When I Became a Single Mother, Patriarchy Let Me Down
An article at the Huffington Post by Samantha Johnson — “When I Became a Mother, Feminism Let Me Down” — has been making the rounds. Though heartfelt and thoughtful (Johnson identifies as a feminist herself), I disagree with Johnson’s assessment of the failings of feminism. As a woman who was married for nearly 11 years and is now divorced, I have had a different experience in regards to feminism, marriage and motherhood.
There has already been one excellent response by Dr. Julie Hanks, but every woman who has been failed by patriarchy should tell her story. Here is mine.
You should know that my now-ex-husband was (and is) a Mormon, and Mormonism is a religion that heavily promotes the “traditional” husband-breadwinner / wife-homemaker model — probably more so than even most conservative Christian religions today. So, having been married to someone who was thoroughly immersed in a patriarchal model, these were the ways in which patriarchy failed me.
Patriarchy Failed to Teach My Husband to Be a Responsible Breadwinner
For the first 8.5 years of my marriage, my husband never held a job longer than 2 years. Once he reached the one-year mark, he inevitably got fired before he could hit the two-year mark. On one occasion, he was fired for sexual harassment.
These jobs were all dead-end and usually paid minimum wage or close to it. They never carried benefits; we either had Medicaid or we had no insurance at all. Money was always tight and I lived in perpetual fear of the next job termination.
In 2011, my husband finally took a job that lasted past the two-year mark by 9 months. His employer was awful, broke every employment law in the book, was frequently late paying him, and paid him what amounted to less than minimum wage for the hours worked. Sometimes his boss would pay him as little as $300 for two weeks of 50-hours-a-week work. This was a job that I begged my husband to quit, but he would not because he had fallen in love with a female co-worker (more on that in a minute).
I tried to have many conversations with my husband about his career path and how he could better support the family. I urged him to return to school and finish his degree. I urged him to try and parlay his proclivities for IT into a career. He would have none of it. He eventually told me point blank, when I was 5 months pregnant with our second child, that supporting the family and putting a roof over our heads was my problem, not his.
Patriarchy does not teach men to be responsible breadwinners. It teaches men that they are the gods of their own little worlds and everything else is secondary to their wants and needs. Feminism has many failings, but teaching women that they are the “heads” of their households or that their husbands must “submit” or “hearken” to them isn’t one of them. Patriarchy breeds abuse. It’s endemic to the whole system.
Patriarchy Failed to Teach My Husband to Be Faithful
My husband had three affairs over the course of our marriage.
The first happened in undergrad shortly after our marriage in 2003, and I didn’t learn of it until 2014, after the divorce was final. (My former college roommates approached me to let me know that they had never known how to break it to me, and felt bad about this.)
The second was an emotional affair with his co-worker, one that involved my husband driving this woman around for three hours a day, spending hundreds of dollars on her every month, and partying with her until 6:30 AM on weekends. I was pregnant with our second and our oldest, age 6 at the time, was disabled. My husband eventually told me that he had prayed about his relationship with this woman and God had given him special permission to continue their “friendship,” so I didn’t get any say in the matter. (Mormons would call this “unrighteous dominion.” I call it “coercive patriarchal bullshit.”) Many people tell me that, with the time he was spending alone with this woman, the affair must have been physical, but I never found evidence of that.
The third was more of an exit affair, but still painful and full of lies and deceit. At one point my husband brought his mistress to his Mormon ward, at a time when most people had no idea our marriage was even in trouble. I happened to be at the ward that day with his 9-month-old baby. He ignored the presence of his wife and infant son and proceeded to show off his mistress and introduce her to everyone as his “girlfriend.”
Patriarchy Fails to Hold Men Accountable for Anti-Family Behavior
My husband was denied a Mormon “temple recommend” so he could attend his sister’s wedding in May 2013 (a form of soft discipline), and he got a few talking-to’s and wrist slaps. But the man who had effectively abandoned his pregnant wife and disabled child, the man who had brought his mistress to a church meeting with him, was (to my knowledge) never disfellowshipped or excommunicated — and I gave proof positive of his affairs to his local church leaders.
Mormons are far from the only ones who fail at this. Women in the evangelical community could tell you many stories of church leaders urging them to stay with unfaithful and abusive husbands. Noted theologian and preacher John Piper, who strongly advocates for traditional gender roles, infamously advised battered women that they needed to “endure . . . perhaps being smacked one night.”
And in 2015, the Village Church of Texas tried to coerce a woman into staying with her pedophile husband and attempted to put her under church discipline after she had left their church. The all-male elders accidentally CC’ed the woman part of a creepy e-mail discussion about her wherein they wondered whether they couldn’t “push her under our care.”
