home and rightful breadwinners of the family, whilst mothers were supposed to be the homemakers/nurturers and the secondary (if at all) breadwinners. A pious mother was one who selfishly sacrificed herself for her family and preferably doing the sacrifice in such a way that no one will notice. Neither was she supposed to expect any recognition for her sacrificial serving of her family and community – thus a “exemplary” mother was subservient, soft-spoken and sacrificial.

These ideas have been internalised by most of the South African societies and many men and women still define motherhood and a mother’s morality in terms of her willingness and ability to be a homemaker. Thus to create a home which is inviting, cook wholesome food, bake wonderful treats, take care and be omnipresent in the lives of her children. She needs to be unconditionally supportive of her husband and be available to her greater family, circle of friend homely and the greater community. A noble idea, but to my mind a very tall order!

Mother’s day cards often sing the praises of women in terms of fulfilling roles of serving, unselfish care for others and always being strong, available and cheerful. Yet mothers are not honoured for taking care of themselves. They are not honoured for developing themselves as separate beings – outside the roles of mothers and wives. They are not honoured for setting boundaries that will ensure their own well-being and happiness. What message do we send to women (mothers) if we continue to only focus on and honour the traditional roles of mothers on Mother’s day?

Therefore I would like to invite you to honour your mothers (biological or other) this Mother’s day in different ways. Honour her for her ambition, for the example to create financial independence for herself, for being wise and taking time out when she needs it, for defining herself as so much more than just someone’s wife, mother or daughter.

This year I would like to honour my mom for always insisting on her right to have her autonomous and independent political views, even if it differed greatly from my dad’s. This caused many disagreements in our home, but now, as an adult, I can appreciate it. I would also like to express my appreciation for my husband’s mother. She raised a man with ideas that are outside the conventional traditional gender ideas. This is no small feat especially if one considers the time and socio-cultural and political context in which she raised her children. I honour these two mothers for their belief that there must be different and more life-giving ways than what the norm prescribed in their time.

Please share with me what unconventional and non-traditional ways of your mother you would like to honor.

 

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Empty nest syndrome


Recently our youngest child flew the nest. Towards the end of last year I started to prepare myself for this event, as many people warned me about the empty nest syndrome. I also reminded my husband to prepare himself for this new phase in our lives, but he felt that I was putting the cart before the horse and that there was no need to run ahead of ourselves. Even so, I decided to visualise what our lives would be like and what I needed to do to embrace all that might come with the impending empty nest.

During this process of preparation I went through a period where I felt a sense of loss, but also a sense of achievement and excitement. I was excited about my daughter having the ability and opportunity to study at a university. I experienced a sense of accomplishment as we were able to guide and support towards her dreams, as we did for our eldest, her brother. She achieved her own goals and is now on her way to prepare herself for her adult life and an independent economic future. I realized that the home would be much quieter, but after twenty one years of sharing my space, being mom’s taxi, and organising my days in such a way that I would be available to my home and my family, whilst juggling post graduate studies and a practice, I was looking forward to the freedom that the empty nest would bring to my daily routine.

The big day arrived and we helped our daughter settle in her new living space. On our way home, both my husband and I experienced sadness, some anxiousness but also excitement about her prospects and the future ahead of her.

The next day I continued with my life and though I missed my daughter dearly, I really enjoyed and cherished the arrival of this new phase of my life. For the first time in twenty one years it was just my husband and I in our home. Our couple-hood had the opportunity to take centre stage, without interruptions or competition for shared energy and time or the needs of our children. BLISS! I could honestly exclaim: ‘Empty nest syndrome, what empty nest syndrome?’

About a week after our daughter’s departure, my husband started to really struggle. I often found him in our daughter’s room, stroking her cat, staring into space with tears in his eyes. Eventually he shared: ‘This is so much harder than what I ever thought it would be. I miss them terribly and feel without direction and purpose’. My husband has always been a very involved dad and used to do things like the kids’ breakfast, packing their lunch boxes and helping with other chores. Suddenly he came home with no one to engage with but me, who was quite happy with the void, I must add.

