Nov 17, 2015

The Modern Husband

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Blood, medical procedures, and hospital settings make my husband queasy. When I was anticipating the birth of my first child, one of my sisters suggested that I reassure my husband that it would be perfectly fine if he wanted to wait outside until after the baby was born. She has a more independent personality than I do.

My attitude was that I definitely wanted him to be there to massage my back or do whatever it is involved fathers do while their wives are having babies.

When the time came, he was an excellent birth partner. Yet my sister was right when she pointed out that in many (perhaps most?) times and places, the birth of babies is the realm of women. Really, we ask a lot of young men by expecting them to be good at dealing with the blood, pain, emotions, and drawn-out waiting of childbirth. I am grateful for the emotional understanding and intimacy that being together for our children’s births has provided my husband and me, but it is worth remembering that the custom is not something all cultures take for granted.

It is yet another illustration of the truth that being a good husband in the modern world is no job for slackers. Sometimes we can forget this, can forget that as women and as wives we do not always carry the heavier burden. We can forget to appreciate what our men do for us just because it is so much easier to remember the challenges that we ourselves face.

It is common to bemoan the fact that women carry the heavier load of household chores and childcare, yet, as writers for The Federalist point out (here and here), how often do we demand that wives step up and do at least fifty percent of the yard care, car maintenance, and snow shoveling? It is socially more acceptable to joke about men’s inability to multitask or achieve certain standards of cleanliness than to claim that women as a group aren’t good at--well--anything. It is less socially awkward for a woman to “boss” or correct her husband in public than for him to attempt to reciprocate. All of this is not to say that men necessarily have it rougher than we do, but that sometimes the cultural vibe makes it easier to under-appreciate their contributions than ours.

Furthermore, our modern understanding of romantic love and the emotional happiness we expect on a continual basis are far from easy-peasy to achieve. To some degree or another, we tend to see our husbands as responsible for our happiness and satisfaction in marriage (and man, he’d better remember Valentine’s Day, the couple’s anniversary, his wife’s birthday, and Mother’s Day). That’s a lot of pressure to put on a guy, especially one whose personality doesn’t allow him to easily emote and express love in the verbal and romantic ways that many women most value.

A husband is expected to be his wife’s friend, emotional support system, and sounding board. In other words, to fill not just the role of spouse but also to take the place of the support network that once would more often have belonged to a woman’s female friends and relatives. This is due in part to changing expectations of marriage, but also, I think, to the high mobility of today’s society. A lot of women don’t have the kind of local friendship that was once more common.

The differences between the sexes don’t always make husband-appreciation easier, either.

When The Federalist ran my article about motherhood and (the lack of) me time, I glanced at the comments (I know, a dangerous pastime). One of them questioned whether a woman so involved with her children as I am was also meeting her husband’s needs. Put that way, the question invites feminine bristling. I understand the concern--I too have seen women demote their husband to a semi-platonic kind of co-parent while she focuses all of her interest and active love on the kids--but the phrasing is annoying.  

I find it unhelpful to speak predominantly of the necessity of meeting our husband’s needs. That kind of mindset seems dismissive, as if the poor man were another box to be checked off; and also divisive, as if he were a loose piece to be oiled instead of half of a union which the couple mutually nurtures.

It is better to emphasize the beauty of marriage. We have been given a gift, and we are fools if we fail to gratefully enjoy it. Why would we do that to ourselves? Taking the time to connect with our husbands should be a welcome relief from the rigors of baby-wrangling. Occasionally, just as we must push ourselves to enjoy other good things (like reading to our kids, or getting out the door to a Bible study or, if you are like me, going to a party) we might have to self-push a bit when it comes to making time for each other. But we do this because it is good, and fun, and a blessing, rather than because we must check off the spousal-box.

Of course it won’t always be a Disney-esque enjoyment. One of G. K. Chesterton’s characters refers to marriage as “a duel to the death which no man of honor should decline.” Let us keep up our end of the duel.

Of course, within this framework it can be useful to recognize that both husbands and wives have needs; and that although both want to be shown love, often both are made to feel love by somewhat different things (it can take a lot of communication to figure out what these things are). This is where the mental game can go downhill, because when what we are giving to each other isn’t the same, that can lead to the idea that life has become unfair. Besides, our sinful nature can convince us that our own needs are more . . . well, more important or even more reasonable than his. We don’t really know what it’s like to feel the needs that he has, just as we don’t know what it is like inside anyone else’s life, and that can get in our way.

Of course we hope to give to each other unreservedly without counting beans or weighing roses, but it can also help to recognize that two needs can be equivalent even if not the same. That is, if we recognize that one spouse’s need for physical affection is equivalent to the other’s need for emotional intimacy gained through talking, it can help us both to understand why the other one seems to need so much of whatever they need. This is also true of different but equivalent contributions to the family happiness. I don’t get to feel as though I work harder for our family because I change more diapers or wipe more noses when he does his part in a different way. (Of course, his appreciation of my labor helps me to feel like appreciating his).

Do I, as that online commenter wondered, meet my husband’s needs? Last night I asked him what his biggest needs are. He said, “Not to be ambushed with deep questions right before bed,” so I let him finish what he was doing.

In a world that misunderstands marriage and encourages ingratitude, let’s remember that we are the recipients of a most blessed, lovely, and generous vocation. We are privileged to live as man and wife together. Relishing that delight is surely the best way to appreciate each other and to meet each other's’ needs.


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After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

Image: "The Young Husband-First Marketing: by Lilly Martin Spencer, 1854

4 comments:

  1. "Last night I asked him what his biggest needs are. He said, “Not to be ambushed with deep questions right before bed.”

    Hahaha. I see your husband shares a similar sense of humor with mine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess the husbands of eager-to-analyze-everything kind of wives need a sense of humor!

      Delete
  2. Hahaha! I love your husband's comment. Sounds like something mine would say. Great post, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a great post! There are many thoughts here that have never crossed my mind. Thanks for making me think :) And yes, the comment from your husband sounds like mine as well!

    ReplyDelete

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