Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband gets upset every time I use the word mansplaining. His main issue is that it’s not a real word, but he also claims it isn’t a real phenomenon. I like to tease him about it. As in, “Please stop mansplaining the most efficient way to load the dishwasher” and “thank you for the mansplanation, but I can download that security software just fine myself.”
But lately, it has really started to bug me. The turning point was when my husband witnessed our male friend and fellow new parent mansplaining to me the health benefits of breastmilk versus formula. As if we didn’t have babies just weeks apart in age, as if I wasn’t inundated daily with the same pro-breastfeeding marketing. As if he didn’t see the bucket of formula I brought when I dropped my kid off at their place for our nanny-share, along with a tiny, hard-won half-bottle of breastmilk that I would place tenderly next to the bountiful pails of milk that his wife so dutifully pumped every day.
I pointed this out to my husband afterward, saying “See! See! Mansplaining is a thing! You saw it! I told you!” He said, “Huh. I don’t remember that coming up.”
Should this bother me at all? How can I convince my husband not only that mansplaining is a thing that men do, but it’s a thing that his own wife experiences on a regular basis? Help!
Dear Done ‘Splaining,
Should this bother you? I find that question to be overwhelmingly irrelevant, because we can’t evaluate whether or not you should feel a certain a way. You do feel this way. You are bothered by it, regardless of how inconvenient that feeling may be for yourself and those around you. Feelings are real and they don’t go away just because we decide that they shouldn’t exist. In fact, trying to force a feeling away often causes a worse outcome than just feeling it in the first place.
How many times have I exploded in anger after spending many noble hours trying to dissuade myself from feeling even a hint of irritation. It’s fine that my child is making that horrific, repetitive noise in an effort to get a rise out of me. It’s totally fine that he’s ignoring my gentle requests to find something else to do. It’s fine that this ridiculous honking sound he must have learned how to make in daycare has now taken over my entire universe. It’s fine. I’m a mom and kids bother us sometimes on purpose and I should just rise above it because I’m an adult and he’s a child and I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL BURN YOUR BLANKIE IN THE FRONT YARD IF YOU DO NOT SHUT UP. Feelings are real and when they are ignored they still find a way to come out.
First, you must resolve that this bothers you and that the bother you feel is wholly reasonable.
Your husband doesn’t believe in mainsplaining and his case has two components: One, the English language is dead and no new words are allowed, and two, men do not, in fact, unnecessarily explain things.
I understand why your husband is resistant to accept the phenomena because mainsplaining is a gender-based critique. It’s so frustrating when there’s a word that people can use to reduce your actions to nothing but a sad side-effect of your genitalia and, while men have to grapple with new words like “mainsplain” and “fuckboy,” women have long had to contend with slut, nag, bossy, bitch, harpy, cunt, battle axe, cat lady, cougar, cock tease, MILF, hag, etc. The accusation of femininity is hurled at men as a negative critique when they are perceived to be throwing like a girl, crying like a girl, acting like a girl, and being, in any way, anything like a girl.
Being reduced to an unfortunate byproduct of your gender is enraging and unfair. But it’s also something that happens to women constantly and to men hardly at all. It is dismissive to accuse your husband of mainsplaining, but it also allows you to give name to a problem that many men are unaware of. A name allows us to identify a thing, map out its edges, categorize it. A name allows something to actually exist. Men, of course, explained things to women unnecessarily before we had this word, but now that we have this word we can point to it and say “Ah-hah! That’s it! You’re doing that thing where you wrongly assume both that you know more than me and that I’m interested in learning from you.”
Why is there a cultural idea that men love to explain things? Because, when you examine the traits that stereotypically “masculine” men must exhibit, speaking confidentially is in the top five. A “real man” must know how to do things correctly, and he must demonstrate that knowledge. Sharing what he knows allows him to show off his prowess.
I was always a good student, so an unfortunately large percentage of my ego is wrapped up in being able to learn things quickly and then demonstrate that learning. It’s something I’m very good at and it’s something that has made me wholly insufferable at several points in my life.
It’s 1999 and I’m training with a dozen people to become servers at a TGI Fridays. We’re learning everything: the menu, the drinks, barware, how to bus a table, how to carry six full glasses in one hand, how to wear all of the motherfucking flair. I’m training with my best friend and we’re working our way through different training stations. She and I just finished up barware and are at a food station. As I’m listening to the trainer go through the appetizers, I hear a trainer from barware ask, “Who can identify this glass?” Without pause my hand shoots up and I proudly yell from across the restaurant, “I can!” My friend takes my raised hand and places it back in my lap. “Stop it,” she says, “People aren’t going to like you.”
When your identity is dependent upon how much you know, it’s also dependent upon your ability to demonstrate that knowledge to others. You want to be helpful, you want to impress, but, most of all, you want to show that your existence is worthwhile. You’re adding value through your presence. You’re trying to prove that you matter.
Another layer of the mansplaining phenomena is that men have been emboldened to give their opinions as though they are rock solid fact without the thought of embarrassment for approximately all of modern time, while women have been cautioned to remain quiet lest someone, somewhere not want to marry them. Men are taught to speak, women are taught to shut up, and then men assume that a women’s silence is based in ignorance.
As for this one dude telling you about breast milk: FUCK THAT DUDE FOREVER. Breast milk is best, but you know what else is best? Babies that don’t die of starvation. There is a reason that wet nurse used to be a profession – all women are not biologically able to feed their babies all the breast milk they need to survive. I spent hundreds of hours tethered to a hospital-grade breast pump, watching my nipples get sucked in and out of long plastic tubes while willing my body to produce the milk that my son wasn’t able to pull from my body with his own tiny mouth. It was the worst three months of my life. One afternoon, after pumping for an hour and getting scant 5oz, I accidentally spilled the milk onto the rug. The helpless rage I felt in that moment was so acute that I’m surprised there isn’t a scorch mark on my couch.
Your husband doesn’t believe in mansplaining because believing in it would make him uncomfortable. But it does exist, it has existed, it will continue to exist, to the point that the word has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. But your husband doesn’t have to agree that mansplaining exists in order to care that it upsets you. Your friend, a man who cannot lactate, telling you how great it would be if you just lactated more was wrong. So, so, so wrong. His actions were ignorant and hurtful, and your husband should be able to understand that. When you spend hours every day to pull out the little milk your body can produce you are champion woman goddess warrior and anyone who thinks otherwise should go drown in a vat of Fenugreek.
Being reduced to nothing but your gender sucks, but so does having opinions thrust upon you as though they are facts. There is no one right way to load a dishwasher, or download security software, or feed a baby. There is a right way to be a good partner – listen to your spouse, practice empathy, and extend her the same courtesy you have blindly assumed to be yours for your entire life: When she talks, listen.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.