His sense of usefulness diminished and he felt without purpose. After two weeks of tears and deep sadness, he engaged with me in a long discussion about his experiences. He shared that for so many years his sole purpose (to his mind) was to provide financially. As a white South African Christian man he was indoctrinated from a very early age that he was supposed to be the primary breadwinner, he needed to take care of and protect his family. Suddenly this purpose seemed fulfilled and what now? The children were on their way to independence … what was his purpose now?

Was his response due to a midlife crises or indicative of the patriarchal society we life in? Why did everyone expected me to experience the empty nest syndrome but not my husband?

Often so much emphasis is placed on men’s role as the financial provider, that providing on other levels are ignored. My husband did so much more than just provided financially, yet he could not see this. He was unable to see that he will continue to provide in many other ways in our children’s and their children’s lives!

You might wonder in what other ways did my husband provide. He provided and supported on an emotional level in terms of co-parenting by co-creating an environment in which the following could thrive: stability and safety, encouragement, companionship, wisdom, emotional comfort and physical presence. He was also the handy man, fixing stuff and the one who knew how to do things. He gave hugs, read bedtime stories, had dad and son talks, dad and daughter talks. He contributed by loving me as the mother of our children. They saw him treating his wife with respect and equality, creating positive ways-of-being, living with integrity and honouring his personal moral compass.

Looking at the multiple ways in which my husband provided made me wonder why it is so difficult for men to see beyond their contributions other than just financial provider? Did patriarchal ideas become so internalized that men (and women) are unable to see their own worth in terms of their contributions to their families? Why do men (and women) buy into the discourse that the most important function in a family is that of breadwinner? Did the church, with its rigid gender role prescriptions regarding the man as breadwinner and the woman as caretaker and nurturer, create a society which values financial contribution of a man more than emotional and spiritual partnership? Did these patriarchal ideas, as often promoted by churches, contributed to a materialistic mindset which undermines men’s constructions of themselves as fathers and husbands and even as human beings? Did this turn men into walking purses with no apparent other function?

 

NAKED BODIES: WHAT DOES IT SAY?


 I am in the process of creating a concept for my, soon to be published book, that will deal with how we understand sexuality and the effects thereof. In my discussions with the publisher, I suggested that we consider having an outline of naked bodies for the cover page.

What transpired from this brief was very interesting and telling. It confirmed my understanding of how many people view sexuality and the gender discrepancies that we experience. Most of the examples with body figures that we could find, presented women. I then requested that both the male and female form should be portrayed. This idea transpired in a design in which the naked male outline was so subtle that you could barely see that it was a man next to the very distinct naked female figure.

I realized that I was not conveying the idea in my head with much success. I then decided to ask a young female artist friend of mine to compile my brief visually, in the hope that an illustration of my idea would advance mutual understanding and greater clarity. As my young friend is not that familiar with the naked male body, she did what all young people do – she used Google images to find a realistic image to guide her in her creation. Here’s the thing – she really battled to find naked, non-pornographic male images, whilst the female naked form was plentiful.

This made me think about why this might be so. I am sure that there are many reasons. One could possibly be because of the dominant discourse that women do not sexually respond to visual stimulation and therefore there is no need for such images. This idea circulated for so many decades that people are not even aware of the discrepancy in how the female body and male body are used and exploited in the media. The female body became the marketing tool and is often seen as a commodity. We have become so desensitised to this because it became the dominant discourse.

Professor Bronwyn Davis (1993:153) uses the metaphor of a pane of glass to describe the invisibility of discourses. Discourses take on the qualities of a pane of glass through which one observes the world. It is only when the glass fractures or breaks that one’s attention is drawn to the glass. Discourses are thus usually invisible to people and we have little or no conscious awareness of discourses. This might explains why we continue to accept the use of women and their naked bodies (out of context) as a marketing tool, whilst the use of male bodies are mostly excluded. However, I believe that there might be another coinciding discourse present.

Being naked holds a vulnerability, especially if others can view our naked body. Maybe in our gender indoctrinated minds, this vulnerable position is only reserved for women. Maybe naked images of men are not as available because men are not supposed to be vulnerable, but are portrayed as strong, in control and invincible? Your thoughts on the matter?

Reference:

Davies, B 1993. Shards of glass: Children reading and writing beyond gendered identities. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Cleaning up the bloody mess after violence


Today I listened to an interview on the radio about a book called: Bloedsusters (Blood sisters) by Ilse Salzwedelwhich. It deals with the work of two sisters, who are crime scene clean-up specialists. They are called in after the fact, after the violence: to clean-up the mess.

Sisters, Eileen de Jager and Roelien Schutte from Pretoria, South Africa, see their work as a service to the families of the victims and to society in general. In their book they share that they find emotionally, the most difficult to clean-up violent deaths due to family murders and attacks on farmers. Maybe it is because we are supposed to be safe in our homes and when we are with those we love?

Their work reminded me of my own work as a narrative therapist where I often work with sexual and gender violence. I, as many of my colleagues, are ‘call in’ after the fact. We witness the aftermath of emotional violence. We see the emotional blood and guts that economic, verbal, sexual and physical violence leave. The details of the ‘crime scene’ differ, but there is often a common factor: gender inequality and it leaves a legacy of shattered dreams and lives.

There is one main difference between an actual physical crime scene and that of gender-based emotional violence. A bloody crime scene shock most people and they will properly, if present when the violence is perpetrated, try to intervene. However, each and every day we all see acts of gender-based violence, without intervening. It might be as subtle as a demeaning comment about women, or as violent as a rape – yet we do not intervene or challenge it. Societies continue to turn a blind eye. Men and women continue to laugh at demeaning gender jokes, especially about women. We continue to support structures and products which depict women as less than men. We continue to accept the all too familiar life-denying gender stereotypes about men and women. We should not tolerate any form of gender-based violence whether it is a snide remark, economic abuse or the beating and eventual killing of a wife. By not taking a stand against the most subtle to the most violent gender-based acts, we contribute towards making violence against women and children an acceptable phenomena in societies.

Cleaning up the shocking mess …. this made me think: If all forms of emotional abuse left a physical bloody mess as physical violence do, will we still be so complacent and tolerant of it. If we could see the bloody, smelly horrible mess that gender-based violence cause, would we still need 16 days of no violence against women and children or will every day be a day in which this violence is irradiated from our society?  

Is sex an expression of love for both men and women?


Sex as expression of love

I have often heard the statement: ‘Man gives love to have sex and woman gives sex to have love’. Many academics speak about the gender differences in the experiences of Eros (sex) as an expression of love. Some argue that men express their love both in practical ways – such as assisting with household chores – and in sexual actions. Others believe that both men and women find intimacy in verbal and sexual intimacy as this is in line with the cultural script of love. However, the majority of work that I read state that a few years into the marriage, gender differences appear as men will continue to find intimacy in sexual fulfillment but minimize their verbal intimacy, whereas women will tend to increase their need for verbal intimacy and decrease sexual intimacy. Consequently, men express and experience love when having sex, whilst women experience being loved in other ways: for instance, in kind deeds, talking and help with household chores.

I would like to challenge this point of view. During my research on sexually unhappy marriages, the co-searchers confirmed my suspicion that this idea may be another patriarchal discourse taken as the truth. The women who researched with me, all regarded sex as a way in which they experienced being loved and giving love. Sex for them was not reserved to the male experience of love. They also shared that when their sexual needs were neglected, they did not feel loved, no matter how many times he did the dishes. Practical help in the absence of sex did not build their intimate relationships. It would seem that sexual intimacy is an important expression of love to both men and women and cannot be replaced by practical deeds.

Sex should not be reserved to the male experience of love. We need to challenge gender discourses regarding sexual intimacy. Sex is important to both men and women, as is communication, practical help and deeds of kindness. Why do so many people insist in holding on to these gender stereotypes which are so life-restricting to both men and women? What is your take on this?

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria. 

Electronic version available at – http://hdl.handle.net/10500/4823