“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.