The Problem with Gender

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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.

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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.

Is Feminism to Blame for Men’s Bad Behavior?

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This culture’s feminism is actually empowering men to be the worst versions of themselves. They get the sex without the commitment. They get the pregnancy without the baby. They get the date without picking up the check. They get the relationship without being a gentlemen.

No opening doors, no pulling out chairs, no providing, no protecting, and no male responsibility. Because hey… everything is equal. In other words, modern feminism is the perfect recipe for men to side-step God’s call for how to treat a woman. But a Godly man knows better. A Godly man knows he’s equal in value but different in role.

He knows that he can be a protector, a provider, and a lover without being “toxic” or “dangerous.” Men, it’s easy to support a movement that allows us to get lazy—it’s why so many men have already jumped on board. But don’t do what most men do. Do what Godly men do. Cherish women. Value women. Listen to women. But don’t ever escape your role in the process. // Dale Partridge

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I see variations of this anti-feminist sentiment all the time. Feminism is to blame for men’s bad behavior. Equality erodes male responsibility.

To the first claim, that feminism is at fault for men’s bad behavior: I actually agree that certain aspects of today’s liberal feminism encourage and sanctify men’s bad behavior.

For many liberal women, the litmus test for what’s feminist and empowering is anything a woman freely chooses to do. This may include porn, sex work, and other ways of sexually objectifying oneself. Sometimes this trivializes feminism: I wear high heels as a feminist statement that women can be whatever they want to be, including traditionally feminine! Sometimes this undermines feminism altogether: I’m going to objectify myself in the name of empowerment!

Feminism should not be just about celebrating each woman’s individual choice to do whatever she wants to do. It’s great that women have freedom and options. But at its core, feminism is about identifying and breaking down patriarchal values that even we as feminist women have internalized.

When we try to sanctify patriarchal values with feminism (like freely treating oneself as a sexual object or pursuing sex without commitment), we do give license to men to continue disempowering women, now with our consent and blessing. We do put ourselves in positions where men can easily harm, objectify, or disrespect us and other women, particularly women at risk of trafficking and abuse.

(I’m making a very important but tricky distinction here between a woman encouraging a man to view her as a sexual object and inviting unwanted sexual advances. I would argue that sex workers, for instance, encourage men to treat them and other women as sex objects, not only in the context of their work but elsewhere. Nonetheless, just because a woman gives consent to be objectified in a certain way doesn’t mean she gives consent to or desires other kinds of sexual attention or the same kind of sexual attention in a different context. A woman’s clothing, occupation, or behavior, however intentionally or unintentionally sexual, are not excuses for men to harass or assault her.)

There’s nothing feminist about women’s choices that harm and disrespect themselves and other women.

If we’re simply talking about that kind of free-for-all feminism, I completely agree that today’s feminism is bringing out the worst in men.

But if we’re talking about feminism at its most simplest definition — equality for women in all areas of life — this anti-feminist critique makes no sense. Equality cannot erode male responsibility.

Many anti-feminists erroneously think that feminism isn’t really about equality; it’s about ridding the world of men, doing everything without them, and replacing everything male with everything female.

While I’m sure you can find “feminist” sentiment of that nature, just as you can find anything online nowadays, that is not what equality means. Equality doesn’t mean men must stop being providers, protectors, and responsible human beings. It means that it’s not just men who can or must be providers, protectors, and responsible human beings as the situation arises. And it also means that men should be free to be nurturers and nurtured themselves.

Anti-feminists think of the world in terms of strictly gendered roles. There are limited Protector Roles, Provider Roles, and Responsible Human Beings Roles, and those roles encompass the whole purpose of a man’s life at all times, in every situation. It is impossible for a man to take on a Protected or Provided For role in any situation without ceasing to be a man.

According to this narrative, anti-feminists interpret women’s desire to be equal as women desiring to take those limited, all-encompassing, non-nuanced roles. Each time a woman takes a Provider, Protector, or Responsible Human Being role, she must bump a man into a Provided For or a Protected role, thus stripping him of all manly traits and responsibilities.

That’s not how the world works.

There are no all-encompassing roles in life, where one is only in every situation that particular role. The Bible and everyday life are full of godly men submitting to and seeking protection and provision from godly women, and vice versa.

In the same token, there is not a limited number of exclusive Responsible Human Being roles. There need not be a Door Holding Role limited to only one gender: “Oh, dear, that woman is holding the door open for me; therefore, I can never hold open a door for anybody else ever again.” Men can continue to hold open doors for women, and women can now hold open doors for men. Men are still free, able, and encouraged to be respectful and responsible in all areas of life now that women are free, recognized as, and encouraged to be respectful and responsible in all areas of life.

In getting rid of a one unilateral way men must treat women, feminism puts the onus of treating others respectfully onto the part of us that’s human. Men can hold doors, pay for the date, fight off the bad guy, and whatever else the Male Role requires because it’s the right thing to do as a human. It is a beautiful, good, human thing to do others a good turn, to show deference, to be generous, and to protect those weaker than oneself. It’s not about fulfilling a predetermine Male Role. It’s about being a moral human being.

When feminists want to hold open doors, pay for dates, and fight off the bad guy, they are not saying, “I want to be a man. I want to get rid of any opportunity for a man to do these things.” They are saying, “I want to be fully human too. I want to do others a good turn, show deference, be generous, and protect those weaker than oneself any time the situation arises, because these are human traits, human responsibilities.”

What happens when we shatter these restrictive, predetermined, exclusive roles? Now we have two people willing to fight off the bad guys. Now we have two people committed to putting others first. Now we have two people making sure the bills get paid. Now we have two people “outdoing one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10) — all expectations required of both sexes in the Christian tradition.

Equality doesn’t destroy men’s moral responsibility. Equality strengthens it.

It is not good that man should be alone. I shall make an ezer kenegdoa savior, a rescuer, a strong helper suitable for him.

But How Do You Make Decisions?!

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Real-life footage of how we often argue

Complementarians incredulously ask egalitarians, “If someone doesn’t get the final say, how do you make decisions as a couple?”

This question amuses me, because I can’t imagine how else to make decisions than by discussing our opinions on equal footing and coming up with a decision on which we both agree.

It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes I’ve wished decision-making were as simple as having the husband step in and call the shots. But there’s intimacy and oneness in making a tough decision together, with both spouses equally influencing and fully supporting the outcome. There’s wisdom, too, as two brains are better than one alone.

How do we egalitarians do this magical thing of making decisions together? It’s very similar to how most complementarians make decisions: we discuss, we listen, we look at things from all angles, we try to come to acceptable compromises or alternatives.

