Beyond Motherhood, Workhood, and Wifehood: Re-defining What it Means to be a Good Woman (or Man)

“They were hoping for a son to carry on the family name,” a woman I work with casually laments in conversation.

My insides choke. I despise when I hear comments like this because it reiterates that even from birth, there are differences in the perceived value and capabilities of males and females. With this couple’s ideology, a baby born with xy chromosomes will be able to carry on a family name. But if this baby is simply born with xx chromosomes, in the eyes of this couple, she already has something that she CANNOT do: carry on a family name. Rigid standards for what women and men should and cannot do hinder society, forcing women to make “and/or” choices rather than “both/and.”
Now over halfway through my twenties, the inflexible “and/or” message I hear the traditional world shouting out most frequently is this: Soon, if not now, you will be reaching a fork in the road. At this fork, you must decide if you will go the motherhood/wifehood route or the climb-the-ladder career route.  

But before we get to the fork, let’s pause for a minute. What if there’s something different? Or something in between? Is life simply an “and/or”?

I know women who are breaking gender norms as inspirational lawyers, doctors, and authors, addressing gender parity beyond the suffrage movement and into areas of global justice, gender-based violence, and women’s economic development. I also know women who are stay-at-home moms who do anything but “stay at home. They’re volunteering in HIV/AIDS ministries, advocating for the poor, visiting the sick, caring for the hungry, serving as board members, and taking care of their own children. When we underscore one or the other as “the goal,” the thing you were supposedly created to live for; When we dictate what is the “right” or “wrong” way of doing marriage, career, and family, we reinforce the idea that women must choose; they can’t be both. Certain circles will praise her wife/mother/homemaker choice and others, critique it. Some circles will laud the career ladder climb, leaving women who are serving and changing the world in ways outside of a typical employment schedule simply out of the picture, dismissed. Often, “stay-at-home-moms” are portrayed as June Cleavers. Some may be. Some would argue that this is the very thing women “should” be doing these days. While 14% of American women identified as stay-at-home-Moms in 2012, I’d hardly think this categorization gives enough recognition to the ways in which these women are changing the world through their service and leadership in their spheres of influence. On the contrary, when we hold motherhood and “wifehood” as the “ultimate” for women, we imply that those who do paid work outside of the home aren’t attentive to their families, can’t raise good children, and have their priorities wrong, which negates the ways God can use one’s employment to change the world. When we encourage women to solely invest their time and energy in home front matters, we live lives that are small, as if our family of (3, 4, 5 etc) is all that matters. But when 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, if all we do is snuggle in our children a little bit tighter and keep the floors shined, we’ve sorely missed the point.
These rigid messages suggest that something must be wrong with a woman if she isn’t married by 30. As if the only talent she brings to the world are her breasts and ovaries. As if it doesn’t really matter how much she likes her first job out of college; all she needs to do is suck it up for a few years because soon enough she’ll be married and out of the working world anyway, so what’s the point?
Other messages portray the glorification of brides (have you seen the array of bridal magazines in the grocery line?) through tv, and, in the Evangelical Christian community, books. It’s no wonder the wedding industry is worth an estimated $40 billion– and that’s just in the U.S. Through this culture, women are set up to think their wedding is the pinnacle of their life. The only day that matters. Consequentially, there then becomes a trend of girls selfishly becoming the focal point of their universe, through bride wars, expensive dresses, family feuds, all captured on public tv, after all, she’s the star of her show, both literally and figuratively in cases like “The Bachelorette,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” and the other 26 wedding-themed television shows. When women are encouraged to receive their validation through marriage, we don’t present women with all the ways in which they can become something, someone.
I wonder if this is why many young women and men are disenchanted about their wedding day. Because with the mindset that society and some religious circles embrace, this is the day that a woman will prove that she’s beautiful enough, wanted enough to be “chosen” as someone’s life partner. Similarly, this is the day a man follows through with what he has been socialized to believe about what he needs to do as man in order to be successful: marry, work, and, according to many Evangelicals, “lead.” Both the woman and the man, in this framework, get married for the wrong, self-centered reason: seeking affirmation, acceptance, and a “check mark” from society or religion. And twenty years down the road, many of these couples find that their marriage has not brought them happiness. Their “day in the sun” desiccated a long time ago. The wedding photos are in albums collecting dust somewhere in the basement. Deep intimacy was lost sometime after the honeymoon, but before the kids were grown and out of the house. And once the kids are out, there’s no distractions available to divert attention away from the ugly truth that you and your spouse barely know each other now. Because, from the start, it was all a show- after all, we had “roles” to play, right?

At some point, I wonder if we’ve hyper-focused on such gender roles: manhood and womanhood, instead of personhood. How, then, does one become a good woman or good man, if not through the mores of certain religious circles and society?

