More than our ovaries

My husband and I are about to
become empty nesters.  I first
heard the term, empty nester,  many
moons ago when I was studying psychology and social work at university.  Then I shuddered at the thought. 
In those days I found the idea of living in a quiet, largely empty house daunting. 
How do people do it?  Live alone? 
For all her struggles my mother
gave the impression that she too preferred to live in company.  In the hubbub of family life when her
every minute was circumscribed by some one else’s needs and her own wishes and
desires fitted further down at the bottom of the hierarchy, only after other
people’s needs had been met. 
For the past thirty or so years I
have viewed my own life similarly, though in recent years I have become more
‘selfish’ to use a word I loathe. 
More like a man, perhaps. 
Ever since I can remember I
marvelled at the way the men in my life, beginning with my father and my brothers, my husband too, never seemed to need to take their leave in the same
way we women and daughters have needed to. 
Why is this ?  A relic of the patriarchal ways, where
men are seemingly self determined and women tied to the apron strings of
children and the so-called kitchen sink. 
We women must account for ourselves and beg for leave. 
The phone rings.  I answer.
My youngest who left home last
night for her first night away in college asks if I can be around at 12.30
today to be there for her friend who plans to drop in to collect her camping
equipment which she had left with us as far back as January. 
I had planned to go off to do my
Keiser weight training at 12.00, something I try to fit in every Sunday
before the place closes.
‘If I’m not back yet your dad’ll be
here,’ I say. 
‘But he doesn’t know where everything
Even away from home my daughter has
needs, small needs but they intrude on the timetable of my day.
No matter, I tell myself.  I have always told myself.  I enjoy these incursions into my
day.  I am driven by the need/desire
to help others, beginning with my children, but sometimes my generosity wears
thin and resentment creeps in.
Be careful of what you wish for,
they say.  If you’re not careful
you might be left alone, a lonely old thing with no one to care about. 
Once years ago my mother complained
to me that she could no longer do anything for me, not like when I was a
child.  When I was a child I had
needed things from her, but not as an adult, not in the same way.   
And so we had grown apart as if our relationship was based entirely on her looking after me.
Now it’s in reverse. 
I’d like to think there is another
state whereby two adult women, mother and daughter, can relate in a type of friendship.  The pull of the past
as mother and daughter will never disappear entirely but maybe a different sort
of give and take might exist rather than the hard core mother to baby, daughter
to elderly mother experience of yesteryear and today. 
My daughters teach me new things
about the world.  They teach me so
much.  They keep me young.  Without them I fear my mind might shut
down.  They lead me in new
For instance:
Jo Wainer the wife of a doctor, Bertram Wainer, who was once repeatedly harassed by antiabortionists and politicians gave Ted Talk in Melbourne called Sex and the God trick.  In the talk among other things Jo discussed the ways in which most medicine is based on
the male body, as if women were males, too, only with ovaries.  She gave an example that stays
with me. 
Most of us have heard or read about
the typical signs of a heart attack. 
Tingling in the arms.  A
crushing sensation in the chest, as if, as one doctor once told me, an elephant
is sitting on your chest.  These
turn out to be typical symptoms for a man suffering a heart attack and a man
suffering these symptoms, if he knows about the signs and is not too far into
denial and fear, will call an ambulance and shift straight into cardiac care
where he might well be saved with less damage done, of course depending on the
severity of said heart attack. 
A woman, on the other hand, is
likely to feel nauseous and sweaty at the onset of her heartattack, very much off
colour, and her first impulse might be to call her daughter who will come over
and make her a cup of tea. 
In other words, it will take much
longer for the woman to call for an ambulance, by which time the consequences of
her heart attack are likely to be far more serious.
They do not teach these
distinctions to the general public or at medical school, says Jo Wainer.  When a man comes home from work after a
stressful day she reckons, he is likely to scream and yell, or put a fist
through the wall, whether literally or metaphorically.  
In other words he is likely to act out
his rage and frustration in some way or another. 
A woman, on the other hand, is
likely to act out her frustration and rage after a hard day by her tendency, as
Jo Wainer puts it, to ‘tend and befriend’. 
This notion rings bells for
me.  I am one who tends and befriends,
while my husband gets more into the out-with-it-rage variety or a total
withdrawal like a sleeping volcano. 
And I have often wondered why. 
Is it our hormones, our education,
our socialisation, or in our stars? 
I expect there are exceptions
and plenty with much in between but this dichotomy resonates for me.  
What do you think?  I ask.
The masculine and the feminine, the yin and
the yang and we all have a  bit of
both, only some tend to have more of one than the other, and not only
because of our gonads or ovaries. 

31 thoughts on “More than our ovaries”

  1. I always think that it is the sense of entitlement. Men feel they are entitled to act upon their feelings as forcefully and outwardly as they want. In fact, it's even considered manly. Women have no such entitlement. We are pressured both inwardly and outwardly to swallow our feelings because acting-out is unlady-like. And all things considered, it's not worth dealing with the feelings of shame if you do.

