Marriage Is Not for Sanctification

jonathan-sharp-1096746-unsplash

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.

Advertisements

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

antenna-503044-unsplash

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.)

The Importance of Blast-Ended Skrewts and Other Harmful, Useless, and Annoying Creatures

skrewts_pm_b4c21m1_skrewtscausingtrouble_moment
Via Pottermore

One of the things I love about J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is the presence of all kinds of humans, magical creatures, and different mixes and sub-categories of the two. There are quite literally different kinds of beings — house elves, centaurs, giants, blast-ended skrewts. They all operate under their own laws, in their own communities, in their own ways. And a good many sub-plots deal with the inter-mingling of these different kinds of creatures — particularly, how to treat them as equals without necessarily treating them as human (as if humanness were the ultimate standard of being, as the centaurs scoff in The Order of the Phoenix).

It’s a big but sometimes subtle theme running through the series: peace between different worlds, communities, and kinds of creatures requires an appreciation of individuals and kinds for who they are. Hagrid admires and cares for the worst of the magical creatures, finding joy in dangerous and ugly things that aren’t tamed or meant for human companionship or service. Mr. Weasley, despite being a pure-blood wizard, is fascinated with the Muggles and their way of life, not only protecting Muggles from regurgitating toilets and biting doorknobs but allowing Muggle influence into his own life (like trying out medical stitches as an alternative treatment). And in Hogwarts itself, Dumbledore shelters, employs, and trusts a whole host of characters who are incompetent, useless, and sometimes evil — the emotionally abusive Snape, all the Slytherins with Death Eater ties, phony Professor Trelawney, crotchety Filch whose idea of justice is stringing up students who track mud through his halls, and the mischievous Peeves who exists solely to wreak havoc in the castle.

We learn throughout the series of these characters’ hurts, back stories, and vulnerabilities. While Dumbledore is aware of these shortcomings and their effects on pupils, he extends patience, respect, and understanding to them, and expects students to do the same. They are inconvenient, annoying, and even harmful, but that, it seems, isn’t the litmus test for acceptance in the Hogwarts community.

This is what fascinates me about Dumbledore’s accepting community: He includes people we in the Muggle world are busy trying to oust from our communities. Only when people arise with the true power to harm students through taking away their agency (Professor Umbrage, ahem) or destroying who they are altogether (Voldemort) does he oppose and remove them from Hogwarts. The racist Slytherins remain at Hogwarts, but the racist Umbrage is removed from control of the community. The authoritarian Filch remains, but Dumbledore never allows him to act out his authoritarian wishes. Flawed — even horrible — people remain in the community as long as they cooperate with or are able to be kept in check by Dumbledore’s restrictions.

Otherwise, the message is clear: Since you’ve got the freedom to be who you are, stand up for yourself, switch classes, and appeal to sympathetic authorities, you’re expected to live at peace with everyone.

(This, I think, is where the Christian message of love and grace breaks down: too often Christians teach a radical personal love without trying to set up a community or a concept of self that protects everyone. All churches, countries, families, marriages, and other relationships must ensure the above freedoms and agencies, or people will not be safe enough or empowered enough to love their enemies or their obnoxious neighbors.)

Everybody in the series has their own struggles with this expectation. For instance, Hagrid’s love and respect of all creatures leads him to try to capture, tame, or interact with dangerous creatures best left at a distance. (See the disastrous blast-ended skrewt lesson pictured above.) Hermione tries to figure out how to respect the house elves’ dignity on their own terms while challenging their unfair treatment. And then there’s the obvious problem of racist pure-blood wizards who harm or look down upon Squibs, Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards — or otherwise good-hearted people with prejudice, like Sirius, who treats Snape and Kreacher in horrible ways for understandable, if close-minded, reasons.

I’ve been thinking about how badly we in the Muggle world need to understand these things: There are truly different kinds of people and different kinds of communities who thrive best when allowed to live according to their own internal standards. Often when we do see different kinds of humans, we categorize them wrongly — either along the wrong differences (race, ethnicity, sex) or in the wrong way (through power hierarchies or through division, separation, and restriction). We judge and value different kinds of people by how similar or how innocuous or how useful they are to our ways of being human.

In my marriage, in my raising of kids, and in my interactions with other people, I’ve become aware of just how different my husband and my son and other individuals are. They are interested in different things. They prioritize different things. They struggle with different things. And it’s tempting to try to shape them into ways of being that minimize all annoyance, inconvenience, and hurt for me.

Of course, where people have true power to harm others or to restrict their being in Umbrage-like fashion, they must be opposed, and they must change. Where people aren’t growing well in the ways of their own kind, or in ways that aren’t conducive to peace, I must support them in changing and growing (if they’re willing) and/or set appropriate boundaries (if they’re unwilling). But where there are simply inter-species, inter-house, inter-kind differences, it’s my job to love them, appreciate them, and encourage them to be as they are — just as I want them to love, appreciate, and encourage me to be as I am.

This doesn’t mean ignoring my limitations and weaknesses or their potential to harm me. In fact, it’s imperative that I understand my vulnerabilities, their triggers (which are often their own vulnerabilities too), and what happens when you mix the two. We instinctively understand this when we humans interact with animals (or magical creatures). We keep our distance, or wear protective gear, or move more slowly, or interact in ways the animal recognizes as peaceable — bowing to the hippogriff, as it were, instead of looking it in the eye and basically asking for it to strike. We understand that hippogriffs aren’t dangerous unless blatantly provoked, that peaceable encounters between kinds rely a lot on education and respect.

I’m learning to do the same with the people I love…and the people who annoy me to no end, or even harm me in some ways. The Gottman Institute reports that 69% of marital conflicts are unsolvable — resolutely and immovably rooted in fundamental differences. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is not fewer differences or more compatibility in a sameness sort of way; it’s the ability to reframe, respect, and work around those issues.

It’s the same sort of situation (if not more so) with our children, or with our co-workers or with our fellow parishioners and countrymen or our enemies — with people we didn’t choose to spend a good amount of time and energy on.

It all comes back to this basic understanding of others’ inherent dignity and our duty by them: People exist to be respected and appreciated and living the lives God created them to live — not bent to my will, convenience, or way of life. They are important not because of what they can do for me or to me but simply because they are.

The world may not need all kinds in a way that makes sense to us, but the world involves all kinds — squibs and wizards, centaurs and humans, Slytherins and Gryffindors, and yes, even blast-ended skrewts, obnoxious ghosts, vindictive caretakers, children of Death Eaters and real world people with problems and prejudice. And since they exist, and they exist differently from us, and we’ve got to get along under a roof or a church or a school or a country, we must love, respect, and understand them as we want to be loved, respected, and understood.