If patriarchy really valued stay-at-home mothers and homemakers(which is what I was from 2006 to 2013, until my husband’s affairs forced me to return to work), married men who engage in anti-family behavior would see swift retribution. But they seldom do. It’s more often than not the faithful wives who are ostracized and punished, while it’s feminists who have fought to protect battered women and raise awareness of the various forms of spousal abandonment and abuse.
Patriarchy Did Nothing to Ease My Transition From Stay-at-Home-Mother to the Workforce
I stopped working in 2006, when my oldest child was born disabled (DiGeorge syndrome). I did what patriarchy says a woman should do, stayed home to take care of my daughter, and tried to trust my husband with earning and providing for us (and I’ve already covered how well that didn’t work). I held a part time job from 2009–2011, but that was the only work outside the home that I did in those 7 years.
In 2013, when I was 5 months pregnant with our second, my husband announced that he didn’t care about providing for the family anymore, that was my problem, not his. He was going to stay at his inadequate job no matter how poorly it paid because that was where the woman he loved was. I had to begin looking for work at 5 months pregnant.
“Just get your bachelor’s degree and then you’ll be able to return to the workforce if anything happens to your husband!” Religions that discourage women from working but like for them to have some kind of education teach this all the time.
Let me tell you: if you are out of your field for years, you are going to have a really hard time returning to the workforce. That decade-old bachelor’s degree is not going to close the gaps in your résumé. In today’s job market, education is not irrelevant, but it does not carry the currency it used to. Job experience and certifications are more important (and you usually need so many years of experience on the job to get a certification).
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have laws that tell federal employers to preference hiring veterans, and many employers voluntarily do as much. Why don’t we have laws telling employers to preference hiring stay-at-home parents who are returning to the workforce due to loss of spouse, whether by death or divorce? As things stand, it’s illegal to ask about parental status in an interview, and this is because it’s anticipated that parents would be discriminated against. So why don’t we change this?
We don’t change this because work traditionally done by men (veterans) is valued more than work traditionally done by women (homemaking). There is no other reason for it.
Not only has patriarchy done next to nothing to help needy single mothers return to the workforce, but it’s generally been political progressives (i.e. feminists) who have pushed for laws that will help women return to the workforce, such as daycare assistance and paid maternity leave. Political conservatives (who are often advocates of patriarchy and traditional gender roles) have opposed such laws.
If we want to discuss the matter of whether or not feminism values homemaking, we need to acknowledge that patriarchy never really valued it in the first place.
Patriarchy Failed to Teach My Husband to Share in the Housework, Even When I Was Working Full-Time and Earning More Money Than Him
I’m not going to go into a lot of details here, but housework in my marriage was a nightmare. My husband almost never did chores without being asked, and if I delegated any tasks to him, he either “forgot” or he did a terrible job. Errands would be left undone until I either got angry at him or gave up in frustration and did them myself. I later asked a male co-worker about this, and he laughed and said, “Doing a bad job on the chores is a tried-and-true method of getting your wife to stop asking you to do them.”
You may think, “Well, you just said you were a stay-at-home mother for most of your marriage! Of course you did more of the housework!” But after I went back to work in 2013, I continued to do nearly 100% of the housework in spite of the fact that I was working full-time and making more money than he was (and in my third trimester of pregnancy, too!).
Again, it’s feminism that has been pointing out that women do more of the housework, even when both partners work full-time, and even when men don’t work. That male rates of housework go down after marriage and female rates go up, that women do more of the silent work of noticing that things need to be done at all. I never hear believers in traditional gender roles agonize over these things.
I believe that feminism sometimes lets stay-at-home mothers down, and sometimes values work outside of the home over homemaking. But the reality is that patriarchy has never truly valued motherhood or homemaking to begin with.
Feminism lets me down when it tries to ostracize pro-life women like me. But feminism has given me a lot: the right to vote, the right to work, the right to own property, the right to divorce, and the right to seek child support.
It’s feminism that has given me access to birth control and fought for insurance companies to pay for it — and though I stopped sleeping with my husband from the day I told him I wanted a divorce, one of the first things I did when I knew I was going to divorce him was to go on birth control so that I wouldn’t get further tied to him by another baby if I did slip up.
Finally, feminism has shown me that it values motherhood by fighting for paid maternity leave and childcare assistance.
Which is all to say, this mother was not let down by feminism. And if you ever find yourself having to divorce your husband (God forbid) and return to the work force, you’re likely to learn firsthand just how useless patriarchy really is.
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