  2. I've known about the difference in heart attack symptoms for a while, I read about it in a book somewhere. Aching in the neck is another type of symptom, but it's more specific and I can't recall the article.
    As for your daughter's friend's camping gear, I would have asked her where things were and made a list for hubby, then gone on to my Keiser class. Possibly I might have even told her she should have made sure the friend collected them before she (daughter)left home for college. Her responsibility, not yours.

  3. I had no idea about different heart attack symptoms. After getting home from work when it has been a hard day, I like quiet. Ten minutes of quiet in front of the tv news and I am fine, but sometimes my partner talks. I try to tune in to what he is saying, but I don't always and make a silly reply. And then the fighting starts. If only he could understand I need work recovery time.

  4. It is our hormones, our education and our socialization. Not our stars, though. Women move first to protect the babies and children and then to keep them healthy and well growing up. But they can claim equal consideration and at minimum show their daughters and sons and the father of their children responsibility toward the whole. As for the camping gear, I would have instructed my daughter to leave it stacked where her friend or her father could find it.

  5. This was how my father defined a woman. “All you have to do is look at the word,” he’d say. “Wo-man… a man with a womb.” I never argued with him. Apparently it comes from the Old English ‘wimman’ a variant of ‘wifman’. I recall being in a friend’s house with my dad—this man was a little older than my dad—and he was explaining why the French for chair is la chaire, because a man sat in it. I see his logic—just link of male and female cable connectors—but since women also sit in chairs even then I thought it was flawed. One of my earliest posts was about the French need to genderise everything.

    My wife has commented more than once about how innocent I am. You’d think by my age I would’ve managed to grow out of it but she is right. There are things in this life I should get but don’t. Feminism is one of these things. On one level I do get it. I think what I don’t get is why the need for it. And by that I mean: What happened all those years ago to turn our complements into our inferiors? And I know the answer to that but I still don’t get it. Because I don’t behave that way—and it’s a miracle considering how I was brought up—I don’t understand why others do. I never in a million years thought that the warning signs for a heart attack were different if you were a female; I asked Carrie and this was the first she’s heard of it too. But now I think about it I can’t think of a single woman who’s ever had a heart attack—they tend to have strokes—and that does seem to be a trend according to this 1995 Ancel Keys Lecture: Sex Differences in Coronary Heart Disease: Why Are Women So Superior? My dad had two heart attacks; the second killed him.

    Selfishness I have a problem with. Always have. I’m not entirely selfless but when my being selfish looks as if it might hurt someone else I tend to backpedal. I’d never really thought of myself as a carer but there’s definitely a part of me that rises to the challenge, the dutiful son/husband/father. That said I don’t know where everything is in this house. Trust be told I hardly know where anything is but that’s partly because I have a control freak for a wife. When I was younger we might’ve locked horns over a lot of this but I’ve mellowed considerably in my old(ish) age. Occasionally I get the urge to gut the place but I fight it. I tidy, I clean and leave it at that. On the whole I’m not as especially observant person—odd for a writer I know—and so I only see what interests me. I’ve mentioned this before but I’d lived in my flat for two or three years (you know me and figures) before Carrie came to stay and in all that time hadn’t noticed there were giant butterflies on the living room curtains. I suspect this is why I struggle to remember things; I never paid proper attention at the time. If my wife dies before me and we’re still here it’s going to be fascinating discovering all the things we own because in all seriousness there are cupboards and drawers in this place that I’ve never been in since we first moved in.

    I don’t mind being an empty nester though. I liked it when my daughter moved back in for a while and I got to play daddy, trying to cram fifteen years of hardly seeing her into however long she was there (which was about a year) and I missed her when she moved into her own place but I did like it when it went back to just being the two of us. Now we have the bird and so it really doesn’t feel like an empty nest and we get to play ‘the mammy’ and ‘the daddy’ but at least he doesn’t ask me to help him with his homework.

  6. Hello Elisabeth and happy new year – sorry to have been such an infrequent visitor. I enjoyed your thoughts on the empty nest and will be curious to see how you deal with it. Because I live alone I enjoy hearing about your daughter and husband and all the little joys that come with a house that has more than one person inside it [love the photograph]

  7. A child may leave home but she will still always need you though perhaps in different ways.

    When our daughter left home I had visions of long weekends, etc. to do what I wanted, how I wanted, when I wanted. Though that is certainly more the case than not, you still find yourself helping your child out in many ways if not in a different venue.

    As for living alone, I have lived alone for the past several years. Sometimes I enjoy my solitude and other times the quiet in the house is the loudest noise of all (!).

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    Take care.

  8. I find this so interesting – thanks for sharing this new experience, Elisabeth – and I can't imagine what it will feel like when my children are grown and I don't have to fight so hard of feel so guilty for the time I spend apart from them.

  9. Our children have left many years ago but we are now having and enjoying grandchildren to try and help grow up.
    When I was a child, we migrated so, grandparents, uncles and aunties did not feature much anymore. One of the disadvantages of migrating.
    I believe families are important, perhaps more important than earning big money or owning own houses. Good article. Thank you.

