Who do I really want to be? What do I really need?
These questions are not always easy to answer. In fact, if you are asking yourself those questions, you’re already a step ahead! Most of the time, we just operate on autopilot and unconsciously adjust to (new) situations. The unconscious adjustments will most likely follow some sort of “should” rules that we have made up based on societal expectations and/or parental upbringing and role-modelling. Let me give you an example.
I was raised by a stay-at-home mom, who did regret her choice later on in life and was adamant that I should be a working woman. I’m saying “choice”, but I don’t think she ever consciously chose to be a stay-at-home mom and rather followed convention and what she thought was best for the family. I had very strong resolve to never find myself in servitude to a man; at the same time, I had the mantra of ensuring that everyone was well-fed and taken care of ingrained in my unconscious.
When I stopped working in an office and started to work from home instead, I began to make more home-cooked dinners than before. I didn’t mind, and thankfully, my husband had zero expectations and never complained when he did come home and had to whip up one of his ingenious 5-minute-dinners because I hadn’t cooked anything.
Then, my husband started being at home everyday as well. Even though I cherished his presence, having him at home rattled my routine. I was most productive in the morning and would usually quickly warm up some left-overs for lunch so that I could ride my working wave until 2pm. Now, with him at home, I’d get nervous at 11am: What would we eat? There weren’t enough leftovers for two! I’d have to buy groceries to cook. This would mean that I’d have to start preparing NOW!
On different days, I would either grumpily go out shopping and prepare lunch with an attitude; or, I’d testily start asking my husband: “So, what are we going to eat?!” He was oblivious to my annoyed glares and vicious tones. Some days, I’d jump over my shadow and announce in commanding voice: “You’re responsible to make lunch today!” He’d say: “Fine”, and without any fuss, he’d throw some eggs in the frying pan, make toasts and serve both with a healthy salad - he’s actually a pretty good cook. But he was still unaware of my inner anger that was building up.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down in front of him and trumpeted: “I’m not responsible to provide lunch! I don’t want to cut my working mornings short because I have to cook! I don’t want to worry about your food intake! I’m happy to cook dinner, but for lunch, each of us is on their own!!!!!” He looked at me: “Fine, I don’t expect you to make lunch.”
That left me hanging in the air. I didn’t feel like I had resolved anything, I didn’t feel relieved of my responsibility. I had to stew on an undefined confusion for a couple of days until my feelings came to the surface. I sat down with him again:
“You know, the other day, when I told you that we were both on our own for lunch?”
“I know that you don’t expect me to cook, but there is this voice in my head that tells me that I’m responsible to feed you.”
“I know that rationally, but I still get an irrational feeling of guilt, and then I resent you for making me feel that way. The rule that I have made up is that I need to take care of you. And at the same time, another voice says ‘Hell no! He is capable of taking care of his own lunch!’ And I’m struggling to consolidate the two and that makes me angry - stuck in a lose-lose situation: No matter what I do, I always feel like I’m going against myself, either against what I think I should do or against what I think I should stand up for.”
“You really are not responsible to make me lunch. I’m happy with scrambled eggs, or whatever else happens to be in the fridge.”
The next few days around lunchtime, I’d listen to myself: What was I feeling like? Was I in the middle of something and just wanted to grab a slice of bread to fill my stomach? Or did my brain actually need a break and would profit from focussing on chopping and cooking instead? And then I would act on whatever I unearthed. I surprised myself by preparing lunch for both of us without any suppressed anger and proudly presenting my husband with a freshly cooked meal, something that I had never been able to do. Or, I’d just tell him that I was going to quickly eat something by myself and that he was on his own. Or, I’d ask him to prepare his quick solution meal. Or, we’d be all fancy and go out for a sit-down lunch in a restaurant. This allowed me to embrace the different sides within me: the nurturing woman, the business lady, or the entertaining and attentive date. And it allowed me to give the straight jacket of preconceived role models the boot.
I was liberated! I had managed to liberate myself from some “should” voices that had been holding me hostage and that had introduced major feelings of resentment into my relationship. My helpless passive-aggressive ways of expressing this inner struggle had thankfully not been noticed by my husband. Otherwise it could have created a proper blow-up. Luckily I had found the courage to voice my needs - even if very clumsy at first. And I can’t begin to describe how happy I was when I uncovered the conflicting rules that were raging in my unconscious and managed to take away their power over me.
I know that there are plenty more “should” voices and rules hidden inside of me. I’m sure that they’ll come out big time when we’ll have children. I’ll have to sit down and consciously define my new role as a mother - not, what I think I should be, but rather what type of mother I actually want to be. It’s going to be a battle! Not so much with my husband, but first and foremost with myself. And once I have gotten clarity on my own ideal - purged of societal role-models and contradicting expectations - I will approach the negotiating table to find an agreement with my husband. This may sound easy, but I already know that it’ll be a long and iterative process that may never end. We’ll both need to continue to discover who we want to be and what exactly it is we need. And then there might be a third (and forth?) person to consider as well. Fun times!
PS: My husband is also amazing at cooking more elaborate meals. I think he wanted me to stress that…
What “should”s came up for you as you were reading this post? What does it mean for your life that you have these rules? What would be possible if you relaxed or let go of these rules?
More on how these rules come into being in "Self-imposed rules --- the rules we make up", and another example of self-imposed rules in "When you talk to people, you may realise that you’re not alone".