The Feminine Wound

What happens when a Dutiful Daughter grows up and gets married? If she has 1) internalized her strict upbringing, 2) through hardship had the playfulness wrung out of her, 3) learned to avoid criticism by suppressing her true feelings, ideas and opinions when necessary, and 4) converted to evangelicalism as a young teen, there’s really one obvious path for her: become a minister’s wife. So that’s what I did.

The conservative church culture I had joined continued the patriarchal tradition in which I had been raised. As an example, The Total Woman, by Maribel Morgan, published in 1973, was popular in my crowd. Chock full of helpful tips to wives on how to please their husbands, such as meeting him at the door after work wearing nothing but a wrapping of cellophane, I remember one gem in particular. It was this: when your husband starts talking about sports or his job or some hobby that doesn’t interest you, don’t worry your pretty little head trying to follow what he’s saying. Just gaze at him adoringly, and, as he talks, admire his manhood. “It is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him, and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him,” intones the author.

*** Inspired by The Total Woman, Evelyn Couch, played by Kathy Bates in the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” tries out the cling wrap dress on her husband ***

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been married for 42 years now to a wonderful man. He’s never lorded it over me or abused me in any way. He has treated me with love, courtesy and respect. Rather, it was my own choice early in our marriage, based on the teachings of our church, to allow my identity to be totally absorbed into his. Actually, as a painfully shy child and teen who had effectively lost her parents and grandparents by the age of 16, when Keith asked me to marry him within weeks of my high school graduation, I was thrilled to say yes, and perfectly happy to hitch my wagon to his star. In fact, at our wedding, I insisted on including this in the pastoral instructions: “Even as you have no right to go against the Word of God because you claim Jesus as your Lord, neither do you have any right to disobey your husband.” Both the pastor and Keith felt that this statement was unnecessarily harsh, but I wanted to include it, mostly to spite my feminist older sister, ha!

I was perfectly happy to hitch my wagon to my husband’s star.

So we set off on married life. I quickly abandoned college, on the premise that Keith would always be the breadwinner, and I fulfilled Ruth’s promise (also part of my wedding vows): “Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16, KJV) I followed him on his ministry adventures, smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain in the late 70’s and early 80’s, helping to plant a church in San Antonio, working as a secretary to help put him through a third year of Bible college in St. Louis, then having our two babies as he went to seminary in Vancouver, B.C. He became a nationally appointed home missionary, and I became a dutiful ministry wife. I would often accompany him as he traveled around, speaking in churches to raise funds to support our ministry teaching English among the growing Chinese population of Houston. We visited all kinds of churches. They were mostly populated by lovely people, but some of them were not really our style. However, I learned very quickly to control my face and to cover my true feelings. I would not react visibly to worship styles or leadership tactics (like guilt manipulation and shaming) that I found distasteful; I could not afford to, for our family’s livelihood was on the line.

So you can see how all that good little girl training from my childhood came in handy. I had been bred to be very self-controlled, to deny my true self, to submerge my identity in my husband, and to hide behind a polite mask. But that can be a very lonely place to be.

By the time our two children were in their teens, we had been going to a certain church for several years. As our kids had entered school age, I had stopped traveling with Keith much, and I usually stayed home with the kids on the weekends while he traveled on his speaking trips. Our church had gone through a very difficult period in which one pastor resigned in disgrace and was replaced. As often happens under new leadership, the population of the church started to shift. Established members who had been our closest friends left the church, one family at a time. New people came. I tried to be welcoming. However, they seemed to quickly form their own social circles, and sometimes my attempts to reach out were met, literally, with turned backs.

I had never felt entirely at home in this church, but now I began to dread going at all. I told myself that I was just feeling distant and unhappy because I wasn’t involved enough. So I joined the worship team. And when I worshipped there on stage, I often had tears trickling down my cheeks. One concerned brother told me, “When you are up there, you look so sad.” Sad? Yes, but more than that. I was depressed. And every time I left a church service, I felt more depressed than when I had come.

Well, I told myself, I just wasn’t working hard enough! So I volunteered to lead the women’s ministry. And I worked very hard, instituting a new kind of meeting and dragging furniture all over the church before and after each meeting by myself. But I still had a hard time breaking through some unseen barriers. For instance, I did my dead level best to promote an upcoming women’s conference over a period of months, and then not one single woman from the church joined me in going to it. It was not a happy experience, attending that conference by myself.

That was it. From my deep sense of shame and failure, I told myself that I was not a leader, and that I would never try to be one again. But more than that, I knew that I could not go on as I had been. I could not continue putting on my stoic and dutiful face, trying to ignore what my heart cried out for, and slowly withering inside.

*** The Iron Maiden collage, June 2020 ***

So, I fulfilled my year’s commitment as the director of women’s ministry. Then I quietly left that church and never went back.

With my husband’s full support, on Sundays we went outside the denomination in which he was an ordained minister and started going to another church in which we truly felt at home. I spent my first six months in our new church still crying through every service, but in a different way, as my heart gradually healed from my self-inflicted wounds of denying my true self, starving myself of both authenticity and compassion.

So you see, my feminine wound wasn’t so much because of direct mistreatment by men. If I compare it to a thorn bush that grew up in my heart, eventually piercing me painfully and limiting my movements, then yes, the environment in which it grew was a garden created by a patriarchy in which women’s worth and dignity was found only in how much she was valued as a secondary contributor to her husband’s and children’s lives. But it was other women who planted and tended that thorn bush in me as a girl, and then I took over the job for myself as an adult.

Until till that day when I finally said, enough.

Leaving that church, an act that was at once brave and, in the way that I did it, cowardly, was perhaps the beginning, the first step of this second half of life journey to freedom and wholeness, though there was much more to come.

Next post: Wellspring

%d bloggers like this: