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How to Listen to a Husband

00:00AM Sep 15, 2008

By a Minnesota farm wife
The average farmer is a champion among worriers. He frets about uncooperative weather, high taxes, the cost-price squeeze and how to make a good livelihood.

As a result, the farmer's wife needs to be one of the listeningest persons in the world. Her husband, without quite meaning to, often finds himself astraddle the kitchen stool spilling over the troubles. She knows that bottling up worries can lead to ulcers, so she hears the man out.

But listen between the lines! One of the trickiest things I had to learn as a farmers' bride was to detect the difference between Bill's real worries and his routine grousing. I label it "routine” when he complains that planting season came so late, we'll end up with 100 acres of fodder and no corn; or that our cows have forgotten how to have anything but bull calves.

But often the farmer has real cause for headaches. Rust can reduce a wheat field to a stand of empty heads. Cows that refuse to freshen play hob with the milk base. A single rain can make the difference between profit and no profit. Excessive worry hinders constructive thinking; so a concerned wife looks for ways to ease the man's mind.

There are some things not to do! Don't call attention to a neighbor who has twice the trouble. Knowing John Jones lost his best cow doesn't alter the fact that our alfalfa winter-killed. I know one wife who tries to laugh away her husband's worries; another who simply walks out of the room. Either method discourages communication—and anxiety needs to be talked out.

I have tried matching each of Bill's worries with one of my own. That does not help his mood either. It only doubles his load when I point out that the washing machine has quit again. Besides, he might remind me I'm prone to over-stuff the washer.

So mostly I just listen. But I may work in a casual question—one that I know has a favorable answer. When Bill frets that unseasonable weather is causing the oats to ripen without filling, I ask him about the corn. He has to admit that it never looked better—and the first thing we know, he has talked himself out of his gloom.

He honors one request of mine—that worry talk be confined to daylight. It used to be that after convincing me we were heading for bankruptcy, he'd roll over and sleep, leaving me to stare into the dark till morning. At breakfast I would be in no shape to rejoice when he'd rush in and announce, "Trixie's got a new heifer calf—a beauty!”

There is no monopoly on helpful listening—it works both ways. When our purebred sow died last winter, a week before she was to farrow, I sat on a bale and cried. My partner offered me a barny-smelling shoulder and reasoned that we'd been having fair luck with the stock and the law of averages was bound to catch up with us. I'll never make a habit of crying, though, for my husband views a weeping woman with the same enthusiasm he has for a stand of thistles.

The competent farmer's motto, although unspoken, must be akin to the 4-H slogan "to make the best better.” He simply can't let it rest when anything stands between him and that bumper crop, those top-notch cows or a load of prime hogs. He may have to settle for less than the best, but don't expect him not to worry about it!

Non-worry can be suspect. A while back I mentioned a farmer who we know slightly—that he seemed so carefree. Bill took me for a drive past the man's place, in order to show me that his fence posts were leaning like rickrack.

Maybe it takes some fretting just to keep the place up. At any rate, as long as my husband is in the business he loves, he will have anxieties. And as he airs them, I'll offer medicine that's time-tried.

I will be on hand—listening.

The Farmer's Wife, April 1967