The only difference is that when egalitarians reach gridlock, the husband doesn’t say, “Well, looks like we can’t agree. I’m taking it from here.” The only difference between a complementarian couple making a decision and an egalitarian couple making a decision is that egalitarians keep going.

In my experience, and the experience of other egalitarian couples more seasoned in marriage than I, the perfect solution lies just beyond that huge bump in the road where you’re convinced you will never, ever agree.

Okay, but what does it really look like?

It kind of looks like an extended discussion that can span anywhere from a whole day to years, along with much personal reflection that seeks to understand one’s spouse’s position, as well as one’s own, with as much respect, charity, and open-mindedness as possible. 

Joint Decisions

When it comes to joint decisions — decisions that significantly impact both spouses — we generally yield to the person least comfortable with the decision. This isn’t something we decided on in writing; it’s just something we do, and it’s worked for us so far.

Right now, my husband is excited about buying a house. I am not. He would be happy moving this year. I would not be. Our mutual submission to each other looks something like this:

On my part, I listen respectfully when Erich tells me about a new house. I try to show genuine interest and understanding about where he is coming from. I go to showings of houses. I try to remain open-minded. I try to make sure that my objections to moving are reasonable and fair, not about being contrary or getting my own way.

On my husband’s part, he hears me and tries to understand my perspective. He does not drop the discussion or hide his enthusiasm, but he doesn’t push the issue too far so that it comes between us or gets disrespectful. He knows that since I am not comfortable with buying a house right now, we will not be buying a house until I am comfortable. He also knows that I am happy to entertain his thoughts and opinions.

For other joint decisions, sometimes we yield to the person most passionate and/or opinionated on a subject. One of our first arguments was (of course) about Erich leaving the toilet seat up. Unused to sharing bathrooms with boys, I’d tumbled into the toilet bowl a couple of times. It obviously wasn’t fair that I had to put down the toilet seat whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom. The toilet seat must stay down at all times! Then Erich shot back that it wasn’t fair that he had to put the toilet seat up every time, either.

An impasse.

I was so stunned with this excellent point that I’ve been putting down the toilet seat ever since.

Now that I think about it, Erich is much more opinionated about smaller household decisions — which brand to use, what foods to eat or not eat, how to fold socks — and since I don’t care, or don’t care as much, I shrug and do it his way. Why not?

For joint decisions that require more expertise, we generally delegate to the person more capable, interested, and/or available.

For instance, Erich handles long-term financial issues (retirement savings, the budget, investments, etc.), and I handle issues surrounding childcare and education. We do research, we come up with plans, and we present those options to the other spouse. The final decision still lies in both of our hands, but the mental load of sifting through the millions of different options rests on only one person’s shoulders. The more expert party might ask the other spouse to research a particular point or familiarize themselves with basic principles in order to make a more informed decision, but only one spouse does the mental heavy-lifting.

It’s kind of like the Congressional/Presidential relationship: one spouse is Congress, debating the options and presenting the final legislation; the other is the President, who gets veto power and can send the legislation back to Congress for further review.

That’s for joint decisions.

Personal Decisions

When it comes to personal decisions, we strive for “transparent independence.”

It’s difficult to have a truly “personal” decision in a marriage; our personal lives directly and indirectly affect the other spouse. But Erich and I agree that while it’s important to run personal choices past the other spouse, the responsibility for making some decisions lies with the person it most affects. 

We firmly believe it’s important to maintain individual autonomy in these matters. We need opportunities to fail, succeed, change, and respond to our own personal needs and desires within a supportive relationship. Exercising authority over the spouse, no matter how benevolent (as in complementarianism) or informal (as in constantly nitpicking and henpecking), is disrespectful and unnecessary in a relationship between two adults.

Further, we need opportunities to see, understand, and respect that other people can do things differently than we do. It’s not necessary to be uniform in order to be united! [1]

Issues about how we spend our free time, how we spend smaller amounts of money, how we parent, how we practice our faith, how and when we perform our household duties, what job we get, etc., all fall under “personal decisions” to us.

We’ve always run everything past each other, even if it’s not technically the other spouse’s decision or doesn’t affect them that much. “Do you mind if I spend the evening playing games with my friends?” “Would you care if I bought some snacks during the grocery run?” “I’m spending over a hundred dollars on this particular thing. Is that okay with you?”

This isn’t about permission. It’s about transparency and accountability, and an acknowledgement that our personal decisions do affect the other spouse. Normally I’m happy for Erich to play games with his friends, but maybe that particular day I’m worn out from being a stay-at-home mom and want him to watch Emmerich while I nap. Normally Erich doesn’t care about what I buy at the store, but maybe he wants to point out that I’ve been eating too much junk food or am constantly going over-budget. Of course, we trust each other’s judgment on larger purchases, but maybe we feel the money would be better spent or saved in another way.

Even with big personal decisions that hugely affect the family, we try to give each other as much autonomy as possible.

With parenting, for instance, we split along traditional mom/dad divides: I am more nurturing and cautious, Erich plays rougher and rowdier. I don’t always like how Erich parents (and vice versa!), but after saying my piece, I give him space to be the dad he thinks Emmerich should have. (And normally Emmerich giggles over whatever crazy game his daddy comes up with — even the ones that give Mommy a heart attack!)

An Important Reminder

This is what works for our particular relationship. None of this is formula for all marriages.

We’ve been egalitarian from the start, so we don’t have to deal with any latent authoritative male headship issues that might require a wife to be more assertive. We’ve never dealt with infidelity, substance abuse, or addiction, which might require one spouse to set boundaries stricter than appropriate in a healthier marriage.

And even in our own marriage, individual situations require a slightly different approach or end up with a slightly different outcome. Sometimes one of us changes our mind, sometimes we reach a compromise, and sometimes we hit upon a completely different third way. We just never know until we get there!

I firmly believe that there is no one way to reach a united outcome. It’s not about a wife yielding to her husband all the time, or a husband yielding to his wife all the time, or a wife asserting herself all the time, or a husband asserting himself all the time. It’s a dance of submission and assertion, of staying silent and speaking up, of changing one’s own mind and challenging the other’s. 

But the common denominator in of all of these variables is that we never close the discussion or make a decision unless both of us are happy with the outcome. While some decisions seem more impossible than others at the time, we’ve always found a satisfactory conclusion to our disagreements.

