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

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Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People

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Shelia Wray Gregoire at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum just posted an article on how to stop an emotional abuse cycle in marriage. The bottom line is consistently drawing a boundary — saying something like, “I will not tolerate belittling words. Come talk to me when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion” and then walking away.

As both a victim and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, I back this advice 100%.

I remember the first time, back in our dating days, when my husband refused to tolerate my berating. It was a late night, I was tired and stressed, I was being a classic jerk, and we were using that greatest of all communication methods — text. A small problem that could’ve been solved with a good night’s sleep on my end spiraled into a nasty character assassination. He finally texted, “I’m done with this conversation. Good night.”

It shocked me.

But it wasn’t his words alone that shocked me. It was the fact that he really was done with this conversation. He turned his phone off and went to bed, ignoring the tirade of desperate, angry messages I sent him in response to his boundary. When we both woke up the next morning, he still didn’t respond — and I was the one shamefacedly scrolling through last night’s vitriol, all so clearly one-sided and petty in the light of day. I felt so guilty that I sought him out, apologized, and moved on to more respectful conversations.

Boundary drawing works. (Not to be confused with stonewalling, which is another characteristic of dysfunctional couples and only further feeds the cycle of emotional abuse.)

The simple skill of meaning what you say and walking away from unproductive conversations and unwanted behavior applies to many other areas of life.

I use this regularly in comment moderation. If I say I am done with a conversation, I mean that I’m done. Even if the antagonist responds to that comment and tries to bait me back into the conversation, I don’t reply. I stay done. When engaging with someone disrespectful and intrusive, the best defense is a firm, consistent boundary I intend to follow through on.

It seems too simple, but it’s actually quite rare. The majority of people enter back into hopeless Facebook threads after dramatically announcing they’re through with the conversation. “I can’t believe I’m getting dragged into this again,” they’ll say,
“but….”

No buts. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

I instantly respect people who really do quit the conversation and refuse to budge, regardless of how the trolls play. And even if the trolls don’t share the same respect I do for that person, what can they do about it? They can’t touch a person who isn’t gratifying their disrespect with a reaction of any kind.

Oddly, this is the sort of thing we were supposed to have learnt in grade school. I taught my kids this little ditty about handling bullies and difficult people:

F-I-G-H-T
We don’t fight!
Talk it over, walk away,
Find another game to play. 

(And always feel free to come tell the teacher!)

It’s the same principle as Sheila shares in her article for adults. If respectful conversation isn’t possible, walk away and engage yourself in something else. Don’t get dragged into a cage match. It never ends well.

It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that many adults do not know how to appropriately deal with conflict or regulate their emotions even on this grade school level. We don’t talk it over and walk away. We don’t only say something when we have something nice to say. We don’t hold our hands and find our patience.

We all learned the catchphrases, but nobody explicitly taught us or modeled how to apply them when emotions ran their hottest. Now as adults, we feel as justified in lashing out because of our big people problems as we did throwing tantrums as little kids with our little people problems.

In fact, I see a direct correlation between a child having a meltdown and screaming out, “I hate you!” at her mommy and the wife having a meltdown and screaming similar epithets at her husband. There’s so much bottled up, legitimate, but unregulated pain and frustration that it explodes in verbal violence.

A parent’s response, much like a spouse’s, is often to fire back with sarcasm or equally hurtful words, to domineer, to in some way out-emotion the offender — or on the other end, to stonewall, cave in, bend over backwards, and just buy that bag of Oreos in the checkout line already. But none of those things are effective in the long-term, neither for children nor for emotionally unregulated adults.

That’s how I view both adult and child tantrums now — desperate cries for a cool head to step in and help deal with crushing emotion. And the first step to stepping in is often bowing out.

I once worked with a child who threw major tantrums — we’re talking overturning desks, hiding under tables, refusing to budge, along with the general symptoms of crying, screaming, and abandoning reason. I was at a complete loss until I picked up the simple tip of ignoring his tantrums.

“J,” I would tell him over his screams. “I can see you are frustrated that you can’t tie your shoes. I would love to help you. When you’re ready to calm down, come tell me and I’ll help you tie your shoes.”

