Selfishness versus selflessness: nurturing and the gendered self

Anonymous contributor


As I start to climb the ladder of academia, I am – as many no doubt do – re-evaluating a lot of the life choices I formerly took for granted. Academia will do that to you; the uncertainty and vagrancy that accompanies a life of the mind places harsh demands on our relationships and our sense of self. Whilst any process of evaluation is ultimately a liberating one, it also highlights the way in which social processes that we can happily and easily analyse when it comes to other people impact us in ways we may be surprisingly blind to. In particular, I have come to learn that I had a very skewed notion of what a morally or normatively ‘good’ relationship was. I was striving, at some level, always for an unattainable nobility, a kind of ‘Virgin Mary’ state of partner-dom, parent-dom, or friend-dom (or even collegiality), where the primary role for the woman in any relationship is to be a good nurturer, even in the case of her own diminishing. I thought that being a good woman (fundamentally, a good person) meant sacrifice and suffering in order to foster the wellbeing of other people; that it meant always picking them up when they were down, even if that risked bringing you down with them. That was just what good people, what good women, did. Academia is of course very effective at fostering such narratives, because as intellectual workers (required to give of ourselves cognitively, in entirety, to the academy) we have little space left for life. And with typically chaotic schedules we unavoidably place significant demands on those around us, which undoubtedly encourages a mantra of equivalent self-sacrifice in turn. Part of me is still very invested in the notion that you should attempt to give of yourself to your interpersonal relationships as much as possible, but part of me – an increasingly larger part – is beginning to reflect on how destructive, and specifically how gendered, this way of thinking is. For if you give entirely of yourself to all those who demand or require it, what do you have left?

Even at a very superficial level, I can see that there are all kinds of dissonances involved with a way of thinking that elevates the nurturer to the level of saint, and thus to some degree equates self-worth with self-abandonment. Specifically, I think that I have subconsciously conflated ‘relationships where someone demands care, but both/all parties are still sustained by the relationship’ (good nurturing) with ‘relationships where someone demands care, and then steadily exhausts the resources of the other(s)’ (bad nurturing). This would seem to be a fairly simple distinction, but of course, in practice the lines are rather blurred and it can be difficult – with the edifice of many years and accumulated shared habits facing you down – to spot the difference when you find yourself immersed in the latter scenario. I personally have invested over time a lot of self-worth in my ability to encourage and promote others (I am sure that teaching and supervision plays, in part, into this dynamic) and whilst it can be very healthy, it can also be destructive (I am sure you can think of many romantic relationships where one party, often but not always the woman, is helplessly attracted to ‘fixer uppers’ to the extent that they sabotage their own lives).

The people I know who are in healthy and successful relationships of all kinds that have involved some kind of (objectively speaking) sacrifice, may indeed bear the scars of that experience, but they still in some way derive strength from the relationship. This is of course particularly clear in romantic relationships, where it is a relative commonality for this kind of dynamic to occur – perhaps one partner has been subject to severe illness, or misfortune; or perhaps the reverse, where an opportunity has necessitated a career move for the other party that requires them to redefine their own ambitions. But what defines the strength of such relationships is that regardless of how trying circumstances may be, the participant has no interest in redefining that relationship because they are still obtaining their succour from it; they draw strength from nurturing the other person, and that other person is equally invested. In other words, at a very fundamental level, the people in the relationship are still equals despite the fact that one may have shifted into a facilitating role, because that person is still gaining from it the benefits of mutual investment. Of course, there are many tribulations involved with even the most positive nurturing relationship (when I experienced chronic illness as a teenager, my mother was unstinting, generous and enthusiastic in her help, but even then I was conscious of the personal toll it exacted from her in terms of energy and self-care). But what distinguishes the positive from the not-so-positive in this context is the fundamental mutualisation of benefits. If an effort made for someone you love feels very consciously like a sacrifice, perhaps you shouldn’t be making it.