But do stay away from their blasting-end.

You Aren’t Wrong Just Because Someone Else Is Upset

FB_IMG_1547404855421

I’m indebted to Robin Einzig’s (above) and Harriet Lerner’s wisdom on this subject.

As a highly sensitive person, as a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, and as a woman conditioned to care far more deeply about others’ feelings than her own, I find it difficult to say no, to disagree, to disappoint, or to be in conflict with others.

It comes out in different ways with different relationships. With anyone else besides my husband or son, I feel intense anxiety and sometimes terror about conflict, even on the most innocent of subjects, like personal preferences. I tend to clam up and nod along. If they find out my hatred of sausage pizza, our friendship is done for. 

With my husband, this discomfort with conflict comes out in, ironically, angry fights, criticism, and arguments. I’m not comfortable with actual differences between us, not okay with holding to an opinion that he doesn’t completely support too, certainly not able to take a stand that evokes a strong negative reaction in him. Since I have no faith in my own opinions, I have to be right — unequivocally, universally right. My opinion being not mine but God’s own truth, I must therefore argue my husband into submission.

Funny, isn’t it? Argumentative people are so crazy insecure about being wrong that they have to be right, especially when they’re not sure they are.

With my son, my anxiety over our differences in opinion (I want to make breakfast right after I take a quick bathroom break, he wants breakfast NOW) manifests in indecision, guilt, and, eventually, irritability.

I point out these different manifestations because I think both dogmatic, critical people and insecure, guilt-ridden people are just two sides of the same coin: uncomfortable with making decisions that others disagree with; uncomfortable with sitting with someone else’s loud, conflicting emotions; unable to see the difference between causing disagreement and causing harm. And as a result, we lose sight of our own agency and responsibility, as Einzig’s quote above demonstrates.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for believing what we believe and acting on what we believe in accordance with our conscience. For those of us with a neurotic need to be right (and thus safe from harming others or eternal judgment or loss of love or whatever it is we fear most), the scary reality is that we are sometimes wrong…or that there are several reasonable choices available to us, and we’ve got to pick one if we want to live a life. We’ve got to risk being wrong.

Other people’s opinions and reactions make that difficult. Of course, it’s good to consider people’s reactions to our choices, as those reactions indicate the effects of our choices on others. Making responsible, ethical choices for ourselves ought to factor in the impact of our lives on others. A good number of people ought to pay more attention to other people’s reactions, frankly.

And then there are people like me, who swing wildly between crying, “Hang it all, I’ll do what I want!” and cowering in the same spot, petrified of any negative reaction. More scary realities: there are many reasons why someone, somewhere would have a strong negative reaction to our choices — whether that’s our husbands or toddlers or the world wide web. We sensitive people must never construe the presence of a negative reaction to be a surefire indicator that our decision is wrong, selfish, or harmful. We must separate our agency from other people’s feelings.

We lose our agency, our responsibility, and thus our own selves when we cannot separate a decision and our ability to make a decision from someone else’s feelings. Just as Einzig points out, in our discomfort with others’ negative reactions, we start shifting the blame of our indecision or our own feelings onto others: “He won’t let me. I can’t do it.” Eventually we feel trapped. And this entrapment shrivels our souls and boils up into angry conflict with those we love.

There will always be consequences to our choices, for sure. It may be true that you can’t go to the bathroom without your toddler melting down, or that you can’t say no to sex without your husband stonewalling you. But that doesn’t take away your choice. It doesn’t take away your responsibility to make the best decision you see fit. Their reaction is only one piece to puzzle of decision making.

Often it comes down to choosing your consequences: Do you want to sit on the toilet while your toddler screams and bangs on the door, or do you want to take a pee while your toddler destroys your under-sink storage? Do you want to stand your ground and experience your husband’s bitter disappointment, or do you want to have a tiring, empty sexual experience that leaves you resentful?

There aren’t universally right or wrong answers. And to be clear, others’ emotions aren’t right or wrong either. Your toddler is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. Your husband is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. It’s unfair to expect that their emotions should align with yours, and it’s not okay to invalidate their feelings just because they make you uncomfortable. BUT. That doesn’t make your decision wrong. That doesn’t make your feelings invalid. And that doesn’t take away your ability and responsibility to make choices in line with what you think is best.

True boundaries allow you to sit with your own emotions and acknowledge that your feelings don’t take away someone else’s right to feel his own feelings. True boundaries allow you to sit with another person’s emotions and recognize that their emotions don’t take away your agency or responsibility.

It’s a scary but liberating reality.

The Problem with Gender

madison-grooms-482826-unsplash

It’s a frustrating paradox: Modern women today, though more liberated than ever, are often deeply unhappy.

Patriarchalists jump on the high rates of mental illness, anxiety, and stress in the modern woman as their proof that “trying to be like men” and subverting the biologically rooted, divinely given gender hierarchy is a futile project. Women feel this way too, resenting either the pressure to be mothers and homemakers or the pressure to be out in the workforce in order to be a woman. Who among us hasn’t experienced shaming at the hands of a feminist or a patriarchalist because of her work and family choices?

I often feel assailed by both feminism and patriarchalism in my attempts to construct a personhood. I am often confused about how stubbornly anti-woman I am according to someone else’s view of womanhood. According to one view, I am too outspoken, career-driven, and self-centered to be a true woman. According to another, I am too traditional, stereotypical, and family-centered to be a true woman.

I am not surprised that there is a vast number of women who resent both feminism and patriarchy, borrowing ideologies from each without claiming the labels. But even in this No Woman’s Land, we feel guilty, tired, and frustrated with our concept of womanhood, and wonder if conforming more to an ideal — either ideal — will bring relief. They seem so confident, the women dedicated to the idea that God desires women at home, with numerous children, serving their husbands’ vision. They seem so certain, the women insisting that a woman’s influence is best used outside the home, breaking barriers and stereotypes as much as possible.

This is the problem with gender.

I firmly believe in the reality of biological sex. That’s not what I mean when I say “gender.” By “gender,” I refer to a conception of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, based on biological sex differences but not necessitated by them. Examples: men are made for war because of the average man is physically stronger than the average woman; women’s ultimate purpose is motherhood because most women can bear children.

