Who doesn’t love the expression “Behind every strong man is an even stronger woman”?
It’s practically the Jewish family motto .
I will gladly take credit for my husband’s accomplishments. Why not? I work hard enough at living life. Any praise is lovely. And I do believe that in some important ways, I have helped support him along his way.
But that saying also highlights heavy expectations for my role as a modern day wife that are difficult to actually achieve.
That expectation is presumably two-fold:
- To not bring my husband down, by criticizing or distracting him too much from his mission
- To help raise him up
A lot easier said than done.
From more than a few friends, I have subtly or not so subtly heard the complaint that their husbands needs so much support and encouragement that it exhausts and irritates them. Sometimes they feel him to be like an extra child in their life.
And it seems like the last thing a modern day wife needs is another child in her life.
Beth Berry, in her recent piece “ In the Absence of the Village, Mothers Struggle Most” nails the complexities of our modern day wife-ing situation.
“The injustice is this:
It takes a village, but there are no villages.
By village I don’t simply mean “a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area.” I’m referring to the way of life inherent to relatively small, relatively contained multigenerational communities. Communities within which individuals know one another well, share the joys, burdens, and sorrows of everyday life, nurture one another in times of need, mind the wellbeing of each other’s ever-roaming children and increasingly-dependent elderly, and feel fed by their clearly essential contribution to the group that securely holds them.
I’m talking about the most natural environment for children to grow up within.
I’m talking about a way of life we are biologically wired for, but that is nearly impossible to find in developed nations.
I’m talking about the primary unmet need driving the frustration that most every village-less mother is feeling.”
Heng Ou, in her piece “Mothering the Mother: New Mothers Need a Focused Period of Rest and Recovery”, adds in commentary on one of the glaring holes in our villageless lifestyle – afterbirth care.
“I was inspired to support new mothers with fresh, homemade food after my own experience with zuo yuezi, the ancient Chinese art of “sitting the month.” During this time a circle of women surrounds the new mother; her mother, mother-in-law, aunts, sisters, cousins or neighbours come together to take responsibilities off her plate and to keep her sustained with a special diet of warming, rejuvenating foods that encourage healing and promote lactation.
The tenets of zuo yuezi are simple and universal: From India to Mexico, from Russia to Indonesia to the Ivory Coast and beyond, similar cultural codes say that a new mother is to be encircled with support for 21 or 30 or 40 days to focus on replenishing, resting and nursing her newborn. Most importantly, she is never to be left alone.
The first weeks after giving birth can be blissful, but they can also be lonely, stressful, exhausting and nutritionally lacking – four factors that can contribute to postpartum depression. Time-honoured protocols like zuo yuezi have protected new mothers’ wellbeing and ensured baby’s best start for eons. It’s a far cry from what most first-world women – especially in the U.S., the only developed nation with no mandatory maternity leave – experience today.”
I love articles like these.
If nothing else, it helps mothers stop blaming themselves. It allows them to understand that things are hard because they’re too hard. It explains for them the reasons why their irritation and despair and sense of isolation bubbles over more frequently than they would ever feel comfortable admitting.
But I also wonder about those villageless fathers in ways I don’t often see pondered. How does the villageless father balance his role as a substitute for that large circle of women sitting the month?
In fact, in many ways, the wife needs her husband’s support more now than she ever did, and her difficulty in supporting him is directly related to her lack of village. Rather than the emotional and social outlet of fellow women, she turns to her husband to give her more of the practical and emotional needs.
That is a great modern strain for the villageless father. With this in mind, how emotionally needy will we allow our husbands to be? And has his inner weakness become amplified in the modern day villageless lifestyle?
The villageless wife drags herself to the couch to rest at the end of the day and reflects on her own self as self, her own needs .
Her husband approaches, sinks into the cushion next to her, and sighs .
He opens up about a concern, an issue in his life, and his wife is caught as she tenses up- she wants to be the good, supportive wife, but how is she to hold him too? Must she hold him too?
Resentment grows between her and him – she who needs the space to be without obligation ,he who needs his one real confidant . She who wants him to be strong on his own and not need her, he who is ashamed to need anybody.
She may even turn her own inner compass off and ignore her own emotional needs, seeing them as too complex to achieve, and expects him to do the same.
With all of this pronounced weight, the foundation of their home, the bedrock of their strength – their marriage covenant – is at risk of collapse.
So what’s a villageless husband and wife to do?
To begin with, the couple must acknowledge the challenge of their position.
She needs to make investing in herself and self nurture a priority to prevent from cracking herself and her family open.
Investing in oneself often means financially, and the mother needs to be ready to fight against the guilt of using money for herself (particularly if she doesn’t work).
She needs to be creative and honest about her own needs, and reach for them. Beyond cleaning and child care help to substitute for her group of female support, she needs to be ready to invest in her dreams and goals, even if the steps are small. In small ways day by day, she can luxuriously dream and skip again because life seems like an exciting, light adventure after all again.
I firmly believe that when the women takes care of herself, the family functions better, and the money works itself out. Besides, health and happiness is the greatest wealth of all.
The husband must be careful to encourage his wife to get the support she needs, to dream big and bigger, to try new things, to invest in herself, and to not add any guilt onto her self-investment.
The payout for motherly self-investment are huge.
The more she gives to herself, the more she can give to him. The less she snaps. The more open her love and arms are. The more he can find the space to rest on her.
But he has to understand the strain she, the villageless mother, is under. If the children are sick, if the load becomes too great one day, she cannot always relax with him. She can’t always give.
Her inability to always give needs to be forgivable, as long as she is walking towards that space of mutual bonding. Just as he, in his needs and his stress in this villageless lifestyle, needs to be forgiven for not being able to fulfill all of hers.
All substitutes for what we villageless souls are missing must be searched for:
- Therapists to nurture our inner psyches.
- Medication for when life gets too heavy to bear on our owns.
- Exercise to strengthen our soul, body, and spirit.
- Food that sustains us in all ways.
- Any other substitutes for community we can find in the community around us.
Modern day man is needy. Yes, of course. He needs his wife. Perhaps he misses her more now than he ever did before.
He misses the village because he misses his wife.
But life has changed, in many ways for the better, and we must roll with it. We must capitalize on the progress and the opportunities.
We must embrace our current lives and find substitutes for everything we lack.
Behind every strong man is an even stronger woman. If we’re lucky. If the wife searches out that which will strengthen her, she can hopefully strengthen him. If she fills her own needs, she won’t resent his as well. If he supports her in her need to find more support.
If we continue to strive towards understanding needs, balance, and forgiveness, reaching towards finding help and dreams, I believe we can invent a new type of modern village that will sustain both halves of us fragile, needy human souls throughout our lives on this Earth.