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APW Book Club: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, Round II

Today is the second of three book club posts on Committed (see the pictures back here). Today is a bit of my take on the book, along with my slightly incendiary discussion prodding. Think of this as being like we’re all in seminar class together (though if this were a seminar, I’d arguably be a little more incendiary and antagonistic, because that’s how I roll). We’ll take a final crack at the book after thanksgiving with a huge Team Practical free-for-all. But for now, let’s get debating:

When looking over all of the fantastic questions and quotes that you guys submitted for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, the one that really haunted me was the passage on page 185:

… And might those same social conservatives – instead of just praising mothers as “sacred” and “noble” – be willing to someday join a larger conversation about how we might work together as a society to construct a world where healthy children can be raised and healthy families can prosper with out women having to scrape bare the walls of their own souls to do it? Excuse me for the rant. This is just a really, really big issue of mine

For those of you that haven’t read the book, let me put this in context for you. Gilbert has just finished talking about the enormous sacrifices that women in her family made for their children and their husbands. These were sacrifices that they were very willing to make, but they also didn’t have a lot of options. She talks about her mom quitting a career that she loved, because her father couldn’t handle not having her home to take care of the kids and the house. Gilbert credits her mom’s choice with giving her and her sister an incredibly happy childhood, but she wants to fully acknowledge what an enormous amount her mom had to give up. Plus, Gilbert is coming to terms with the fact that personally, she is not willing to make that huge a sacrifice.

That and she’s being a tiny bit over dramatic to make a point. Which I know nothing about. Clearly.

When I read this passage in the book, my head started nodding and I started underlining like mad. As I mentioned when I talked about my battle with martyrdom, I think a lot about the sacrifices we have to make to have a family. I weigh what sacrifices are appropriate, and what sacrifices will scrape bare the walls of my soul. And the longer I’m married, the more I notice the incredible pressures on all of us to make the sacrifices that drain us of joy. More troubling, I notice all of the ways that society idolizes women once we make those sacrifices. Because giving up your sense of self to your husband and you children, what could be more rewarding? Except, you know, keeping your sense of self. Which I’d like to think is an option.

It fascinated me, then, when book club discussions landed in my inbox, and the general consensus was, “Man, does Elizabeth Gilbert have it wrong on this front. We don’t have to scrape bare the walls of our souls now, we have options.” So I thought today, I’d challenge us all to think about that a little bit.

Because here is the thing: the more we talk about marriage here, the more I worry. I worry that we’re being given the illusion of lots of options, and the reality of really sh*tty options. I worry that the sh*ttiest of options (over-work, under-appreciation, enormous sacrifice) are being sold to us under the guise of “independent womanhood,” instead of under the guise of “life is hard sometimes, and you can make it through, but you should fight for things to be easier.”

I worry when I hear about most of us* doing the bulk of the chores around the house. Not because we have to, but because we want to (“I just care more about cleanliness than he does, so I need to take responsibility for that.”)

I worry when I hear about many of us not pooling money and support with our husbands, because we’re independent women. (“He makes more than I do, so he has more spending money, but I’m ok with that, because I made my own choices and that’s why I earn less.”) Because you know what? It’s not terrifically surprising that he makes more than you do. Women make $0.78 for every dollar men earn in this country, and now that inequality is following us home.

I worry when I hear about women cutting each other down over the choice to stay home with their kid or to be a working mom, as if it were that easy. The choice we’re really presented with is to stay home and do work that is undervalued by society and then take a huge pay cut when we re-enter the work force, or to work with zero flexibility to care for our kid and no paid maternity leave. And I’m afraid we’ve been taught to view that Hobson’s Choice as an amazing choice to be proud of.

I worry every time someone asks me, now that I’ve helped put my husband through law school at a huge cost to my career, if now I’m ready to move to wherever he can find a job, since his high powered career clearly has to be our top priority now.

I worry when I hear about the meme going around Facebook that says, “I traded eyeliner for dark circles, salon hair cuts for ponytails, designer jeans for sweat pants, long hot baths for lucky if i get a shower, late nights for early morning cartoons, designer purses for diaper bags and I wouldn’t change a thing!! Re-post this if you don’t care what you gave up and will continue to give up for your children!” Because as Meagan at The Happiest Mom says, “The thing is, our kids did not ask us to give up our purses or our daily showers. Going without a bubble bath doesn’t make us better mothers.” Sacrifice is sacrifice. It’s painful, but it’s sometimes worth it. Luxuriating in it does not make us better moms, or wives, or women.

So I worry. I worry that our supposed choices are not really amazing options after all, and that we’ve blinded ourselves into believing that they are. I worry that we keep thinking that there is something profoundly wrong with us when these choices cause us stress and pain and heartache, because we believe we should be feeling joy. I worry that the illusion of progress has stopped us from fighting for more significant change, and has stopped us from looking around for other answers.

For me, the most moving bit in this passage of Committed, is when Gilbert talks to her grandmother, who cut up the beloved coat that she bought with money she earned as a single woman, to make a Christmas outfit for her first baby. For Gilbert, this has become a symbol of sacrifice, but when she talks to her grandmother, she describes this period of young married life as one of the happiest times of her life. But then. Then her grandmother asks with great concern, “Oh, I might as well ask you outright! Now that you’ve met this nice man, you aren’t going to get married and have children and stop writing books are you?” Because her grandmother really, really hopes that Gilbert won’t make that sacrifice.

So that’s me right now, the voice calling in the wilderness. In the midst of making sacrifices for my family, I’m struggling to come to terms with the fact that these are necessary sacrifices, not wonderful sacrifices. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can make these sacrifices and not put myself on a pedestal for it. I can want more for myself in the future. I can want more for you. I can refuse to go quietly.

I don’t want you to have to cut the fabric of your dreams to wrap your family in warmth. I want to give you the joy to make that sacrifice if you need to, and the fire in your heart to only sacrifice what you need, to keep fighting for your dreams, to stand up and say “these choices are false painful choices,” to know that it’s ok to want more.

Wanting more doesn’t make you less of a woman, or a wife, or a mother. It makes you better. Better for you, better for your family. Stronger. I want more choices for all of us. I want for us to fight to make that happen (and I think Elizabeth Gilbert does too).

*Not me. I have lots of strengths and failings, but obsessive chore doing is not one of them.

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