Gender includes these overarching purpose statements, as well as corollary statements meant to enforce them, like pink is a girls’ color, or real men don’t cry. Gender insists that there are two different kinds of people: men and women, who are more dissimilar than similar, who come from two different planets, who fulfill different and fixed purposes, roles, and functions in society. In order to be the best version of ourselves, gender tells us, we must honor and celebrate our gender differences.

This sounds right. We can point to the statistical differences between men and women, and swap anecdotes to discover that our husbands all have the same annoying traits, or that our wives all go crazy during their periods. Women want this. Men want that. Women are this way. Men are that way. We have too many moments of staring dumbfounded at the opposite sex to believe any nonsense that there aren’t innate differences within both sexes.

In all our confidence about gender differences, however, there is deep insecurity and unhappiness. There comes a point in all our lives when gender stops being descriptive and starts feeling prescriptive — when its “biological realities” stop making sense to who we are as individuals or even genders, and starts limiting what we suspect are our true natures.

When I first got into Christian patriarchy and the world of stay-at-home daughters, so much made sense to me. I didn’t resonate with the lifestyle in its particulars — the homemaking, the long dresses, the ban on rock music, the indentured servitude to daddy — as much as I resonated with its goals. Figuring out the Bible? A close relationship with a father figure? And most importantly, a clear, practical, detailed account on how to be a Christian woman? Sign. me. up.

As I grew older and approached graduation, however, I peered into my future and recoiled at the idea of me foregoing college and sitting at home all day doing chores, handicrafts, and nothing. I loved academics. I hated homemaking. I wanted to go to college. I wanted a job. And I still wanted to marry and be a stay-at-home mother for a time. The lifestyle I once found informative and liberating felt oppressive, and I needed out.

Many stay-at-home daughters trying to rationalize their discomfort — i.e., me — talked about how God didn’t design a cookie cutter womanhood. He wanted to use all our gifts. He wanted us to be the women he designed us to be. The problem was, we all assumed that women shared a universal femininity. We shared a gendered ideal that we tried to expand as much as possible to accommodate individuality, while still maintaining the boundaries of womanhood (at home, under a man’s protection, wearing clothes tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady). 

Ironically, a cookie cutter is the perfect description of the problem of gender. The gender cookie cutter cuts into the dough, entrapping some dough within while excluding the extra dough. What’s within, we’re told, is womanhood. Anything outside the cookie cutter is nonessential at best or detrimental at worst. Gender cookie cutters come in all shapes and sizes, some more accommodating than others.

We’re taught to view our personhood through the lens of gender — or to extend to cookie metaphor, to look at only the dough within the cookie cutter. Before we can understand ourselves as humans or individuals, we must acknowledge and understand ourselves as women.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all need to start somewhere in figuring out who we are. As children, we naturally categorized the world and picked up on our culture’s cues that gender differences were a big thing. We made observations from individuals (real or fictional) and extrapolated what men and women as a whole were like: only girls wore dresses, and trucks were boy toys, and only women drank coffee, and all daddies watched football.

Instead of questioning the soundness of our observations or asking whether we fit these stereotypes, we constructed our sense of self in relationship to gender, in an attempt to fit in with our social groups. We either defined ourselves positively with femininity (however our group defined it) or negatively.

In elementary years, there’s little crossover between masculinity and femininity. In order to play with the boys, girls must play boy things. In order to find a social home in the boys’ group, girls must reject not only femininity but the girls’ group themselves. This is where we get labels like “one of the guys” or “not like other girls.”

My point is, we are born into a highly divided, gendered world. The individual gender cookie cutters might differ in what it encloses and excludes (the modern feminine cookie cutter now involves some traditionally masculine things), but gender still defines our social worlds. We first learn our identities as individuals and humans through associating or disassociating with some form of femininity. We are women first before we are individuals — whether we recognize it or not. 

Most of us don’t recognize that gender limits and defines our individuality. Instead of liberating ourselves from gender altogether, we edit the boundaries of gender (“I believe women should be homemakers, but perhaps God calls some women to the workforce” — or vice versa) or swap out entire frameworks of gender that pit traits against each other (the stay-at-home mom life versus the career mom life, a meek and quiet spirit versus the Jezebel spirit, a desire for equality versus submissiveness).

Gender limits us in two ways. The most obvious is in what it excludes. We begin to realize that our concept of femininity doesn’t include our own or other women’s traits. We see that, well, we do care about work other than homemaking, or we do care about contributing financially, or we do possess a gift of leadership, sometimes and often alongside of caring about home and family.

But in our gendered world, many people still see those as “masculine” things. Instead of recognizing that these are “feminine” things, insofar as some women are innately capable of and driven to do and be these things, we ask that women borrow from masculinity as an “exception to the general rule.” Women can bring these masculine traits into their own personal lives, but they don’t change the gender cookie cutter much, if at all. They can be a part of their personhood, but not their womanhood. And in a gendered world, personhood is secondary to womanhood.

That leads me to the second way gender limits us: it emphasizes what’s within the gender cookie cutter as most important and innate to women. Like I said above, we’re okay with women borrowing masculinity, as long as women still place equal or greater importance on femininity. We must care about our beauty, we must tend to the home and the children first, we must keep our husbands (and all men) happy and think of them in how we dress (modest but sexy), act (nurturing but not hysterical), and work (competent but not threatening).

Modern womanhood is a balancing act between our “innate” femininity and our masculine add-ons. Every concept of gender sets the line in the sand when, crossed over, a woman ceases to be a woman, and thus ceases to be a whole person in touch with her nature. Christian patriarchy scares women into submission with the threat of “androgyny.” Secular society accepts women who “act like men,” but they then wonder why lesbians and bisexual women more comfortable with male attire (like the wonderful Hannah Gadsby) don’t just out themselves as transgender men.

Whether eschewing feminine styles and attitudes, bowing out of exhausting beauty maintenance, or using talents outside of traditional women’s roles — there comes a point where a woman exits the gender box and becomes the opposite sex, or unsexed altogether.

This is why the liberated modern woman feels so disjointed and tired about her self and her place in this world: she is still obligated, either by society or by her own unexamined beliefs, to meet all the feminine requirements within her gender box, as well as any masculine elements she resonates with or must meet per her role. She feels guilty for not fulfilling obligations she doesn’t even agree with or for not being interested in things that, frankly, don’t interest her. Her mind is filled with detailed do’s and don’ts about things she naturally doesn’t care about.

Because most individuals and society at large still believe in the innateness of gender, it doesn’t cross her mind to throw out some of these obligations, tasks, interests, and roles — or if it does cross her mind, she fears losing her womanhood, and thus her personhood.

