What I Read: March 2019

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Favorite: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

True confession: I’m tired of reading literary works. That’s almost all I read in high school and all I read in college, because I was a pretentious snob (okay, and scared of reading anything with overt sex and swear words). And I loved it — the highlighting, the “profound” margin scribbles, the essays dissecting this or that theme, the trawling through JSTOR looking for feminist interpretations of Pride & Prejudice. Most beloved, the group discussions. I’m convinced that good, literary works are best digested in groups.

But alas, I am a lone reading island surrounded by busy adults, shrouded in a fog of toddler interruptions.

So I find myself reading thoughtful, serious literary works and thinking, That is objectively a really good book — but I don’t love them, I don’t get excited about them, I don’t think I want to read them. I need a cheap, common, digestible hook to keep me going — quirky characters (maybe a bit stereotypical or unbelievable), a sense of humor, an almost-too-ridiculous situation, a mystery.

But I am still at my heart the same pretentious snob that requires something meaningful and well-written in even the lightest of books — which is why I adored Big Little Lies.

It’s got all those hooks I talked about, it addresses serious, relatable issues, and while it isn’t literary, it’s objectively a good book. I insisted my non-reading sisters read it, and they devoured it almost overnight.

As one Goodreads contributor quipped, “Probably the funniest book about murder and domestic abuse I’ll ever read.”

Bonus: Madeline and Ed are a great example of a normal, flawed egalitarian marriage.

Enough fangirling. The other books I finished up this month:

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, by Marcus Borg \\ 5 stars \\ My full thoughts here.

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, by Marcus J. Borg \\ 4 stars \\ Biggest takeaway: Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of his time with alternate, subversive wisdom based on loving God and others. This reframed some tricky contemporary subjects for me. Instead of just looking at “what Jesus said” as a measure for how to approach today’s issues, I feel encouraged to approach today’s sacred cows with the love, courage, and clarity that Jesus did in his own time.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty \\ 4 stars \\ Being a highly sensitive person, I had to put it down for days every time she mentioned a child’s death. When it became clear that her goal was to help me come to terms with death, I almost refused point-blank to finish it. But I worked up enough courage to finish it. After all, Lent is the perfect time to contemplate that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins \\ 3 stars \\ In light of Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, this just didn’t measure up.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan \\ 3 stars \\ Sub-par writing, fascinating culture. Watch the movie first.

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love \\ 3 stars \\ I need to write an entirely separate post on this. Its concepts saved my marriage, but it’s bizarrely incomplete and poorly constructed.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren \\ 3 stars \\ This sums up my spirituality, I think. (More thoughts here.)

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Do Expectations Kill Happy Marriages?

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“Remember, expectations kill happy marriages!”

It sounds right. Αfter all, many of us have found ourselves stewing in hurt or bitterness because we expected one thing and got another. Sometimes we felt those expectations were justifiable (seriously, just throw the socks in the hamper already), sometimes we realize those expectations weren’t quite fair (how was he supposed to know I wanted a birthday breakfast in bed if I didn’t tell him?). Marriage involves compromises and communication, not stubbornness and reading each other’s minds.

But I don’t like the expectations-kill-happy-marriages advice. It doesn’t clarify what “expectations” mean. Worse, it implies that the only solution to unmet expectations is giving them up altogether. In fact, if you listen to popular Christian wife advice, the takeaway from expectations-kill-happy-marriages is this: You silly woman, your feelings and perspectives are what’s killing your marriage. Swallow your feelings, change your perspective, and your marriage will be hunky dory!

This might be the only survival method in a marriage where the husband’s perspective, feelings, and decisions take precedence, but this sort of thinking has no place in an egalitarian marriage. Our feelings are real, valid, and insightful. Our perspectives are significant and necessary. Our marriage’s happiness does not lie in forced female cheerfulness, but rather on mutual understanding, communication, and accommodation.

I think it’s unequivocally true that regardless of what kind of expectations they are, unexaminedunexpressed expectations kill marriages. No matter how eager and proactive the husband, if he doesn’t know what she wants, he doesn’t know what she wants.

Often those expectations go unexamined and unexpressed because they’re such basic, fundamental things, things you think you both understand and agree on. Throwing tissues next to the wastebasket instead of in it? Seriously? That never came up during premarital counseling.

Unexamined and unexpressed, “I expect you to throw your tissues in the wastebasket instead of leaving them lying around all weekend” is a real marriage killer. (Ask me how I know….) Unexamined and unexpressed, it invites frustration, irritation, exhaustion, and a negative view of your spouses’s character. 

Once examined, that expectation can be expressed in a productive way: “It really bothers me that you leave your tissues lying around when there’s a wastebasket right now. I think that you should toss them immediately so that I don’t go crazy looking at them all weekend. Can you make it a priority to throw them away sooner rather than later?”

There’s nothing wrong with that expectation. It just needs to be understood as an expectation, as an issue that irritates you, and then communicated as such.

Another way unexamined and unexpressed expectations wreak havoc on marital bliss is when spouses don’t know what they want, especially when those expectations get buried under psuedo-arguments. Pseudo-arguments, in relationship psychology, are arguments that on the surface are about the tissues tossed next to the wastebasket, but at its core are about deeper issues relating to trust and commitment: “I don’t think you’re pulling your weight around the house. I don’t feel like you respect my feelings. I don’t think you’re taking my exhaustion seriously. I don’t feel heard or respected. I feel alone and unseen.”

That’s not to say that the tissues aren’t an irritation unto themselves, but the real heat and passion about the tissues comes from the disrespect and loneliness you feel after the tissue expectation goes misunderstood or unmet.

Again, the expectations aren’t at fault, but rather the lack of understanding and communication about them.

The first response to unmet expectations should not be to ignore your reactions or change your expectations. Strong feelings are not a sign of “being silly”; they are red flags signalling a deeper problem about being seen, loved, respected, and helped. Instead of dismissing unmet expectations outright, the disappointed party should examine the expectations thoroughly until she or he knows precisely what the expectation is, and then communicate that expectation clearly, respectfully, and collaboratively.

Unaccommodated expectations kill happy marriages too.

Here’s my unorthodox opinion: marital happiness rides and dies not only on one spouse clearly, respectfully, and collaboratively communicating expectations, but on the other spouse’s willingness to understand and accommodate these expectations. 

