I don’t seem to fit the sociological assumption that women are society’s nurturers (at least not of late). I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life nurturing. I’m tired of nurturing. My nurturing batteries have run down and can’t be recharged. Nurturing is a cozy and high-sounding word but I wonder how many people understand what it entails. Nurturing means things like scrubbing toilets, eating cold food so you can supervise the feeding of the nurturees before you feed yourself, rushing to school in curlers to deliver a forgotten homework assignment or band instrument, recycling bottles, cans and newspapers. It means making dental appointments and fending off a clinging two-year-old while you’re trying to have a telephone conversation with the school principal, cleaning up puppy accidents because children need to learn responsibility from owning pets, having two little boys in the changing room while you’re trying to find something suitable to wear to a funeral, trimming the whiskers off the washrags and drying the sofa cushions in the sun because the potty-trainee didn’t recognize that feeling quite soon enough. It means washing the favorite jeans every night and trying to get the mildew out of the baseball shirt in time for the game, remaining calm and reassuring when the blood is flowing and you don’t know if you should call 911 or ask the neighbor for a lift to the emergency room. It means that there should always be cookies in the cookie jar, clean socks in the dresser drawers, favorite foods on the table, plenty of shampoo and cream rinse– and an endless supply of toilet paper.
Nurturing means you can’t lock the bathroom door and you can’t expect a full night’s sleep. It means you eat leftover tuna casserole for lunch and scrape bubblegum off the carpet. It means you never get to choose what television program to watch and that all the letters you write are either very short or written in installments. It means you get breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day– and spend all day Monday cleaning up the kitchen and shopping for a new waffle iron. It means that money you’ve been saving for a trip to the beauty shop gets spent on size twelve basketball shoes, and using the last of that box of Valentine chocolates to comfort a twelve-year-old who’s just had an argument with her best friend. It means you cry when the cat gets run over– not because you miss the cat but because the kids are so heartbroken. It means you get accused of not understanding when you do, only too well, and that you have to learn to interpret I hate you. as another way of saying I know you love me.
I’ve never been sure if nurturing is instinctive or simply a matter of survival. If it’s survival, I’m afraid it takes all my nurturing energy just to look after myself these days. It’s getting harder to care if my hair needs washing or my underarms shaven. If my doctor didn’t blackmail me by refusing to renew my prescriptions until I’ve had my check-up, I’d probably put it off forever. Fear of flunking the vision check to get my driver’s license renewed is the only thing that sends me to the optometrist, and I see the dentist only when the toothache becomes truly unbearable. I really can’t get excited about makeup or wrinkle cream. Whoever I am lives inside me– it’s too much work to make the outside match.
Sooner or later, in every marriage, one of the two of you becomes more dependent on the other, casting them into the role of caregiver. Often this becomes the wife’s function– again– and she loses, in the process, the support she enjoyed before. She finds herself now to be not just wife, but mother, nurse, dietician, secretary, office manager– and enforcer. I can only imagine what it must feel like for the husband thrust into the job of caregiver. Most men consider these things to be women’s domain and are woefully inexperienced. They have long ago developed the habit of delegating such things to someone else and are not only bewildered by all the new responsibilities, but uncertain of their own abilities to carry through– a condition that seriously threatens the male psyche.
A care tag comes attached to every person who enters our lives. At first, we’re conscientious about following the instructions to the letter. With time, habit and familiarity work their influence and we know where we can skimp or take things for granted. Children no longer need us in the same way and we don’t have to read the tags any more. Those tags come with friendships, too, and a modified version with everyone we have contact with. All I know now is that most of the tags are gone or faded and I’m relatively free to do what I want rather than what I must. I rather like it.