Can man be stronger, if a woman is there?
I would have to say yes.
Can woman make it without men being there?
She would have to be blessed.

— Q-Tip

For the first ten years of my life, I was raised in a matriarchy. I lived with my mother and her mother (or, intermittently, with my mother alone) until I was ten. I don’t think it’s possible not to have feminist leanings, being raised in households like these. There is no male energy and, by extension, no male “authority.” Women are paying for everything that is essential to life–and they’re doing it on far less income than a man would have to. When you’re disobedient, women are doing the chastising. When you’re obedient, women are doing the work of positive reinforcement. When you’re broken, women are mending you, to the best of their ability.

If you’re fortunate, they’re doing all this without pining for the men who have been long absent or the men they have yet to meet. If you’re fortunate, they’re doing this without bashing the whole of the male species.

But that’s only if you’re incredibly fortunate.

I don’t regret being raised by women. When my mother married during the summer before I began sixth grade, her husband moved in with us. Our apartment became something out of a Huxley novel. I suddenly had to wear a robe. The bathroom became a swamp. Unapologetic belching and farting and scratching were suddenly apart of the landscape. Someone other than my mom and my nana now had permission to scold me–and he did it in a voice two octaves lower than I was used to. Brave new world.

I didn’t like it.

By the time my actual father re-entered the picture, I was thirteen. He did not come to me as a parent. He came to me as a friend. I have never looked to him as an authority or a protector or a provider. And he’s never tried to assert himself as such.

These are the male-female dynamics as I’ve known them: women provide for themselves, and when men materialize, they get in where they fit in. They get in where women allow them to fit in.

I am fully aware of how skewed my perception is, but I wasn’t always. So when it came time to explore romantic relationships, I didn’t give much thought to equality of partnership. It didn’t occur to me that there were certain qualities I should look for in a potential husband. I simply looked for someone who would play the role I’d witnessed men playing. I looked for someone fun and artsy and Right For Me in that vague, stupid way that twenty-year-olds define Rightness. And, as a result, I got what I wanted: someone who wouldn’t put up a fuss about any decisions I made. Someone with whom I wouldn’t have to “sacrifice my freedom/assertiveness/control.”

That way, if push came to shove, and the dude left, it wouldn’t put too much of a crimp in my ability to care for myself.  I’d just establish another matriarchy.

But this plan I hatched did not account for the things I never knew about single women, things that, as a little girl, I didn’t yet need to know. Nana was a court stenographer who never married and took cruises at leisure. Mom was in medical billing and could not only afford basic cable but also the HBO/Cinemax package. If they were struggling financially, I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know that a matriarchy was not an ideal. It never occurred to me that life for a single mother was, in fact, hard.

When my mother married, all I knew was that her husband came to us. He was newly divorced and had been living with his mother until he passed the police academy. With the debts of his previous marriage and a young son who needed financial support, he was a calculated risk for Mom. They didn’t have comparable credit ratings. Mom had never been married and she was used to earning and budgeting for herself and me. She had no guarantee how things would shake out with my stepfather. They’d only dated six months. And yet she chose to drastically alter our dynamic in order to integrate him because of the possibility that a cooperative union with a stably-employed man would alleviate some of her plentiful stress.

This, I neither understood nor respected. By the time I was a teenager, I wholly resented my mother’s decision to marry. She had busted up the solid single-mama arrangement we had going and brought in a mean, moody, paranoid dude who kept insisting that she and I were “ganging up on him” every time we had a household disagreement. Eventually, he walked out of the house he’d stopped paying for and left us to deal with the foreclosure and eviction without him.

I digress. Suffice it say: I didn’t put much stock in the benefits of permanently adding men to a functional women-only environment.

Meanwhile, at age 21, a man drifted into my life—someone I fell for immediately, because he was artsy and handsome and thoughtful—who was also raised in a matriarchy. And we would spend years “seriously dating,” having labyrinthine conversations about Our Future and forging an impenetrable friendship.

But once again: there were things I didn’t know.

The effects of matriarchal rearing are different for boys than they are for girls. A girl may become doubly driven. She may leap into education and dive headfirst into a career. She could be preternaturally resourceful, considering a man to be a merry little bonus to an already healthy single life. And if she never marries, she may be perfectly fine with it.

In turn, a boy raised without male energy or presence learns how capable women are of caring not only for themselves, but also for him. It’s quite possible, then, that this boy could become the type of man who, consciously or unconsciously, finds himself deferring to the women in his life–expecting them to help him accomplish (and finance) his goals.

For the woman who’d rather be at the helm than to run the risk of her man crashing their ship, this kind of matriarchally-raised man might be a great type of life-partner. A relationship with him means being largely unopposed, when she proposes an idea or a solution. It’s what she’s used to–and it’s what he’s used to, as well.

For me, there came a time when I tired of being the driver, when I wanted someone else to do the heavy lifting of the relationship, when I didn’t want to have to ask where things were going and when they would get there, where I didn’t want to have to push or coddle or encourage or finance.

There came a time when I wanted everything that was absent from my romanticized matriarchy, everything from physical protection and financial provision to the unapologetic belch and the sloppy bathroom.

There’s something to be said for not having to be doubly driven, for taking a calculated risk on a man who isn’t looking to me for his directional cues, for learning that there are other things to be than a Strong Black Woman Who Don’t Need Nobody But Herself.

Go figure.

13 responses to “ManWomanBoogie.”

