Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA5

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Who Nurtures the Nurturer?


Special needs of farm women.

Ruth I. Harmelink
Extension Family Life Specialist
South Dakota State University-Brookings


Farm stress, the rural crisis, grief, depression, loss-all are becoming important issues to Extension staff trying to assess the needs of rural families today. As these families face the loss of their land, income, way of life, and dreams for the future, they feel many new stresses. But frequently, when we discuss their problems, we think only of the male farmers and forget their wives.

What changes and stressors are experienced by farm women today? Are they different than those of their husbands? If so, what can Extension do to meet their needs?

Farm Women Interviews

Research tells us that men and women have different perceptions of what's stressful to them, because their roles and experiences are different. Although many farm women consider themselves full partners in farming with their husbands and do many of the same things, they also have different and additional roles.

During the fall and winter of 1985-86, I interviewed 11 Iowa farm women to discover what some of these stresses were and how Extension can help design programs to meet these needs.

The questions focused on what major changes and stresses they'd experienced in the last three years, how they'd coped, how their family had coped, and what kinds of help they needed.

These women were all married, were between the ages of 31 and 64, had children, had at least a high school education, and, until recently, farming was their family's primary source of income. All but one of the women saw themselves as equal partners in the farming operation.

Mother-Daughter-Wife-Care Giver

The interviews indicated that, aside from financial concerns resulting from the rural crisis, the major stressors of the women were in their multiple roles-usually as care givers and support givers for others-and in not having enough time and emotional support for themselves. These stressors fell into six major categories:

  1. Demands of children-being a mother.
  2. Demands of aging parents-being a daughter.
  3. Demands of husband-being a wife.
  4. Demands of being a female farmer.
  5. Demands of being a household engineer.
  6. Demands of being the primary nurturer.

Table 1 gives some examples of stressors identified by the women in each of the above-mentioned categories.

Table 1. Stressors identified by farm women.

Demands of children-mother role
"They seem to understand why I work and yet the demands of everything that it takes to have schoolage kids, the projects, and all the running back and forth were still on my shoulders while he dealt with what was happening to him."

"... the kids were becoming discontented and they didn't have enough of me and my time and other things."

"When the kids were younger, I resented being with them so much myself and I still feel like, if I want to go someplace with the girls (friends) or I have another commitment, I have to find a sitter and I have to make sure the kids are accounted for. If he has an appointment someplace, or he's going somewhere, or if we happen to be gone at the same time, I'm still the one who finds the sitter and makes sure the kids are taken care of."

"There's always your'children's careers.'"

Demands of aging parents-daughter role
"I've tried keeping her (aged mother with Alzheimer's disease) home and bringing her out here. I would get her here and then she would want to go back home. Then she would get back home and she wouldn't want to be alone and she would want to come back out. Or she was lonesome and she would want me to come in and sit with her or stay all night with her and I couldn't. That made it real hard."

"And I'm quite closely involved with his folks. They're in their own home and they're both on medications that need to be taken on a regular basis and they're not capable of making sure that they get them at the right time so I have that responsibility. Then the meals and of course every day the laundry and the mail and everything that goes with it."

"She (mother-in-law) had no sympathy for us whatsoever because we have lived good and she said, 'I can see why you have trouble, people that have tractor cabs and big machinery, I can see why you have trouble."'

Demands of husband-being a wife
"I know how he feels, but I don't know if he knows how I feel. Because when I try to express myself, he just kind of wants to shut me off. He doesn't want to listen to what I have to say. I don't like that, because I listen to what he says and I want to know how he feels, but when I want him to listen to how I feel, he's not there for me."

"He lies awake at night and worries about how we'll pay the bills. I know it makes him uptight and cross. They (farmers) take it out on their wives by being critical. If he gets in one of his black moods, anything I do is wrong."

"Extremely threatening. It (working outside home) still is."

Demands of being a female farmer
"I have reiterated to my husband a number of times how physically inept I feel when I am out there working with him."

"Cooking. We have hired hands, so I do the cooking."

"That's a little frustrating to me because it's (house) never a priority-you know, it doesn't make money. We've been looking at carpeting for our living room and dining room because it's threadbare, but you live with those things longer than you live with a machine that needs to be replaced or fixed up."

Demands of being a household engineer
"Just ordinary, everyday frustrations that everybody has."

"Oh yes, (I have) all the responsibility for that (house). Sometimes it gets a little lopsided."

"As long as their (laundry) is done and I show up when I'm supposed to and put something on the table-it's 'yeah mom."' (Kids are supportive of her returning to school).

Demands of being the primary nurturer
"I try to say, 'Now I need some time for me.' I would go and pursue my hobby, which is music. Last year, I gave that up. Then I tried to be the perfect motherthe superwoman's syndrome and the whole bit."

"I've provided so much support for them (everyone else in the family), I've about drained myself. I get so upset and I'll let things pile up-as far as not getting enough rest and all that. Then I'll get a kidney infection or something."

"I'm looking forward to having something that's mine, that I have earned, a job of my own, that I'm interested in. As I told him many times, 'I married you, I did not marry your profession. I'm proud of the fact that we're farmers. I'm proud of what farmers do. But I need something more."'

Summary of Findings

The stress of the mother role came from trying to meet the demands of the children-including helping them with projects, driving them to after-school activities, having more responsibility for parenting and child care arrangements, providing emotional support, dealing with financial constraints and the children, and guilt when their interests or work prevented attending a child's activity.

The farm women also said they felt stress in trying to care for their husband's and their own aging parents. Again, the women were in a supportive and care-giving role.

With their husbands, the farm women again play a supportive role helping their husbands deal with their stress and frustrations, but not getting the same kinds of support in return.

The role of being a female farmer brings special stresses-worry over bills, getting the crops out, having elevators full at harvest time, banking, the hazards of farming, and decreased land values. Additional stress came from such activities as preparing extra food and lunches for hired hands, running for machine parts, finding the work too physically demanding, and dealing with the upkeep of house and furnishings as a low priority.

And then there were the daily hassles of running a household: budgeting, house cleaning, laundry, meals, gardening, freezing, and canning.

Being the primary care giver for others makes the women wonder, "Who will care for me?" The women talked of not having enough time for themselves and not enough support from others, feeling guilty when they do something for themselves and, even though they view themselves as an equal partner in farming with their husbands, frequently having to deal with others who don't.

Programming Suggestions

I asked the women what kinds of things Extension could do to help them. Their responses were compatible with the stresses they mentioned. Since so much of the stress revolves around being "otherdirected"-that is caring for mothers, wives, and daughters-they need help and support in caring for themselves. The following is a list of suggestions and ideas made by these women, with some additional ones from me:

  1. Support groups for women.
  2. Programs that:
    • a. Bring women together to reinforce their self-image.
    • b. Teach farm women the business aspects of farming, including record keeping, computers, marketing, legal aspects, banking, and budgeting.
    • c. Take women seriously as equal partners in farming.
    • d. Help farm women look at the options and alternatives to returning to school and working part-time or full-time for off-farm income.
    • e. Are just for farm women related to stress management, communication, and anger.
  3. Peer-listening groups for farm women.
  4. Suggestions for holiday traditions and gift exchange that don't cost money.
  5. Ways farm women can trade ideas, resources, clothing, child care-perhaps a return to a barter system.


This valuable resource, women on the farm, can no longer be ignored. If we continue to assume that women are going to be the primary nurturers of the family and caretakers of the family goods, the results could be devastating for them, as well as their families. The women could suffer physically and emotionally. The nuturing role is an important one, but needs to be balanced and shared with other family members.