And let me say again: this way of decision-making is not always easy. Whether from selfishness or simply difference, becoming a united front is daunting. The decision-making process surrounding family faith and parenting, for instance, started at the beginning of our dating relationship and only reached an acceptable compromise sometime during our first year of marriage. That’s around four years of debate, frustration, discomfort, tears, and despair.

But as hellish as that time was, the outcome has been amazing. There is no resentment, no feeling that we weren’t heard or understood, no frustration about having to do things the other person’s way — only unity and understanding we never thought possible at the time.

[1] Dr. John Gottman, a prominent researcher on marital health, says that even in happy marriages, the majority of disagreements remain unsolvable. It’s important to pick your battles and give lots of grace and understanding!

A Definition of Toxic Masculinity

This promo for the Stronger Men’s Conference made its rounds in egalitarian circles and was soundly rejected as the textbook example of “toxic masculinity.”

Which reminds me how many people misunderstand what egalitarians mean when they talk about “toxic masculinity.”

Frequently, people read “toxic masculinity” as a statement: masculinity is toxic and/or, by extension, men are toxic. On the contrary: “toxic masculinity” works just like any adjective/noun pair. “Toxic” describes a certain kind of masculinity.

For the people in the back, “toxic masculinity” does not mean that masculinity is toxic. It means that toxic masculinity is toxic.

Many egalitarians stop there.

Radical feminists take it further. They believe that masculinity (not men, masculinity) is inherently toxic, all of it, because both masculinity and femininity are gender constructs, and gender constructs are toxic. As Rebecca Kotz puts it,

Gender is the tool to maintain the patriarchal power structure. Gender/masculinity is inherently toxic because it is used to distribute power in a hierarchical, abusive, fixed way based on our biology. That is why traits associated with masculinity are often identical to traits associated with dominance and soldier-like qualities (femininity is associated with subordination, deescalation, and trauma responses to male violence).

(Quick definition of gender: radfems discriminate between biological sex and gender. Sex differences are real. Gender isn’t, as it is a social construct and confine based on stereotypes that limit real people’s real traits.)

Here’s where it starts getting tricky. Even though feminists will insist that they do not hate men, many will read misandry between the lines of these definitions of toxic masculinity precisely because our culture cannot always distinguish between violence and dominance and being a man.

Many men will defend their interests in weapons, war, violent video games, MMA, and the like on the grounds that being dominant (e.g., the spiritual leader or the head of the home) and being war-like is at the core of manhood. Simply by being masculine, violence, domination, and many things associated with them get a free pass from scrutiny. It’s okay that boys role play violence, because that’s just what boys do. It’s okay that he’s obsessed with getting to the top, because real men have ambition.

When people hear the words “toxic masculinity” leveled against things traditionally associated with men — especially one’s own self-concept as a man — it’s understandable that “toxic masculinity” feels like hatred against men.

But “toxic masculinity” is not meant as a commentary on, much less a personal insult against, individual men who choose to be or do things traditionally associated with masculinity. It’s certain things (like war) or traits (like power) situated in the context of a particular narrative that real men are like this in exclusion to balancing “feminine traits.”

That is to say, it’s not toxic that your husband is the strong, silent type. What is toxic is the idea that real men don’t show emotion. It’s not toxic that you enjoy playing football. What is toxic is the idea that men who would rather bake, read, or create are sissies. It’s not toxic that your brother serves in the military. What is toxic is the idea that real men are willing to kill others for a higher cause, and non-violent men are sub-masculine as a result.

Does that make sense? Radfem Megan Hita puts it more succinctly: “The concept of masculinity is toxic, as it says there’s only one right way to be a man. That does not mean that all things that are often said to be masculine are toxic, but that the concept itself only serves to limit people and proscribe their behavior based upon their sex.

That’s what’s so toxic about the promo for the Stronger Men’s conference. It’s not the monster trucks and the football and the automatic assault weapons, per se. It’s that it’s all power, violence, and domination in the name of manhood, without any acknowledgement of the other nuances and interests of other real men. Even worse, it’s all power, violence, and domination in the name of Christian manhood, without even a nod to Christ’s humility, servant leadership, and non-violence.

For a conference claiming to turn men into stronger Christians, it’s emphasizing not only things non-essential to being a Christian man but things contrary to core Christian principles.

Like my husband said: It’s not that there’s MMA there. It’s that they’re calling it Christian.

This narrative of manhood presented as the promo presents it as the definition of a “strong man,” with no counterbalance, is, in my view, toxic masculinity at its finest.

*

More resources: Rebecca Kotz explains how gender is more than stereotypes: it’s the basis for patriarchal oppression. Engaging, informative, and well worth the 35 minutes of your time! Behind the Mask, a Netflix documentary on the damage toxic masculinity does to men and boys, is another must-watch. I watched it once while pregnant with my son and then insisted my husband watch it with me again.

Gendered Parenting Advice?

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I was disappointed to see this article printed in a mainstream parenting magazine. Entitled “Boys vs. Girls: How to Tailor Your Parenting Techniques,” it lists several ways boys differ from girls and vice versa, and how these differences require responses tailored to your child’s specific sex.

Where to begin?

Well, first, girls and boys are more similar than dissimilar. Data on so-called masculine and feminine traits falls into a normal bell curve, like so:

Bell curve v1 A

The average boy and the average girl are pretty much the same. Gaussian distribution also means that a significant number of girls are more masculine than the average boy, and a significant number of boys are more feminine than the average girl.

Certainly, some differences do exist between the sexes, even at young ages. Biological differences cause girls on average to grow faster and hit puberty sooner, something that will change once the average boy hits puberty and surpasses the average female peer in height.

But most of the time, when people talk about the differences between boys and girls, they’re observing the extreme, outlying masculine and feminine traits — not the average boy and girl and not innate biological differences. These sociological differences may be statistically significant, but not significant enough to change parenting strategies on the basis of sex alone.

I don’t have the space to detail all the ways in which neuroscience tries to find psychological differences between the sexes that simply aren’t there, but Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference and Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes by Christia Spears Brown debunk or clarify many of the article’s claims about gender differences.

Even if the differences mentioned in the magazine article are accurate interpretations of correct research, those differences are made larger and more meaningful than they really are.

The first example in the magazine article demonstrates this: “Boys develop language skills more slowly than girls. Most of their speech is comprehensible by age 4 1/2. So avoid ‘constructive criticism’ using abstract words such as inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. They can sound like the wah-wuh-wah-wah-wah of the adults in ‘Peanuts’ cartoons to your son.”

