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.

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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.

Should I Raise My Son as a Boy or as a Human?

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When the ultrasound technician said, “It’s a boy!”, my heart dropped.

I don’t know anything about raising boys.

I carry baggage, both from my Christian patriarchal socialization and the secular patriarchy at work in modern culture. The heaviest baggage for me is this: boys and girls are so different from each other that it takes a man to raise a real boy. A mama can do what she can, but she’s got to be careful that her love, care, and femininity don’t impinge on his masculine nature. Nobody likes a mama’s boy.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a stereotypical girl. I’m emotionally intelligent, feminine, others-directed, and a bookworm. He’s going to grow up with a mama who wears peach skinny jeans, watches chick flicks, and sits Daddy down for long chats about the state of her emotions. My inclinations are to snuggle the heck out of this boy and talk about his emotions too.

I can already see my teen rolling his eyes under his blonde bangs as I drop him off for football practice. Moms. What do they know?

On top of that, I am a feminist. I think deeply about gender and its effects on both men and women, boys and girls in the real world. I advocate for change. I talk about the harm of gender stereotypes.

But I don’t want to turn my son into a social experiment. I don’t want to raise him opposite the cultural definition of masculinity to correct a larger social imbalance. I don’t want to dress him in pink, hand him dolls, and ban toy guns from the Steger household just to make a point that not all boys are the aggressive, emotionless creatures we think they are. I don’t want him isolated from his peers or his gender questioned because Mama told him it was okay to like braiding hair and purple.

I don’t want to squelch a natural part of him because it doesn’t align with my social values.

This is my child. I want to raise him well, to be the best that he can be, to be a whole, healthy, happy child who can both fit in with society and stand up for himself when fitting in isn’t warranted. 

To my mothering mind, my perceived limitations as a feminist woman sound more like a recipe for ruin than a recipe for a well-rounded, normal son.

Of course, when I worry, I read. You better believe I’ve got a thick stack of parenting books on my nightstand right now!

As I’ve been reading about the influence and importance of mothers in their children’s lives, about how children develop, about what’s really central to raising happy, whole children, I’m beginning to see that these fears are nothing more than internalized patriarchy. As a mom, I am a key player in my child’s well-being — not a threat to his maleness.

That’s primarily because my son and I have more in common as humans than we don’t have in common as male and female. 

No Boy or Girl Always Does Anything

Boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar.

It’s true. Even when there’s a statistical difference between boys and girls, that difference gives us little information about how any one particular child will behave. 78% of gender differences are so small (we’re talking an effect size near zero or between 0.11-0.20) that you’d be better off flipping a coin than using gender to predict a child’s behavior or preferences.*

Even as a feminist, the statistics shocked me. I’d always taken the stance that gender stereotypes often arose from innate differences, but when it came down to allowing an individual to be who they are, it didn’t matter what most boys and girls do.

Turns out those significant gender stereotypes come up empty in real life. Falling under the 78% of minuscule statistical effect sizes are the gender differences I took for granted — boys are better at math and science; girls are more verbal than boys; boys are more active; girls are more emotional. None of those gender stereotypes noticeably express themselves in real life in a statistically significant way.

The differences are even smaller the younger a child is (a 0.21 effect size for differences between male and female infants).

This essentially means that my son is just as likely to be different from other boys than from other girls. This essentially means that I as a parent can glean little information on what my son’s innate characteristics will be like based on his gender.

But All the Boys I Know….

Where, then, do gender stereotypes arise if not from innate differences?

I could swear that gender stereotypes hold water with my anecdotal evidence.

My brothers all seemed to prefer math and science, whereas I struggled to finish physical science, failed my College Algebra CLEP test, and would have got a perfect ACT score if it didn’t have a math and science section.

My brothers all played sports throughout their school years; my mom had to nag us girls to get off the couch and go to gym day with the homeschool group.

Those are real, expressed gender differences that I saw not only in my family of nine but in the other families around me.

Then I read Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, and it was like I was seeing the world right side up for the first time.

Dr. Christia Spear Brown doesn’t deny that gender stereotypes exist, or even that adult men and women seem radically different than each other. But these differences arise not from innate difference but from the human tendency to categorize people into in groups and out groups.

Once kids realize that they are the gender they are, they start identifying themselves with their gender group, finding their group superior, and recoiling from associating with the “out group.”

A great example: In studies, boys refused to play with a toy that was labelled a “girl toy.” When the researchers told a group of girls that the toy was a “boy toy,” the girls also declined to play with the exact same toy the boys refused. Of course, when different groups of boys and girls were told the toy was acceptable to their particular gender, each group had a blast playing with it.

