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The wife as the weaker vessel

by Greg Krehbiel on 19 August 2004

Cultural pressure can be a good thing. It’s what keeps us from farting in public. But while our culture continues to exert appropriate pressure in some areas, it has, for the last few decades, been training men to be embarrassed about fatherhood. Little by little it’s been singling out the masculine, fatherly aspects of parenting and calling them outdated, sexist, or just plain laughable.

I don’t mean that society has been training men to shy away from siring children. … Although that case could be made. The assumption that everybody will use birth control has probably slowed the birth rate. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about fathering. Being a father. A male parent, engaged in raising his kids.

I’m also not talking about the polite, cute, “mom wants you to do it” aspects of fatherhood, like going to ball games, teaching the boy to throw, or taking the video camera to the ballet recital. There is an image of fatherhood that our culture wants to promote, but it’s a very watered down, emasculated version.

True fatherhood includes some things that aren’t very popular today. For example, the father has to take on the role of the tough guy in the house. So when there’s a noise in the basement, it’s the man who has to get up and investigate. Our culture is of two minds about this side of fatherhood, appreciating the fireman who pulls people out of burning buildings, but constantly dissing “macho stuff.” But the two go together.

The corrolary to this is that the woman is not the tough guy. St. Peter expressed this idea by referring to the wife as the “weaker vessel.”

Actually, maybe that’s what old Pete meant and maybe it’s not. It doesn’t matter for my purposes. What I mean is that the wife is the fine china cup and the husband is the cup you get at IHOP. Calling the woman the “weaker vessel” is not meant to imply that women can’t get awfully ornery and mean, that women can’t fight, or anything like that. Of course we have to face the fact that men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women and better equipped for combat. But that’s not the point.

This “weaker vessel” business has important implications for fatherhood, both for the man’s relationship with his wife and for his relationship with his daughters. Despite what some would say, fathers have to treat boys and girls differently.

So what does this “weaker vessel” language mean? It means that the woman is more emotionally sensitive than the man, and this is expressed in a lot of different ways. One obvious way is that women cry more than men. Yes, they can hold their own in arguments and choke back their tears as well as the next guy, but a woman is more likely to go home and have a good cry about it later. Men don’t do that. They might get mad. They might get drunk. They might break the furniture. But they generally don’t cry. It’s just one of those things.

This increased emotional sensitivity goes along with being a mother. Children cry for their mothers when they’re hurt or afraid because mom is more empathetic. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. There will come a time (especially for boys) when the child has to leave the nurturing care of her mother and enter the rough and tumble world of the father, but the nurturing instinct of the mother is necessary for little ones. Very little children need the “aw let me kiss it” of the empathetic mom rather than the “walk it off and quit crying” they’re likely to get from dad.

And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with telling a kid to “walk it off and quit crying.” That’s the man’s role. That’s why men coach football. There’s a place (and a need!) for that kind of talk, and an effective father has to learn when to employ it.

Our culture used to recognize this “weaker vessel” concept with what are now mocked as “double standards.” For example, a comment that men should watch their language in front of the ladies is now considered sexist. (Frankly, the word “sexist” is tossed around so casually that I don’t know what it means. If it means “treating men and women differently” then yes, the comment is sexist — and we all ought to be that kind of sexist.)

Not only are women more emotionally sensitive than men, sensible people want them to be that way. If you’ve been to the grocery store you’ll know what I mean — the snotty kid is crying and wailing, and the “mother” yells, smacks, drags and threatens the poor brat. Obviously a mother needs to exercise discipline with her children, but that sort of behavior isn’t “motherly.” (It isn’t effective either, but that’s for another day.) And this shows another of those double standards: it’s awful when a man is brutal to his children, but it’s even more shocking from a woman. Why? Because women are expected to be, and supposed to be, more nurturing and gentle.

Yes, we have double standards — and we should. We’re not as shocked when a 14 year old girl cries over a skinned knee as we are over a 14 year old boy. We expect girls to be drawn to babysitting, and we wonder (or worry) about the boy who wants the job.

Fathering means understanding and respecting that women — your wife and your daughter — are “weaker vessels.” They’re the fine china you treat with special care. That doesn’t mean they can’t play soccer, but it does mean that they might play it a little differently and require a different sort of coaching, and perhaps a different sort of fatherly affection after a loss. You might well say, “buck up, you’ll do better next time” to your son, but you might need to give your daughter a hug.

Yes, girls have to be tough as well — anyone who’s witnessed childbirth knows that — and yes, boys also need hugs. But a woman’s toughness is of a different kind and it’s manifested in different ways. A father has to learn to understand and respect those differences. He needs to know when to be gentle and compassionate, and he needs to know when to be tough. He needs to know when to give a slap on the back and when to give a hug. And if anybody accuses him of having a double standard, he needs to smile and say, “thanks.”

2004-08-19  »  Greg Krehbiel