The educator in me died a little. How does comprehensible speech indicate the level of boys’ verbal comprehension? Every language learner comprehends more than he can verbally express. Even if speech and comprehension develop at the same time (that is, slowly), the logical solution is not to avoid widening the child’s vocabulary but to familiarize the child with the meaning of inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. Ironically, the online article links to another, gender neutral parenting article on how talking, talking, talking is the key to developing language and widening vocabulary — not avoiding certain words because your child is a boy.

By following this gender-specific advice, we train ourselves and our society to perceive boys as more incapable of verbal expression and thus to treat them that way, resulting in — surprise, surprise — fewer verbally expressive men.

All of the advice in the article could just have easily been presented in a gender-neutral way: Certain children require louder decibels to hear, so if your child “ignores” you, she or he may not have heard you in the first place. Certain children have a hard time sitting still. This is because they’re kids.

It’s unnecessary to mention gender at all. In my work as a teacher, I’ve never found gender helpful in diagnosing problems or planning lessons. I assume all children need communication adjusted to their unique personality. I assume all children have short attention spans and a need to move after 15-30 minutes. My students ran the gamut of self-control and communication skills, and I’ve seen them go through all the stages of verbal and physical development that every kid, boy or girl, goes through.

I don’t treat children differently based simply on their sex. I treat them the way they need be to treated at that particular stage in their development. I try not to lower or heighten expectations based on their sex.

The article would have been wise to heed its own warning about gender stereotypes and, in its own words, simply viewed children as the unique individuals they are.

Coming to Terms with the Female Body

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I didn’t really have body image issues growing up. I just had body issues. I had an adolescent Gnostic dualism about my body — wanting to live in my head as much as possible, and terribly inconvenienced by my physical body.

I’m the kind of person who Googles scientific excuses for why I can’t exercise. (Small lung capacity, it turns out. A genetic problem. Look it up.) I would go whole days without eating because I was lost in a project. Getting sick was the end of the world, because I had little experience dealing with physical ailments — plus, they made thinking and reading and writing impossible. The worst.

Actually, the worst wasn’t the head cold I contracted from time to time or my burning lungs after a quick jog up to class.

It was my reproductive system.

How I hated it.

Long before it was legal, desirable, or safe to make babies, I got hit with monthly bleeding — and along with it, a set of other pleasant symptoms like cramps, passing out, vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and incurable insomnia. And these are normal symptoms. And they come every twenty-eight days (except for when they take a bit longer and you become convinced it’s possible to get pregnant spontaneously).

It’s just a gross, miserable experience that leaves you waddling around in diaper-like pads. Oh, and on top of that, you can’t tell any male when you’re menstruating, so you go to work and pretend you’re fine even though your insides are about to explode. You lose your moral compass completely and make up the most ridiculous lies to explain your aches and lethargy, just so your professor or casual male acquaintance doesn’t have to know it’s your — ahem — time of month.

But even with all that misery, you can’t quite malign Aunt Flo, because at least she assures you you’re not pregnant (a great boost of confidence after scandalously holding your crush’s hand for the first time). Babies are wonderful, of course, in the general sense, but, in the brutally practical sense, not when you’re unemployed, or single, or right after you just spent nine months carrying and then birthing a previous child, or when you’re in your late forties and had made peace with menopause, or when you’ve got chronic illness, or any number of real reasons why carrying or caring for another child would be difficult.

Your body is oblivious to these legitimate reasons, and really, really wants to be pregnant — except for when it doesn’t, and you walk through the hell of infertility and miscarriage (still experiencing menstruation, of course). So you get to choose from a host of expensive or invasive or mood-killing or hormone-altering or not-quite-effective birth control options, none of which suit your complicated reproductive needs.

And then you’ve got to decide on a philosophical defense for why you picked natural or non-natural birth control, lest you feel guilty, which you already do, and then you subconsciously decide on abstinence and mumble that you’re too tired every time he looks at you in bed.

But eventually you do get pregnant, either because your birth control failed or you got a case of the baby fever or you were too excited about sexy times to seriously remember pregnancy.

And then, there’s pregnancy. Morning sickness, heartburn, insomnia, exhaustion, weight gain, etc.

And then comes childbirth — the brilliant idea of squeezing an entire baby through a 10 cm hole via excruciating pain, mangling your lady parts for at least six weeks and changing your body forever.

And if you’re breastfeeding, you’re on call 24/7, and might get mastitis, or cracked nipples, or just a good bite taken out of you when your baby gets feisty.

All of this takes up a huge chunk of a woman’s life. Maternity leave puts careers, hobbies, and relationships on hold. PMS lowers productivity. Pregnancy limits certain activities and tasks. Birth control can complicate a sex life.

This is the normal impact of a woman’s reproductive cycle, not counting all the things that could go wrong with it — anything from skipped periods to maternal death.

Being a woman doesn’t allow one the luxury of Gnostic body/mind dualism. The female body shows up in large, painful ways throughout most of a woman’s life.

To make matters worse, there is no male equivalent of PMS, menstruation, pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding. Men can pursue their intellectual endeavors and ambitions without Aunt Flo knocking them out every twenty-eight days. There is zero gender equality in reproduction: men get one pleasant role to play, and then they can skip out with no natural consequences.

It’s as if the patriarchalists are right, and women are nothing more than babymaking machines.

***

That’s what I told my mentor when I was first engaged and exploring the disappointing world of family planning: “I feel like I’m nothing but a babymaking machine.”

“No, you’re not!” I was expecting her to say. “Rah rah, hear me roar, you can have it all!” — something along those lines was what I was expecting.

Instead she smiled and said, “You are a babymaking machine. But that’s not all you are.”

***

I’m not a Gnostic dualist. I’m a Christian who believes that matter means as much as mind, that when God said, “It was very good,” he was talking about body as well as soul. Who I am involves the abstract things — my mind, my soul, my personality, my goals, my loves, my dreams — and the concrete things — like my very, very female body.

My female body was created to grow and birth children in a shockingly miraculous (and painful) way. That’s a fact, love it or hate it. And my body is capable of so many other things, too.

And that’s all I have figured out right now. The rest of my thoughts are just questions. In a culture that cares so much about knowing who you are and choosing what defines you, how do I factor in the facts of my female body with who I am and what defines me? How much value do I assign my female body in determining my purpose and my definition of womanhood?

This is the heart of gender inequality — we have always extrapolated from male and female bodies male and female roles. The warrior strength of the man destines him for war, for example; the reproductive system of the woman destines her for the home.

This is the heart of the mommy wars — how much a woman’s body should inform how she conceives, bears, births, feeds, and raises her children.

This is the heart of redefining gender — how much the female body and its reproductive system dictates the definition of “woman.”