Maintaining the purity of one’s in group is of utmost importance to kids.

That’s where Calvin and Hobbes’ Get Rid of Slimy Girls (G.R.O.S.S.) club began — not from innate gender differences but from the innate inclination to categorize people into us vs. them.

Our tendency to categorize is accompanied by a tendency to filter information according to how we already view the world. We conveniently forget exceptions to the rule, even if the exceptions are right in front of us. “Boys don’t have eyelashes,” Dr. Brown’s daughter told her one day. Of course they do — and her own daddy had lusciously long eye locks, to boot!

“Girls are more nurturing and gentle,” is another one I formerly swore by — even though I had to teach two girls how to gently rock their babies instead of throw them on the floor, hold back another from repeatedly smashing a boy’s sand turtle, and unclaw a female child from my head.

“Boys are much harder to control” — I believed that one until it became obviously clear that the two most out-of-control children in my class were girls.

My worldview was so filtered through gender stereotypes that I often forgot about real life examples right in front of me. I even missed core aspects of who was as a child because of gender blinders.

For instance, it’s true that my brothers played sports during their school years and I never did. But when I stop to think about it, I was an incredibly active child. I prided myself on running faster than the other children (even the boys); I played street hockey with the neighborhood kids; and I was good at catching a baseball in our long games of Jackpot. Thinking back, if I would have expressed an interest in joining a baseball league, I’m sure I would not only have loved it but would have likely continued in sports throughout my school years.

It didn’t occur to me to seriously ask my parents, and it didn’t occur to my parents to ask me — all because sports was more of a guy thing. Not being a one-dimensional human, I devoted myself to my other “girl” interests…and became a permanent couch potato.

It’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t play sports as a child.

Or another example — it’s true that if you polled my siblings, the girls would more likely express interest in humanities over STEM and vice versa. And if you asked me, I would say that boys were better at those sorts of things because they’re boys.

But in reality, I got just as good grades or better in math and science as my brothers. I enjoyed math a great deal; I was fascinated with marine biology, astronomy, and quantum physics; and chemistry came easy to me. But it never occurred to either me or my parents to push me in math and science, and so I graduated high school without taking a real physics course or even pre-calc — because gender stereotypes.

That’s another one of my biggest regrets.

Combine the natural tendency to categorize with the subtle but heavy-handed gender stereotypes we feel today, and children get swept into what Dr. Brown calls “Boy World” and “Girl World.” Society and peer pressure create ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable for a girl or boy to like or be, and being social, categorical creatures, children associate with their “in group,” regardless of their own natural preferences and innate flexibility to appreciate a wide variety of interests across the gender spectrum.

Bringing It All Back

In other words, to address my initial fears, boys and girls are so similar in their needs and interests that it makes little sense to parent them according to their gender. If I raise my son “as a boy” rather than “as a kid” — that is, according to the gender stereotype rather than the innate needs and interests almost all children have  — I risk believing things about my son that are simply not true.

Further, if boys and girls are so similar, and if I feel confident that my womanhood will not harm a daughter, then I should feel just a confident that my womanhood will not harm my son. There is no possible way that my womanhood can threaten, harm, or weaken my son.

What society deems feminine is just as human to a boy as what society deems masculine. What I bring to the parenting table as a mother and as a woman is just as valuable and necessary to my son as it would be to a daughter.

He is a human first, as am I, and that shared humanity makes up for any differences of experiences, interests, or personalities. I am going to raise him as a human, exposing him to the wide range of human things he can do, be, or like, regardless of where they fall on the artificial masculine/feminine spectrum.

Having shared that stirring vision of equality, my son is also an individual, a male individual. His maleness will affect his experience, as will his other unique characteristics that differ from mine. He will experience Boy World far more than I ever did or will, even if he is exposed to a world beyond gender stereotypes. As he is socialized in Boy World, his challenges might be different than any future daughter’s of mine.

As the majority of (adult) men are more violent, aggressive, likely to rape or abuse, prone to porn, less emotionally intelligent, etc., we might have to have more explicit conversations on those topics. We’ll obviously have gender-specific conversations about puberty, sex, and fatherhood (and it wouldn’t bother me at all if he felt more comfortable talking about those things with his dad or another man than with me).

That is to say, I am preparing to address different things with my son that might not have shown up all too often in my Girl World experiences. I am cognizant that gender stereotypes will still shape him. I am aware that his physical male body brings unique issues that a female body does not. I am not gender-blind — either of his maleness or of how society views his maleness.