  10. Our children left many years ago and we now enjoy having grandchildren around.
    I missed out on other relatives because we migrated when I was young. One of the disadvantages that is overlooked when moving far away.
    I enjoyed reading your article. There is a lot there. Thank you

  11. While it doesn't seem to make much of a difference, there is increasing scientific evidence that our brains are not as different as we think.

    Society and culture influence behavior more than we realize.

  12. My nest has been empty for quite some time, so there are conflicting emotions happening – missing the nesters, but enjoying the peace and the quiet and the ability to do whatever you like. Or, perhaps, filling the gaps in life.
    At present I am being asked to travel interstate to mind grandchildren, as it seems that the (separated) father has better things to do than care for his children when needed. I will do it, but I do not feel like pounding up and down the highway. It seems that I have become very accustomed to my solitude.
    As for the venting of rage, it does seem quite acceptable (in their own minds) for men to rant, fume and abuse, but they certainly don't like it when returned with fervour.

  13. What an interesting idea Elizabeth and one I have never thought about. We seem to lead a quiet, peaceful life here, away fromn all the worries and trials that so many people seem to experience daily. I shall have to give the whole matter a bit of thought – but thank you for bringing it up.

  14. Shame plays a huge part in it, as you say, Ms Sparrow. From earliest days it seems we women are acculturated into a more docile position, while all manner of powerful projections are heaped our way. I suspect it has something to do with the powerful role of mothers, the maternal up against the helplessness of the infant, but that's a complex story I've tried to put into a few short words. It needs more fleshing out.

    Thanks, Ms Sparrow.

  15. My daughter's gone off now river, and so her responsibility for herself is far more marked than before when she could turn to me as first port of call. As for the aching in the neck as a sign of heart attack, that's a new one for me to add to my list of fears. A pain in the neck is not uncommon. I imagine it'd have to be very severe to signify a heart attack.

    Thanks, River.

  16. You widen the argument well here, Andrew. In some ways it's not just about gender differentiation as it is about role differentiation, as in your relationship where you each have different styles of dealing with your stresses and sometimes they might clash.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  17. I agree Joanne, the differences here have many causes, and not our stars. As for the camping equipment, setting limits on my children's wishes has not always been my forte, though I'm learning.

    Thanks, Joanne.

  18. Your father's notion of the 'wo' in woman as signifying the only difference between men and women is not unusual, Jim. I suppose it comes of a wish to simplify things. But it also reminds me of the notion in medical circles where there are the doctors, the medicos, the given and then the rest, the para medicos, as all other allied health professions are described.

    It always annoyed me because it implied that we begin with man and doctor, the rest of us are add ons. It follows the biblical tradition and maybe deserves to be challenged.

    You would have to be unusual Jim, the way you describe yourself, not a typical male, but I think we must be wary of that dreadful dichotomy male and female when there are so many variations between and within.

    As for the empty nest, it's slow in happening because the last one of our daughters who had planned to leave is still in the throes of sorting out where she's to go and so we might not be quite the lone couple yet, at least not for a little while longer.

    Thanks, Jim.

  19. Happy new year to you, too, India. I'm sure that living alone has its merits just as living in company.

    So often those who live alone long for companionship and those who live in a crowd long for some privacy and solitude.

    Thanks, India.

  20. Well Russell, you just spelled out something f the experience of living alone as I suggested earlier to India, the pros and cons of it.

    As for our children leaving home, they stay on not only in our minds but also in our deeds.

    Today is the first day since my youngest left home that I have not heard from her for some reason or other and the day is only half way through. In time I'm sure our contact will lessen but for now it almost feels as if she's still here.

    Thanks, Russell.

  21. The time will come, Rachel, and sooner than you think. I too can remember the guilt I felt at being too long away from my children. It's a memory now but in some ways the guilt over being a full time working mother for a large chunk of time while they were still young stays with me.

    Thanks, Rachel.

  22. Thanks, Gerard. Children move out over time and then our time gets absorbed to some extent by the grandchildren and other things like writing. It's sad though to have lost the company of uncles and aunts, cousins etc who stayed behind. Like yours, my mother's family was split in two by migration as was my father's. It was hard on everyone concerned.

    Thanks Gerard.

  23. I agree, Antares, biology has a huge impact on us all, but society culture behavior etc have a huge impact and as you say it's a much bigger influence than we like to think.

    Thanks, Antares.

  24. That's a tall order, Persiflage, having to travel interstate to care for the grandchildren. I can understand feeling torn. Who'd want to travel up and down the highway when life has slowed down to a pleasant hum?

    Thanks, Persiflage.

  25. Your life sounds very peaceful, Pat. I wish mine had more moments of tranquillity in nature, too, but mostly I'm stuck in the hubbub of city life.

    Thanks, Pat.

  26. Your life sounds very peaceful, Pat. I wish mine had more moments of tranquillity in nature, too, but mostly I'm stuck in the hubbub of city life.

    Thanks, Pat.

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