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.