Marriage itself is a set of non-negotiable expectations. Those expectations can be mutually changed or lowered, but at a certain point, they shift so much that they no longer resemble marriage.

At its core, marriage is (or ought to be) one giant expectation that you can trust your spouse to care about what you care about. It’s one giant expectation that you will both meet each other’s needs and honor each other’s wishes. Marital trust is built on those expectations; marital commitment follows through on those expectations. Happy, healthy marriages might look different in other specifics, but that is because the individuals within those marriages have different needs and wishes being met — emphasis on being met.

The fact that your happy Christian wife friend can overlook the tissues at her house is a sign that (1) she’s in denial or (2) tissues left by the wastebasket don’t bother her. It’s not a sign that scattered tissues shouldn’t bother you.

This does not mean that you should expect to get your own way, always, exactly as you envision it. That is a dysfunctional expectation, born out of a scarcity mindset, out of a lifetime of being told that either you matter or the one you love matters: you cannot both matter and maintain the relationship at the same time.

That’s why it’s essential to examine even the smallest, most petty expectation, to see where the non-negotiable expectations lie. Only when the expectations are drawn out as distinct, uncompromisable circles can they overlap into a Venn diagram of mutual compromise.

Maybe you can live with tissues lying out longer than you’d personally prefer, because the real issue is that you can’t live with picking up after a grown man. He wants a more lax, independent, let-me-deal-with-it-when-I-feel-like-it approach, and you don’t want to deal with it at all. Maybe the compromise is that he does whatever he wants with the tissues as long as they’re cleaned up by the end of the evening, or that the tissues must stay contained on his personal desk. Whatever the compromise, it cannot be reached by lowering the expectation that the wife’s feelings and desires matter.

That’s often the unspoken command underlying “expectations kill happy marriages,” isn’t it? It’s not asking wives to compromise on the things they can live with. It’s requiring wives to compromise on the things they can’t live with. In order for their marriage to continue, their feelings, their personhood, their rights, their desires, their needs must cease mattering.

And honestly, sadly, that’s what many marriages do require to continue: a relinquishing of the expectation that both spouses matter. Marriage becomes an either/or (either my spouse matters or I matter), instead of a both/and (I matter, and he matters, so what can we do to meet both of our needs and desires?).

This might be a functional relationship in the sense that it keeps conflict at bay or the couple out of divorce court. Unfortunately for those with a scarcity mindset, maybe this is the only kind of relationship where they feel loved or loving.

But it’s not a marriage.

So do expectations kill happy marriages?

It depends.

It depends on the precise expectation. An expectation that you matter more or you matter less, for example — that can kill a happy marriage. An unexamined and misdirected expectation can kill a happy marriage (and that’s really what the either/or expectation is — an unexamined, misunderstood expectation of love). Unexpressed expectations kill happy marriages. And rebuffed expectations — those kill happy marriages too. Failing to meet certain expectations — to be faithful, caring, respectful — destroys a marriage altogether.

But when examined, expressed, and accommodated without compromising the other spouse’s needs and desires, expectations don’t kill happy marriages. In fact, they are the very stuff that happy marriages are made of.

What We Eat

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I’m always curious about how real people eat. It’s nice to hear expert advice and inspiration from dietitians and chefs, but their enthusiasm can only motivate me so much — being, as I am, a non-cook who grew up eating frozen taquitos for lunch and can’t afford organic everything. I’ll just be honest: my budget, interests, and priorities don’t match professionals’.

Still, once I had a hungry child, I started caring more about what we ate. Neither my husband nor I cared about that before. We regularly skipped meals. We ate lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, the only variety being the random spices my husband tried out. Taco seasoned spaghetti was one such experiment. Fresh fruits and veggies? Eh. Occasionally we bought clementines and apples.

But when e.e. showed up with a pure, unspoiled gut, it felt like sin to feed him the same sugary, processed, meat-heavy, vegetation-barren diet we ate.

What to feed him? That was a mine field. The last time I’d done any real learning on diet was back in the dinosaur days of the food pyramid. Everyone swore by these specialized diets that cut out my favorite foods. (Give me my carbs and cheese!) Every diet seemed zeroed in on losing weight or reducing inflammation or detoxing or other stuff that was only tangential to my main question: What do I feed a human in general?

I read a couple books over the past year to figure out the new lay of the food land. The Whole Foods Diet, by John Mackey convinced me that immortality was within my grasp as long as I had the discipline to stay away from all my favorite snacks. What to Eat, by Marion Nestle stuck my spinning head back on straight. The website Real Mom Nutrition gave me the permission and confidence to do my best — even if that included more processed snacks.

Our new food philosophy is pretty simple: inexpensive, plant-based, reduced sugar, minimally processed but easily accessible. Am I really going to bake my own granola bars on the days I’m too tired to get dressed before noon? Absolutely not.

To borrow a line from another controversial area of baby nutrition, fed is best.

Having said that, the research is clear and consistent that a minimally-processed, plant-based diet is healthiest. That gives me both freedom and challenge in my meal planning. My rule of thumb with everything is, Would I be okay with my child eating as much of this food as he wants? If the answer is no, I don’t or rarely buy it (she says, as she eats mint chocolate chunk ice cream at her keyboard).

Because this is my other big thing with food: eating should be pleasant. It should make us feel good about our bodies. It should bring people together. It shouldn’t be a source of paranoia, or a headache, or a trigger for tantrums, adult or toddler. I want to create good associations with food for my son — both in the sense that he reaches for healthy food naturally, and that he doesn’t feel guilty about certain foods. I don’t want him drinking Kool-Aid and eating Twinkies after school everyday, but I also don’t want him to decline a treat at his friend’s birthday party out of an irrational fear of sugar. This means, to me, stocking our pantry and fridge with healthy, yummy foods instead of trying to keep certain things off-limits, and letting him regulate his own appetite within that boundary.

That’s the theoretical stuff. Practically, since I hate meal planning, I follow simple meal formulas and just plug in recipes that meet those requirements.

