From an interesting (but childless) permanent student who goes by Issendai here. Let’s count the ways.
The Rules of a Sick System
Rule 1: Keep them too busy to think.
We know all about Superwife syndrome and the endless performance pressure on conservative SAHMs to be busybusybusy. Leisure time is not even in the vocabulary.
Rule 2: Keep them tired. Exhaustion is the perfect defense against any good thinking that might slip through.
This is a huge one. I got 10 hours of sleep…in the last four days. This isn’t even unusual for conservative SAHMs, even for ones with kids who are primary school-aged or older (mine are not)! All Rule 2 takes is for the other adults to do nothing. And they don’t. There’s no systemic efforts, women are entirely reliant on hoping their own individual husband and individual church and individual extended family will do something. And sometimes they do, but it’s reduced to “just luck” or “a different lifestyle choice”.
Rule 3: Keep them emotionally involved.
This one sounds like it shouldn’t be on the list (after all, why wouldn’t you love your husband and your children and “be emotionally involved” with them?). But what is being gotten at here is the illusion of status being used to maintain the emotional attachment. There’s also, for conservative SAHMs, the extreme loyalty in the form of (weirdly cribbed from attachment parenting) being
“indispensable”. Even postpartum after a fistula following delivery. Even with pneumonia. Even with the chronic fatigue and lowered performance and general taking the exhaustion out on the children. The conservative SAHM is routinely told that she doesn’t need any other women around. It helps if she’s the one telling it to herself over and over again, that a sitter to watch the kids once or twice a week so she could have some quiet uninterrupted time would be “letting another woman rear her children, that wouldn’t be Godly”, that her husband wanting to play video games until 1am and insisting she join in “is just part of being a good submissive wife, if I say no (and maybe get more than four hours’ sleep a day), I’m being DISLOYAL.” And this works because conservative SAHMs believe they receive real, significant social status for being wives and mothers who stay home within the conservative world, even though this is not really the case in practice.
Rule 4: Reward intermittently. Intermittent gratification is the most addictive kind there is.
Printables. Pinterest. Happy talk about how you’re making memories, not just messes. There’s dozens of little thoughtstoppers and rituals that conservative SAHMs go through that provide a little burst of accomplishment-feeling. There’s also the way in which the happy talk serves to make you feel grateful for five minutes alone, ever. Intermittent rewards work a treat because the bar is so, so low for what is rewarding due to the overall poor conditions conservative SAHMs live under.
How Sick Systems Enforce The Four Rules
Now, Issendai describes how these rules are enforced in a sick system. I edited out the work-related examples, because we’re talking about SAHMs and whether the system they are in is a sick one.
Keep the crises rolling. Regular crises perform two functions: They keep people too busy to think, and they provide intermittent reinforcement. After all, sometimes you win—and when you’ve mostly lost, a taste of success is addictive.
This one right here is why I advocate so much for housewives having household help. Otherwise it is very easy to slip into a permanent crisis mode. It’s not that household help is magical, it’s that it’s another layer of potential protection, accountability for husband and wife, whether it’s relatives/neighbors/friends and/or paid.
Things will be better when... Intermittent reinforcement + hope = “Someday it will always be like this.” Perpetual crises mean the person is too tired to notice that it has never been like this for long.
“When we have another baby.” “When we stop having children.” “When I get that promotion, maybe you can have someone come once a month to help with the cleaning.” “When the kids are older and can help out.” “When we find another church/parish.”
Keep real rewards distant. The rewards in “Things will be better when…” are usually nonrewards—things will go back to being what they should be when the magical thing happens. Real rewards are far in the distance. They look like they’re on the schedule, but there’s nothing in the To Do column. For example, everything will be better when we move to our own house in the country… but there’s nothing in savings for the house, no plan to save, no house picked out, not even a region of the country settled upon.
