Women assume many roles throughout their lives – as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Women’s roles have been largely determined by the rules and expectations of culture, religion, and the patriarchy, as well as biology. There should be no judgment associated with being a full-time mom, a single career woman, or even a “beach bum,” for that matter. Both men and women can become identified with their roles. Ask yourself these questions: 1) Are your roles your choice vs. others’ expectations? 2) Are other parts of you being denied? and 3) Have your roles (be they at home and/or work) come to define your personality and thinking, rather than the other way around?
It may be easier to conform to societal norms and follow the example of your mother and friends, but the price is high if it means sacrificing your beliefs or the expression of other parts of yourself. This can lead to depression. On the other hand, going against those expectations can create conflict, not only internally, but also within the family – for example, if your husband expects you to cook, and you refuse – especially if he’s become accustomed to your making the meals. Perhaps, you think it’s your duty that as a daughter you will call or take care of your aging mother. What do you do if you don’t want to? If you have a brother, are the same expectations placed on him? Of course, if you want to take care of her, then your desires are consistent, or ego syntonic, with the customary role description.
What if you really want to travel or go on the road as a dancer or performer, rather than be a homemaker? Maybe you want to be a park ranger, but you and your family think that idea is crazy and that you should reside close to them in the city.
It can be eye-opening to make a list of all the things you do in each of your roles. Make two columns, one for “I have to,” and one for “I want to.” I’m not suggesting that you stop doing all the things you consider chores, but raising your consciousness about them is important for this reason. You may feel burdened by these obligations and expectations, which can drain your energy and cause resentment. However, once you squarely face the fact that you don’t want to do something, you then have a choice. For example, you and your husband both work, but the grocery shopping falls to you. If you really don’t like doing this, you can ask him for help. You can get food delivered, eat out more, buy in bulk, or market at night when it’s less busy. If none of these alternatives work, you might realize that although one part of you hates it, your body and your pocketbook benefit from doing your own marketing. It can be revealing to ask what about it really bothers you, and find a way to minimize the impact of that factor. This will lessen resentment about the chore. All things considered, you actually may “want” to buy the groceries rather than eat out, pay for delivery, or get annoyed that your husband doesn’t shop the way you’d like.
Another problem is when parts of you are not getting expressed in the roles you play. Mary had a flare for science and became a dental hygienist, because it paid well and she could work part time. Yet, she felt unfulfilled and really wanted to do basic research. That would require her going back to school and acknowledging that her career goals were as important as husband’s. She feared making waves and that a conflict would ensue. She thought long about her decision, and finally communicated her passion to him persuasively. She got his support and they worked out a plan to make it happen.
In a similar case, Nancy was a legal secretary, but she felt her artistic side was being neglected. She decided to express her creativity as an avocation, and arranged for childcare so that she could take classes.
Your job description can also be a role that defines and limits you. Ruth was a teacher, and loved her profession. She wasn’t aware that she had become a “teacher” in all her relationships, and wondered why she was always giving rather than getting support from her friends and had had problems finding a husband. It took time for her to learn to be vulnerable and share her confusion and insecurities, which would enable her to receive and feel more mutuality in her relationships. It also would allow men to get closer to her. As she changed, her personal relationships became more satisfying. An unanticipated consequence was that she was more relaxed and open at work, and her students responded to her more favorably.
For each role you play, write down your expectations and beliefs that accompany it. See if you can trace where they came from, and ask yourself what you really believe.
By Darlene Lancer, MFT, JD, author of forthcoming Codependency for Dummies.
Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010