We can start by dropping the word “role.”  Women and men have biological differences, but there’s a difference between your sex and your gender. Society or religious circles often shout what your gender “role” “should” be, while your sex just happens to be whatever chromosomes developed in utero. May I suggest that the most genuinely “good men” and “good women” happen to be, in fact, marvelous people, people who delight in simply being a Child of God.

I want to create a life that doesn’t have “role” after the word gender. I am not trying out for a play; I’m showing up to create my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men.  I want to pursue what I’m passionate about, without worrying if it’s “womanly” or “manly.”

Which brings me back to the beginning. Instead of defining a good “woman” through the sole lens of motherhood, workhood, or wifehood, why don’t we start defining a good “woman” or “man” by being true to their particular calling? To the degree we’ve loved our neighbor, loved our enemy, loved God, and even loved ourselves? Because God doesn’t have the same plan for all of us. And I think there’s still some unreconciled tension among women with differing choices in regards to mothering, marrying, and working.

Conservative Christian voices such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose board is composed of an entirely white, all male staff, will continue to use God to keep men and women in separate, distinct, inflexible roles. Popular culture might too. But we have a choice, everyday, to decide who we will be and what we will do. And so, here’s my victory statement, my peaceful rebellion: I will live out the life God has planned for me, no “blanket statement” rules here. I will delay marriage until I feel I am fully capable of loving someone unselfishly to the best of my capacity. Truly, we can live from the wisest, most passionate, alive, parts of our hearts. No, you won’t find me making blanket statement rules for an entire gender because to do so limits the diversity of the callings God puts on people’s hearts. Yes. I’ll be walking as a Child of God on the Road of Freedom, having my (wedding) cake and keeping my last name too.

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“Women Are Fine China” and Other Misconceptions of “Christian Gender Roles”

I’ve never understood the Evangelical preoccupation with “gender roles,” a phrase that Jesus never even mentions. The word “role” is defined as: 1) A part or character played by an actor or actress. 2) A proper or customary function. 3) The rights, obligations, and expected behavior patterns associated with a particular social status. It’s a word I don’t want to associate with my faith for several reasons. For one, I am cautious of following any type of socialized expectation without critical examination simply because of someone else’s implied standards of what they think is “normal,” “proper,” or “right” rather than fostering freedom for individuals to be their true created selves. The Jesus I worship did not adhere to societal expectations, but carved an identity that touched those who weren’t supposed to be touched, spoke to those who were not to be spoken to, and ate with those whom were not supposed to be given his company. And thank God he didn’t bend to what his society deemed appropriate, because otherwise there are women who would have never been touched or taught, people who would still be sick and unhealed, and there would not have been communication between “high” and “low” classes or cross-cultures (Samaritans and Judeans).
But perhaps my biggest problem with “roles” is that all of this leads to a show. I’m not trying out for a play; I’m showing up for my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men. So putting on a “role” of who I “should” be instead of who I truly feel I am is disingenuous. Instead of carving out a subversive identity like Christ did, I fear that some circles of Evangelical culture contribute to this pretentious, shallow, unfulfilling “show” by its restrictive teachings on gender. Here in lies some of my experiences.

It was 2005 and I was a bright-eyed, eyes wide open, Division 1 collegiate swimmer in my freshmen year of college. I was feeling alive physically, mentally and spiritually in ways never before. That is, until I decided to read the entire Bible and gasped over passages in which Paul starts talking about women needing to be quiet in church and submissive to men. Trying to slough it off, I picked up some books on my college ministry’s recommended reading list. I picked up “Captivating” by Stasi Eldridge and was told that “every girl longs to be rescued and to be a princess.” Sorry, I was taught that the only person who could “rescue me” was Jesus and I’ll stick to that.

Enter sophomore year. This marked the beginning of wrestling with “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” It was the year in which I cringed when I heard a guy from this same college ministry tell me that a female pastor was out of God’s will and her career choice was a sin.

It was the year in which one of the men in this particular ministry called me “to talk to me about something.” I made my way down to the college lounge, hair wet from swim practice, only to be told that when I wore a tank top (during that hot, 95 degree move-in day in August 2006), I “caused him to stumble.” He asked me repeatedly if I would please not wear tank tops anymore. I told him, “sorry, but I work out and when I sweat, I’d rather not have sweat stains.” What I really wanted to say was to please stop telling me it’s my fault that you’re stumbling. If you keep tripping, go grab some crutches, “man up,” and deal with your own sexuality instead of blaming me for the “feelings” you have (or a boner).

