I had an insight about the end of my marriage recently, while musing with notions of sexuality and gender in a way I wouldn’t have before this year: iI realized that when my then husband became a father, he suppressed feminine aspects. A playful and flirty man who could be flexible and gentle, creatively communicative, almost entirely disappeared, leaving me craving a very particular kind of warmth and closeness.
The insight makes sense in the context of the spiritual traditions I’m most drawn to, where deities have feminine, masculine, yib-yam aspects and expressions (sometimes in play at once). But even though I’ve long been interested in identity fluidity, with my work allowing me a fairly deep exploration into such, somehow I hadn’t shined this particular light into my own relationship dynamics long enough for it to begin to open up to me more.
It seems so clear now that when he stepped into role of ‘father’, which for him contained a lot of gravitas and pressure, he cut attention off from a particular kind of consciousness which had begun to develop and even flower previously. Rigidity clicked into gear, as though an inevitable and irreversible exchange had to be made. I remember having a dream then, in which he was situating a male doll, playing out a very limited range of what “father” meant (suit, tie, briefcase), so I guess I’ve been musing with this a long time. The part I didn’t see before is what that change in him, meant for me, although I calculated some of what it cost my kids and the family on the whole.
Getting married changed balances in my friendships, as it often does for women. Petty shows of possessiveness and antagonisms had created a less than friendly environment for ‘outsiders’, which I let happen, because I think there was something in our then dynamic that almost did replace my desire to seek that sort of connection elsewhere. I didn’t register how much I was giving away. That hit later, when I looked around and saw that my connections were actually his connections, and that my range of acceptable exploration, even in conversation, had become quite small.
In one key moment I called a friend, specifically asking we meet not as anyone’s wives or mothers, just (using our names) she and I. After driving an hour and settling in at the restaurant, I tried to have a direct conversation in the moment together, only to be pulled over and over again into a default ‘friendly rival’ sort of machinery around kids’ school dynamics. I remember this feeling so clearly. It was like being trapped inside a not-at-all-fun fun house, desperately pushing to find true openings.
Mind you, it wasn’t about this friend, or about the characters in the neighborhood cul-de-sac whose gossip began to seem more than benign (downright nasty at times), or about the intrusiveness of domineering family members. It was me: I couldn’t help but begin to set limits I hadn’t set before, define boundaries, try to make room. I still held out hope then, that he and I would meet the challenge together, but I definitely wanted out of the game.
I wonder now what might have happened if I could have articulated it all in these terms then, drawn attention to what he was losing too. I knew what his increasing–I’ll call them bullying–behaviors were costing, but never made the case for another way we could consciously forge ahead together, or not well. Maybe I fool myself to think that might have worked. Probably neither of us could have navigated these waters, because we hadn’t unlocked this level yet. Maybe we could have changed the game instead. I believe that’s what the current generation is determined to do.
One of the primary ways Eastern thought has been liberating to me is in contrasting rigid dualistic thinking with more awareness of interconnection. An emphasis on certain roles had place for a time (becoming a mother was certainly an intense feminine experience), but needed to keep breathing, which makes perfect sense in a context of say, Taoism, where yinyang (one term, really, not two) is about flow, or Buddhism’s dependent co-arising. It isn’t about a stark dualism of good and bad, male and female, earth and sky, up and down, but rather the interplay of forces… masculine and feminine, strong and weak forces, etc. Really knowing life this way can’t help but this shake up the dualistic world.
I’ve written about “pronouns” before, and my admiration for the way the current generation is exploring gender with ‘house on fire’ fervor, but I’m not sure I’ve really connected it with my own experience in direct ways.
I’ve noticed that it isn’t just ‘this generation’ having these revelations, but for instance my TikTok feed is full of women roughly my age, seeing their sexuality in ways they hadn’t fathomed before. The joke is that TikTok itself is “turning women gay”, but I think we’re just redefining what it is OK to see. If I’m attracted to somewhat feminine men (something one of my children pointed out to me about fictional characters I’m drawn to), that’s an interesting pattern to notice. Actively looking for the feminine in men, the masculine in women, letting non-binary express what it means individually and spontaneously ~ what an interesting world!
In terms of gender, believing in fixed identity means “I am __” and pinning others to the same kinds of declarations. Many people have never considered this a kind of belief because it is the water we’ve grown up swimming in… a sorting hat we have to encounter as we come into the world. It still seems a side-issue to many, but I’m becoming convinced the question is fundamental.