Breakfast is a dairy/egg, grain, and fruit, and it stays the same every week:

Monday: Siggi’s yogurt, frozen berries, and cereal sprinkled on top
Tuesday: whole wheat English muffin, cream cheese, whatever fruit we have on hand
Wednesday: oatmeal with a splash of milk and frozen berries
Thursday: goat cheese crumbles or yogurt, fruit, and cereal
Friday: oatmeal again
Weekend: probably more oatmeal or cereal if I’m exhausted, or French toast with cooked apple topping if I’m feeling like that kind of mom

Lunch is a meat alternate, grain, veggie, and supposedly a fruit (but sometimes we run out of fresh options, or my guys decide they’re not interested in that particular fruit that day — which happens more than I like, but, c’est la vie). Our favorites are beans and greens on quesadillas, with noodles, or with rice or quinoa; pasta salads; spinach and mushroom French bread pizzas; and stir fries, preferably with peanut noodles. We’re branching out into egg dishes now, such as huevos rancheros, with the occasional grilled cheese or PB&J when I’m running late on lunch.

Try Crazy Good Peanut Noodles with frozen stir fry or Kale and Cannellini Bean Pasta.

Dinner is a meat/meat alternate, grain, and veggie — soups and noodle dishes, mostly.

If I’m planning dinner, we mostly eat vegetarian. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with eating meat, to be honest — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m uncomfortable with all the mental gymnastics I perform to get around the inconsistencies in my thinking. The long and short of it is, I can’t stomach the idea of animals being poorly treated, I don’t think I can stomach the killing of even well-treated animals, but we can’t afford locally sourced meat, and my family still enjoys meat to the point where it’d create hassle and headache to accommodate everyone’s strong feelings on the subject.

So we still eat lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, pending my courage to address my concerns. We just add frozen veggies now.

Try Thai Green Curry with Spring Vegetables or add frozen spinach, a 1/4 cup of whole milk, and a new kind of noodle to shake up regular ol’ spaghetti.

Frozen produce is our secret to getting in enough fruit and veg every day. We buy steamable bags to throw in the microwave for a side, or add them into cooked dishes. We sprinkle frozen berries onto our breakfast foods. They’re quick, cost effective, and don’t spoil. And we live off canned beans — another quick, cheap, shelf-stable addition to meals.

Apart from a couple Pinterest finds, our favorite meals come from Cookie + Kate, a vegetarian website. We’ve also been enjoying new recipes from 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget, by Lisa Leake. Everything else originates from my husband’s brain or personal recipe stash passed down from the women in his family.

Okay: snacks. We splurge and fudge a bit to make sure e.e. gets fed without too much mom guilt. I wish I could say that we only eat homemade energy balls and fresh produce, but I only shop twice a month — snacks have got to last; we’re on the go during morning snack — they’ve got to pack well; and there are few veggies that a baby with a singular molar can eat.

Shamelessly, I buy shelf-stable snacks (i.e., more processed), but I’m willing to pay more to make sure they’ve got realer food and less sugar. Our go-tos are cheese sticks, cherry tomatoes, real peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts) on unsalted rice cakes, microwave popcorn, Craisins, raisins, and other dried fruits (DO NOT get freeze-dried strawberries — nasty), Squeez pouches, chips and salsa, Power Up Mega Omega trail mix, The Good Bean (chickpeas or favas and peas), Harvest Snaps green pea snap crisps, RW Garcia sweet potato crackers, and Triscuit original 100% whole wheat crackers. I’m not above purchasing Cheerios, Kix, and other processed cereals, either. (Some great practical guidance here.)

And on the occasions when there are cookies and candy and ultra-processed foods in the house? We eat them without guilt as special treats — Oreos, chocolate, Girl Scout Samoas, my in laws’ delicious molasses cookies. And I, personally, indulge every morning in a cup of coffee with a generous splash of Natural Bliss coffee creamer. I refuse to live in fear of individual foods when the overall pattern of our diets is healthy. Besides, when you’ve developed a hankering for quinoa and chickpeas, of all things, processed sugar doesn’t sit too well anymore.

I know we can eat better. I hope to continue to make more positive changes throughout the rest of our lives. But like I said: right now, I don’t have the time, interest, and budget to eat like a registered dietitian. I have other priorities that lead me to zap a can of refried beans in the microwave instead of make a lunch from scratch. I feed our family to the best of my priorities. We feel good about our food physically and emotionally, our son eats a wide variety of flavorful, healthy foods, and we all get fed.

What do you eat?

Gently Teaching Breastfeeding Manners

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For all the convenience of whipping out a boob whenever your baby starts squawking, breastfeeding isn’t always a walk in the park. One of the hardest challenges was when e.e. started doing gymnastics at the breast, around nine months old. He was distracted, restless. He bit me a couple times. He started grabbing my glasses and my hair, and whacking my face and chest — hard. I wanted to wean him cold out of sheer self-preservation.

I didn’t really know how to handle it, because he was a baby, after all. How do you teach a baby? The only insight I knew about flailing baby hands was the punitive methods I’d heard in the past: pull his hair when he pulls yours; pinch him when he bites you; gently slap his hand if he smacks you. Show him how much it hurts.

Violence against my child was not option. Neither was violence against me, no matter how innocent or accidental.

My big breakthrough was giving up the idea that I could control my baby’s actions. That is, I couldn’t actually prevent him from trying to hit, pinch, bite, or pull my hair. It’s not like I could get inside his brain and flip an “off” switch for restless baby hands. Nor is that a developmentally appropriate expectation. Once I accepted that he would try to do those those things, I could focus on what I could control: preventing him from actually hitting, pinching, biting, or pulling my hair.

Babies don’t do anything out of malice. They do things to explore, to get a reaction. What happens if I pull on this long hair? What’s that fun sound Mommy’s skin makes when I slap it? Wow, Mommy yelled really loud when I did that! Why would she do that? Can I make her do it again?

A corollary insight: The more you make a big deal out of something, the more interesting to baby it becomes. For toddlers as mischievous, curious, and stubborn as mine (that is, most toddlers), Mommy’s big reactions are excellent opportunities to explore their power and influence — a healthy thing, a good thing, a normal thing, but a thing that gets old and hurtful real fast for Mommy.

It’s better to simply prevent the pain and redirect a baby toward a more pleasant way of being silly, stubborn, or curious.

When his little hand started whack-whack-whacking against me, I’d catch it in mine and kiss his palm. I’d turn it into a distraction far more fun than scratching Mommy’s cheek. I’d stroke my face with his hand, or stroke his face with his hand, or playfully shake his hand, or wiggle his fingers.  I’d play three little piggies on his toes, or the itsy bitsy spider on my fingers, or round and round the garden by his belly button. Usually he stopped trying to whack me fairly quickly, but sometimes he didn’t, and I’d just keep hold of his hand, blowing raspberries into his palm, until he was done eating.

