29 June 2015

Save Womanhood, Save Marriage, Save the World

A New Book

When I was a child, I read a lot. It started with my mom reading to me before I hit school age. She even had the right inflection when dialogue changed between voices. It continued in grade school, when I was "that girl:" the girl reading a book because her classwork was done, the girl asking to go to the library for the third time this week because she'd finished the books she'd checked out, the girl with the most AR points (accelerated reading. Students took quizzes on books they'd read to accumulate points; there was usually a goal for each quarter students had to meet as part of their Reading grade). High school English courses were full of enough in class reading, but I supplemented my Summers with more reading.

When it was time for college, I intended to keep the intense (for fun) reading up, but add a part time job, research work and the discovery of Netflix and reading just tends to go by the wayside. I have tried to set goals for myself with reading since then, sometimes making lists for the year or for the Summer. I always have a list written up on my phone with the local library call numbers. My own lists are aided by lists found around the internet, often from other Catholic bloggers. One book in particular which has been recommended almost half a dozen times is Dr. Laura Schlessinger's The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. Okay, I'm a newly married woman. Seeing what people have to say about marital relationships could be a good thing. It was finally at the library the last time I visited, so I scooped it up.

Now, at first glance, this book totally looks like a 1990's self help book. C even gave me a sideways glance when he saw the cover. However, these recommendations were from sources I trusted, so I added it to my pile of books. I started reading it in the car and I finished it in maybe three days, if that says anything about how much it hooked me.

So what is this book about? Well, it doesn't have recipes in it, as one might expect. Rather, Dr. Schlessinger focuses on the ways in which our modern society has encouraged discord in the marital relationship. She spends much of the book showing real examples of conversations that she has had with a spouse or couple about their relationship, often where a wife has some problem with the way the husband does or doesn't do something (eg. "He doesn't load the dishwasher right? Why doesn't he ever listen to me?"). Dr. S usually responds that men want a few basic thingslove, acceptance, affirmation, respectbut that they aren't getting them, usually because women can be really harsh towards the men in their lives ("Did you ask him kindly and leave it, or do you harp on him about it constantly? Do you ever thank him for the work he does for you and your family?"). Now, there's all sorts of ways I could get into that, and if you want to see what she has to say then you can check out the book for yourself, but I wanted to focus on one passage in particular.

Marriage? No, thanks.
"With a religious foundation, both women and men appreciate that they become more complete when bonded to the opposite sex in holy matrimony. Without it, though, women may see marriage as either an option equivalent to the usually temporary arrangement of shacking up, or as the threat of oppression, or as an impediment to the fulfillment of some important material goals.
When modesty, chastity, and fidelity were in vogue, women who valued themselves as more than sexual objects or outlets were respected by society in general and men in particular. Now women have to contend with men taught to expect sexual favors as part of casual dating. As a result, women ignore their true nature to bond, and find themselves getting more and more hurt and bitter as they search for meaning in a culture telling them meaning has no meaning." (p. 53)

[When I read these two paragraphs, I was reminded of another book I read this year: A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. That book, while in my possession, was absolutely covered in sticky tabs with little notes. I highly recommend reading it, no matter your stage or vocation in life.]

But let's focus on what Dr. Schlessinger is saying. Women may see marriage as one of three things, she says, and none of those three things is what I would call "good." Those three things do not touch at all upon what marriage should be, what the Church sees marriage as, namely, a covenant "by which a man and a women establish between themselves a partnership of the whole life,...by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring." (CCC 2.2.3. Article 7) A Catholic marriage is about permanence, getting each other to Heaven and having and raising any children God blesses the spouses with.

However, permanence, Heaven and children play no role, as far as many people in the world are concerned today, as they have an answer to each feature. Permanence? Divorce. Heaven? Non-Christian or once saved, always saved. Children? Contraception. When these good things are taken away from the equation, what does marriage become? Long term roommates? A move for convenience? Then how quickly can a marriage fall apart? One roommate wants to know why the other one is out late all the time. Convenience becomes a burden instead.

