Surviving My Recovery by Esther Nelson


For the past fourteen months, I’ve been going from doctor to doctor trying to figure out what ails me.  Specialists I’ve seen included wonderfully competent people immersed in their individual disciplines of nephrology, cardiology, rheumatology, and neurology.  At long last, the neurologist diagnosed my condition (accurately, I believe), and I’m slated to have surgery in July.

I’m overjoyed to finally have a diagnosis, with a positive prognosis no less, offered to me.  My everyday life has become more and more constricted over this past year.  I can’t walk far without pain.  I can’t stay in one position for long without pain.  I can’t practice yoga without pain.  I can’t do those everyday chores—grocery shopping, vacuuming, laundry, scrubbing the bathroom, and washing dishes—without pain.  Pain wakes me throughout the night as I attempt to sleep.

I do have concerns about how well I’ll tolerate the upcoming surgical procedure, but am even more concerned about my recovery period.  For six weeks after the procedure:  No lifting.  No bending.  No twisting.  No exercise except for frequent, short walks.  How will I ever manage?

The reality of the situation is that women are usually the primary caregivers in our society.  For the most part, we do not live with (or near) our extended families so when women need care, they face problems like I am facing right now.  It is one thing to need someone “to look in on you” from time and time and another thing to need the kind of encompassing care that women give routinely to members of their immediate household when need be.  This care, of course, is done in addition to the daily-ness of planning and executing all of the tasks involved in running a household.

I, along with many of us, were brought up in faith communities where women busied themselves creating and sustaining a nurturing environment in the home.  Doing so was equated with godliness.  However, one need not to have been raised in such a community in order for that “truth” (nurturing wife and mother) to have been absorbed into the marrow of our collective bones.  A good woman tends to her man (heterosexuality is assumed), the children, and the home.  Men and children need to be fed (food procurement and preparation), clothed (sewing or purchasing appropriate garments), made comfortable (arranging and cleaning living space) all the while providing comfort (sexual gratification for the man and diplomatically managing interactions among family members) while simultaneously cheerleading individual family members’ dreams and goals.

A good (and godly) woman functions to satisfy others.  The more invisibly she can work, the better.  As a result, most men have no clue about how much time, labor, and know-how that go into caring for the family’s basic needs while keeping a household running smoothly—let alone how to manage it all when the woman is not able (for whatever reason) to keep up her job, functioning as the glue that keeps things together.

The Senegalese Muslim feminist author, Mariama Bâ (1929-1981), wrote So Long a Letter (1980), a work of fiction, but the novel is no doubt based on her own experiences as a teacher, wife, and mother in her newly-independent country.  (Senegal became independent from French rule in 1960.)  The protagonist, Ramatoulaye, loves her husband Modou, but “compromised with his people,” tolerating his sisters’ visits along with their unruly children.  Since Ramatoulaye had domestic help, her sisters-in-law “believed me to be spared the drudgery of housework.”

Ramatoulaye continues, “Try explaining to them that a working woman is no less responsible for her home.  Try explaining to them that nothing is done if you do not step in, that you have to see to everything, do everything all over again: cleaning up, cooking, ironing.  There are children to be washed, the husband to be looked after.  The working woman has a dual task, of which both halves, equally arduous, must be reconciled.  How does one go about this?  Therein lies the skill that makes all the difference to a home.”

This reconciling skill of “both halves” (even in 2019) is what many women find overwhelming.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with what we call the division of labor within the home.  However, when enforcement of that division of labor discourages (even forbids) going outside one’s assigned gender roles, problems ensue.  Rita Gross (1943-2015), author of Feminism and Religion (1996), wrote, “Patriarchy depends…on fixed gender roles.  Without gender roles, no one will have automatic access to any role or automatic power over another because of her physiological sex.”  Enforcing gender roles stifles both women and men, yet women bear the larger burden by far.

While women work outside of the home in the public sphere (traditionally men’s space)—many times for less pay than men earn—they are still expected to keep the home fires burning brightly.  Men may perform household tasks that women generally do when asked, but performing household tasks doesn’t come close to assuming the burden and responsibilities of planning and executing the running of the family enterprise.  In addition, men are viewed as “nice guys” for helping out in the home.  Women who work outside the home often are criticized for neglecting their family, reflecting how entrenched gender roles are in our culture.

Even though these days, according to some statistics, men may be shouldering more of the household work, it doesn’t seem to have made a practical difference in the lives of most women.

So, in my current situation, I’m trying to figure out how to manage being out of commission for six weeks, maintain a semblance of order in my home, and then begin a new semester of teaching without compromising my recovery.  After all, what’s the point of undergoing surgery if I am not able to attend to and survive my own recovery?

 

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

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Categories: Body, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, General, Healing, Relationality, Relationships

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16 replies

  1. Thanks for this piece. I’ll make duas that you find the help you need and your surgery is a great success!

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  2. I hope you’re able to find compassionate care. When I had a breast cancer scare six months ago, my blessed daughter-in-law (who is also a witch and a graduate of Ruth Barrett’s Spiral Door program) went to the hospital with me and stayed all day. (I had an out-patient lumpectomy.) I’m still not altogether sure how I got home that night, though I know she drove and stayed with me until I was more or less steady on my feet. We sent texts back and forth (at least a dozen a day) for a couple weeks, and another witchy friend took me grocery shopping. It’s community that I’m grateful for, community that helps and serves. My daughter-in-law works full-time, so her day off with me was part of her “vacation” allotment. (BTW, the pathology report says I never had cancer. It was only a pinkie-fingernail-size lump.)