In other words, I responded to what he really wanted: to move his hand, or be goofy with Mommy, or keep himself entertained while nursing. If I were to pinch him back or yank his hair or even cry, “NO! Bad touch!“, I’d be responding to a nonexistent impulse in babies: the impulse to be naughty or disobey or cause pain. The important thing is meeting him at his level, keeping myself safe, and reinforcing positive, pain-free things to do with his hands.

For biting, whether accidental from restlessness or purposeful from curiosity, I would yell out (an involuntary and unplanned response that I include only to keep it real). To reduce the restless acrobatics that led to bites, I learned to nurse him in distraction-free areas or pump a bottle to-go and avoid the issue altogether. If he was really restless, that was a sign to me that he either wasn’t hungry or wasn’t going to focus, anyways, and I set him down and tried again later. If he bit on purpose, I might set him down (not as a punishment, just to collect myself), or I might carry on with more intentional distraction. He didn’t bite more than a handful of times.

Last insight, a mantra really, a perspective that keeps me sane no matter what age of child I’m dealing with: this will not last forever. The standing-on-his-head, kicking, pinching, arm-flailing, tear-inducing, painful nursing stance he took as a nine-month-old only lasted a few months, at most. He naturally transitioned to a more mannerly nurser around age one.

My point is, there need not be any fear surrounding restless breastfeeding or slapping baby hands. He will not grow up to be a psychopath who delights in causing pain. It’s not a serious, ingrained character flaw that needs to be pinched out of him. It’s just a normal development in the breastfeeding relationship, and like all other aggravating parts of childhood, it will likely be short-lived, and it will certainly, eventually pass.

In the meantime, I grab hold of and kiss those flailing baby hands to keep my sanity and skin intact.

Faith Is Not About Believing the Impossible

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Impasse Saint-Eustache, Paris

Just a thought I’m noodling on, from Marcus J. Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally:

Fundamentalism has created so much cognitive dissonance between my faith and the things that I see with my own two eyes. So much so, that all I know about faith is that it’s about believing in impossible things. Isn’t that how people describe it? Faith is believing the impossible?

I’m fine with believing in unproveable things. That sort of belief accepts humanity’s intellectual limitations and the universe’s mysteries. Nobody can prove that there is or isn’t a God, for example. I sympathize with all the reasonable arguments for or against those claims. But the point is, there are reasonable, if not conclusive, arguments for the existence of God. Our understanding of God helps explain the things we don’t or can’t know.

My problem is with an understanding of faith that requires me to believe things I know are most likely not true, or are demonstrably untrue, a faith that pits reason against spirituality.

As Borg says,

Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing “iffy” claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion — as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can’t believe them, then one doesn’t have faith and isn’t a Christian (p. 16).

This was my exact crisis of faith during college: I wanted to believe — I did believe — in the transcendent truths of Christianity, but I simply could not believe the things I knew to be demonstrably problematic, illogical, or cruel. I couldn’t pretend that I could believe those problematic “facts,” not without giving up my integrity and intellectual honesty.

I longed to go back to when the problematic facts about Christianity were not problematic, when the world was simpler and more dogmatic, when there wasn’t as much division between what I believed and what I believed probable.

But once you see something, you can’t un-see it. Once I couldn’t believe something, I couldn’t force myself to believe it again.

Guess that meant excommunication for me. People acted like I’d abandoned the faith because I couldn’t find illogical, destructive statements about God, reality, and the Bible reasonable and good. Honestly, thought I’d abandoned the faith.

But Borg makes a simple, brilliant point: This sort of faith — believing the impossible and the illogical — is completely irrelevant to the kind of faith practiced in the earlier Christian period. Few, if any, people had doubts about the factuality of the how the Bible presented science and history. They weren’t as aware of the rest of the world’s culture and religions. They didn’t know what we know now in all kinds of intellectual categories. Most Christians couldn’t even read the Bible, much less base their faith off untenable claims like “the Bible makes perfect sense and never contradicts itself” or confusing theological platitudes like “God ordains suffering, but he doesn’t cause it.”

Yet they had faith. They valued faith — a faith that absolutely nothing to do with choosing to believe “Biblical facts” over scientific, historical, psychological, medical, and sociological facts.

Their faith was in devotion to Christ and his message, a message that made sense to them, that made sense of reality around them, even if it allowed room for the things they couldn’t know — not an alternative set of facts that they found difficult to believe.

Like I said, I’m noodling on that for a while longer.

Raising Kids without Gender Stereotypes Isn’t About Getting Them to Like Certain Things. It’s About Acknowledging That They Already Do.

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Hurrah for floral prints!

Here’s the problem gender stereotypes: they say many true things about boys and girls — who they are, what they like, what they want, what they’re capable of — but they don’t say all of the true things. My son does indeed enjoy pushing his toy truck across the floor. He rough houses. He ate a handful of mud the other day. He loves the outdoors. He plays catch. He likes bears, lions, dragons, and dinosaurs because they growl and roar. One of his first words was “whoo whoo” — the sound of a choo choo train, obviously.

Name any toddler boy thing, and he’ll likely be into it. All of those “boy things” are great fun, and not remotely toxic.

What’s problematic is when a descriptive observation (most boys like trucks) becomes a prescriptive value that limits and shames boys who don’t conform — e.g., all boys should like trucks, and by extension, shouldn’t like a certain set of other things that only girls should like. It’s also problematic when those accurate descriptive observations ignore other accurate observations that give the whole story about boys and girls — such as, “most girls like trucks too.”

People being who they are and liking what they do is never a problem, even if their interests are stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with statements such as, “Most boys I know prefer trucks to dolls,” and there’s nothing toxic, dangerous, or oppressive about boys enjoying trucks over dolls.

But gender stereotypes often get internalized not only as “the way things are” but also “the way things ought to be” — so much so that those generalities, however accurate, prevent us from seeing our individual kids as they actually are. In other words, we often miss when our descriptive observations become prescriptive, and oppressive, values.

Already someone has snatched a doll away from my son because “boys don’t play with dolls” — a funny observation, since a boy was literally just playing with a doll. “Pink is a girls’ color!” some of my former students shouted at the boy using pink scissors — an odd assertion, since a boy is currently using pink scissors without any evidence of a sex change.