Take the women’s magazines, for example, that allegedly cater to the modern woman’s interests. Apparently, we’re primarily interested in the proper washing of our bras and the care and keeping of our cuticles; we’re worried about our wrinkles and flyaways and the mud stains on the lower half of the entryway door; we feel most relaxed when we take time for bubble baths and keeping an impeccably clean and decorated home; we’re passionate about creating fun summer camps to keep the kids busy and making sure our dogs eat only the best kibble and that our husbands split the housework fairly but they don’t, so, what to do about that?

Our feminine obligations make us feel exposed as moral failures: if it’s a big enough deal for one woman or several women or a whole subscription of women to worry about, then everybody’s going to be looking at our cuticles and activity schedule and entryway doors. Do the majority of women actually care about these things? I don’t, and I bet many of us don’t, but the pressure to look competent in our roles as homemaker, mother, husband, and employee as defined by “womanhood” — the pressure we describe as “having it all” — drives us forward.

Some people think these drives to care about body and families in such specific and meaningless ways are innate, and our inability to fulfill these drives is evidence that women need to drop “masculine” traits and work as distractions.

But I bet if women stopped for a second; identified what belief or obligation lay under their guilt; asked themselves if they truly, personally care about being successful or even interested in certain things expected of women; threw out the goals that femininity pressed on them; and were then supported in fulfilling the goals and interests that mattered most to them, that we would be much, much happier. (This is the premise of Erin Falconer’s book, How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So They Can Achieve Anything.)

I think women experience the pressure to have it all in a way men don’t, but the problem with gender plagues men, as well. I hear men talking about the expectations of manhood that they must achieve in order to be accepted and respected in male-dominated areas and the confusion about what women want from them (a confusion that stems from women’s own confusion about women want, no doubt). It sounds exhausting, frustrating, and constricting.

So I propose a new way of looking at gender: get rid of it. Get rid of the gender cookie cutters that emphasize in individuals things that not all men and women believe or care about and excise the things they do believe and care about. Instead, let’s make the dough the entire spread of human traits, without the categories of “masculine” and “feminine.”

And then let’s make the individuals the cookie cutters, each a unique shape that captures the human traits best suited to them and their beliefs, and excludes the rest as non-essential or counterproductive. Humanity would always be equally available to both men and women. Even if males statistically tended to share certain bends and lines that females statistically didn’t, the individual would not be bound to statistical masculinity or femininity: he or she could shape, expand, or shrink their cookie cutter as they grow in knowledge of what it is to be a person — a personhood that is defined in part by biological maleness and femaleness, but is not constricted by it.

False Narratives About Women’s Careers (Part 2)

being womanThis quote here? It never ceases to drive me up a wall.

This quote nails everything that is wrong with patriarchy, anti-feminism, and even part of liberal feminism today. It promotes a narrative that there are chiefly two kinds of people: men, and women. In this limited taxonomy of all humanity, personality traits, interests, work, and spheres of influence divide neatly into “masculine” and “feminine.” Any time a man or a woman expresses interests or personality outside of this gender binary, or any time a man or a woman pursues a different kind of work or the same work in a different sphere of influence (say, a NICU nurse wanting to be a stay-at-home dad or a women’s Bible teacher stepping into a pastoral role), he or she is said to be outside his or her male or female nature. He is doing what women were created to do. She is doing what men were created to do.

Since there isn’t a huge stampede of men wanting to watch babies and be pre-k teachers and manage the home, we see experience this as a uniquely female transgression — women are constantly trying to be like men.

Poor women. It’s all feminism’s fault, really. Feminism has confused women about who they are. Women feel like they can’t be valued as women; they feel pressured to be like men. That’s why we’ve got all these women abandoning their children to the godless public schools and struggling with the double curse of parenthood and breadwinning. That’s why women can’t have it all: they’re trying to be men as well as women. If only our culture would affirm the uniqueness of women, women would stop being so confused and burned out.

Let me say this loudly and slowly, because most people just don’t get it: Women are not trying to be men. They are trying to be themselves.

They are not busting their butts off at work only to come home and almost single-handedly raise the kids and take care of the house just to “prove” something. They are not spending time, money, and effort in earning Bible and theology degrees they’re barred from using just because they thought it would be a spot of fun. Their pursuit of work in spheres and roles prohibited them are not feminist side hobbies, just to keep them “busy.” They struggle for banned opportunities not because they are duty-bound by the feminist agenda to take over men’s jobs, but because this is who they are as women.

This is their uniqueness. That “man’s job” is this particular woman’s job. That “thing men were created to do” — this particular woman was created to do it.

This is how it has always been. These modern women interested in “men’s pursuits” are not feminism’s Frankenstein, a grotesque amalgamation of masculine and feminine traits zapped to life by hatred of their “unique feminine natures.” They are the most natural, normal, and unadulterated creation: women.

Women (and men, for the record) have always naturally been a mix of traits, skills, interests, and callings that run up and down the masculine/feminine spectrum, sometimes congregating more towards the “masculine” end, some more to the “feminine,” some in the center, and some spread out in both directions. Tell me a person’s sex, male or female, and I can tell you only what they’ve been told they are — not who they are actually.

Women have always been interested in things beyond home and family life. Women have always been intelligent. Women have always possessed “masculine” traits. Women have always possessed “masculine” skills. Women have always been capable of a “man’s job,” because it was never only men’s to begin with. They were her unique interests, capacities, traits, skills, and callings too.

Women are not trying to prove that they can do what men can do. They’re trying to prove that they can do what women do — and that we’re not one wit less of a woman or more like a man in doing it.

A Day in the Life of a Mom with an Eight-Month-Old

Since I shared in intense detail the overwhelming experience of mothering a newborn, I thought I’d share a peek into a much more rewarding time of motherhood. I might be the only mom on earth who never wants to go back to the newborn stage. Yeah, itty bitty babies are the cutest, but I can’t function without sleep or with a nonexistent schedule, and I struggled with the limitations of an immobile baby. And newborns are hard, because they demand so much without responding.

Now that e.e. smiles and babbles and pulls his version of practical jokes on me, I finally can feel a connection. And now that I get enough sleep every night, I actually do feel it.

I love our mornings together. He wakes up somewhere between 4:30-6:00 AM for a morning feed. I gave up trying to designate a specific wake time, but I put him back to sleep if he wakes up before six. We hang out in bed, whispering, playing peek-a-boo with the covers, and annoying Daddy who valiantly sleeps in until past seven. We chat and giggle, and he scratches my face and pulls my hair and steps in my eye. That, and finally admitting that it’s a reasonable time to get out of bed, gets me up. I throw on a robe and make my coffee.

img_20180727_064148699_ll

Caffeine doesn’t make a difference to me, but I like the ritual of something sweet and warm every morning (no black coffee for me!). Plus, coffee draws me into the kitchen and motivates me to make breakfast. Whether or not I actually make breakfast depends on if he slept through the whole night or woke fitfully every two hours from teething pain. Since he still gets all his nutrition from breastmilk, I’m not as rigid about regular meals. And I rarely eat breakfast myself. I know. Bad mom. I’m just so slow in the morning, and I hate cooking.

To accommodate my lack of cooking motivation, I’ve got his breakfast routine down to a simple formula of grains, berries, and fruit. Normally I make porridge fingers or banana pancakes ahead of time and just toss one in the microwave each morning. That way I only have to muster up the energy to cook once every two weeks or so. Then I cut up some sort of berry and fruit (banana or clementine, usually, though I bought plums this week).

I drink my coffee at the table and toss food onto his tray while he feeds himself. We started baby-led weaning (a UK term for eating solids) at six months old. Once we got over the initial terror of choking (which he’s never done), it was smooth sailing. I love baby-led weaning — less cooking, more time eating my own food, and great entertainment. e.e. has developed quite a diverse and demanding appetite. He eats anything, and anytime he sees anybody else eating something, he protests loudly until the person in question caves. Not unlike a begging puppy, actually. His pincer skills are incredible, and he regulates how much food he ought to put in his mouth all on his own.

img_20180714_074603527

After a quick swipe with the wash cloth, I ignore the messy booster chair and release e.e. to play while I finish my coffee. Normally he’s independent in the early mornings, and I read or stare into space while he explores within my peripheral vision. But I follow his lead: if he needs cuddles, we snuggle, sing, and read books until he crawls away, ready to explore.

I am a huge, huge advocate of babies playing independently, for their sake and for parents’ sanity. The paradoxical way of infant independence is connecting when baby wants to connect so that he feels attached and satisfied enough to go explore. I never demand that e.e. play by himself; I just connect when he wants to chat or snuggle, and I don’t interrupt him when he’s doing his own thing.

img_20180914_080012625_burst004

Getting off my soapbox, we enjoy our morning until an hour-and-a-half after his wake up. We follow a flexible schedule based on wake times, and I adhere to it religiously. Our day falls apart if he doesn’t get enough sleep! He takes a long morning nap (1-2 hours), leaving me plenty of time to shower, get ready for the day, and clean. (I usually read or write, to be honest. Like I said: bad mom.)

For some reason, he needs more cuddles after this morning nap. We read one of the library board books obsessively curated for maximum social awareness and diversity. We sing some songs. I bounce him on my knee. I’m likely still not dressed at this point.

On Tuesdays we go to library storytime, where e.e. ignores all the colorful toys and inspects the perimeter of the room. He’ll crawl back to snuggle up with one of the adult strangers or use an infant as a stepstool. We’re making great progress with safe socialization and personal boundaries. /sarcasm

He goes back to sleep two hours after his morning nap and sleeps for an hour, waking up when Daddy comes home for lunch. 95% of the time I’m dressed (unless I’m really involved in a blog post), so we play outside or take a walk to a park. Ideally, I want him to get some outdoor time every day. Practically, I get fed up with digging dirt, leaves, and wood chips out of his mouth and sometimes we come in early.

I love our outdoor time, though. It’s fun to see the world through his wondering eyes, and there’s no pressure to be active or exercise. I just sit and think (or not think). It’s done a world of good for my mental health and creativity.

img_20180913_111520242_hdr

Two and a half hours after his late morning nap, he goes to sleep again. My mother- or grandmother-in-law watches him for an hour while I go to work at my preschool for a couple hours, and then Erich comes home. e.e. reportedly sits up all excited when he hears the door open. He adores his daddy.

I get off around 6:15 PM and come home to a baby eager for snuggles and boobies. We’ll go outside again, maybe eat dinner if our lives are put together enough, or hang out in our apartment. When 7 PM rolls around, we go through our quick bedtime routine: pjs (sometimes), a lullaby, and our goodnight ritual borrowed from my granddad and punctuated by lots of kisses: “Good night! Sleep tight! Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Scrambo! Hasta mañana! I love you!” Then I kiss his cheek with his bunny lovey: “Here’s lovey!” And then I’ll kiss his cheek with his puppy lovey: “Here’s other lovey!” Then I’ll blow him one last kiss (unless I lose all self-control and smooch his chunky cheeks again) and close the door.

Unless he’s overtired (in which case he might cry for 5-10 minutes — getting off schedule makes a gigantic difference!), he’ll babble to himself before drifting off to sleep until around 6 AM the next morning.

img_20180720_150545666_ll1

See? Motherhood isn’t all chaos. I wish my sleep-deprived newborn mom self could have seen this coming — these lazy mornings and those rested nights, and this giggly, snuggly, adventurous eight-month-old.

Instead of Speaking the Truth in Love, Try This

trung-thanh-714899-unsplash

We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.

We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.

We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.

How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.

What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?

I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.

I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.

I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.

This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.

Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.

The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.

If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.

The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.

It’s exactly like childhood development.

When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.

But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.

Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.

That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.

Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)

We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.

I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.

No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.

Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.

How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?

Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.

My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.

We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.

Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?

We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.

That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives. 

If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.

Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

After all, most of us are still learning to walk.

If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

kelly-sikkema-715114-unsplash

In the wake of the Me Too movement, I hope every parent commits to making sexual abuse prevention an urgent priority. Our kids need to know they can say no! to anyone wanting sexual contact with them — whether that’s a teen from high school messaging your daughter for explicit photos, an older sibling intimidating a younger sibling into sexual acts, or a youth group leader grooming the middle schoolers in his care.

But in order for a child to say no! and tell an adult, and in order for that child to grow up into an adult who can say no! and contact the proper authorities, she needs more than the cognitive understanding that nobody can violate her body. She needs more than the knowledge of good touch/bad touch. She needs more than the know-how that she can come to tell Mommy and Daddy anything.

She needs self-confidence. She needs courage. She needs a strong sense of self-worth. And she needs the tools and the practice saying no! to anyone who violates her body or gives off an “ick” vibe. She needs an inner conviction that her bodily autonomy matters more than respecting adults or being nice.

None of those things come from a few conversations about inappropriate touching. Those things come from regular practice and experience in everyday life. My concern is, the parenting promoted in our culture regularly undermines the self-confidence, courage, self-worth, and bodily autonomy of our children. When it comes time to stand up for herself or run and get help, her mind will know what to do, but she will shrink in fear and confusion, scared to offend, uncertain of how to assert herself.

This is true for both the ten-year-old and the twenty-year-old: how we parent daily sends stronger messages about our children’s worth, bodily autonomy, and self-confidence than a couple talks about sexual abuse prevention.

Today’s parenting emphasizes compliance in children and ultimate authority in adults. We demand respect for adults at any cost — and by “respect,” I don’t mean treating all people kindly; I mean treating all adults as authority figures with more say over a child’s life than the child herself possesses. If a child crosses an adult by asserting her own thoughts, feelings, and needs, she is treated as less than a person. She loses rights to her personal property (taking away her things for an unrelated infraction), her body (corporal punishment, grounding, time out), and her right to be treated kindly (screams, insults, humiliation, anger).

As a viral Reddit post says,

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person,” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.” And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean, “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person.”

That’s American parenting in a nutshell.

This creates a dangerous power imbalance between all adults and all children. Adults feel entitled to treat children however they like in order to get the “respect” owed them. Children learn that their own ideas, values, thoughts, and feelings matter less than adults’. They internalize that adults always know better, even if the things they do hurt the child deeply. They learn they must always do what adults say, even if it hurts them, confuses them, or violates their sense of bodily autonomy or fairness. If they don’t do what adults tell them, they are “naughty” and will receive punishment. They fear questioning an adult, lest they be disrespectful. After all, what do they know? They’re just kids.

This is the sort of internal messaging driving a child or a grown adult into fearfully “consenting” to sexual abuse or feeling powerless to say no.

The people who are sexually abusing our children, both young and adult, are rarely strangers. They are older siblings, relatives, family friends, teachers, bosses, significant others, sometimes even parents themselves. They are the people we insist our children respect as authority figures, even if the child brings legitimate complaints about them to our attention. They are the ones about whom we say, “Yes, that’s not fair, but he’s your teacher, so you have to do what he says.” “Yeah, I know you don’t like Auntie’s kisses, but she’s your aunt. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t let her kiss you.” “No, it’s not right that Grandma spanked you, but you need to listen to her when she gives you a direction.”

Instead of standing up for our children’s bodies, feelings, and basic right to be treated as a person, we cave to social pressure, fearful of disrespecting or angering other adults.

Successful sexual abuse prevention hinges on dismantling the adult-as-authority/child-as-compliant power imbalance. We dismantle it by honoring our child’s limits; defending our child’s rights to control their bodies and property; respecting the real emotions hidden beneath inappropriate behavior; and giving children practice in conflict mediation.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Honor Your Child’s Limits

“Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“I don’t want to!”

“NO!”

Few things make authority figures angrier than hearing a kid assert her preferences in a way that shows she values her own thoughts and feelings over our own. In a culture where child compliance is the ultimate virtue, it’s embarrassing when our children refuse to participate in what other children are doing, and it’s humiliating when they do the opposite of what we ask them to do. We worry that other adults will be insulted if the child refuses to hug them, listen to the story they picked, or eat the meal prepared for them. We worry that our kids will grow up anti-social and rude.

But it’s imperative that we honor our child’s internal monitor of danger and dislike, no matter how irrational it seems to us. This is the same internal monitor she will have if someone tries to abuse her. All children feel an “ick” or “danger” factor when encountering sexual abuse. Not all children feel confident in the accuracy of that monitor. If we repeatedly insist that children disregard a strong dislike or fear in favor of social convention, she will learn to doubt the inner voice that helps her determine what’s safe and what’s not safe.

Honoring our child’s fears, dislikes, and assertions includes showing respect and support with our words, tone, and immediacy. It’s not enough to bargain with or bribe the child — “Oh, come on. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s okay!” — and then shrug in defeat. They need immediate validation and support without a hint of teasing, disapproval, or dismissiveness: “I see that you don’t want to join the library story time. Is there something worrying you? You said you don’t know, you just don’t want to. That’s okay. You can stand in the back and watch. I’m going to sit in the circle and listen to the story. If you change your mind, you can come sit with me.”

Any time we insist children ignore their fears and dislikes in favor of pleasing someone else or following social convention, we train them that other people’s desires matter more than their own safety, needs, or preferences. Conversely, every time we honor our child’s refusal to say hello, join the parachute play, or eat the meal Mom worked so hard to prepare, we teach the opposite: My wants, needs, and safety matter more than making other people happy. Mom and Dad won’t get mad at me for standing up for what I want or need. I can listen to what my gut tells me, and if I’m wrong about an initial judgment and decide that it’s safe and okay, I can change my mind. It doesn’t make me a bad or stupid person to listen to my intuition, even if it’s sometimes wrong.

This is exactly the kind of inner conviction and self-confidence we want to create in our children in matters of sexuality and consent: If I can’t give an enthusiastic yes, I will say no. I can always change my mind. I know how to assert myself respectfully and cope with other people’s disappointment. I know I am not a bad, disrespectful, or defiant person for valuing my needs, safety, and preferences.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Defend Your Child’s Right to Her Body and Property

“Be nice. Give her the shovel.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hug!”

“If I see you hitting your brother one more time, I’m giving you a spanking.”

“That’s it! Go to time out and sit there until I tell you you can come out.”

American parenting insists on generosity and respecting other people’s bodies and property, but we do so often at the expense of our own children’s bodies and property. We need a consistent ethic of bodily autonomy and respect that includes everyone, including our children and their property.

Children without a clear understanding of their own rights and property will not be able to give generously. They will clutch their toys and scream, “Mine!” They will hog ten cars and refuse to share one with their sobbing best friend. This vehement refusal to share stems from insecurity and confusion over what really is “mine.” Ironically, the same child who savagely protects his excessive number of toys can become a teenager who caves into unwanted sexual acts because he too isn’t clear on what’s “his” or if “his” is worth defending.

The difference lies in how parents treat this critical developmental stage where children need to differentiate themselves from others, and whether parents continue to support a child’s right to his body and property in the face of others’ disapproval.

Children need clear boundaries on what constitutes “theirs” and what constitutes “others’.” It’s sometimes a difficult line to walk, since parents, teachers, and babysitters are charged with tasks that involve children’s things and bodies. They must wipe and clothe private areas, physically block children from hurting others or themselves, and remove playthings that children use to hurt others or property. Children are more dependent on us for their belongings, safety, and impulse control than adults.

It’s all the more important that we give children as much control as is developmentally appropriate and that we defend our children’s right to control their bodies and property. In areas where it’s inevitable that a parent must intervene for a child’s health, safety, and well-being, this often looks like giving age-appropriate and parent-approved choices: “Do you want to lie down while I change your diaper, or stand up?” “What do you think are good rules for your iPhone?” “You may whack the stick on the ground or the tree, but not on the window. It’s not safe to whack windows; they can break. If you choose to whack the stick on the window again, I will take away the stick.”

Age-appropriate and parent-approved choices still respect children’s autonomy, and they make sense to children. A child will not like Dad taking away his stick and may throw a huge tantrum in protest, but it is fair: Dad gave him clear choices and consequences, and the child made a choice with an unpleasant but natural consequence. If he can’t use the stick safely, he can’t use the stick at all.

It makes less sense when parents take away property or infringe on bodily autonomy as an unrelated punishment. When a parent spanks a child for being disrespectful, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It’s an external punishment that leverages fear of pain to get the child to do what the parent wants. When a parent takes away a child’s Legos for hitting his sister, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It leverages fear of deprivation to get the child to do what the parent wants.

External punishment that violates bodily and property autonomy can work as a deterrent to bad behavior, but it also teaches the child that they should submit to unfair or illogical things if an adult says so. It teaches them that adults do not have to respect their children’s bodies or property and that it’s futile to protest punishment on those grounds. It also sends conflicting messages: Children can’t take things from others or hit others, but parents can take things from kids and hit children because they’re adults.

Forced sharing is another staple of American parenting that values the disappointment of others over a child’s rights. When a parent insists that their child shares, she sends the clear message that the other child’s feelings matter more than the first child’s right to her property and play. It also sends a dangerous message to the child requesting a toy that his wants matter more than another child’s rights.

Children need to see their parents defending their rights to their body and property. Immediately stop tickling or roughhousing the second the child yells “stop!” or appears in any distress, even if she’s giggling or wants to do it again a few minutes later. Give a child parent-approved choices if she balks at necessary caregiving tasks. Never give away or take away a child’s belongings without her permission, unless it’s for temporary safety reasons. Defend your child’s right to play how she likes, even if it makes another child sad or disappointed.

We want our children to give freely and wholeheartedly without compromising their safety or needs. By respecting their bodily autonomy and property now, we instill an inner conviction and self-worth that will serve them well in both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters: My body is mine. I can do what I want with it unless it’s unsafe to me or others. I can stand up for myself even if that makes other people feel sad or disappointed. I will only let others touch me if I like it and feel safe. My parents will always defend my right to say no. I can go to them for help if other people will not respect my bodily autonomy.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Respect Your Child’s Feelings Even if Her Behavior Is Inappropriate

Why don’t children tell their parents if someone sexually abuses them? They’re terrified that they will get in trouble for “allowing” it or participating in it.

Many children feel that their parents’ love is conditional on their good behavior and that they are “bad” for making mistakes or acting inappropriately on legitimate feelings. “It doesn’t matter if he started it!” parents will snap at their kids. “You are the older one.”

“I don’t care if she yelled at you. You can’t hit her. Go to your room!”

“You know better!”

American parenting often sends the message that if kids do something wrong, their feelings, grievances, and reasons for the inappropriate behavior don’t matter. It also holds kids to an impossibly high standard: If they cognitively know something is wrong, they should be able to stop themselves from doing it.

Children are capable of a lot through practice and support. The key is practice and support. Impulse control originates in the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop in children. This is why we can explain things until we’re blue in the face and our kids will still do stupid, inappropriate, or unkind things.

They’re not “being bad.” They’re impulsive and short-sighted because that’s their current developmental stage.

As adults who “know better,” we’re responsible for interpreting children’s behavior, meeting the need they’re trying to convey, and giving them tools to communicate more clearly and respectfully next time.

When we focus on the inappropriate behavior (for example, hitting or yelling “I hate you!”) to the exclusion of the feeling underneath it (“I’m scared,” “I’m mad”) and the cause of that emotion (“He tried to take my truck,” “She’s not listening to my point of view”), we push our kids away from us. This is especially true when we side with adults or our children’s friends, minimizing the harm they caused in order to focus on making sure our children show respect. Our child learns that Mom and Dad will usually side with other people. They won’t believe me, understand me, or support me. I have to be perfect in order for them to care about my feelings and grievances.

When we validate our child’s feelings and point of view and set a limit on inappropriate behavior, we build up an inner conviction in our child of self-worth: My feelings and thoughts matter. If I make mistakes, I can respond differently next time. My parents will support me and understand me even if I make a mistake. I don’t deserve bad treatment from others even if I’m not perfect or treat others badly too.

Abusers capitalize on children’s guilt: No one will believe you. You deserve to be treated this way. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Your parents will hate you for what you’ve done. You’re already a slut, so I can do whatever I want to you.

If a child knows her parents are on her side always, no matter what, those guilt messages won’t deter her. She feels an intrinsic self-worth and conviction in her parents’ support.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Let Children Practice Conflict Mediation

It’s terrifying telling people no. It doesn’t feel good. Many adults avoid it at all costs, going along with the unpleasant situation as long as possible. We operate on the conviction that we need to be as nice as possible and say yes as much as possible and just be a bit more flexible.

This messaging doesn’t disappear the second an intimidating guy starts giving you unwanted attention. If we set our foot down now, before anything really bad happens, we risk misinterpreting his friendliness as flirtatiousness and embarrassing him; we risk making a scene and looking inflexible and rude; we risk hurting his feelings or angering him.

If we’re not used to setting limits with peers, saying no or stop when it really, really matters will be a Herculean task.

It starts with spats over toys and the shrieks of “he looked at me!!!!” and the unwanted rough play. Parents often swoop in to rescue their child or their child’s victim, handing over the toy the other kid wants, yelling at the kid to stop looking at his sister, banning roughhousing completely. In other words, we set the limits and resolve the conflict.

While it’s great for kids to know that parents will be there to help, parents won’t always be there. Our job is to train kids how to handle conflict independently from us as much as possible.

I once supported two kids trying to cross stepping stones in the opposite direction. “She won’t move!” screamed one kid. “He won’t move!” screamed the other. “I want to go this way!” yelled the first kid. “I want to go the other way!” yelled the second. I could have easily required one or both to get off and let the other pass, but instead I coached them to ask the other to move or suggested that one of them get off and let the other pass. They stood there, asking and yelling at each other to move with no resolution, until they both got bored and ran off together to play.

Whenever a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, I ask them what they want to do. Do they want to keep playing but with a new rule against, say, throwing wood chips? Walk away? Confront their friend? If they decide on setting a limit or sharing their feelings, I go with them for support but require that they do the talking themselves.

I try to police kids’ interactions as little as possible unless there’s a real safety issue or a student is violating another kid’s clear or implied limits. When given the chance, they often work things out quite well, even if it’s louder, more disrespectful, and messier than I like. Instead of barging in and solving problems for them, even if kids are upset, I probe their self-awareness about their safety and feelings: “Are you okay with your friend grabbing your arm in this game? Yeah? Okay. You can always change your mind and tell your friend not to if you don’t feel safe. No, you’re not? Okay, tell your friend that you want to play but do not want to be grabbed. Are you okay with her tagging you but not grabbing you?”

This teaches skills clear confrontation skills and the importance of expressing their needs. It’s a courageous act to tell a friend no and mean it, even at the risk of the game ending or their friend’s anger. This also creates a culture where children learn that clearly set limits don’t mean that their friend no longer wants to play or thinks that they are bad people. Limits are good things that enable happiness for everyone.

Isn’t this the exact thing we want for our children when it comes to consent in sex — to values themselves enough to say no clearly, to value others enough to respect the other’s no, to be self-aware about what they like and don’t like and confident and articulate enough to communicate that?

If we want this confidence, clarity, courage, self-awareness, and respect for themselves and others, we need to start now, daily, by supporting peer conflict mediation and respectfully parenting our children.

Can Abstinence Be Sex-Positive?

almos-bechtold-429428-unsplash

Abstinence before marriage is decidedly unpopular these days. It’s not sex positive, people say — that is, it perpetuates negative views about sex and human sexual desire. On the flipside, just having sex is seen as sex positive because, well, it doesn’t require you to withhold your sexual desires and it allows you to express your sexuality however you want.

I think neither approaches are inherently sex positive. We’ve focused so much on can you or can’t you, should you or shouldn’t you, that we’re ignoring the real reasons people have sex and all the different parts that make sex either great or traumatic. A just-have-sex ethic fuels rape culture and exploitation of women and minors because it views the act of sex as good regardless of the different components of that sexual encounter. A just-don’t-have-sex-until-marriage ethic ignores the good things of expressing sexuality in beneficial ways even outside of marriage.

Bottom line: marriage isn’t a magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching abstinence before marriage is a shell of a sexual ethic — just like having sex isn’t the magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching “it’s okay to have sex” is a shell of a sexual ethic.

Instead of teaching either abstinence or participation, full stop, we need to teach sexual integrity — sexual wholeness — sexual regulation. Sexual integrity welcomes our sexuality even before marriage and understands its affects, good and bad, on both ourselves and our partners. Our sexual ethic needs to move seamlessly from before marriage into the marriage bed.

Abstinence education is notoriously incomplete. It’s goal is getting people to not have sex until marriage, and it doesn’t really care how that objective is achieved. It withholds information, spreads misinformation, and catastrophizes sex before marriage. As a result, lots of shame, ignorance, and abuse build up.

Sex before and within marriage is more complicated than that. There are many, many different components of sexual integrity, and when to have sex is only one of them. Those different components shape sexual experiences positively or negatively. They create radically different experiences.

Abstinence is incomplete when it lists “marriage” as the major component to safe, good, and holy sex. Marriage is the ideal, in my mind, but marriage ought to mean a set of specific things: a loving, committed, mutual relationship with the safeguards of supportive community pressure. Marriage at its best is the most committed, intimate, and loving of relationships, providing stability for children, individual personhood, and intimacy.

Not all marriages are like this. In fact, marriage often shelters some of the worst sexual ethics violations. Rape and consent violations occur in marriage. Domestic violence is a huge problem. Unwanted pregnancies can happen.

And conversely, committed, consensual sex can occur outside of marriage. A loving, committed couple having sex before their marriage or a lifelong cohabiting couple are radically different experiences than teens getting it on in the back seat for a one night stand.

Abstaining from what and for what? The answer to that is the answer to whether abstinence is sex positive or not. Abstaining from sex is not sex positive in and of itself, no. But abstaining from sexual relationships or experiences that compromise sexual integrity — whether that’s commitment, love, consent, health, or parental preparedness — that’s sex positive.

The problem is that many of us growing up in the sexual purity movement thought we had a sex positive understanding of abstinence. We were waiting for God’s glorious and good gift of marital sex! How much more sex positive can you get? But we didn’t know anything about sexual integrity or wholeness — about consent and our own sexual natures and truly giving a whole person instead of a girl desperate for male attention and favor. We only knew the goodness of sex in terms of “premarital sex = immoral” and “marital sex = moral.”

Without a concept of sexual integrity and wholeness, we brought a ton of brokenness into married sex — misinformation, shame, ignorance, trauma — and experience a ton of brokenness with married sex — rape, consent violations, manipulative arguments about whether to have sex that night. Shout out to everyone who’s had to Google “how to actually have sex” on their wedding night or shelled out hundreds of dollars for sex therapy or got blamed for their husband’s affair.

This is what happens when we teach abstinence from sex instead of abstinence from an unregulated sexuality.

People have sex for a host of reasons, ranging from really good, healthy ones like “I love and am committed to this person” to “I like sex” to “I only feel worth something with male sexual favor” to “I want to dominate someone.” Sexual integrity and wholeness teach us to be aware of the many reasons we desire sex and sex with this particular person and to regulate those desires in accordance with healthy, safe, loving, committed, consensual, beneficial sexuality. This could look like abstinence from sex or certain sexual acts or going for sex or certain sexual acts, depending on how the different factors line up.

It should be the same for both within and without married sex: considering the desires and needs of both parties, honoring those desires and needs, and using wisdom, love, and grace in responding to them. An unmarried couple deciding whether or not to kiss before marriage should be, in my mind, making the same sort of decision with the same sort of sexual ethic as a wife contemplating turning down her husband for sex that night or debating whether to allow porn in the relationship.

Sex is profound. It affects us and our partners deeply, both positively and negatively. It reveals much about our needs and desires, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being a sexual person is a normal, good thing. Not all the ways we express our sexuality are normal, good things either for us or for our partners. Saying no or yes to sex is a good thing only in accordance with sexual integrity and wholeness.