Opinions are all over the place.

There are those patriarchalists who would reduce me to my reproductive abilities and decide for me, based solely on my reproductive system, that I am to be a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and a subordinate, regardless of my other personal goals and capabilities. There are those who find it oppressive to involve the female body in either broad definitions of womanhood or personal definitions of womanhood. There are those who don’t desire children at all, or who use medical procedures and pills to stop or limit periods or reproduction. There are those who find it immoral to tamper with the reproductive system altogether or, indeed, with any natural process.

And then there’s the tricky business of figuring out what’s actually natural and what’s marred by the fall — or if we can even use “natural” as a word with moral meaning since everything “natural” to us is not the original, spotless creation.

I’m a babymaking machine, but I’m more than a babymaking machine. I’m more than a babymaking machine, but I’m a babymaking machine. How do those fit together to define womanhood, to define my womanhood?

I don’t know how to puzzle through this one to a fulfilling answer. In fact, I suspect I can’t intellectually puzzle through it. I’ve got to live it, and let my body inform my thinking in ways I didn’t let it before.

Me Too (Ish)

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When the “me too” hashtag started trending, I didn’t know whether to type those two words or not.

I am extraordinarily blessed to have experienced no overt sexual harassment, much less sexual assault. I’ve only been catcalled once, by stupid frat boys zipping by in broad daylight. I don’t even count that as catcalling. I was safe, they were driving too fast to even see who I was, and they didn’t say anything — just whistles and yells. They were rude and obnoxious, but it didn’t elicit any response from me except an eye roll.

I am even further blessed that the communities of men I’ve found myself in were respectful, friendly, and in firm control of their sexual desires. Even those with less feminist beliefs felt safe.

I took those things for granted, assuming that was a typical experience. It made sense to me, that men and women would respect each other, that harassment and harm came from scary strangers and obvious pervs, not from the good guys you thought you knew.

Then one of the good guys in my life turned out to be a perpetrator towards someone I dearly loved. My world has never looked the same again.

I didn’t need the “me too” hashtag to know how prevalent sexual harassment and assault was. By the time the hashtag started trending, I’d already heard the stories from the majority of my friends and acquaintances — stories not just of off-handed gross encounters, but of rape and molestation, often by family members. The horrific stories were equally common as the catcalling and sexting.

I am now more surprised to find a woman who hasn’t been molested sometime during her life. I was an odd, inexplicable exception.

And yet

I have my stories too, stories where men demeaned me, harassed me, pressured me, and felt entitled to me. I am not confident they classify as sexual harassment, but the harassment stemmed from the same root — male entitlement trying to exploit a woman perceived as weaker.

There was the time when I was nineteen, attending my home church on spring break. A man in his early thirties approached me after the service, impressed with a comment I’d made during the Sunday school hour. It turned out we both loved discussing theology, and he asked for my email to keep the conversation going — presumably. Having never experienced a negative outcome from handing out my email to strangers (I keep a blog, after all), I gave it to him.

A few days later, I received his diatribe on the evils of denominations; his mission as a prophet of God to, essentially, lure people away from any church that claimed a denomination; and, oh, by the way, I’d love to court you with the intention of marrying you.

After respectfully and firmly refuting every single theological point, I made it clear that I was extremely happy with my boyfriend, whom I planned on marrying. I also asked that we cease correspondence, since his main interest in emailing me was, it turns out, to develop a romantic relationship. (And I wasn’t comfortable sending cozy emails back and forth with a guy who thinks he’s a prophet of God. Minor point.)

His response shocked me. He ignored my careful theological arguments and honed in on the repugnant idea that I’d assumed he’d wanted to court me. Whatever made me think that was his intention?, he wanted to know, along with some bitter observations of my current romantic happiness. And he pressured me to still correspond; it was silly for me not to, since he hadn’t, as I’d brazenly assumed, made any advances on me whatsoever.

I didn’t respond. He later sent a more gracious email begging me to keep corresponding. I didn’t respond.

A few months later, a thick, single-spaced, double-sided packet was left on all the cars at my church, slandering individuals in my family with accusations too ridiculous and impossible for anybody to believe. It included his reassertion that he’d never made advances on me, and that if my parents didn’t want me talking to their daughter, they shouldn’t have let me talk to him.

Sexual harassment? Perhaps not technically. But it was a frightening, confusing, demeaning experience — from his gaslighting to his assumption that I was under my parents’ control to his refusal to take my clear no as an answer. And it all came from his obvious assumption that he deserved my attention on his terms.

I found out later that he has since gone from church to church doing something similar — trying to sow division in the churches while targeting younger and younger girls.

If that’s not predatory power play, I don’t know what is.

***

And then there was the puzzling encounter with the man at the fence. I was supervising my kindergarten students in the enclosed playground that ran alongside a road. From all the way across the playground, outside the fence, a young man began calling to me. Thinking it was a parent uncertain of where to go, I came over and asked him to repeat himself.

He wasn’t a parent. I have no idea who he was, or why he called over a woman who was clearly working and not even remotely close to the fence. For the next fifteen minutes, in the most casual, subtle, and friendly way possible, he tried to extract all kinds of personal information from me — my name, where I lived, what I did, and what my number was. He told his sob story about not having very many friends and how he’d love to keep in contact with me so we could hang out sometime.

Ah — this was clearly a smooth talker trying to flirt and get my number. I smiled and said I was married.

Without missing a beat, he said that didn’t matter; he just wanted to be friends; he didn’t have any friends; come on, just give me your number.

I was bewildered and disarmed, not wanting to assume the worst, not wanting to be unkind or unfriendly, but so uncomfortable and ready for this conversation to end. Somehow, he left — left me shaken and uncertain of what just happened, and what could have happened if a fence, a building full of people, and the excuse of being married hadn’t been available to me.

Sexual harassment? I have no idea. But the same feeling of being used on his terms for his purposes, his blatant disregard for my clear no — it was all there.

The security guard accidentally made it worse. He came out and told me he would keep me safe. He’d even pretend he was my husband as a last resort if the guy came back and wouldn’t leave me alone.

“Some guys just won’t take no for an answer unless you’re already with someone, you know?”

I could not believe that my dignity in many men’s eyes was tied to “belonging” to another man — that they would respect a man, but not me. Another frightening, disempowering experience.

The next time a strange man stopped at the fence and called to me, I pretended I didn’t hear. He lingered a few moments, then moved on.