But I still plan on raising him primarily as a human, with his maleness subsumed as an important part of his individuality, rather than as primarily a boy, distinct in every way from me except for some occasional human traits.

From what I understand of boys, both from my research and my personal observations, that’s the way to raise them as happy, healthy, and whole.

Look out for part two soon in which I discuss whether boys should play with baby dolls!

*Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, by Christia Spear Brown, PhD., pg. 77-78

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Why Boys Don’t Read Girl Books, and Other Horrible Things

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When I was a precocious preteen, I heard that boys struggled to enjoy reading. I found that hard to believe, because I found it hard to believe any actual human could dislike reading, but I accepted it. Boys seemed rowdy and sporty and unable to sit still, so it was conceivable they weren’t the best readers.

Around the time I learned this information about the sad state of boys’ reading abilities, I ran into a poster at the library encouraging boys to read. It listed around fifty titles to tempt the reluctant male reader. I stood there for a few minutes to read the whole list.

I didn’t find a single “girl book” on the list. Girl books, you ask? You know — girl books. The books with a girl as a main character. Ick. (Well, maybe I misspoke — The Hunger Games might have been listed, but precocious preteen Bailey didn’t know The Hunger Games featured a main female character because she was too busy reading through all the Newbery medal books. Girl books, mostly.)

Even with my patriarchal upbringing, I remember the distinct feeling of disgust: first, that R. L. Stine wrote a disproportionate number of the books on that list; second, that there was this unspoken assumption that a book about a girl would definitely not encourage my illiterate male peers to read.

Now, of course, the librarians who put together this list weren’t altogether off. What typical boy wanted to read a first-person account of a female coming-of-age story that involved first crushes and a period scare? What ten-year-old male wouldn’t stop an adventure series in disgust when the later books got too…girly? (“Girly,” this no-longer-ten-year-old male defined for me, meant “mushy.” To my chagrin I married him, anyway.)

Boys typically like adventure stories, pirates, war, and, apparently, R. L. Stine. Nothing wrong with that. And kids love to see themselves represented. American Girl started a “Just Like Me” line of dolls that look vaguely just like the girls who moon over them in the catalogs, so, of course, in the pre-pubescent era of cooties, a guy would relate more to a guy who does guy things. It makes sense that a boy would prefer Jedis over Judy Moody.

Again, nothing wrong with celebrating representation. After all, that’s why we feminists are all pumped about Rey, Wonder Woman, and Jodi Whittaker’s The Doctor.

What I found interesting, and slightly offensive, was that boys were not expected to have the same broad range of interests that girls did. As one girl wrote to American Girl magazine, “I love being a girl because I can do girl things and guy things!”

It’s true. Nobody makes a comment on a girl’s preferences if she loves Star Wars or Harry Potter. They’re just great, period. Girls read Lord of the Rings because it’s a fantastic series and relate to Frodo and Sam because they’re fantastic characters, even though it’s a book of primarily male characters doing traditionally male things. Tris and Katniss star in dystopian action novels without a hullabaloo. There’s always a token female sidekick in almost every “male-oriented” movie — but really, ladies, do we watch Supernatural for the female sidekicks, or do we watch Supernatural because Dean and Sam are objectively the best?

Women consume guy media all the time — action, adventure, plot-oriented movies, male-dominated stories. Women do guy things all the time — sports, video games, business. Women wear guy things all the time — pants, flannel shirts, fedoras. And apart from an occasional op-ed about how women these days want to be like men, it’s cool with almost everyone. Nobody except Mr. Op-Ed questions your womanhood.

It’s like masculinity is both distinctly masculine and the gender neutral expression of humanity.

Can you imagine men watching a chick flick just because it’s “such a good story”? Have you met swarms of men obsessed with Jane Austen to the level everybody is about the Lord of the Rings? Can you picture a straight, cisgender boy wearing pink sparkles or a dress? Do you know any male preschool teachers or stay-at-home dads? Have you ever been in mixed company and decided neutral territory was a rom-com over a Marvel movie?

While women are quite capable of enjoying “guy things,” men are not seen as capable of partaking in anything distinctly female. Femininity, it seems, degrades masculinity in a way masculinity does not degrade femininity. Femininity has way too much of women in it to qualify as a general expression of humanity.

Women don’t have a woman card to lose. And even if they do, they don’t lose it standing in line for the premier of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I love this flexibility that living under patriarchy has required of any woman interested in interacting with culture. As a woman, I don’t balk at male priests or presidents, I read whatever genre of book I find interesting, I cry at tender depictions of motherhood, laugh at Bridget Jones, and cheer on the men as they save Private Ryan. I love the worst of rom-coms, the best of Marvel, and the classics. I am capable of learning from and emulating male role models. I enjoy the best of fiction and nonfiction, regardless of who wrote it or who features in it.