Since we’re talking about a disordered nuclear family for the most part, this is less true for conservative SAHMs than, say, a feminist nonprofit employee dating a punk musician. Kids do grow up, after all. But in practice there was never time to show them how to help, so it’s just easier to keep on doing as much alone as you can. In practice he says he agrees with church teaching and you can get the old tubes untied and have a couple more kids, but there’s never any money for it and there’s always “serving him” that comes first, before teaching the one or two kids you do have anything that might ease your burden. And you can’t enforce bedtimes, Daddy says he should have time with *his* kids when he can, even if it means loud action movies with your 10 and 12 yo sons until 1am and not-much homeschooling (and crisis! because they are cranky and struggle to get their lessons right.) And the original example of the house in the country is absolutely spot-on, especially when you consider the conservative love of “homesteading” and “prepping”.
Establish one small semi-occasional success. This should be a daily task with a stake attached and a variable chance of success. For example, you need to take your meds at just the right time. Too early and you’re logy the next morning and late to work, too late and you’re insomniac and keep your partner up until you go to sleep, too anything and you develop nausea that interrupts your meal schedule and sets your precariously balanced blood sugar to swinging, sparking tantrums and weeping fits. It’s your partner’s job to get you to take your meds at just the right time. Each time she finds an ideal time, it becomes a point of contention—you’re always busy at that time, or you’re not at home, or you eat too early or too late so the ideal time shifts or vanishes entirely. But every so often you take your meds at just the right time and everything works perfectly, and then your partner gets a jolt of success and the hope that you’ve reached a turning point.
This one for conservative SAHMs is often family dinner or having something ready for Husband when he gets home from work rather than medication. Homeschooling is also used this way. Also religious practice, sadly. “We could get to church/Mass more often if you’d just….” “We could have family prayer every night/morning if you just….”
Chop up their time. Or if you’re partners, be glued to them at the hip, demand their attention at short intervals throughout the day (and make it clear that they aren’t allowed to do the same with you), establish certain essential tasks that you won’t do and then demand that they do them for you, establish certain essential tasks that they aren’t allowed to do for themselves and demand that they rely on you to do it for them (and then do it slowly or badly or on your own schedule). Make sure they have barely enough time to manage both the crisis of the moment and the task of the moment; and if you can’t tire them out physically, drain them emotionally.
I kept in the partner example here because this is in fact what happens to all too many conservative SAHMs. It’s not just the children at young ages interrupting (and if you are pregnant every year or two, this doesn’t end for a decade or even two), it’s the husband pulling these very stunts when he doesn’t have the excuse of being 18 months old. Conservative men will sometimes step this up in response to the kids getting older. They’ll demand more and more time spent on their “needs”.
Enmesh your success with theirs. The classic maneuver is to blame all your bad moods on your partner: If they weren’t so _______ or if they did ______ right, you wouldn’t be so stressed/angry/foul-tempered.
“If you were more submissive/skinny/kinky/organized/cooked better/dressed nicer, etc. I could get a better job/get more hours at work/pay the bills on time/help with the kids…”
Keep everything on the edge. Make sure there’s never quite enough money, or time, or goods, or status, or anything else people might want. Insufficiency makes sick systems self-perpetuating, because if there’s never enough ______ to fix the system, and never enough time to think of a better solution, everyone has to work on all six cylinders just to keep the system from collapsing.
Yep. And there’s always, for a conservative SAHM, a fallback that their family is special and unique and there’s nobody out there quite as Godly or Catholic or Orthodox or pick your Christianish adjective. It’s just their individual family being “countercultural against the secular folks”. Which means any failing in the wife is purely her own fault and something she has to work on. There’s never any system-wide problem or structural issues with the subculture she’s in. Why, didn’t she just say her family was countercultural? What subculture? What community of affinity?
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no reason infants and toddlers, even closely spaced, need to be a source of domestic chaos, sleep deprivation and poor health. Unless the system of bearing and raising children is so broken that millions of women have to run around alone and tired, and amnesiac about the trauma when they come up for air once the kids are school aged. Unless the system is, in fact, sick.