Weakness? No, thanks.

What happened to the days, writers like Schlessinger and Shalit wonder, when women were respected by men? When women could walk down the street without being heckled? When women didn't carry mattresses around their campus to protest rape? When women weren't expected to throw down on the first date, lest they be called prudish? Both women respond: a lack of modesty, chastity and fidelity.

There is a parallel pattern. At several points, essential pieces of marriage were chipped away. I've heard statistics about a 50% divorce rate since I was a kid, and I recently heard that it's closer to 60%. Contraception, which was once rejected by all Christian groups, is now a given in many circles. In high school, I heard stories more than once of friends' parents almost desperately asking if they wanted to be put on the pill.

Likewise, at several points, essential pieces of a women's dignity were chipped away. Schlessinger relates it all back to the feminist movement of the 1960s. Now, while I believe that men and women deserve the same dignity and respect, there are differences between the sexes. Does this make one sex objectively better than the other sex? Of course not. These are often necessary differences that ought to be cherished, rather than dismissed. The problem, however, is that those differences which have been dismissed are the ones women have. Passive, nurturing and sacrificial characteristics were judged weak. The men, though, had all the good roles: active, in the work force, forging his own path. That was interpreted as strong, the only strength, compared to woman's "weakness." But I know that being a woman does not make you weak. Being a wife and mother isn't an easy task and it does require strength. Not all strength is shown by muscle mass.

And so, the thing to do was get rid of these "weak" characteristics and "weak" roles. What was once a partnership was perceived as oppression. What was once a fountain of self-giving was seen as a drain on personal success. What was once seen as an opportunity to grow in holiness and guide others along the way was seen as a mundane, routine, thankless chore. But if you deny yourself the opportunity to love and be loved, if you deny yourself the opportunity to be part of something more than yourself, if you deny yourself the opportunity to find grace in every small detail, you begin to lose those things. You forget why they are important and instead find other sources of importance. Now all these women are in marriages they can't for the lives of themselves remember why they entered.

As a result, the things that were valued like fidelity to your spouse or hard work for your family, are now parasites of a woman's life well lived. Why, then, commit to a lasting monogamous relationship? Why, then, have children within the context of a permanent union? Why have children, who will rope you into burdensome responsibility for the next eighteen years, at all? If it is all going to limit you as a person, make you weak instead of strong, why desire it? It has gotten to such a point that Schlessinger's next two paragraphs continue...

Children and Responsibility? No, thanks.
"When there was awe and respect for life, an 'accidental pregnancy' was met with commitment and responsibility because women expected it and men were accountable. Now men expect an accidental pregnancy to result in an abortion because society has trained them to see this as a temporary inconvenience, or they expect to walk away because they've been told men aren't needed to raise babies. 
Commitment to marriage and child rearing was once viewed as the pinnacle of adulthood identity, so that women looked carefully for the 'right' man for the job, and parents were consulted for opinions and blessings. Now, with so few sustained marriages and children growing up with complex family trees made up of multiple marriages, divorces, and out-of-wedlock children, fewer women look upon marriage and child rearing as stable or even normal." (p. 53-54)

Here are two of our themes again: impermanence and individuality. When something which was once supposed to be a special and lasting bond gets warped into a contract we can break free of at any time, we become less inclined to sign the contract in the first place. As with marriage, so with children. I cannot count the number of television shows or movies in which a woman becomes pregnant and the first question is something like: "What do you want to do?" "Do you want to keep it?" "Are you going to get rid of it?" Excuse me? We're talking about children here! Has everyone somehow forgotten that small detail? Yet we treat pregnancy as a Nordstrom return policy on a pair of shoes, except Nordstrom has no time limit (I wonder if we're really getting to that point anyway, with partial birth abortions being legitimate, or simple abandonment of children).

