Resentment is often characterized as one drinking poison but hoping the other person dies. It’s most foolish and an exercise in futility where the most harm is inflicted on the person holding the resentment. Any logical person will tell you to just say it out loud to the person you are resentful about and try to resolve it and if it can’t be resolved, then just move on.
But what if the resentment is legitimate? Or worse, what if the resentment is the kind you can’t say out loud, because if you do, it will upset the natural order of things.
When I was 16 years old and on summer vacation, I saw a documentary on PBS called ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ by acclaimed documentary filmmaker David Sutherland. I don’t know how at 16 I was able to sit through 6 hours of a documentary film about a rural Nebraskan couple who was trying to save their farm and their marriage. But I was gripped by that documentary, an unflinching look at a couple under financial strain, familial strain and choices made which cannot be unmade. To this day, twenty years after I first viewed it, I still recall the scenes, the conversations, spoken and unspoken and the body language of a young couple in distress. What David Sutherland was able to capture on film, no actor or actress can replicate. Perhaps the reason why this long, drawn out documentary about a very average farmer’s wife and her family appealed to me at 16 is because I saw shades of my future self in her.
Juanita Buschkoetter was an unintentional farmer’s wife. By that I mean had she followed the blueprint her family laid out for her, she wouldn’t have gotten married at 18 (right out of high school) to a 24 year old farmer Darrel Buschkoetter. She came from a well-to-do family in the city, her brother went to Harvard University and her sister attended Wellesley. She went off and got married to a farmer at age 18, of her own volition, she wasn’t knocked up or anything like that. She met Darrel and fell in love and she loved farm life. It was tough, it’s an endless cycle of debt, planting, harvest, but it was exciting. Needless to say, this was not a marriage that had the blessings of their families. Even Darrel’s father (also a farmer) felt that Juanita would not be a good farmer’s wife because she was a ‘city girl’. She didn’t have the graft and ingenuity necessary to hack it as a farmer’s wife (he had never been more wrong). Juanita turned out to be an excellent farmer’s wife, even at the young age of 18. She didn’t mind hard work, she had a good attitude, she had a great sense of humor when things didn’t go quite right and she loved her man, she worshipped him. In time they had three daughters and she enjoyed being a mother to those three girls as well.
But in the early 1990s disaster struck. Early frost wiped out one-third of their crops and they weren’t able to pay their creditors (FHA and a series of other government loans), the government was on the verge of liquidating their farm and they stood to lose everything. To supplement their income Darrel had to take a job at a nearby steel factory for $7 an hour and farm at night using floodlights and at times he had to go work for another farmer to make ends meet. Juanita had to go clean rich people’s homes in the city (similar to the home she grew up in and the irony wasn’t lost on her either) to pay for their basic necessities. At one time she had to apply for food stamps to feed her family. She talked about budgeting just $20 a month for food and there were months where they consumed no meat because they couldn’t afford it. Darrel didn’t have the finesse or people skills to negotiate with their creditors to give them an extension on their debt. He was often angry, ill tempered and impatient when dealing with his creditors. So Juanita took over and quite literally, one letter at time, one phone call at a time, she renegotiated all of their loans and kept the creditors at bay. A year later, they had a bumper crop which enabled them to pay off most of their debt. The couple should be relieved and celebrating but they weren’t. Small cracks in their marriage became huge rifts.
At their most troubled time, Darrel began to notice a rising confidence in his wife. He was acutely aware (as was his father though no one gave her enough credit for it) it was Juanita who saved their farm. And he didn’t like it one bit because it wasn’t he who came to the rescue, yet there’s nothing he can do about it. He always felt (and knew her family felt the same) that she was too good for him and that she could have gone to college and done better for herself, but he took comfort in the knowledge that his wife adored him and his daughters depended on him and he was still the ‘man of the house’. Most importantly, he was still able to provide for them. But as the crisis on their farm progressed and as Darrel’s jealousy and insecurity increased (he didn’t want her to go to a friend’s baby shower because he was afraid she might not want to come back) combined with their strained finances, Juanita woke up to the fact that as much as she would love to, she cannot solely depend on her husband to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Those days are gone. So she went back to school and got an associate’s degree studying crop insurance and was able to get a good job in town. In effect, she’s no longer the traditional farmer’s wife. In fact, she sort of went back to the role that she was brought up to be, a middle-class professional woman and she slipped into that role very easily too, after a decade of being a farmer’s wife. She also casually remarked that she was no longer the child without a college degree in her family, so subconsciously, what her family thought of her still mattered.