  1. This was real thought provoking
    especially gender roles in relationships. It’s more prevalent the longer i am in my current relationship the more pressure that seems to be applied for me to be that man who has it together and can be financially capable and be that traditional role. and the reality I am a creative who is not lazy or willing to compromise but the fact of the matter i am certainly not the one making the dough, I am the one who has struggled a lot since graduate school ended and has been on benefits for months now. and it’s so much harder to think about marrying someone when you feel like they resent you for being unable to find a job

  2. rich- there’s definitely a part two in here about the “perils of dating artists.” lol

    i wrote about that a long, long time ago, for much different reasons, but the financial tension you’re discussion is something i’m really familiar with.

    i’ve decided that, in order for two aspiring (read: broke/unemployed/can’t find an “arts-related job”) artists to make it as a couple, one (or both parties) will have to treat his/her art like a hobby and get a day job, unrelated to his/her art.

    the person who makes that sacrifice has to be okay with financially supporting the other person–the one who has decided to make finding a break in The Arts his/her full-time job.

    if that agreement isn’t there, then there’s drama and resentment. there may be drama and resentment anyway, though. because how long is one party supposed to put his/her dream on the backburner and wait for the other person to Make It? (it helps if there’s a previously agreed upon time frame for this, like, “okay, i’ll support us for two years while you seek your fortune, but after that, you’ll need to join me in the unrelated-to-your-dream job force.”)

    i’m starting to believe that the true ideal for an artist is to marry someone who deeply admires the arts but has absolutely no interest in being an artist. that way, there’s no competitive envy, and there may be a higher threshold for “carrying” the unemployed artist until he/she Makes It.

    … but i have no basis for that belief, really.

  3. Wow. I need to sit with this for a minute. But this right here…is exactly how I feel right now-

    For me, there came a time when I tired of being the driver, when I wanted someone else to do the heavy lifting of the relationship, when I didn’t want to have to ask where things were going and when they would get there, where I didn’t want to have to push or coddle or encourage or finance.

  4. There’s a tremendous amount in here that I relate to, especially the way we single daughters become conditioned to not factor in a man’s influence in our lives. After a series of serious relationships with relative deadbeats in my teens and college, I could not find a functional adult relationship through my 20s. It was impossible. I am finally in a healthy, happy relationship now, with a pretty egalitarian, Swedish-American guy (who was raised by 2 parents but with a strong, bread-winning mom), but it took forever to get here (I’m 33) and even now I feel like I’m operating w/o a playbook. Should we do this? How should I react to that? What do couples do in these situations? Anyone got any best practices I could follow? 🙂

    One thing was that I could not picture having a family, sharing a home, etc. with a man. When I pictured raising a child, I pictured it alone. If I could visualize a man in my head, it was as gravy, a supplement to the obviously fab job I’d be doing on my own, thank you very much.

    I was raised not just by my mom but by her married sister too, who had 3 daughters. My dad was always in my life, and I spent time at his house too (though he and his long-time girlfriend never had kids and didn’t marry until 22 years had passed), but I would have to say my mom and then my aunt’s homes were where I spent most of my formative years. My mom and I were so close in that frankly a bit creepy mind-meld way that we both have this tendency to say now “when WE were growing up” when we mean when I was growing up. (It took a lot of therapy to even notice that word choice!)

    The men in my family are more passive and much quieter than any of the women, and my cousins and I have mostly settled with men who are willing to let our bossier sides dominate. I have been reading that this is an Irish-American stereotype of women – that we work and hold up the house while our docile, friendly men booze it up. Overdrawn, sure, but a kernel of truth too.

    I just got interrupted and lost my train of thought so this is all I’ll post for now. But I will have to reread this again!

  5. redstar: thanks for weighing in and congrats on the healthy relationship! lol it sounds fantastic. i have no suggestions other than to keep doing what’s working.

    re: “when *we* were growing up,” my mom never says anything like that, but we understand it as a matter of fact. by the time my mom was 30, i was 11. she was still growing up when i was born, and with my grandmother as the “mom’s mom,” we grew in tandem. sometimes she feels like my older sister (in much the same way that father believes he’s “more like a big brother”), but there are other times when her voice takes on this authoritative tenor and she reclaims her dominant position.

    i really don’t know what any of this means, except that we have to find a way to reconcile our upbringing with our approach to romance. for you and i, it sounds like it’ll be an ongoing exercise in relinquishing the reins (because we were raised to feel awesome, alone and autonomous).

  6. THis is the truth. All the points that you made resonate with me. I grew up in a single parent home (raised by momma) and my sister and I always wonder why is it that we are so driven but my younger brother is just waiting for a hand-out?

    And the last sentence:

    “There’s something to be said for not having to be doubly driven, for taking a calculated risk on a man who isn’t looking to me for his directional cues, for learning that there are other things to be than a Strong Black Woman Who Don’t Need Nobody But Herself.”

    That is where my heart is right now.

  7. Very thought provoking. It’s good to hear a perspective like yours that is balanced, but not tinged with man-hating bitterness.

    My parents divorced when I was 13, and I’m extremely fortunate that my father remained a central figure in my life. I grew up hearing him tell me never to settle for a man who didn’t treat me as well as he did. I was daddy’s little girl, and as a result I entered into dating thinking that every male who wanted to be seriously involved with me would cherish me equally. I was wrong, of course, although I’ve only had one really bad relationship.

    But you hit the nail on the head: your upbringing determines your outlook, and that in turn determines who is drawn to you. I seem to attract men who want to take care of me, and not the other way around. But it’s largely because I refuse to let them relinquish their responsibility to prove themselves worthy of me, versus trying to prove myself worthy of him.

  8. I have to forward this to somebody. I hate you for being brilliant. And I love you because I hate you. LOL

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