We Got You Into This Mess, You're Getting Yourself Out

Still astounding to me is that in each of these television programs, the man (or should I say boy?) stands idly by while the woman sets her jaw and mutters, "It's my problem. Don't worry about it." I cannot imagine how many of these desperately sad scenes have played out in real life. How many women have kept a pregnancy secret or far from the responsible man's influence? How many have "taken care of" their problem with no one to offer comfort or support? In our enlightened, modern world, how much are we truly helping women who need it? When we encourage women to be adventurous, live a little and experiment with their sexuality, and they end up conceiving, how do we have the nerve to turn our backs and say, "Well, it's your problem. You had better get it taken care of or else you'll ruin your entire life."? And when a woman does keep their child? That same crowd will look down on her for being a single mother, when before they had praised women for being their own, individual person. Society has become a group full of individuals but no community. It is so heartbreaking to think that this is normal life for so many women in the world.

There is a reason that this life is not what the Church prescribes when she shows marriage as having parameters. These parameters are not put in place so as to oppress people and make their lives miserable. Rather, they guide marriage to be as wholesome, fruitful and graceful as possible. Each new attack on married life is just one more chance for me to remember: this isn't God's plan. It isn't God's plan to have families torn apart by divorce. It isn't God's plan to have children neglected by desperate women who are told they have no choice, by lukewarm men who are told they have no responsibility and by a careless society that so often sees people as only burdensome.

Something Better? Yes, please.

But what authority do I have to speak on such matters? I, an out-of-wedlock child? I, a child of divorce? Even with these "labels," I am one of the lucky ones. I have a mother who loves me fiercely and never made me feel like I was a burden for arriving on the scene "too soon," or still being someone to take care of when my father wasn't in the picture. I have a step father who treated me as his own flesh and blood and, even after my sister came, never made me feel different from her. I have a sister whothough technically only a half-siblingsupports, laughs, competes and fights with me just as a full-blooded sibling would. I have a vastly extensive family, nearly all of the women of whom were pregnant before marriage or before legal adulthood. Yet, they have loved and supported me and desired more for me than the difficulty that comes with starting a life like that so young. The desire for symmetry in my class schedule was some kind of act of God which allowed me to meet my husband, whose own attendance at our middle-of-nowhere, half-across-the-country-from-his-home university was another act of God. From the world's perspective, I was born into circumstances of misfortune. But from God's perspective, everything was slowly working together for good. I have been immensely blessed in my circumstances.

Still, I don't have to be a statistic to see these effects. I see people who have accepted all these things as fact: I see divorce and remarriage after divorce and remarriage. I see couples following in their parents' footsteps with their own relationship problems. I see women accepting the cat calls as if accepting a date, because that is how young people communicate these days. I hear women say, "I know he's been seeing so-and-so, but I know he's going to leave her for me," who have accepted being played. I hear women say, "You know I'd never sleep with you," (the more pg version, anyway) and then throw themselves all over the guy. I see women hoist signs boasting their number of abortions. I see every day the dignity of women and the beauty of marriage trampled on.

I also see people like me asking questions and wanting better: I see spouses fighting and trying to work it out. I see other children of divorce who can't understand why their parents couldn't stay together and promise their marriage will never take that turn. I see women scowling at cat calls and hear them complaining about the way a man seems to stare at them because they want to be treated differently. I see young pregnant women abandoned by their friends, but resolute in their decision. I hear women lament the years they spent on the pill, after they have discovered its abortifacient capabilities, now open to life. I hear men tell women, "You are beautiful," and it means, "You are patient. You are hard working. You are strong. You are loved." I see men and women at the altar vowing permanence and meaning it.

I want more of the latter. I want more women being respected as women, with all the wonderful gifts they have because of their womanhood. I want more women knowing their dignity and worth and living in a way which demonstrates that. I want more men seeing those wonderful qualities in women, which they value more than the superficial things society says are important. I want more men knowing their own dignity and respecting the dignity of women. I want more faithful, Catholic examples of marriage in the world, to show others that marriage can be permanent, charitable and fruitful. I want my marriage to be like that.