Once I spotted this distinction, I started to trace many of those kinds of patterns in my personal and professional life across many different strata of relationships, but which I had always previously rationalised with the mantra ‘relationships take work’. Putting my critical thinking hat on, this is of course a fascinating way of viewing things, akin to the argument that ‘mothering is a job’, a need to frame personal connections in the context of a masculinised value system constructed around paying employment. And framed in the context of aspirational capitalism, where the solution to any iniquity is always to work harder, I found myself trapped in a cycle of thinking that valorised working and giving in my relationships to the exclusion of personal growth. This, needless to say, is not terribly healthy. To be clear: relationships of all kinds take (mutual) effort, but not work. Making yourself unhappy on someone else’s account does not make you noble. It makes you dysfunctional. And my entirely unscientific reading of the situation is that women, primed to be nurturers, to be givers, are much more susceptible to this way of thinking than men. We expect to suffer. We define our self-image accordingly.

In a very real way, women have needed to ‘suffer’ increasingly over the last few decades. As the male-breadwinner model succumbed to the expectations of two-partner incomes in late capitalism (Elisabeth Warren’s book on this subject is particularly incisive), women have been expected to accommodate first the immediate needs of their partners and families, and second the requirements of economic growth, which demands the integration of women into the workforce. The point, of course, is not that this shift is axiomatically a bad thing (I, for one, love and derive great personal validation from my job – and studies of female stress suggest I am not alone) but rather than the demands of the former have not much lessened with the rise of the latter. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of the negative consequences of new gender roles. Women are expected to accommodate first, want later. And this tug reaches very deep: as many end-of-life studies have shown, people derive a lot of meaning from interaction with loved ones, and the line between giving and receiving is not well defined. The point is (as Amanda Palmer’s recent post on the experience of death touches upon), this giving needs to be mutualised, and you need to feel that you are deriving some sustenance from it. For women however it can be particularly difficult to identify or even to look for this sustenance when you have been raised to view giving as something intrinsic to who you are.

A psychiatrist, Julie Holland, has recently written a book (‘Moody Bitches’ – if I ever start a band, I am taking that name) pointing to the ways in which our hormones contribute to social stress, with an implicit critique of the contemporary trend to medicate unease rather than dealing with the (often very gendered) social causes of such strife. She describes estrogen (dominant in the first half of the menstrual cycle) as the ‘whatever you want, honey’ hormone, which promotes ‘giving to others: keeping our kids happy and our mates satisfied’. Conversely, she points to the decisive role of progesterone – dominant during what is conventionally described as PMT, a period not often framed in positive terms – ‘when estrogen levels drop before our periods, that veil is lifted…it’s time to clean house. During the rest of the month you put up with all kinds of bull that you won’t tolerate the week before your period.’ In other words, the cyclicality of women’s natures means that we are designed to nurture, to sacrifice – except for one week of the month, when we should embrace the desire to kick our relationships into shape. Maybe we need collectively to embrace that vision of ‘good woman- or person-hood’, as much as the self-sacrificing nurturer?

All of this of course resonated with me on both personal, intellectual and professional levels. What kind of sacrifices am I making to sustain relationships, and why am I making them? What is it giving me? Am I really deriving strength from the interpersonal practice of self-sacrifice, or am I just seeking to project an image of ‘sainthood’ to wider society? And if so, does being noble actually confer any benefit? (When I really think about it, a lot of the women I know whose self-esteem is intimately tied to the notion of being ‘givers’ at their own expense are actually not a lot of fun to be around). Of course, this kind of dynamic can be replicated in many broader contexts – it relates strongly to Nicki’s notion of ‘making sandwiches’ in the professional realm, for example, giving to the collective to the extent that we ultimately relinquish and indeed actively destroy our own needs. And intellectually it presents some interesting challenges to how we define the notion of selfhood as refracted through the biological and social lens of gender (are women’s constructions of the self the same as men’s? Do we require a more communitarian definition of self-actualisation?). In all contexts, we need to move away from the notion that to avoid being selfish we must be selfless: for surely, if we void our own sense of self, we have no means left with which to help others.

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