And I am not one iota less of a woman because of it.

I have to consume male media, because men have dominated, well, everything in the Western world for the majority of its run. I don’t find the literature, entertainment, or ideas of the men of the Western world something to snub my nose at merely because they’re thought up by men and not covering periods, babies, or what to wear to your friend’s wedding next weekend. (But seriously. What?)

This is, I think, the most crucial area feminism must focus on — not merely encouraging women to express their full humanity, whether in traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine ways, but encouraging men to express their full humanity, including their feminine side. We need to raise men who see femininity as equal an expression of humanity as masculinity. We need to teach men that their masculinity is not threatened or compromised by femininity — that girl things are just as good for men as guy things are good for girls.

We ought to encourage men to cultivate the broad range of experiences, tastes, and preferences women have had to even when there were no lead females in Star Wars.

HUGE DISCLAIMER THAT PROVES I AM NOT A MAN-HATING FEMINIST WHO WANTS TO ERASE NATURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN: None of this is to exclude or diminish male role models or representation for boys. They are vital. None of this is to force guys to prefer the traditionally feminine over the traditionally masculine. Generalizations happen for a reason. None of this is even to suggest that it’s necessarily wrong to lure reluctant male readers with Harry Potter instead of The Fault in Our Stars. Harry Potter is objectively better — objectively. And he’s not an angsty teenage girl in the first couple of books.

It’s just to say that after a boy has learned to enjoy reading with this reasonable ploy, he should grow to find a role model in Annabelle from Wolf Hollow; he should learn to appreciate a well-written romance, maybe even enjoy the occasional chick flick, definitely to quote Mean Girls obsessively; he should empathize with the angsty first-person narratives of both Harry and Hazel; and he should obsess over a range of good books — from My Side of the Mountain to Ella Enchanted.

Just like we girls do.

Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash

My Deepest Insecurity as an Educated, Talented Woman

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I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Christian studies. I worked hard for that degree. Both the working and the courses forever changed how I approached life and Christianity. Not for one second do I regret those four years I spent writing papers on the Incarnation and reading the early church fathers.

But I’m not ignorant. I’ll be the first to tell you that there is, basically, nothing I can do with that degree. Part of it is because you will never find “Christian studies” listed as a prerequisite degree to apply for a job. And most of it is that if that major is listed as an acceptable prerequisite, the job is probably off-limits to me — because I’m a woman.

I wasn’t fully egalitarian when I started my coursework, so I knew from the beginning that this degree was for kicks, giggles, and personal transformation.

Did I want to be a minister, people asked me. No, churches don’t hire female ministers.

Did I want to be a teacher, people asked me. No, churches and Christian schools don’t hire female Bible or theology teachers.

Did I want to do anything with the degree, they asked me. Well, yes, but how could I when I’ve got a vagina?

The truth was, I really did like the idea of teaching and preaching to an audience over the age of seven about academic, gender-neutral things that mattered. But I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure and heartache chasing an elusive career in a Christian culture that opposed my existence as a female leader and teacher.

And truth be told, I do love the opportunities I’ve had. I adore working with children. I will happily talk about marriage, childrearing, and relationships. Mentoring women about women’s issues, teaching children — those are not at all lesser things to me.

I don’t resent those opportunities.

But I do resent that those are the only opportunities I’ve had.

When I am at home, not blogging, not earning a paycheck, not calculating how my interests and gifts will pan out in the “real world,” I read books on theology and sociology. I sit cross-legged on my unmade bed and talk through my theological and spiritual thoughts. I listen to podcasts on culture and Christianity while washing dishes.

I am and have always been an academic nerd who lives for the intersection of culture, faith, and everyday life.

There’s a part of me that jumps at the idea of going back to school, becoming a pastor, becoming a chaplain, becoming a tenured professor who writes books and gets called up on the Liturgists because I might know something.

Then that part of me sits right back down with a thud and moves on happily with life in the opportunities that have always been given, approved, and supported.

Because I’m terrified.

I’m terrified of being responsible for knowing things, saying things, teaching things, and guiding souls.

Which sounds very wise and humble of me to say, and I am glad I am properly terrified of such huge responsibility, but I don’t have that fear in my “okayed” roles. I say things all the time on my blog without terror. I was happy to share my knowledge of the Old Testament exile during adult Sunday school hour when the pastor asked for questions or comments. I taught my heart out even when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I enjoyed counseling, mentoring, and offering advice to the women, teenagers, pre-teens, and the occasional man who came into my life asking for it.