We say “boys don’t,” but what we really mean is “boys shouldn’t.” Instead of changing our concept of masculinity to include all the things that boys can and often are interested in, we try to restrict the parameters of our sons’ unique beings based solely on “what most boys do.”

Do I really have to elaborate on how blind, repressive, and, frankly, silly this is? Even if it’s true that more boys like “boy things,” many boys do like many of the things girls like. That’s a fact. Why deny it? Why can’t “most boys prefer trucks to dolls” be an interesting factoid instead of a prescription for how our individual sons must be? My individual son is not “most boys.” He is himself. And there are many boys (and many girls) like him.

Gendered parenting says be this, not that. It takes all the different things and interests and traits in the world and divides them into two categories: masculine and feminine. It introduces a faulty, absolute division of the world: you can be like a girl, or you can be like a boy — as if that’s the only or primary value governing children’s interests. If a boy possesses too many things, interests, and traits from the “feminine side,” he allegedly becomes effeminate. Even though he may naturally value those “feminine” things and interests and naturally possess those “feminine” traits, gendered parenting says those things, interests, and traits cannot be a boy’s true masculine nature.

Gendered parenting is a lens that trains the eye to look only for masculine or feminine traits and interests in boys and girls, respectively, and thus reinforce only those things as good, normal, and desirable. And if children don’t respond to this subtler reinforcement, gendered parenting openly shames the “effeminate” or “unladylike” things their children do.

Basically, gendered parenting only values parts of our kids — everything that falls under a predetermined “masculine” and “feminine” category. 

Gendered parenting particularly hits hard against feminine traits — obviously in boys, but also in many girls raised in “gender-neutral” households. There is a kind of “gender-neutral” parenting that applies the same prescriptive censorship against “girly” things. Their girls will not wear pink. They will not like princesses. They will not wear dresses, or make up, or sparkly shoes. On principle. These gender-neutral households act as if there is only one way to be a strong woman — and that is to be like traditional masculinity, or at least not like traditional femininity.

Of course, many girls like “girly” things even in households where parents don’t introduce them or outright discourage them. Restricting our children to a predetermined way of being — even if it’s a less traditional, allegedly more subversive way — is just plain old gendered parenting. There’s nothing progressive about it.

My husband convinced me to get rid of the term “gender-neutral” altogether and replace it with “parenting without gender stereotypes” instead. For many, gender-neutral parenting implies an aim to make boys as feminine as possible and girls as masculine as possible, deleting and adding feminine and masculine traits until their child is completely androgynous.

This is not the parenting without gender stereotypes that I advocate. Parenting without gender stereotypes is not prescriptive. It doesn’t let gender concepts for either sex dictate how the child will be raised. It doesn’t place any inherent value on masculinity and femininity as distinct sets of virtues, interests, traits, colors, activities, and so on. It isn’t about making boys less like boys and more like girls; it’s about operating outside of the idea that boys should be one way because they’re boys, and girls should be another way because they’re girls.

Parenting without gender stereotypes draws awareness to gender stereotypes only to check parents’ own biases and tendencies — never to restrict a child’s being.

That needs to be understood clearly: parenting without gender stereotypes is not about “un-sexing” children. It’s not about confusing them about their biology, or discouraging stereotypical interests, or ignoring real differences between boys and girls and how the culture socializes them. It’s about un-gendering and un-stereotyping parents‘ perspectives that would cause them to miss, ignore, downplay, or shame certain of their children’s traits when they view their children primarily as boys or girls instead of as individuals who happen to be a boy or a girl.

Parenting without gender stereotypes challenges parents’ gendered assumptions. We assume that baby boys like blue, sports, bears, dinosaurs, and rough and tumble play, so we decorate their nurseries in “boy colors,” buy them dinosaur rompers, and purchase Little Tykes push mowers for their birthdays. Let me again be clear: nothing is wrong with any of those things, and nothing is wrong with the assumption that boys will enjoy them. In fact, I decorated e.e.’s nursery in primary colors, dressed him in dinosaur rompers for a good chunk of his babyhood, and bought him a Little Tykes push mower for his birthday. Those are all things that are good, fun, and likely to pique any kid’s interest.

A problematic assumption is that there’s something wrong with a boy if he doesn’t like those things, or an assumption that boys wouldn’t like the color pink, dance, cats, flowers, and make-believe dress-up — because let me assure you, they are just as likely to enjoy them as they enjoy all those wonderful “boy things.” e.e. chooses his pink sparkly hand-me-down shoes over his no-nonsense sports shoes every time. His first explorations in play involved a beloved leather purse, a teething necklace, and Mommy’s scarves. He spends the majority of his day “cooking,” and if I ever lose him in a crowded play place, I can generally find him at the play kitchen.

Gendered assumptions miss whole chunks of a child’s world. My e.e. still doesn’t play with his Little Tykes push mower, but he loves snuggling his Monkey stuffie. Going off gendered assumptions, who’d’ve thunk that?

Parenting without gender stereotypes also challenges parents’ gendered assumptions on the meaning of children’s play and interests. Many people would recoil at many of e.e.’s toys: He has a purse? You bought him a purple necklace for Christmas?! You’re emasculating your son!

But that’s superimposing a gendered understanding of the world onto my son’s play. He’s one years old. I guarantee you that he doesn’t gravitate toward or away from certain things based on the social pressure to be a boy, or to advance a feminist agenda. Even if I wanted to shape him into a particular kind of child, I couldn’t: I can’t get him interested in most of the stuff I set out for him. He plays with what he likes, for reasons that have nothing to do with gendered stereotypes. He doesn’t play with purses to challenge the status quo. All he knows about purses is that they’re fun to hang around his neck, pull around, fill with stuff, and fiddle with buckles, straps, and zippers.

Adults read far too much of their own beliefs and fears into their kids’ play. Because we’re hyper-aware of gender stereotypes, we often fail to see the context, the meaning, and the true appeal of a child’s particular interest. We might see the boys who come to my school with painted nails and assume that they’re secretly gay, or want to be girls, or will grow up to be fashion icons, or don’t want anything to do with “masculine” things.

We’d guess wrong, because every one of those boys fits the traditional rough-and-tumble stereotype. They like painted nails because colorful paint fun, especially on nails! It doesn’t stop them from digging for worms or tackling each other on the playground. Nor does it predict that they’ll be feminists or emotionally intelligent or anything like that. It’s just nail polish to them — no gendered thinking, whether traditional or subversive, attached.