Then I would walk away. Nothing he did drew my attention back to him. Inevitably — and it was a shorter and shorter period each time — I would feel a little tug and turn to find his tear-streaked face trying to burrow into my arms from shame and exhaustion. I would again reiterate how happy I was to help, and we would talk about how to handle future problems, and we would hug and spend some extra quality time together as we waited for the buses to arrive.

His behavior improved dramatically. All he wanted was attention, and he knew, both from my words and my avoidance of his tantrums, that the only way to get my attention was to approach me directly in a more regulated manner.

I think this is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships where the abusive partner isn’t suffering from a personality or character disorder like narcissism.* Something goes wrong in the relationship — someone doesn’t feel heard, loved, understood, respected, etc. — and the repeated efforts to fix what’s wrong fall on deaf ears and a hard heart. That’s when the adult tantrum — verbal and emotional abuse — starts to seem not only appealing but necessary.

If he doesn’t listen when I’m calmly, sweetly, respectfully presenting my thoughts and feelings, maybe he’ll listen if I scream it at the top of my lungs, slam a door, or throw a pillow or two. 

This is, obviously, a two-fold problem of emotional regulation on the one spouse’s part and of whatever behavior the other spouse committed that was contributing to the first spouse’s desperation.

Drawing emotional boundaries — and more importantly, keeping them — won’t snap boom bang fix the initial problem, but it will allow for the respectful conversations that will eventually bring about a solution. That’s a fresh start all relationships need from time to time.

*I’m going to offer a caveat similar to Sheila’s — many times the root of emotional abuse isn’t a misunderstanding compounded by emotional dysfunction but a serious psychological, personality, or character flaw in one individual. Drawing boundaries with this sort of person will neither save your marriage nor change your spouse. If you find yourself married to this kind of person, please empower yourself, seek professional help, and keep yourself and your children safe. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 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

Girl on Girl Crime

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As I personally support natural, non-chemical, and non-hormonal family planning methods, I expected to like this article on women sharing their choices: “We Asked 24 Women Why They Don’t Use Birth Control And These Are Their Answers.”

I had to take a long shower to process why I felt offended, judged, and shamed even when I technically agree with many of their reasons.

This isn’t the first time I walked away from an article on women’s personal choices that left me feeling like a total failure as a woman.

The article is a list of twenty-four women holding up signs like, “I don’t want to put something artificial in my body to stop something natural from happening” or “Because I want a healthy, natural, organic body” or “Because no one is ever really ready for kids — and they are the best, most exciting and fulfilling things to ever happen to me!”

That’s fine, that’s interesting, that’s women sharing their personal reasons and experiences. Let’s hear some more.

“Because I can control myself.”

“Because I don’t have to give up my womanhood to be a feminist.”

“Because I am responsible and make mindful decisions accepting the consequences of my actions.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what now? You can control yourself — as if women on birth control can’t? And how does birth control amount to giving up one’s womanhood? And staying off birth control is the only way to be responsible?

Even if these women meant their reasons as merely personal, they come across as antagonistic and holier-than-thou towards other women’s choices. This is the only way to be a woman. This is the best way to be a woman. This is the moral choice.

We women have all experienced this — another woman putting us down to elevate herself, another woman supporting her own choices by trashing everybody else’s.

As Tina Fey’s character from Mean Girls puts it, it’s girl on girl crime.

I don’t think we even mean to do this to each other. For the most part, we all want freedom to make the best decisions for our bodies, lifestyles, and families. We all want accurate information disseminated to us and our fellow females about the choices we could make. We might disagree (and disagree strongly) with other women’s decisions, but we don’t mean to knock down other women with our statistics and opinions. We, in theory, want the best for other women too.

But women are in a unique situation. We’re women, for one thing, and we deal with all kinds of complicated physical factors like periods, PMS, pregnancy, and breastfeeding and complicated sociological factors like balancing work and family life. There is more to think about, decide on, and juggle as women — at least compared to men.