It was the year in which I was told from a male group bible study leader one cold, January evening that women were fine china and men were sturdy pots and that 1 Peter 3 meant that I had to be content with being fine china and embody a calm, gentle spirit. And in that moment of sitting in that guy’s apartment living room, with a fine china glass glaring me in the face, being told that’s what my gender is: essentially, fragile, I felt an aloneness and righteous anger that I will never forget. You see, my Bible study leader didn’t see that glass stare him in the face after working out in a weight room and swimming pool for five hours that day. He didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. to work out for two hours, only to return at 2:30 for another three. Or bench 90% of his body weight that day. Instead, this individual was inside all day preparing to tell me that the Bible says I’m fine china. When this Bible study night of oppression was over, I walked out of this guy’s apartment, tears warming my eyes as I trudged back to my apartment, imbued to only work twice as hard the next day, with each kick of my leg in the pool wanting to shout, “I AM NOT FINE CHINA!!!” For crying out loud, I am a Child of God. I happened to have developed two x chromosomes sometime in utero, before I had fingers and toes, thus making me a woman. My call is to love God and love others, no different from you. And so with a galvanizing spirit from that day forward, I vowed to pray. To serve. To love. To be strong. To benchpress. To dream. I will s o a r. I will continue on with this journey, ok with being contrary, if that’s what it takes.

And that’s exactly that it takes. Fast forward another year to summer 2007, the day before a dear friend’s wedding. The afternoon before the ceremony, a group of guys and girls affiliated with the wedding party went down to a lake for a picnic. Before we left the house, we had a pow-wow in which the guys requested that we wear a one piece bathing suit, no two pieces please. But it didn’t end at that. They then went on about “causing them to stumble” and requested that we not even wear bathing suits at all; we should wear a shirt and shorts to swim in the lake that day. I kept my mouth shut. Being a swimmer, I don’t have this feeling towards swimwear. A short car ride later, we arrive at the lake, dressed in our “bathing suits,” while the boys took off their shirts and splashed through the water in their swim trunks to their hearts content. Toward the end of the afternoon, we took pictures of us making pyramids. The guys had their shirts off, hairy (and not so hairy) chests completely exposed. The girls had their shirts on. And shorts. No swim wear. Just clothes that were supposed to count as such.

Upon graduating college and eventually moving back to Baltimore, I tried my best to find a church community with whom to devote quality time in involvement, but knew it was my queue to leave when there was an entire sermon on “the three P’s” in which men were instructed to be pastors, providers, and protectors to their wives. I met sincere, genuine people at this church, whom I respect and am grateful to have had in my life, but that was a clear signal that this was not the church for me to heal from restrictive gender roles.

And so I’m still trying to find my way; trying my best to keep a straight face through friends’ weddings in which “submission,” and “obey” have been used, but reached a bubbling point in 2011. I sat in the back row of a quaint church, tears streaming down my face, not because I was moved by the wedding, but because I was hurt. The pastor spoke about “knowing your roles.” I watched the groom, who I used to have a crush on (now grateful for God’s ways being higher than my ways when it comes to relationships!) listen to how he was instructed to be the leader of his wife, and I watched as the smiley wife’s eyes glittered as she was instructed to respect her husband’s leadership and to honor and encourage him. I walked out of the wedding ceremony swiftly, in hopes no one would see me, lest I attract attention to my tears rather than the wedding celebration. My boyfriend walked back with me to my car, putting his arm around my shoulder, to which I responded half angrily, half fearfully, “you don’t believe that stuff, do you?” “That’s not what you’re looking for, is it?” “Noo, babe, noo.” I was reassured. It made me question my faith all over again, not God and Jesus, but Church and Christianity and especially Evangelicalism. I couldn’t understand how this teaching at all correlated with the way Jesus lived, and couldn’t comprehend why she was being told that her new life mission was to honor her husband because that’s her “Biblical calling.”

And another “Biblical calling,” according to Evangelist John Piper, is to recognize that “God gave God gave Christianity a masculine feel,” as he proclaimed at the 2012 Desiring God: God, Manhood & Ministry – Building Men for the Body of Christ Conference.

So for many years I was slowly brewing inside with all of this, but after graduating college, I was no longer sad, in fact I was angry, and I’m not sure which I would rather feel, but perhaps the greatest feeling of all that I am JUST starting at this moment of my life to taste is FREEDOM.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten connected to organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality and subscribed to the blogs of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans and other women and organizations who are stepping out in faith to promote gender equality and have taken the time to dismantle the contextual aspects of scripture that entangle dissension and debate all too frequently.

Thankfully, I’m no longer cringing in my seat as a college student, behooved with anger but too afraid to speak up upon being repeatedly instructed that women needed to be willing to be led and should say yes to every guy who asks them out because they are demonstrating Godly courage (Where again, does Jesus say this in the Bible?).

No.

I’m not in my seat anymore.

I’m not angry at the megaphone.

I’m somewhere in between.

And I think it’s called freedom.

And though I still have much to learn, much to mature upon, much to learn about Christian unity in relation to voicing freedom from gender roles, I am learning how to let go of the lap bar and wave my hands in the air on this rollercoaster, no longer entertaining gender role dress rehearsals. And. I. Love. It.

Rachel Held Evans depicts the pitfalls of literal Biblical interpretation— http://www.rachelheldevans.com