Shame, oppression, toxicity; self-confidence, equality, freedom: they start with outside values that parents’ inculcate in their children, not with children’s innate interests. Parenting without gender stereotypes redirects parental influence toward teaching real virtues and values, rather than assuming that certain interests will predict a certain kind of virtue or value.

Of course, what children are interested in can and does influence their values. Play is their way of exploring the world — and it matters. So there’s nothing wrong with deliberately introducing or not introducing a child to something because you as a parent value and enjoy it (or don’t). Parenting without gender stereotypes asks us to examine the reasons why we do or don’t value that thing, and get rid of reasons that are based in gendered thinking — thinking that is entirely arbitrary and culturally bound.

I deliberately put my son in pinks and florals. Why? Because his dad and I like them. Sharing something we love with our son is a perfectly natural parenting instinct. Pink is a great color, floral fabrics are fun, and good grief, God created pink and flowers for everyone. Why shouldn’t naturally-occurring  parts of creation show up on my son’s sweatshirt? Once e.e. starts picking out his own clothes, I won’t mind if he prefers different prints or colors. There’s no inherent goodness in him liking pink or floral; no inherent danger in him picking out his truck pjs and dino shirts instead. His color and print preferences are not, in themselves, indicators about his values or personality.

But the fact that he can wear whatever he likes without having to worry about whether he’s less of a man — that’s an important value I hope to pass on through his pink shirts.

For me, parenting without gender stereotypes isn’t trying to get my son to prefer pink over blue or girl stuff over boy stuff. It’s trying to get him to see that every option is valuable in its own way and open to his choosing. Where gendered parenting says he can be this or that, parenting without gender stereotypes says he can be this and that. He can rough house and play in the mud and play kitchen and drive his trucks and read mermaid books and like lions and like all the colors of the rainbow (or only prefer blue). He can respect women and hate the color pink; he can be a firefighter and unwind with a latte; he can be completely, stereotypically masculine and still be not an ounce toxic in his thinking or behavior; he can be every inch gay and not be any less of a man.

He can like whatever he likes, and by extension, he can be whoever he is, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about conforming to what most boys do just because most boys do it. And I will love all of who he is.

It’s not that kids should enjoy a predetermined amount of “girl things” or “boy things.” It’s that they already do enjoy a whole bunch of diverse things that range from “girl” to “boy” to “neutral.” If we take away our gender blinders long enough to see, that would be the most obvious and accurate description of our children.

I’m Wearing Braces for Lent

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Photo Credit

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.

I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.

But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?

Enter adult braces.

Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.

Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.

P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.

And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.

It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.

I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.

That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.

It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.

It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.

I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.

That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.

And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.

Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.

Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.

The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.

Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.

For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.

And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.

Am I Depressed Enough to Need Help?

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I remember constantly wishing that I was depressed enough to warrant help. My struggles were just okay enough to make me wonder whether it was all in my head — or worse, all in my depraved heart. They were just okay enough that people (myself included) dismissed them as a bad day, or a bad mood, or a bad cry for attention. They were just okay enough that I could manage on my own, and since I could do it, I thought I should, no matter how much it cost me in mental space, energy, or happiness.

I’ve been torn for years about this: Am I struggling because my problems are too heavy to bear, or am I struggling because I am too weak to bear them? Is it an external problem or an internal problem? Is it a mental issue or a character issue?

My so-called depression morphed along with me. I really can get myself out of slumps now, unlike at other times in my life. I don’t experience bouts of depression that knock me out of commission for months at a time. I’d learned coping skills. I’d learned grace. I’d learned to wait out the insomnia and the negativity. I’d learned that I always felt better after a good night’s sleep, that I could accomplish more if I didn’t kick myself when I was down.

Instead of calling it depression (the shame of which started when a kind, cool girl told me, “I don’t like that word”), I started calling it “bad days.” I’d wake up, and I’d have a bad day. I’d sleep poorly, and have a bad day. I’d bump into anxiety, and I knew I was in for a bad day…followed by a bad night, followed by more bad days, and more poor sleep, and on and on until the anxiety worked itself out in a week or two. If I could just make it to a good night’s sleep, I knew things would be okay again. That wasn’t depression, I didn’t think. I don’t like that word. Too melodramatic.

You should see your doctor, my marriage counselor suggested (multiple times). Sometimes a low dose of medication was all you needed.

You should see if medication might help you out, my friend told me.

I’d support you in getting medication, my medication-suspicious husband repeated.

Yeah, of course; they were right; I agreed; and man, did I feel relieved at the thought of medication doing some heavy lifting for me. But that’s what held me back, I suppose: It seemed like the logical fix…but also the easy fix. The too easy fix.

I don’t know what it is about me, but even though I’m scared of pain and hardship — no, really, everyone who knows me knows I’m a wimp about it — I stupidly soldier through. No epidural for me! No ibuprofen for that headache! No medication for my mental health problems! Even though I know, deep down, that I’m going to end up getting the epidural and popping the pills, I fight it.

That’s the only way I know how to feel strong when I feel so weak: putting up a fight against the inevitable.

It’s insurance for when the critical voices in my head or in my life make a dig about me having “depression”: the suffering proves that I’m not a wimp. The suffering proves that I tried the DIY way first. The suffering proves just how deserving I am of relief because now it’s become demonstrably, unequivocally Not Okay.

It’s difficult for me to believe, but I believe it now: It’s impossible to convince someone to view your suffering with compassion and grace. It’s impossible to prove the legitimacy of your mental health issues — even to yourself.

Having depression is wanting someone to see that you are worth enough on your own to warrant help, but you are not enough on your own. That’s what I wanted, at least: not for someone to see me as strong, but to see me as weak; not for someone to see me as mentally stable, but to see me as all wrapped up in my head; not for someone to see me as capable on my own, but as someone desperately needing help; not for someone to point out all these things and mock about how I should deal with it all on my own since I’m just all wrapped up in my head and too wimpy to admit that, but to notice all these things as evidence that they should do something about it too.

That’s why I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t want to hear that mixed message: “This isn’t a big deal, you wimp. You’re strong enough on your own. Get a grip.”

About eight years after my first bout with depression, I went to a doctor. I hedged my problems for fear of exaggerating them like the drama queen I worried I was: things were good, I could go a week or two without any anxiety or insomnia or bad feelings, but it was torturous, difficult, hard during the bad days.

I braced myself for the diagnosis: “Sorry, kiddo, that’s just life you’re experiencing.”

