Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Defense of the Feminine

Yesterday brought some much-needed girl-time with Cheryl.  I always look forward to our outings because, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, we take the conversation to the good stuff almost immediately.  We talk to each other the way I talk on this page – openly and from the heart.  We have twin spirits and similar struggles, which gives us the ability to be honest and unguarded with each other.  I would call the experience “restorative,” but that’s too pale a word for the intense feeling of healing and wholeness that always seems to cling to me after our visits.

For a long time, I was afraid to have deep friendships with other women.  My early experiences with female friendship were not particularly healthy and left me seriously gun-shy about engaging with other women.  I generally preferred to hang out with guys.  Guys are relatively easy to be with.  They’re complex in their own way, of course, but there’s a face-value quality to men that I’ve always appreciated.   Granted, male-female friendships are subject to their own potential perils (When Harry Met Sally was right – the sex can totally get in the way), but I was always more comfortable with that threat than the risk of some ridiculous drama ruining the relationship.

Despite my fear, I’ve thankfully developed a few incredible female friendships over the years, and the older I get, the more I appreciate these women.  I’m grateful that they understand those things about me that are uniquely female.  They don’t balk at my complexity or my need to talk things out.  They know how to strike a balance between talking and listening.  They’re able to empathize with me from a place of knowledge and experience.  And I am able to do all of these things for them as well.  These relationships are an amplification of the “common thread” idea I talked about previously.

Cheryl and I spent some time discussing a story out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed:  A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.  As part of her travels, Gilbert spends some time in a Hmong village in Vietnam talking to the local women about marriage.  She was nervous about her own nuptials and decided to interview women on the topic.  Her findings in this village were particularly fascinating to me (in her words):

Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don’t spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might very well be love. But aside from that, men’s and women’s lives are quite firmly separated into divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. […]

If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don’t necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women – from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm’s reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living.
Of course, it is unlikely that Westernized society will transition back to neatly-stacked gender roles, nor is that required.  I don’t think the point is necessarily the amount of time that men and women spend together so much as it is the expectations of the partnership.  The lesson Cheryl and I discussed is that just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” perhaps it also takes a village to make a person.  We need all of our relationships – male and female – to deal with our complexity, to reinforce us when we’re weak, to celebrate our achievements, and to shoulder our burdens.  No one person – particularly not one’s life-partner – should have to fill all of those needs alone.  It’s far too much to expect.  Perhaps others know this instinctively.  I, as always, seem to only understand through the slow accumulation of thoughtful experience (and lots of conversation/writing).

And so, as I considered this revelation and the conversation with Cheryl that solidified it, I’m realizing anew a profound sense of gratitude.  I’m grateful to have friends, both male and female, who willingly lend their unique perspectives to my life.  I’m grateful to have people with whom I can be fully myself.  And I’m absolutely grateful that I have forged healthy connections with other women.  My life is made much, much richer for it.

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