When the financial crisis hit them, they dynamics of their marriage changed. Juanita rolled up her sleeves and figured out a way forward but she begrudgingly acknowledged:
“I know I deny it a lot of times, but the only thing I can think of is that I must, deep down, be holding it against Darrel, you know, the situation we’re in right now. And I know most of it’s not his fault, but I don’t know how to get over that,”
And Darrel says:
“I think, (that) with the financial problems we have, she blames me for a lot of them. She won’t say she does, but I think she does. And I don’t like that part about her, because I feel like a bomb’s gonna go off if something don’t get said.”
It’s interesting that they do not say this to each other, they each said this on separate occasions to the person behind the camera. In fact, not at any point in the documentary does Juanita unleash her anger and resentment about the dismal state of their finances at him because she already knows he feels “so low” about himself. Even in this difficult time, she’s desperately trying to not upset the flow of their household, which is Darrel is the man of the house (even if he can’t bring home all of the bacon anymore) and she’s the traditional wife. It was a dynamic that’s worked for them for over 10 years and should she disrupt it, she doesn’t know what the fallout and emotional repercussions will be.
This film was released in 1995, the documentary had no ‘agenda’ it was trying to spin, it wasn’t pro or against traditional family or feminism, it was literal documentation of a farmer’s wife and her family. The cameras rolled in good times and in bad, happy times and sad times. The final penny dropped when after Juanita saved their farm along with their bumper crop the following year, Darrel blew up at rather minor debt of $100. Instead of being happy and grateful that they are out of the woods, he’s losing his shit over $100. Juanita had enough of his bad temper and packed up the girls and drove to her parents house for a week to reevaluate. Perhaps at sixteen I realized I was watching how my life could turn out should I take the path of marriage and starting a family. Though I won’t become a farmer’s wife, how do you deal with resentment and shifting dynamics in a marriage where no direct blame can be placed?
Many women willingly let their man take the lead in the marriage because it was the most logical choice at the time, or that it’s just easier, or the woman hasn’t developed her career or path in life yet. Especially when a woman takes time out of her career to start a family, she’s left with no choice but to let the man take the lead in finances and major decisions about the family. Sometimes that pays off but more often than not it doesn’t and when things go spectacularly wrong and you are faced with homelessness or a significant reduction in circumstances, what do you do with all the anger and resentment? Especially when there is nothing but events out of one’s control to blame? Especially if a woman gave up her career to be the family caregiver, where does she put her frustrations and resentments for lost opportunities? As women and especially as mothers, we are not supposed feel resentful for looking after our families and sacrificing our own dreams and goals, this is still a taboo, to think that your children got in your way (but the fact is they do). Is there a box where we can put all of our unrealized dreams and goals and hope it doesn’t unleash its fury at the wrong time?
When you break it down, the faultline reveals itself very clearly. Once a family has chosen to go down the traditional path (across all social classes), male breadwinner, female caretaker, it’s very hard to reverse that dynamic. The roles can artificially change with the female becoming breadwinner or co-breadwinner, but the emotional blueprint of the family is already set. The former breadwinner will feel emasculated, incompetent and helpless. The new breadwinner will feel a sense of independence, confidence and new self-worth that wasn’t there before, but the downside of that is you may be celebrating on your own, especially if you were a woman who took on the traditional role of the family. The initial relief of a crisis solved will soon give way to feelings of insecurity, jealousy and further resentment (proof that you really don’t need your man or anyone else as much as you thought you did).
After a big crisis and as a woman gains some hard earned self-confidence, what does she then do with it? Go back to being a ‘traditional wife’? Even if she did, the elephant in the room has already revealed itself, a woman doesn’t need a man to solve a crisis. Though we know anyone born after the 1960s are brought up to believe we don’t need a man, until you experience it for yourself, when you pull your family or yourself out of a crisis without the major participation of a man (or any person) you cannot appreciate how empowering it feels.
Of all the ills that can affect the dynamics of a marriage, I’d argue feelings of misplaced resentment, unmet or mismatched expectations and the inability to express those disappointments in a conducive manner can be poisonous for a marriage. Whether we admit it or not, we all have certain expectations (or some people call them ‘standards’) of our spouse; we dare not say it out loud because it can come across as unkind or paternalistic, but it’s there. To deny it would be foolish just as Juanita Buschkoetter realized for herself.
The goal of this rambling essay is for me to figure out a way to resolve my own feelings of resentment and unmet expectations by the ones I love. I don’t think I’ve been successful but one can’t wish it away. The most obvious way, which was told to me over and over again is to lower my expectations. But I feel my expectations are already very low, if I lowered them anymore, there would none left.