I’ve always imagined my adult successful self as an English high school teacher, a speaker, a writer, a counselor.

So what’s the difference, fearful heart? What’s the terror of transitioning from “speaker” to “preacher,” from “counselor” to “pastor,” from “teacher” to “professor”?

I think the difference is that I have support in the okayed roles, and opposition in the “men only” positions. Not that I mind the opposition, per se — but I’ve internalized the paranoia that a woman shouldn’t do X, regardless of her gifting.

I’ve internalized it so much that it feels presumptuous of me to even think of presenting myself as a teacher, pastor, or spiritual guide. Who would take me seriously? Who would honestly come hear a woman speak, who would sign up for a female professor’s class, who would attend a church with a woman on the pastoral staff?

Women are too emotional. Women are too biased. Women leaders have no truth to speak because they’re all liberals pushing a liberal agenda. Women can’t command presence. Women can’t earn respect. Women are easily deceived. Women are lacking something that makes them fundamentally unqualified for leadership — like, being a man.

These are all things I know aren’t true, but that I believe deeply enough that they limit me from considering any sort of career outside of the prescribed female roles.

I try to explain this to my husband, who grew up with women leaders and teachers in his Catholic parish, who is not a woman, who never heard that women can’t because they’re women. I try to explain how brokenhearted I am that the patriarchy lives inside me and limits me. I try to explain what it’s like to feel automatically disrespected and dismissed simply because of my gender.

I don’t know how to explain it.

I don’t even know if I fully understand how damaging those beliefs are to me, how debilitating it was to be the best at something and passed over because I was a girl.

My home church made this worse, in retrospect, because they genuinely recognized my gifts and provided ample opportunities for young people to practice leadership in the church. Well, for young men.

The male Bible college students, regardless of degree, all got a chance to preach a sermon in evening service.

The high school boys all got a chance to read the sermon passage during the morning service.

The young men got to teach the youth group lessons.

Honestly, not all of them were qualified or even good at what they did. That didn’t matter to the church. They supported them, they encouraged them, they gave them opportunities. And I think it’s absolutely beautiful that our church recognized how empowering it was to believe in them and what they could do. I am happy they had those opportunities.

I would have loved those opportunities, too. I would have loved being encouraged and supported in such a public, challenging way.

That’s all I’m saying.

Many people, including the pastors, went out of their way to thank me for the comments and questions I gave during Sunday school hour. Why didn’t that ever translate into a chance to lead youth group?

Everybody praised me up and down for my speaking skills. Why didn’t that lead to an opportunity to preach an evening sermon or at least read the Bible aloud?

Why didn’t it matter that I was equally or more gifted in certain areas than my male peers and that everybody knew it? Why were my comments during Sunday school a blessing but the idea of me reading the Bible aloud an abomination of the created order? Why were my leadership skills praised when I co-organized VBS but a cause for visceral anger when I asked to lead worship? Why was my singing able to minister when it was during special music but all of the sudden a disaster waiting to happen when the congregation was singing along with a woman directing the tune?

Why do I feel capable as a kindergarten teacher with no formal educational training but incapable of teaching a class on something for which I earned a degree? Why do I feel little fear at training as a counselor but terror at training for a pastoral ministry? Why am I okay writing a blog post about a spiritual issue but uncomfortable with “preaching” it on Sunday morning? Why do I feel somewhat qualified to raise impressionable children’s souls as a mother but disqualified to guide thinking adults in the faith as a Sunday school teacher?

I know the answer to this.

I’m a woman.

And that’s the terror I have of stepping into a teaching or pastoral position over adults — heck, over even teenage boys — not that I don’t have something to say, not that I wouldn’t be good at it, not that I would not be gifted and equipped and called, but, simply, that I am a woman.

I am terrified of my womanness and the havoc it could cause. I want to spare myself from that destruction. I want to spare others from that destruction.

I’ve been taught that regardless of how gifted you are, being a woman ruins it somehow.

As an educated, talented woman, that is my deepest insecurity.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

I Don’t Accommodate Uncontrolled Men

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It’s summer! Time for all the the ladies to start posting articles about why it’s not a woman’s responsibility to prevent a man from lusting and all the gentlemen to start posting comments about why it’s not a woman’s responsibility, but she sure can help.

I’ve been encouraged to see the pushback, by women, even women in more conservative circles, against the toxic idea that a woman’s clothing choices can cause men to stumble.

But this pushback gets halted when a guy stands up and comfortably announces that while this personal responsibility thing all sounds great, the reality is that normal, healthy guys like him struggle, so women should still cover up. And the ladies go a little silent, unable to argue with this universal battle against sexual temptation that women never face.