Instead she diagnosed me with moderate depression and put me on a low dose of an antidepressant. The depression, she figured, was created from a genetic predisposition toward low serotonin. All my anxiety ate up the serotonin I needed for sleep, and when I didn’t sleep, the trap door of depression gaped open, and I fell. The antidepressant would close that trap door, so even if I stumbled into a tunnel of negative feelings, I wouldn’t plummet through the floor.

That’s how I viewed depression, especially after I got on medication: as a trap door at the bottom of a tunnel of negative feelings. There’s rock bottom — the sadness and worry and anger and hopelessness that everybody experiences — and then there’s the trap door, the blackness, the free fall of despair. There’s nothing to grasp onto, nothing to orient me, nothing that moves me, and nothing that I can move. I just want the fall to end. I don’t care how it ends — in my death or in my rescue. It just needs to end.

Fortunately, I always feel the jerk of a safety line before I hit whatever comes at the end of the fall. It’s different at different times — the fear of hell when I was younger, knowing I’m loved, being responsible for the child who’s demanding a snack right now. It snaps me back into reality, back into an orientation and a motivation and a direction. I climb hand over hand to the top.

I’d gotten strong from that climb. I could climb out faster now. I could sometimes grab the safety line as I fell, halving the plummet. But I hadn’t ever succeeded in slamming the trap door shut.

Was it the trap door that was the problem? Or was that just life as everybody experienced it, and I was too prone to fall in, and too slow to climb out, and too wrapped up in my own head to grab onto the safety line?

Like everything I’ve firmly believed and devoutly doubted, I wished I’d gone to the doctor sooner. The antidepressant doesn’t stop me from wandering into the tunnel of negative feelings, or shield me from the consequences of going to bed late, or replace the necessity of mindfulness. It doesn’t stop me from tripping. It doesn’t stop me from overthinking or worrying. It just closes the trap door. When I fall, I’m still in the light, on the ground, in a discernible, orienting space. I can think — a totally different phenomenon from anxiety’s frantic, jumbled “logic” that, in the disoriented free fall, lacks half the pertinent information and all perspective.

Medication is not an “easy fix” to depression and anxiety. It’s a necessary step that enables me to work on my anxiety in a productive way — without a fall risk.

Looking back, I realize that the reason I was “just okay enough” was not because my depression was so minor, but because my safety line was so firmly anchored (thanks, my beautiful loved ones) and because I was strong too. And the reason I wasn’t fully okay on my own was not because I was a wimp, but because, unlike non-depressed people, I had an open trap door at the bottom of my negative feelings.

I write this for all of you with open trap doors. It’s scary and liberating to hear: you are not okay enough to do it on your own, and you’re not supposed to do it on your own. You are not making up your depression or bad days or whatever euphemism you use to mask how not okay you suspect you really are. Please get the help you need and deserve.

Marriage Is Not for Sanctification

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If you read almost any Christian marriage resource, you’ll hear something along the lines of marriage being about sanctification. Its purpose: to reveal just how selfish and awful we are, and to make us more loving, patient, and kind. That’s what makes marriage hard, you know: we’re such awful, selfish people, but that’s what happens when two sinners marry. That’s marriage.

Anybody who’s been in a relationship with anybody, married or not, will certainly agree that they do see ugly, selfish sides to both themselves and their loved ones. Marriage is hard.

But I think there’s a crucial difference between saying that “you will be sanctified through marriage” vs. “marriage is for sanctification,” or “marriage is hard” vs. “marriage is supposed to be hard.” When we say that marriage is for sanctification or that marriage is supposed to be hard, we run the risk of normalizing dysfunction or even abuse.

If you’ve internalized complementarian teaching, there’s a good chance you struggle with setting appropriate boundaries, understanding the difference between a responsibility to your husband and a responsibility for your husband, believing deep in your soul that you matter, and expecting to be treated with love, decency, and respect. And frankly, I think trying to figure out an egalitarian marriage with a post-complementarian mindset is brutal. You swing back and forth between pulling yourself up to your full height and demanding equal treatment, and crumpling into guilt and acquiescence.

This creates a cycle of dysfunction that keeps you down: the more you feel disrespected and unheard, the more harshly you demand and expect; the more harshly you demand and expect, the more you feel guilty and acquiesce. The more you acquiesce, the more you put up with dysfunction. The more you put up with dysfunction, the more you feel disrespected and unheard, and so on.

Things cycle through the brink of disaster to happy making up to tolerableness, resulting in a marriage that’s never bad enough to be worth ending, but is it worth much else?

For many women, this is all they know. This is what they witnessed growing up. This is the treatment they experienced as children. This is what they encountered in dating relationships. This is what they think marriage is. And when Christians say that marriage is supposed to be hard, that marriage is supposed to manifest your rotten core, they normalize this dysfunctional cycle, this feeling that marriage is such a pointless struggle, this burden of feeling unloved, unnoticed, and frustrated most of the time. Instead of teaching that hard times are an inevitable part of marriage, the “marriage is for sanctification” line makes hard times — and indeed self-loathing and despair — the default.

If you’re not suffering, do you even have a real marriage?

“Marriage is for sanctification” makes finding a truly respectful, mature, loving spouse a daydream. A mostly happy, satisfying marriage? That’s a girlish fantasy. True love is hard work and sacrifice. And it is, at times, but it’s purposeful and productive work, not spinning your wheels in a dysfunctional cycle.

“Marriage is for sanctification” presumes that the normal capabilities of adult men and women are dysfunctional and sinful, that the sanctification process men and women experienced before marriage isn’t terribly effective to making a mostly happy marriage possible.

“Marriage is for sanctification” makes signs of dysfunction and abuse signs that you’re doing it right, that God is working on you, that you’re truly loving each other, so hang in there.

Some Christian teachers explicitly tell women to stay with abusive partners and dysfunctional marriages for sanctification purposes (theirs or their husbands’). This occurs again and again even in complementarian rhetoric that decries the abusive use of husbands’ authority. But even more egalitarian marriage teaching, or complementarian couples who function with mutual submission, use this line. It’s especially confusing when couples who do have happy marriages say things like “marriage is hard” and “marriage is for sanctification” — without clarifying that marriage is not meant to be a daily struggle.