***

And then there were all the comments I got on my post about respecting men enough to demand they take responsibility for their own sexual impulses. Let me say that I was lucky to receive only rude internet insults rather than the threats of rape or harm many other women have encountered and that plenty of men left respectful comments, whether they disagreed with me or not.

But there were still many graphic, demeaning comments that rattled me to the point of tears, to the point where I felt safest sitting close to my husband until my faith in mankind was restored. They weren’t directed at me, but they involved me.

The worst was this pleasant exchange:

Commenter One: “Honest question: how would you feel about a man treating you respectfully in person, but masturbating to the thought of you later that night?”

Me: “My initial reaction is horror.”

(Christian) Commenter Two: “lol…you’d find out that you need to be horrified 24/7 then.”

***

My point in all of this is not to garner sympathy. I was safe, in control, and protected in all of these situations. While the initial experiences were demeaning and frightening, they don’t control my life, and they refuse to sway my trust that there are good, honorable, sexually controlled men in this world.

Neither is my point to diminish the particular focus of #metoo — overt sexual harassment and sexual assault. I am aware that my experiences pale in comparison to the horrors the majority of women face. That’s why I didn’t write those two words.

My point is simply that there’s a male culture that disrespects a woman’s right to say no or to exist with inherent dignity. Male entitlement and female exploitation exist even apart from things of an overt sexual nature.

They say sexual harassment and assault are primarily issues of entitlement and power rather than sexual desire. If that’s the case, the experiences of those writing “me too” aren’t too different in their essence from my experiences — both kinds deal with a man trying to overpower another’s consent, autonomy, and dignity.

Without detracting from those who suffered sexual violations, I want to expand the conversation to all forms of male entitlement that lead to the abuse, exploitation, and dehumanizing of others. There’s a lot more awareness yet to be raised.

Present Parenting: Beyond the Working/Stay-at-Home Debates

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There are huge rifts between working moms and stay-at-home moms. They form separate Facebook support groups. Real life groups have to go out of their way to say, “We welcome both working moms and stay-at-home moms.” There’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom to a group of working mothers, and there’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going back to work in a group of stay-at-home moms.

Not necessarily a judgmental silence. Just the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we don’t have as much in common as mothers, after all.

It’s an issue of priorities, we often think — working mothers put themselves and their careers first and let the kids fall where they may. Stay-at-home moms prioritize their children. And we can know this, we can judge a woman’s commitment to her children or to her job based on where a woman predominantly spends her day.

Which makes sense — except that there are many other factors to consider. There’s the matter of finances. Having the option to be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege the working class and single moms can’t afford. (And not all women are cut out to be home entrepreneurs or start their own sustainable gardens.)

Then there’s the issue of less tangible resources — physical, emotional, and mental. In past days, extended families lived closer together, allowing extended family to look after all the grandchildren and cousins running afoot. Now it’s not uncommon for women to raise their kids states or even countries away from extended family. Some moms are new to the community and without any friends to trade date night babysitting or even let off some steam. Many fathers can’t afford or aren’t offered paternity leave, which cuts off more physical, emotional, and mental resources available to frazzled moms. All of this often adds up to stay-at-home moms unable to take a break, catch a breath, or engage in any other meaningful work until their last child turns eighteen.

While stay-at-home moms might indeed prioritize physical presence with their children over working moms, the isolation and stress of raising kids alone might not allow them to prioritize emotional presence. And while working moms don’t have the edge on physical presence with their kids, meaningful work apart from raising their children might energize these mothers to invest more emotional presence.

That’s where we need to center this conversation — on emotional presence, on present parenting. This goes beyond whether to work outside the home or stay at home. This is about evaluating and maximizing our emotional resources — and surprise, surprise, it looks different for every family.

As a teacher who loves working with kids and has a lot of patience with them, spending most of my day at home makes sense for me. Financially, we can swing it. My husband is already involved in daily household upkeep and expects to shoulder a good share of parenting when he comes home from work too, so I know I’m not in the parenting business alone.

On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of how loneliness, sleeplessness, and lack of adult conversation affects me. I’m keeping a part-time job (just a couple hours) outside of the home, leaving my baby in my husband’s care. This will give me the change in environment, the human interaction, and the independence of earning some money and doing other meaningful work that I need to keep my energy up. I would go insane stuck at home all day with a baby — and that’s not good for me at all.

But equally important, that’s not good for my baby, either.

[A]dvocacy for the full humanity of women cannot happen apart from advocacy for children. — Joyce Anne Mercer

And that’s another huge topic involved in present parenting — not merely “what works best for mama’s sanity?” but “what do my children most need from me?” We cannot effectively maximize our emotional resources if we’re not sure how much or what kind of emotional resources are needed to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. 

I recently read Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Komisar introduced to me the idea of present parenting. Her thesis is that in the first three years, children particularly need their mothers. As a long-practicing psychotherapist, she links the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and other behavior problems to the lack of present mothering in the first three years.

It was a hard and challenging read, even as a woman who knew from the start that I wanted to be my children’s primary caretaker. It was hard and challenging because as a feminist, I want to support all women’s choices. I didn’t want to hear another reason why women have to be stuck at home and pretend to be happy about it. I want to believe that all women’s choices positively affect their children.

But Komisar’s challenge isn’t, at its heart, a call for moms to quit their jobs and stay home until their babies turn three. She recognizes everything I noted above — the financial and emotional factors that require women to work, the reality of a workforce that penalizes mothers for taking maternity leave and quitting their job for even a few years.

All mothers can be present mothers, regardless of whether they work outside the home or stay home with their children. All mothers can prioritize their children’s needs, regardless of financial constraints. But mothers cannot be blind to the reality of their children’s needs, which often don’t fit conveniently with what we need or want. And children under three need a large amount of their mother’s emotional presence, in both quantity and quality — meaning mothers of young children must rearrange their priorities for a few years to match this reality.

In other words, mothers should maximize their emotional presence in accordance with their children’s developmental needs, not merely with their own needs. Again, this looks different for every woman, as a woman’s own financial or emotional needs factors into how well she can maximize her emotional presence.

This idea of present parenting doesn’t just challenge women regarding how much time they spend working or where they spend the majority of their day. A discussion on present parenting might prove an effective guide on how many children to have or when to have children — or whether to have children at all. Hey, quiverfull movement — can a mother really be emotionally present for a large number of kids in quick succession? Are advocates of large families blind to the reality of how badly children need their mother’s emotional presence and the reality that the more children you have, the fewer emotional resources you have? Maybe, maybe not!

Present parenting also gets our husbands involved in the question of work/life balance. These aren’t just women’s issues. Many dads get sucked into their work life, thinking that buying that extra car or just putting food on the table (only in a monetary sense, of course) is needed to support their families. And some feel guilty for wanting to be their children’s primary caretaker. But this simply isn’t true — his children require his emotional presence just as much as Mom’s. Where are his priorities? How can he rearrange his career goals to be more emotionally available to his family?

Both father and mother must look at their children’s emotional needs and their own ability to meet those needs in order to prioritize the right things at the right time. This often requires creativity beyond “Dad is the breadwinner, Mom is the caretaker.”

And then it goes even further beyond individual families to our communities. Our culture doesn’t prioritize present parenting; it prioritizes the materialism of the American dream. We don’t value children’s needs, as evidenced by our largely ineffective schools and daycares and the subquality pay teachers and caretakers receive. Most of us who want to spend more time with our families simply cannot, because we’re expected to be on call on the job, put in overtime, take shorter maternity leave or let vacation days stack up unused, all to show we’re valuable workers. Our financial security depends on our workaholicism.

All of us — moms and dads and childless folks alike — suffer from a devaluation of emotional presence, whether that’s investing in our kids or in our friendships or in our marriages or in our mental health.

So, mamas, let’s lead a cultural revolution. Let’s stop talking about whether we’re going to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, and start talking about how we plan on being emotionally present for our children, our families, and ourselves.

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

Should I Encourage My Son Toward “Feminine” Things?

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I’m publishing some thoughts on motherhood and feminism, particularly as they relate to raising boys. The first article addressed whether there are enough differences between boys and girls to warrant raising boys in a majorly different way than girls. This article is a continuation of that question.

It’s one thing to accept a boy who falls outside of gender norms. It’s quite another thing to raise a boy to step outside of those gender norms.

That is, if my boy ends up liking sparkles and pink even though I’ve dressed him in khakis and blue polos all his life, I can accept that — that’s just who he is. Masculinity and femininity are just two ends of the spectrum of human expression, right?

But I’m much more reserved about providing a pink, sparkly onesie as an equal option to khakis and blue polos. Alarm bells start going off: Will I confuse him about his gender or sexual orientation? Will he grow up into some warped creature? Will I doom him to a life of bullying and ostracization?

I can say I support equality for men and women, I can cite the research proving boys are more similar to girls than dissimilar, I can rationalize in my mind that there’s nothing inherently anti-boy about pink or sparkles. But there’s still a fear that femininity twists a boy’s innate nature. As one man (who clarified I could not call him a misogynist) described my future son after Monday’s post, “Sorry to say, you’re going to raise a girl-child.”

Heaven forbid.

Like I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we don’t have this same fear for girls. It’s more or less socially acceptable for girls to travel up and down the masculine/feminine spectrum in their interests, activities, and self-expression. “Tomboy” isn’t an insult like “girl-child.” Feminism has made great bounds in opening up girls’ opportunities in STEM fields and other male-dominated areas. There’s no woman card to lose.

Not so for boys, as my own fears betray.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Is It Wrong to Influence My Son in General?

This is a silly question in light of all I know about child development and parenting work. If I influence my son is not a choice I get to make as a mother — of course I will influence my son. Nurture is a huge part of a child’s development of self.

Children are born with endless capacity. It’s their experiences that begin to limit that endless capacity. As Dr. Christia Spears Brown points out in Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue, babies’ brains create thousands of synaptic connections every day in the womb. This prepares them for the myriad of potential experiences life brings after birth. She gives the example of language: babies are born capable of distinguishing every sound in all languages. After a few months, they begin to lose that infinite capacity, focusing only on their parents’ native tongue. Whatever is used is strengthened; whatever isn’t used is lost — permanently.

The same is true for gender differences. The statistical effect size of differences between male and female infants is 0.21 — that is, negligible. As children grow and encounter peer pressure and gender stereotypes, certain traits can get exercised more in boys than in girls (and vice versa), producing the ubiquitous gender differences we see today.

To use another example from Dr. Brown’s book, the differences observed in how children play at recess — competitive, team-based, active play for boys and more one-on-one, low-energy, relational play for girls — comes from a small gender difference that gets exacerbated through socialization. Girls are slightly more likely to prefer low-energy play to active play. Since children fall prey to in group/out group thinking, even the average high energy girl will quit a game of kickball to play hopscotch or kitchen with her “tribe” on the sidelines — the other girls. And even the lower-energy boys will prefer to join in the game of kickball with the guys just to be with his in group.

The way children play affects how they interact with the world as adults. Since girls often spend much of their time playing low-energy activities in small groups, they’ve got lots of practice with empathy and relational problem-solving. Since boys often spend much of their time playing highly active games in large groups, they’re socialized less in interpersonal behavior.

But these gender differences, while prevalent, aren’t permanent. To complicate this even further, you can turn these gender differences on by priming a person to think of himself or herself as his or her gender, or level the playing field by priming a person to think of himself or herself as a gender-neutral identity (such as a student). Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, cites countless studies that show how men and women possess roughly the same skills in, say, math or empathy when they’re not thinking of their gender. Only when they’re triggered to think of their gender — perhaps by marking their sex at the beginning of a test or even being the sole representative of one’s sex in the classroom — do men outperform women in math and women outperform men in empathy.

All that to say, even though boys and girls aren’t born with significant, innate differences, socialization and experience begin to cull and shape their previously unlimited capacities. I’ve known this as an educator: The child who eats only French fries and chicken nuggets will likely not eat her vegetables as an adult (even though she’s perfectly capable of eating veggies). The child who doesn’t read over the summer loses two months of reading education, culminating in two years of learning loss by the end of grade six (even though she’s perfectly capable of reading over the summer). The child who uses iPads to entertain himself over creative, unplugged play will suffer a loss in imagination and attention span (even though he’s perfectly capable — you get the point).

Experiences can limit, or they can expand. This is childhood development 101.

As a parent, I have the responsibility to limit negative traits, interests, and activities and expand good ones, shaping my child into the best he can be. That’s not controversial. That’s just parenting.

What’s the Harm in Letting Boys Be Boys?

What is controversial is whether there is anything negative in traditional masculinity that I might need to limit or anything positive in traditional femininity that I might need to introduce to my son, if he’s naturally inclined to the stereotypical male model.

Is it really a big deal, I wondered, if boys and girls get socialized into their respective gender stereotypes? Will my son really suffer if I don’t introduce him to some of the great things about Girl World? Again, it’s nice to think my son will turn out more well-rounded than the hyperactive, truck-loving, gun-toting, strong, silent type who goes to college for business on a sports scholarship, but if he starts heading that direction, is it necessary for me to step in?

After all, I fulfill most of my gender’s stereotypes, and I turned out okay! (Until I ask myself again, and realize my life would be far better had I crossed the line on the gender stereotype spectrum and done more math, science, spatial reasoning, and sports as a kid.)

Another way of spinning my question is if gender stereotypes are inherently harmful. My research and gut instinct is pointing to yes. Both femininity and masculinity, as equally human traits, as the fullest expression of both humanity and the image of God, express important characteristics from which all children benefit. A steady diet of boy stereotypes for my son is like letting him read nothing but Pokemon graphic novels — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pokemon graphic novels, unless they’re the only thing he reads. You’ve got to get some Dante and Dostoevksy in there, or his mind will atrophy.

Since we know that boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar, and girls are not at all harmed by their flexible interests, we should expect that intentional exposure to a variety of interests and activities will produce positive results in boys. It will encourage them to be themselves; it will combine the best of the masculine and the feminine; it will make them interesting, well-rounded individuals. How is that a bad thing?

When I look at the masculine stereotype, I think the biggest drawbacks are the lack of emotional awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills; and the huge push towards aggression — the lie that men shouldn’t be expected to be nurturing, empathetic, and expressive because they’re primarily made to grunt, punch, and shoot things.

Boys and Baby Dolls

For a while, I felt embarrassed about listing a doll on my BabyList registry. First, everybody says the only way boys play with baby dolls involves some sort of experiment with physics (i.e., smashing or throwing). But mostly, I fretted, people would think I’m intentionally trying to emasculate my son.

This is silly, I know. Angering, even, when I stop to examine it. I think it’s absolutely horrible that many people not only fail to encourage boys to get in touch with their emotions and develop nurturing behavior but actively discourage it. It’s disgusting how the masculine culture celebrates aloofness and a lack of self-awareness. Women, too, for shame — we complain so much about the blank stares our husbands give us when we burst into tears, yet we continue to say, “Boys don’t cry.”

Articles keep popping up in my newsfeed about the lack of platonic touch and affection men receive. Men, predominantly, keep getting exposed as abusers, adulterers, and anger addicts. The majority of school shooters are male. I think this all points to a masculine culture that lacks empathy and emotional intelligence, to an inhumane idea of masculinity that suffocates our boys. (See Michael Kimmel’s research, particularly Angry White Men.) Men just stuff it…and then it resurfaces into something ugly.

Not my son.

I want his emotional needs met — meaning, I want him to be able to identify, express, and meet those needs in healthy ways. Not porn, not anger, not depression. I don’t want to find out that my son shot another kid because he couldn’t verbalize his feelings about being bullied. I don’t want to wake up to find my son dead of suicide because he felt he couldn’t trust anyone with his demons. These are extreme scenarios, but they are sadly far too common.

Emotional intelligence is absolutely critical for mental well-being. It shouldn’t be cute, faddish, or feminist to explicitly teach it to our boys. It shouldn’t be the rare man who can understand and express both his and others’ emotions. It should be the norm, the baseline, the first line of attack against the violence, anger, and lack of self-control shrouding Boy World.

And so I will teach him to rock his baby doll.

Boys and Guns

The stigma of boys playing with baby dolls comes from the mistaken idea that men are inherently more aggressive than women — and that since it’s just “boys being boys,” aggression should be allowed and encouraged as the dominant masculine trait. Only sissies and their liberal mommies complain about boys and guns (though we might draw the line at Call of Duty).

In Christianity, male aggression and proclivities toward warfare are celebrated as the essence of what it means to be a man, signs that a man is ready to be the provider and protector of the family.

There’s nothing wrong with providing and protecting others, being physical, or even, I would argue, knowing how to throw a good punch if necessary. Courage, bravery, strategy, innovation, adventure, physicality, and many other virtues associated with combat are, indeed, things I want for my son (and my daughters!).

But Christians go crazy for cocoa puffs over warfare itself. Certain authors go out of their way to redefine and strip any possibly feminine part of men’s identities — like love. The other day I read a quote about courtship from an article called “Wooing as Warfare”:

The young man who pursues marriage enters a foreign land where he wages war. On the hinges of that battle lie happiness or shame.

But though a potential bride may be deeply loved, she’s also at some level the foe. To achieve victory the young man must not only win her, he must defeat her and her family, snatching her from their bosom, converting her to himself, breaking her natural bonds with father and mother, brother and sister, nurse and friend, dog and home. There’s little that’s tender about it.

That’s sick — that in order to excite young men to marriage, you must twist the most intimate, loving, and yes, tender relationship on earth into something violent. That’s toxic masculinity, right there.

It’s common for Christians to “woo” other men to involvement in their family and church with the promise of warfare, to make peace, love, humility, and vulnerability into the image of aggressive masculinity. And I know, I know, I’m just a woman who doesn’t understand the male psyche’s need for war, but I’ll say it anyway: I find Christianity’s marriage between masculinity and violence one-dimensional and unhealthy.

I’ve been thinking how this will translate practically in our household. No cowboys and Indians? No guns? No violent video games? No books on weapons?

I don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t want to be extreme (weapons, after all, are just tools, and my husband’s strategy games all involve killing and capturing magical creatures), but I know this: if my son’s experiences shape his brain and his preferences, I want him to play in ways that form him into a person who can handle real life challenges in a real life way.

Hopefully, he will not grow up during a time of war or conflict where violence is necessary for survival. He will more likely face the evils of bullying, prejudice, and interpersonal conflict than war. You cannot solve school bullying with guns. You can’t fight prejudice with your fists. And since his struggles and conflicts will revolve around these non-combative evils, I want to equip him with non-combative solutions — namely, empathy, understanding, intelligence, courage, vision, etc.

I want my son to be a peacemaker, a builder, a life-giver — dare I say a man like Jesus.

So I will teach him to diffuse a bully’s anger rather than throw the first punch, discern and meet a wife’s emotional needs, and fearlessly speak out for what is right.

And even if that’s a more “feminine” way to handle conflict, there’s nothing sissyish about that.

Photo Credit by Devany at Still Playing School, via 30 Photos of Boys Playing with Dolls That Will Make You Go “Awww”

P.S. The more I work with little boys at my preschool, the more I am amazed at how silly our fears about boys being “feminine” are. The two-year-old boy who knows how to put his friends into wrestling headlocks also loves to play with the sparkly My Little Ponies and turn his tube of diaper rash cream into a cherished baby. Boys are so much more complex and unique than we typically allow them to be.