The pushback against purity culture dies right then and there, because no woman wants to challenge the idea that men can’t actually control themselves — and that’s a beautiful, God-given part of being a man.

So I’m going to be that woman. I’m going to stand up and look that man in the eye and tell him that his inability to control himself is not normal, healthy, or God-given, and I have no sympathy for his struggles.

Because I don’t. I think more highly of men than that.

My husband didn’t grow up in purity culture. He didn’t grow up hearing that it’s normal and healthy for a guy to struggle with not looking until the offending woman leaves the room. He didn’t grow up hearing he couldn’t control his sexual urges if he caught a glimpse of a woman’s cleavage. He grew up around girls who wore bikinis to the beach and short shorts and tank tops. He grew up being able to look at a woman, notice parts of her body, even formulate a response (like “She’s attractive” or “She’s trying too hard”), and then go on with his conversation with her as if she’s more than her butt and abs.

He doesn’t experience this “all men’s daily battle” regarding women’s clothing choices, because he wasn’t socialized to.

And I think that is a huge thing people are overlooking in this discussion — how much of the “male struggle” can be chalked up not to healthy amounts of testosterone but to socialization?

Even as a female I was socialized to be uncomfortable with women in certain clothing — not because I was sexually attracted to them but because I was taught they were immodest. I would avert my eyes and feel embarrassed and not know how to talk to a woman with cleavage. Now that I’m socialized to be okay with women’s clothing choices, even if they don’t align with mine, I don’t find it awkward at all. They’re just people. They’re just bodies. No need to freak out or be awkward.

I think guys need to learn that it’s fine to notice a woman’s body and find it attractive. Bodies are beautiful. Beautiful bodies elicit responses in everyone. Notice it, and move on with your life. It’s not a sin. It’s not even necessarily sexual. This is how “visual” women deal with attractive men, and you don’t hear them begging guys to put their shirts on at the beach. It’s not socially acceptable for women’s sex drives to show.

I do find it disturbing and creepy and predatory that guys “struggle” so much around women who wear certain clothes. I find it disturbing that that’s normalized as healthy and natural. I don’t feel safe around men who can’t look at my body and engage with me as a human, regardless of what I’m wearing. I don’t feel comfortable around men who are battling not to lust after me.

And I don’t feel that I can control whether I “trigger” that battle or not by my clothing choices. How am I supposed to know what level of dress or undress is “comfortable” for any particular man? Guys will often say, “Oh, I’m not one of those guys who thinks women should dress like frumps. I’m not saying women shouldn’t wear pants or above the knee skirts or tank tops — I can handle those.”

But you know what? Some guys apparently can’t handle pants or above the knee skirts and tank tops. Some guys are more turned on by women in skirts. They’ve told me this to my face.

So what’s “normal”? Is it normal for a guy to struggle when he sees a woman in jeans, or only when she’s wearing a short skirt? Is it normal for a guy to struggle when she’s wearing a one-piece bathing suit and shorts, or only when she’s wearing a bikini? Is there an all-male council who has decided what’s “normal” for a guy to struggle with, and what’s creepy? Because I keep hearing mixed messages from men about what turns them on and what’s modest, and it makes me think the problem isn’t with what women wear but with what men can’t handle.

I think “normal” is a guy being able to interact with a woman comfortably, regardless of what she’s wearing, without waging a battle for his soul. Period. I will not accommodate any other male normal.

Moderator’s Note: This is stirring up a great conversation! In order to keep this a great conversation, I’m going to start deleting comments that make derogatory remarks or personal attacks against others who disagree. Be feisty but gracious!

An Egalitarian Approach to Chores

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Since I’ve heard many complaints lately about husbands who don’t pull their weight in the chores department, I thought I’d talk a bit about our egalitarian way to split up the chores.

Here’s the key to an egalitarian sharing of the chores: it’s not just about who does what. It’s about whose responsibility it is to care about the housekeeping.

Even though I work full-time, I feel the emotional responsibility of household upkeep more than my husband. This is not because I am innately a homemaker, as some have tried to tell me. It is because some have tried to tell me that I am innately a homemaker — that I, as a woman, am uniquely suited to exert emotional energy towards my home.

Well, I certainly do exert a uniquely feminine emotional energy towards my home. When my husband walks into a dirty kitchen after an exhausting day of work, he thinks, “Great — the kitchen’s dirty again.” When I walk in to a dirty kitchen after an exhausting day of work, I think, “I am a total and utter failure of a human being and should not have been allowed into adulthood at this young of an age.”