    What I’m specifically hoping for you is that you’re part of a community where you live and your friends in that community will be able to take care of you as much as you need. Bright blessings!

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    • Thank you, Barbara. I like (and agree with) your emphasis on community and how necessary a community of some sort is when it comes to these matters. Am glad you got through your “scare” and are back on your feet these days.

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  3. I am a huge fan of Esther Nelson’s posts at FAR. It’s her REALITY that I admire, because she is able to combine absolute clarity with her profession as a writer and teacher.

    Another thought, Esther, where you say: “For six weeks after the procedure: No lifting. No bending. No twisting. No exercise except for frequent, short walks. How will I ever manage?”

    The one thing, maybe, or at least I hope you will do, is indeed go on writing — and hopefully continue to comment and post here at FAR, so we all know you are okay and thriving.

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    • Thank you so much, Fran. Not sure how exactly to respond to a “fan!” ;-) I do have a wide, practical streak about me in spite of preferring to live “out there” in the stratosphere. Appreciate your encouragement so much.

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  4. Goddess speed on your surgery and recovery and may you find generous and competent support.

    I have a husband who does more than most on the domestic front, perhaps because he was raised by a mother who ran a school instead of a family household. Still all the thought and orchestration and what you might call the emotional heavy-lifting is mine. Sometimes I feel like a CEO and have been known to bark (not very kindly): “If I have to be the executive here, then just do what I say.” Not pretty, but there it is.

    Just re-read your bio and see that I do not live nearby, so cannot bring casseroles. It occurred to me to wonder if you have any students who might like a sort of internship in quality care. Certainly a good subject to write about as you have here.

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  5. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your response. I think you put your finger on what so many of us (women) do and certainly our society doesn’t give much thought to–our invisible work. And it’d be one thing if we got the respect (or fear) that a CEO gets, but it doesn’t work that way. We have to be ever so careful about the way we ask family members to do this or that. It’s exhausting. Not sure, at this point, how I’ll set things up. Had never thought of students doing an internship. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  6. Evelyn, thank you. I am participating in a an online community of women studying sacred rage and the role of rage in the lives of women. Becoming healthy. I have written extensively in my own books about unleashing the rage within engendered by the cultural patriarchal expression of dependency. For many are dependent on women yet women are somehow defined as needing to be dependent on men! It is truly crazy making and a tough role to give us. It’s a tough role of play. At my age, I understand, finally, that I must focus on my rage as the seed of courage and strength of will to resist, undermine and finally release my rage. Currently, in our cultural and familial patriarchy, we do not even have a language to write and voice our rage in the lives of women! This morning, I heard about a book I intend to purchase and read intensely with my journal and art materials at the ready to involve my psyche in creative expression of throwing the Frog Against the Wall! Women’s Aggressive Fantasies, Sue Austin looks like an indepth read necessary for the long term health of women’s bodies. For me, my deeply Catholic upbringing and life to mid age, encouraged and pushed me to live completely outside my body. Now, for the last 30 years, the challenge has been to move inside and thus to express my rage as psychic energy and absolutely NOT anti-feminine. Thanks for opening yet another door on this site.

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    • Thank you, pecgregor, for your comment. I think this sentence sums up much of the problem: “…[M]any [men] are dependent on women yet women are somehow defined as needing to be dependent on men!” Patriarchy at its best! Turning “truth” upside down and inside out. And I certainly do understand your rage. How can one NOT be angry when one discovers that we (women) have been systematically oppressed for ages? These days, I try as much as possible to not play in the patriarchy’s ball park. There is no place (I know of) where patriarchy doesn’t exist, but I show up at their games less and less frequently anymore.

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  7. Oh, Esther I do feel for you – I have been in much the same situation for the last 18 months… I still have no clear diagnosis and I have no family willing to help. My worst FEARS revolve around what happens if I get to the point of needing surgery after getting a clear diagnosis – if I ever get one.

    Women need to be able to depend upon each other because we have no one else and I have no solution either for me or for you – but -oh so much empathy…

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  8. Oh Esther how many of us could be in this position. Many of us don’t even have children. And the US health system sucks. You should be entitled to the help you need and even a semester off if necessary.

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    • Thank you, Carol. And you’re right about the U.S. health system sucking. I’ve been wondering why I had to wait over a year to get any kind of diagnosis. It’s as though health care is compartmentalized to the nth degree. The first three specialists I saw each said they found nothing in their particular discipline (kidneys, heart, or immune system), sending me back to my primary doctor after each consultation to come up with an diagnosis or another specialist. And, of course, all this takes a heck of a lot of time where symptoms exacerbate. But, hopefully, I’ll get some relief soon and recovery will happen without compromising the surgery.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sending light, love and blessings for your recovery to full health and energy. Your voice is a powerful too. Thank you for using it.

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