She came home from work with a story to share. She was animated and expressive. Her emotions were out in full force. She was starring in her own one-act play about an event from her day. She couldn’t wait to share it with him.
She’d always loved when he shared his stories. She knew he would give her his full attention.
She never could talk without moving her hands, and as she got wound up with the telling of the details, she was gesturing and demonstrating and waving and pointing and gasping for breaths.
He looked up from the newspaper and said,”Whoa, girl, settle down!”
She stopped in mid-sentence. “Did you just tell me to settle down?”
“Yeah, your getting all crazy and worked-up. What’s the big deal? Settle down.”
She didn’t finish the story. The wind had left her sails.
She walked out of the room as he continued reading the newspaper. She thought of all the times she’d been shut down, and the ways the words were put together to shut her down.
- “Oh, she’s in a tiz.”
- “Not another one of those mood swings.”
- “Can’t you take a pill for that?”
- “That’s just stupid!”
- “I suppose it’s that time of the month.”
- “Geez, do you have to take everything personally?”
- “Don’t be so sensitive.”
It started when she was eight years old. Giggling on the playground under the jungle gym with a circle of friends, she had mentioned that she thought butterflies had magic dust on their wings, and that if you touched them, they wouldn’t be able to fly anymore. One of the boys looked at her and said, “That’s stupid. Nobody believes in magic butterfly dust.”
The playground aide was busily hunting down band aids and wiping noses. If she’d heard Johnny’s comment, she could have explained that everyone has an opinion. Johnny is entitled to his opinion, just as she was entitled to her own.
(Then the aide could have whispered to Johnny that he might want to work on his delivery a bit.)
The sting from Johnny’s comment was her first clue that she ought to keep her opinions to herself.
Later, in high school math, even though she knew the answer, she didn’t dare raise her hand. She was too gangly to be a cheerleader and too uncoordinated to be on the basketball team. If she let anyone find out that she was smart, she might as well plan on walking to school by herself – every day.
Trivial Pursuit was tedious. She could be labeled a “Know It All” for raising her hand with the answers, or she could have her teammates mad at her for not raising her hand when they didn’t know the answer.
She had seen the eye-rolling and heard the exaggerated sighs coming from male family members if she ever discussed anything that wasn’t on the approved list of topics for males and females to discuss.
She wondered, at an early age, why it was okay to talk ad nauseam about football, but it wasn’t okay to talk about flower arranging.
Why could they talk about catching fish, but not cooking fish.
As she got older, she wondered why guys could tell off-color jokes about sex, but gals couldn’t.
Guys could talk about conquests. Gals couldn’t.
She learned to never discuss dreams, anything about flowers, feelings or cute puppies.
Most anything having to do with what guys deemed the female domain was off limits.
Her ex had no problem announcing that anything having to do with kids was her domain. Baths, diapers, clothing, toys, playing, tucking in, reading bedtime stories, and later, anything having to do with their education and school – all that was woman’s work.
She noticed that he could ask her to do stuff, and it wasn’t considered nagging. He was entitled to suggest/ask/require things. But if she asked him to do anything, she was a nag.
If she was frustrated or disheartened or discouraged, she’d try to tell him. He’d answer with, “Are you having your period? Didn’t you just have your period?”
She’d tell him what she needed and he’d say, “God, are you going to lecture me again?” She would plead with him and say, “Honey, this isn’t a lecture. I’m telling you how I feel.” He’d say, “You take everything personally. I was teasing when I called this a lecture.”
And so she quit telling him how she felt.
She quit asking for help.
She moved farther away from him on the bed.
He said she was cold.
He said she was better in bed before they had kids, now she was like a cold fish in his bed.
She moved farther away.
She don’t show her emotions. She didn’t express her opinions. She kept the peace, but there was no peace inside her. The resentment built. The anger grew. She could hear the anger ringing in her ears. She knew she would have to release it some how.
If she vented, he would tell her to settle down.
If she cried, he would leave the room.
If she refused to get out of bed, he’d call her lazy.
She didn’t settle down.
This post was inspired by some recent comments on this blog; a fabulous post by Yashar Ali on Gaslighting; and a thought-provoking book by Stephanie Staal, entitled, Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life.