In other words, guilt. Guilt is that special feminine ingredient to housekeeping.

On top of it all, I am a Type B cleaning personality raised in a Type A cleaning home. This means that my mom and my sister, the women closest to me, could not stand clutter or dirtiness at any point during the day. They cleaned as they went. I’d get up from a cozy blanket on the couch for a cup of cocoa, only to find, on my return, the blanket folded neatly over the couch top.

It’s humorous, actually. On one of Erich’s first visits to my parents’ home, somebody put his empty cup in the dishwasher before he was finished with it. He now finds inventive ways to hide his cups from prowling cleaners — like hanging them from light fixtures in the kitchen.

So I have these examples and expectations of housecleaning perfection before me, and none of the energy or interest to meet them. (Read: more guilt.) Erich and I have an extremely high tolerance for clutter and filth. An unhealthily high tolerance, I should say.

It’s frightening how long you can handle counters-full of dishes when you don’t have a dishwasher.

As I thought more intentionally about an egalitarian way to split up chores, I realized that this mindset, this mindset that it’s more my responsibility than his because I’m a woman, has got to go. The cleaning and upkeep of our home is our responsibility, equally. I have to care. He has to care.

While we don’t have children yet, I think this is a crucial component to happy households even if a wife quits her full-time job to stay home. I used to think that I would take over all housecleaning once I stayed home with our baby. After all, I would have eight hours that my husband didn’t to do laundry and wash some dishes.

But after listening to moms with kids underfoot, moms who were drowning with childcare, I realized that I might not have the time — or the energy — after all.

I work in childcare. It is a full-time job that encompasses every spiritual, psychological, and physical inch of your soul and body. Just because stay-at-home moms don’t get paid for their labor doesn’t mean motherhood is any less all-encompassing.

That’s where couples get in trouble, I’ve noticed. Stay-at-home moms run themselves weary keeping up with the kids and still feel obligated to keep up with the onslaught of daily chores too. Meanwhile, Daddy comes home feeling entitled to a break because he worked all day.

Well, Mama worked all day too. So instead of getting into a battle over who’s more exhausted at the end of the day (something my husband and I row about even without kids), it seems more reasonable to assign equal emotional responsibility over household upkeep.

What does this look like practically in our home?

We tried chore lists, but I never did mine, and Erich kept reassigning hated chores to me. So right now, when we see something that needs to be done (i.e., when we max out on our tolerance for filth), we do it ourselves and ask the other spouse to chip in with it or with another chore.

If Erich starts a load of laundry, he might ask me to fold the laundry or point out that I still haven’t done my dishes. If I notice the carpet needs vacuuming, I’ll grab the vacuum and ask Erich to tackle the urine stains on the toilet. And of course, we take personal responsibility for our own stuff.

The only thing we specifically assign are dishes and cooking: whoever doesn’t cook does the dishes. (Because we hate dishes.)

This works for us, because we (usually) respond well to the other person’s initiative. And by “works for us,” I don’t mean “keeps our home in immaculate order.” (We’re working on that.) I mean it keeps our marriage unclogged with cleaning resentment. It helps us feel like a team.

I don’t expect this to change much when we have kids and I stay home with them — except that I’ll have more opportunity to do chores than he will. If I have time and energy during the work day, I’ll do the necessary chores. There’s no point in putting off chores just to make it “fair.” It’s still partially my responsibility, after all, and I would want my husband to tackle the dirty work if he had the opportunity instead of leaving it all for me.

But if I can’t get to chores, or if I’m absolutely sick of doing chores, I won’t feel guilty either.

After all, it’s not wholly my responsibility.

Is Egalitarianism a Slippery Slope to LGBTQ+ Acceptance?

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I remember when I was just starting to question complementarianism, when the world was black and white. The good guys were the Republicans, the anti-feminists, the Reformed, conservative, John Pipers. The bad guys were Democrats, secular feminists, progressives, and liberals, like Rachel Held Evans.

I wanted complete assurance that exploring egalitarianism would not lead me into the enemy’s camp. Egalitarianism, I was warned, was the tip of a slippery slope leading to horrible things like social justice, Episcopalianism, and the very gravest, the absolute lowest of all low valleys — LGBTQ+ acceptance.

Once you tumbled that low, you were lost to orthodoxy forever.

I want to address this particular fear head on — the idea that egalitarianism is one step away from embracing the LGBTQ+ community. While I do get a good laugh at my black-and-white world and the paranoia that resulted from it, I realize that’s still a present and legitimate concern for many people who, essentially, mark orthodoxy by how immobile one is against the siren call of LGBTQ+ acceptance.

