SARAH: Since gift giving is not my love language I usually prefer texts and phone calls come birthday time. “It’s the thought that counts” is a love language I speak fluently, so even when I’m given something I don’t care for I find myself warmed by the thought that someone cared. Except that one time when my MIL gave me a mop as a gift, I wasn’t understanding or grateful. I was upset. I became more upset when she gave my husband ski clothes that same year. Is it irony or illumination that when I started exploring Mormon patriarchy, I got a mop for my birthday and my husband got ski gear for his?
I was angry and hurt and then ashamed for feeling angry and hurt because I don’t think the person who sent such perfect patriarchal gifts meant to hurt me. I’m positive she didn’t even see that she was reinforcing all the thousands of messages about roles and mental/emotional labor that the world had been suffocating under since the dawn of time. But that’s how patriarchy thrives, isn’t it: by our blindness to it.
The former me would have ignored or dismissed my complicated feelings and pretended all was well in Zion, but I had started practicing uncomfortable authenticity and could no longer deny my emotions. I was waking up to the deeply buried resentment I had carried around for years, maybe decades, from being taught that a righteous woman should self-sacrifice to the point of constant burnout. I became overwhelmed with rage. I stopped attending church and activities because I could no longer stomach the indoctrination. I tried praying my fury away. I tried numbing it. I tried more self-care and positive affirmations. When months later the anger was even more intense I knew I needed intervention. I found some books about anger being a gift from God (instead of a tool from Satan) and I decided to do the riskiest, most godless thing possible: I started listening to my anger without reacting and without judgement. I discovered that the exact place my anger was constant and relentless was the exact place a boundary had been violated again and again. I started exploring saying “no” and got help to process the powerful guilt that came with it. I started grieving the loss of being taught a lie. I started listening to my heart instead of male authority. Over time anger became a trusted friend guiding my limits instead of a feared enemy trying to destroy my fragile peace.
Months after this kind of internal processing, I decided I wanted a divorce; not from my husband, but from my home. I wanted to divorce the enmeshment of my entire culture assuming I was responsible for everything that running a home entails. I wanted a divorce from President Hinckley’s words “women who make a house a home make a far greater contribution to society than those who command large armies or impressive corporations.” I wanted a divorce from being lead point on anything to do with children, relationships or nurturing. But how? How does one divorce home? I couldn’t divorce the human need to eat, bathe, and sleep. I could leave my family and live in the woods to forage for berries or I could go back to work and have my paycheck pay for the outsourcing of the daily grind. That last option was tempting and more socially acceptable but it felt like the wrong direction. Culturally, we’ve had several decades of conversations about women and the workforce and only recently started conversations about men and the home, but I was less interested in comparing and contrasting the workload of designated physical tasks and more interested in changing how the mental and emotional energy of our home flowed. Home is supposed to be a place of safety and intimate connecting, not a battle between leader and laborer.
From nowhere the answer was staring me in the face. The house is its own entity, not an extension of my life force. Instantly the word “house” changed from a vampiric collection of bricks that stole my every waking moment to a living, vibrating womb that wanted to protect and nourish us but we had inherited the wrong user’s manual. I felt this unholy and perverted attachment between me and the house dissolve and shapeshift. We untangled ourselves from each other and were set free to redefine ourselves.
That night my husband and I started an ongoing conversation about treating the house like our first pet. I’m grateful to have married a man who lived patriarchy more through cluelessness than desire and he was willing to change, especially when he saw my light grow brighter. We made lists and charts and talked about limits and expectations without the confining shame of conditioned gender roles. We learned how to ask for help and regroup. We learned how to slow down, pause in heated moments and request more time. We scheduled rest days so we could reset. We learned how to create instead of survive. We both felt initially over-exposed and vulnerable but those were acceptable growing pains.
The rewards have been delicious. I discovered enforcing my way of folding laundry or dressing the toddler was a power struggle to validate my worth and I had some adjustments to make. He discovered that when he invests some mental work into schedules and menu planning, he feels more emotionally connected to his family. It’s been a few years since that turning point. I started working and he started doing laundry without being asked. Our kids are in charge of managing their own time and possessions, as much as they can. I (mostly) no longer feel like the house elf. There is more love and less resentment. We all laugh more and stress less. The year after we started this new lifestyle I wanted an ice cream maker to continue some childhood traditions. We decided to gift The House an ice cream maker. It seemed like such a small thing, gift giving an appliance to a house instead of just buying one. But it was our way of showing our home we value it as a member of the family. And now gift giving has become a love language I enjoy speaking.
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8 Replies to “I Divorced My House”
Nice way to look at it. Your MIL’s gift is maddening.
We have a rule in our marriage that also helps us: whoever does the task 90% of the time gets 90% of the say in how the task is done. We’ve always been pretty equitable in dividing household responsibilities anyway, and we’ve both had full time careers our whole marriage, but our 90% rule keeps us from “supervising” the work the other person does that benefits us all.
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Her not seeing the blatant contrast of the gifts was the worst part.
This is a good rule. There’s nothing like feeling small because you did a chore “wrong” to put needless strain on a relationship.
I am so glad for this essay. It is exactly what i needed. I have been working full time for over a year. Previous was part time but most of my marriage I was at home taking care of kids and ALL house duties. My family was used to that and so was I. I continued while working full time and I almost went crazy. My husband has been the hardest one to adjust to the notion that i can’t do it all. In theory he does, in practice he thinks very traditionally. I had to set my foot down and reorganize our schedule to have him DO more at home. Home duties and raising kids can be so consuming. My weekends have been awful trying to do it all with no time for ME or US to recharge. Now, we are starting to make small progress. I feel that my husband’s indoctrination of gender roles from a young age and the time spent in church callings at the expense of the family has been one of the biggest challenges in our marriage
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I just learned that the church organized people to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It seems such an easy thing to teach partnership instead of patriarchal gender roles and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
How wonderful that you are finding more ease in caring for home and kids through proper support. It’s all consuming and we’re not supposed to do it alone.
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This is galling, and I was shocked when I first heard it (in the early 80s). I assumed the church would do what the gospel says and be no respecter of persons. From all I can tell, the only “reasonable” reasons (bearing in mind just how conservative most of our church leaders are) the church opposed it are: 1) a white-knuckled terror of elective abortion (Rowe v. Wade wasn’t that old yet), and 2) a belief that making equal pay for women would result in a total economy shift in which women essentially have to work–which is frankly true.
But it’s also a good thing for women to be able to support themselves independently because not everyone marries, some are divorced, many want to work for personal fulfillment, and some husbands aren’t going to be as ambitious as their wives. It’s a shame that we aren’t forward thinking, progressive people as a church. A known evil always seems to trump an unknown one. The last time we were social experimenters was polygamy, and guess who that benefited and who was hurt by it.
Angela, yes! A close family member of mine was in a miserable marriage for ten years because his wife felt she could not live on her own. After the divorce, he promised himself that if he ever married again, it would be to an independent woman. I think couples are stronger when they’re together because they want to be, not because one or both have no other choice.
Saying no is so powerful. And now your house’s state of being is co-owned by everyone, your kids won’t be slapped in the face by the reality of daily chores and maintenance. When you and your husband retire you’ll be more used to holding that state of being in your hands together.
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YES! I also love that my kids will fully expect their partners to co-own managing a home. AND they’ll have tools to talk about the hard stuff and come to a good compromise instead of relying on gender roles.