Marriage is supposed to be a supportive relationship. Marriage is supposed to be a solace, not a struggle. Marriage originated pre-Fall, before the need for sanctification and sacrifice. Marriage is supposed to be for you and for your spouse. If marriage feels like a burden, a drain, or a frustration, if marriage is the biggest trial in your life, if “love your enemy” is your mantra to get you through your daily marriage interactions, this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is dysfunction, not sanctification. This is not a sign of normalcy. If you’re not married yet, these should be blaring red flags. They may be depressingly common struggles, but they don’t comprise a normal stage that all healthy relationships go through.

Marriage is not for sanctification.

We are not rotten, awful people who need our sin thrown in our faces until we get it right. We are people with inherent dignity and value who require a secure attachment to people who love us for who we are, even though we’re not perfect.

Actually, I take it back: if we define sanctification as becoming our best selves, marriage is for sanctification — but that sanctification ought to come through being unconditionally loved, respected, supported, and gently corrected — not torn down, run over, or wrung out. 

I don’t want to take away hope from those currently within dysfunctional marriages. Nor do I deny the redemptive ways couples view their hard times. It’s not possible to be in any relationship without experiencing some sort of disappointment, hurt, and conflict, and it’s important for our marriages that we come to situate those moments within a story of mutual and personal growth.

But there’s a big difference between saying that God can redeem a dysfunctional marriage and implying that a dysfunctional marriage will redeem you. I don’t believe that Christian teachers are making this distinction clear or that it’s coming across clearly to those whose definition of “normal” is dysfunction and disrespect.

A disrespectful, inattentive, immature, selfish, angry, or emotionally unintelligent spouse is not going to change you into a better person. It’s going to derail and exhaust you from personal sanctification, sucking you into that dysfunctional cycle of rage and guilty acquiescence. But a marriage to a respectful, attentive, mature, selfless, self-controlled, and emotionally intelligent spouse? That’s the kind of marriage that sanctifies you.

It’s Not Right That You Got Screamed At, but It’s Good

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I write a lot about the importance of civility when discussing and debating beliefs and experiences (even though I personally want to throttle some people with certain disgusting, ignorant views). It’s a matter of pragmatism, if not principle: People can’t think when you’re yelling at them. People are less inclined to hear you when you hurl insults at them. Plus, it’s unkind and unloving and all that.

That is true. I believe that. I believe we all need to take that to heart — victims, minorities, the oppressed, everyone. Everyone needs to extend grace and understanding. Love begets love, hate begets hate, ignorance begets ignorance, understanding begets understanding, and so on.

But, on another pragmatic note, I’m realizing that not everyone can, will, or wants to extend grace, understanding, or even the pretense of civility. Trauma, oppression, stress — it impairs people’s ability to self-regulate, just as being cussed out for your opposing viewpoint impairs your ability to listen and extend sympathy. As a person of privilege, it’s my job to hang in with what I perceive as tough conversations or unfair treatment or misunderstandings that make me, for that moment in time, feel dismissed or unheard.

It’s not because I think that my hurt is less valuable. It’s that I usually have less to lose if I’m unheard and misunderstood than disadvantaged people are. Hurt feelings and harsh encounters are no fun, but at least my way of life doesn’t ride on me persuading others to hear, understand, or accept me.

I think it’s important to sit with the hard conversations where I feel attacked and misunderstood, if only for this pragmatic reason: oftentimes I don’t truly understand a minority person’s lived experience unless they are speaking without any limitations or fear of repercussions at all — especially the limitation of civility or the fear of being “not nice.”

In my ongoing journey of becoming a foster parent, I joined a Facebook group that sought to give adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents the honest-to-God truth about adoption from adoptees’ perspectives. One of their rules was absolutely zero tone policing of adoptees. None. There were no protections for adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Adoptees could say exactly how they felt in whatever way they felt like it.

It was a brutal experience. Unsuspecting new members left in droves, unable to withstand the cursing out, the taking to task, and the rude, unsympathetic treatment of their questions or experiences. I almost left myself. Like I said, I value civility and nuance, and I didn’t feel like that this group provided that. I felt unsafe. I struggled to learn. I didn’t experience any grace. I was afraid to ask questions or say anything for fear of evisceration.

But I hung in there, and finally, slowly began to understand this group’s perspective — and even value the space’s no tone policing rule as critical to my learning process. Adoptees cannot share their honest opinions about adoption or their adoptive families because they’re out on the street (emotionally or literally) if they can’t figure out how to appease their adoptive families and fit in. Plus, there is such an entrenched narrative about how amazing adoption is and how lucky adoptees are, such a strong parent-centric focus, that any dissenting voices in the conversation get brushed away. There are so few places for adoptees to speak candidly about their experience that nobody is listening. Nobody is sitting with their full experience — especially not their pain, anger, and powerlessness.

As a person privileged enough to be unattached to adoption issues, I am not going to have a chance at understanding their life experience if I want to deal with only the civilized, sanitized version — a version they didn’t experience.

It’s a frustrating reality for everyone on all sides of conversations where disadvantage and privilege exist: it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s coming at you no holds barred — and it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s presented tactfully, civilly, and graciously. It’s difficult to be humble and compassionate towards someone when she’s lambasting you for a microaggression — but it’s difficult to be humble and compassionate enough to recognize just how much of a negative impact your well-meaning action had when someone calmly explains your mistake.

If I’m remembering this anecdote correctly, Ta-Nehisi Coates heard a white student share about experiencing prejudice on an historically black campus — something along the lines of others openly looking at him as if he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome. Coates commented (paraphrased), “It wasn’t right, but it was good.” It wasn’t right that the student experienced such a shunning and an unwelcoming, but it was good for him to understand that this is the black experience in predominantly white America. Perhaps that was the only way he could understand.

It’s never right to treat another human unkindly, and it’s not right to codify unkindness as a communication method. We all carry our pain that deserves sensitivity; we all deserve dignity and respect, regardless of what privileges or disadvantages we posses. (And we all are a mosaic of privileges and disadvantages.)

But there are many not right things in this world, so many that it would require an impossible measure of strength from people who are already laid flat to accurately but civilly convey their experience to people who mean well but don’t get it. Since there are so many flaws both in delivery and reception of hard-to-fathom experiences between the privileged and the under-privileged, it is always good to listen and learn from all people — even the ones uncivilly screaming in your face. Everyone matters, but when we triage for justice, we must prioritize those facing oppression, discrimination, and prejudice over our own hurt feelings.

(P.S. I’m extremely bad at this.)