The short answer is no, egalitarianism does not a LGBTQ+ ally make.

Prominent egalitarian groups like Christians for Biblical Equality and The Junia Project share marriage between one man and one woman as a core value: “6. God’s design for relationships includes faithful marriage between a man and a woman, celibate singleness and mutual submission in Christian community.”

Many of the denominations who celebrate women’s full participation at all levels of leadership also express the one man, one woman line. The Anglican Church in North America is one such faith tradition. Tish Harrison Warren, one of its female priests, recently wrote about the need for church oversight of female bloggers — particularly because prominent female leaders like Jen Hatmaker are espousing an LGBTQ+-affirming stance.

Another example is the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which views same-sex orientation as “a condition of disordered sexuality” that should not disqualify individuals from community acceptance. But, it affirms that, “Homosexualism (that is, explicit homosexual practice)…is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.”

And the reason why these and other faith traditions and individual egalitarians can affirm women in all levels of leadership but declare homosexual activity as sinful is simple: they’re not the same issue, Biblically speaking.

Egalitarians who oppose homosexual behavior will talk about “the movement of Scripture.” There is no “movement” in Scripture toward accepting same-sex relationships, whereas there is great movement toward elevating women. Women serve in leadership in both the old and new testaments. Even in more patriarchal passages that seem to support a gender hierarchy (such as the household codes), the movement is not toward “putting women in their place” but rather elevating women to an equal level with their husbands.

Though it can and has been argued that Scripture is silent on monogamous same-sex relationships, or that the core principles of Christianity compel one to embrace the LGBTQ+ community, there isn’t the same explicit “movement” in Scripture toward LGBTQ+ acceptance the way there is toward women’s equality.

That would be, in a nutshell, the egalitarian differentiation of women’s equality with the LGBTQ+ movement.

Still, we all can think of dozens of friends or prominent voices who started out egalitarian but not affirming and then later allied themselves with the LGBTQ+ movement. I don’t have any hard statistics on it, but anecdotally, the egalitarians who are allies seem to outnumber the egalitarians who aren’t.

And here’s why: egalitarianism doesn’t automatically turn you into an ally, but it sure makes you think about becoming one.

I can’t think of any egalitarian who hasn’t wrestled with LGBTQ+ issues. Biblical movement aside, there are parallels between egalitarianism and LGBTQ+ issues that would move any ardent supporter of women’s rights — both want full equality and normalcy, both involve minorities, and both are misunderstood and maligned, particularly in the church.

As a woman whose motivations, salvation, and common sense get questioned because of my egalitarian stance, I’m far more sympathetic to minority groups seeking equal rights and understanding. I know firsthand how people use “the Biblical worldview” and “orthodoxy” to silence the legitimate pain and discrimination I’ve experienced. I’ve seen how women’s voices get ignored and explained away because it challenges long-held “Biblical” beliefs.

So when I’m tempted to write off LGBTQ+ complaints of discrimination, I remember the time when I experienced discrimination and nobody came to my defense. When I’m tempted to wonder if LGBTQ+ people are overly sensitive and milking their minority status for a political agenda, I remember when people called me overly sensitive and promoting a feminist agenda. When I’m tempted to doubt LGBTQ+ voices on their own experience because of this verse in the Bible or science or “common sense” or what if they’re deceived?, I remember when my pain, my experience, and my thoughts were real, true, and completely dismissed.

Add to that the church’s long, often abysmal record of hurting those most in need of support — and I know I’ve got a heck of a lot of listening to do.

That’s why, I think, egalitarians as a whole tend to strive for empathy and a listening posture with the LGBTQ+ community — and why many of them end up allies.

Here’s the truth: if you become an egalitarian, you’re guaranteed to come out with at least a more nuanced view on LGBTQ+ issues. Egalitarianism doesn’t roll you down an inevitable hill toward LGBTQ+ acceptance, but it does kick the door open for genuine soul-searching on the issue.

And I don’t say that merely as a comfort to people interested in egalitarianism but worried about falling down a slippery slope. I say that because listening to LGBTQ+ people, working through your own preconceptions of, well, everything, and wrestling with all the components that make these issues complicated — it’s no easy tumble.

In fact, I think understanding and/or accepting the LGBTQ+ community is an uphill battle — something that requires intentionality and effort.

(NB: In this post, I’m not addressing whether we should or should not accept the LGBTQ+ community and/or their lifestyles. It’s an important discussion that I do not feel qualified to lead or moderate, so I would appreciate if all comments stuck closely to the intersection of or divergence with LGBTQ+ issues and egalitarianism. Thanks.)