Don’t be a crane wife

Posted by on Jul 3, 2012 in Blog | 1 comment

Lately I’ve been listening to one of my favorite songs by The Decemberists. It is based on a beautiful and tragic Japanese myth called Tsuru no Ongaeshi or “The Crane Wife.”

After listening to the song a number of times, I realized that the lyrics speak to a common experience for many women:

of being hungrily swallowed up by the needs of loved ones,
of spinning greatness from their own beings on behalf of others,
of giving and giving and giving until they hurt.

Let’s start at the beginning and tell the story of The Crane Wife.

The story

The story, in essence, is this: a man encounters a wounded crane in the woods. He takes it home, nurses it back to health, and releases it to the wild.

Days later, a beautiful woman appears on the man’s doorstep. The man is elated and enamored, and they wed.

After a while, the couple falls on hard times and the wife agrees to bring in good fortune by weaving.

She has only one condition: the husband must not watch her as she works. He agrees, and for many years, she sustains the family and grows its fortune by working late into nights weaving beautiful, gossamer-thin silks.

Eventually, either through curiosity or by accident, the husband stumbles in on his wife working. He discovers that she is an ethereal creature, a crane wife, and that she has pulling out her own feathers to produce these beautiful silks.

She says he has broken their pact and flies away, never to return.

The quiet depletion

The myth varies a bit. In some cases, the husband becomes greedy and forces his wife to work harder and harder. Or, he has a kind heart but is overcome by curiosity and peeks in on her.

I actually prefer the depiction of the gentle husband, because I think it speaks to a quiet depletion that sometimes happens in a loving marriage.

A woman is often taught that she can show love by sacrificing and changing for her partner. I think psychologist and author Helene Brenner said it best in her book I Know I’m in There Somewhere.

“Women yield more of themselves than men do… They see changing themselves for their beloved as a
gift of love… Men change in a relationship, but they don’t offer change as a gift of love. If a man
changes, it must be because he has decided to for himself… Men in love offer affection, gifts, and the
comfort and protection of their presence. But they don’t try to mold themselves for the sake of a
relationship. The very idea sounds ludicrous to a man.”

In the myth, the crane wife changes her shape so that she can become a suitable wife for her husband. She touches down on the earth, breaks contact with her animal self. She loses a bit of her magic, and what magic that remains is harnessed for the good of other people. Her natural shape is distorted.

The deadly loom

How can we translate this dilemma to modern living? This quiet depletion can take many forms:

It happens in the competition we see between mothers about who is making the biggest sacrifices or offering their children the “best” parenting.

Taken to an extreme, it suggests that love=sacrifice and that women who make more sacrifices love their children more.

It emerges in the shaming “selfish” label and other less-than feelings that many women feel when they want to take time for themselves. They feel they are unfairly taking time and resources away from their spouse, children, or work. This dilemma speaks to a larger problem: that they think that their time and resources are owed to others first.

It is hidden in the invisible work that women do every day to run a household. This is more than the simple dilemma about who scrubs the toilets at your house. This is about the weight of unspoken cultural assumptions that women will provide the lion’s share of the childcare, housework, and emotional caregiving in a family. We live in a culture that devalues and hides this work. Because this work is not legitimized, women have no ground to stand on to explain their experiences. After all, how do you explain an invisible burden?

In these ways and many others, women pluck pieces of their selfhood and weave it into the loom. They produce beautiful tapestries—but if you look closely, you can see the blood in the thread.

Toxic giving

In the myth, the crane wife returns in human form to show her gratitude for rescue.  She redeems her debt and shows her gratitude by spinning herself into silk and coin for her family.

This selflessness is not virtuous.

It is actually a form of toxic giving that harms everyone. It sets up unreasonable expectations for men and women.

At its extreme, a woman depletes herself to the point of peril. She then either flees the marriage or exists in a perpetually depleted and exhausted state.

I have worked with more than one woman who has exited a relationship after threading herself through the crane wife’s loom and found that it still was not enough to sustain the relationship.

What makes a crane wife?

There is no harm in doing things for others. The peril comes when you do these things at great cost to yourself, when your own happiness or well-being is sacrificed for someone else’s need.

“If the cost is so high, why would they do this? Why don’t they just stop giving and helping?”

There are all kinds of pressures, large and small, that press women to the loom.

Women are constantly lauded for being selfless, for being generous mothers or partners. They learn that love equals sacrifice, and if they are not vigilant, they begin to barter with bits of themselves to keep others happy.

This is further complicated when a woman has learned early in a high-stakes childhood that her value comes from soothing the hurts and needs of others. It happens when she learns to sacrifice her own selfhood to keep the peace, earn recognition or love, or to remain safe.

Giving, in these circumstances, is not actually giving. You cannot give generously with a gun at your back.

Freeing the crane

The next time someone admiringly calls a woman “selfless,” think of what the word implies. To be selfless is to act without concern for oneself. Is it is a virtue to lose oneself completely in the needs of others?

Is this what you want for yourself, for your daughter or sister or mother?

And should anyone ever try to shame you for being self-possessed or selfish instead of selfless, don’t sit down at the loom. Instead, question why they feel so entitled to a piece of you.

Need help dismantling your loom? Counseling can help with that. Drop me a line or set up an appointment here.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed your story of the Crane. My wife is Japanese, do you have the Japanese translation? I would like to add that the husband can be the Crane. In my case I weaved the deadly loom catering to my wife’s expectations, desires, fantasy of provider for years with no emotional, physical support after childbirth. After three years she left with our daughter. I feel used and manipulated as communication was never getting better with us (she refused to participate in non superficial conversations) and she became more and more distant as I attempted to push the relationship into areas of growth. I specifically wanted to help her and I let go of inherited belief systems. Growth in the form of maturing as parents. For example, I would take us to workshops and events where other parents would share their experiences. I would place us in the community around other families so that we all could grow and evolve. My questions is when does not changing, this idea of ” you can’t change people” cross into an attitude of “change is the only constant” and relationship is there for the mirror, for evolving into better people. Seems to be a contradiction here.
    “don’t change me I am lovable as is”, even when it harms the children and partner ?


    “let’s evolve and grow together, holding space when the shadow arrives” Holding space and feeling each others emotions as taught by the likes of Karla McKlaren’s Emotional Awareness series or Terces Engleheart’s Kindred Spirit.
    Thanks, Neil

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