Do men hold up signs defending their reasons for why they don’t use Viagra? Are there support groups for those wounded in the “daddy wars”? Do men get scrutinized on their beauty routines and clothing choices in the public eye? Thank heavens, no.

There’s not as much antagonism towards men’s personal decisions as there is towards women’s, and as a result, there’s not as much defensiveness.

Women feel defensive about their personal choices, because women feel attacked, because women feel guilty, because women feel like their womanhood and their morality are at stake with every personal decision they make. 

It gets to the point where we women shame ourselves even if a woman is simply stating her own choice, based on her own research, with no intent to shame anyone else — or even worse, we shame ourselves even if no one else is around. The very fact that we drink coffee while breastfeeding or don’t want kids or want kids or favor feminine clothes or masculine clothes or wear makeup or don’t wear makeup or take birth control or have more than 1.5 kids makes us feel guilty.

On top of this, there’s a huge push for women to feel liberated, empowered, unashamed, and vocal about who they are and the choices they make. Plus there’s the internet. So women hear not only subtle messages that they’re female failures, they get to see smiling, confident women openly telling them they are. 

“I don’t use birth control because I’m a real woman.”

“You can’t be pro-life and pro-feminist.”

“I don’t wear a bikini because want to glorify God.”

“I wear a bikini because I’m not a prude who’s ashamed of her body.”

“I stay at home because I’m not selfish enough to sacrifice my kids for my career.”

“I’m not a stay-at-home mom because I want a real job.”

Girl on girl crime — all because we want to prove that our choices are moral, meaningful, and completely in line with being a woman.

I think it’s fabulous that women are combating this guilt, shame, and pressure in public, online forums. It’s awesome that we feel empowered to speak our minds and share our opinions and who gives a damn. But in a female world of guilt and shame, where many personal situations and beliefs give rise to many different choices, we need to be wise communicators — especially when our communication is pithy little posters and punchy one-liners.

I found myself asking what on earth this Buzzfeed article meant to accomplish. Obviously it hoped to bring awareness to the myriad different reasons why women opt out of birth control — but to what end? To encourage respect of other women’s choices? To change people’s minds? To spark a productive conversation?

Because I assure you, I didn’t feel any inclination to respect the women implying women on birth control abandoned kids, their bodies, their womanhood, and responsibility. My mind wouldn’t have been changed about birth control reading most of those signs. And the first thing I wanted to say in response to this article wasn’t at all productive.

I don’t feel this way about all social media campaigns about women’s issues. People of all different sorts posted photos of themselves saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.” When the face of feminism becomes stay-at-home moms, male CEOs, and your quiet Republican friend who never posts on Twitter — that’s powerful. That gets you thinking.

Such a campaign is not necessarily making any arguments for feminism. It’s merely combating a false narrative that often shuts down the conversation — that all feminists are whiny female SJWs who hate children and men. It humanizes an otherwise volatile conversation.

Conversely, this is what made the Buzzfeed article so offensive: the women tried to advance a defense of their choices through poorly nuanced zingers. Instead of humanizing the conversation in a positive way, their smiling faces made their comments seem like a personal attack: I think you’re a slutty, irresponsible, child-hating, lesser-than woman because you don’t practice NFP like me.

It’s not that women shouldn’t advance defenses for their beliefs and choices, or even advocate against something. I’m all for a well-written article entitled “Why I Hate Condoms,” or “The Medical Arguments Against Hormonal Birth Control,” or a sign that says, “I’m not Catholic, middle class, crunchy, or Michelle Duggar, but I still practice NFP.”

What a conversation starter! I want to hear more.

Sure, we all could take things a little less personally sometimes, but let’s face it — we do get ridiculous amounts of scrutiny as women. We all feel defensive, and if we’re honest, we’ve all been on the offensive, too.

Come on, ladies. We’re all in the same boat here, so let’s hold respectful, thoughtful, nuanced, passionate conversations about our choices in a way that doesn’t shame other women for theirs.

No more girl on girl crime.

Photo from Buzzfeed

On-Demand Sex Won’t Meet Your Husband’s Needs

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In conservative Christianity’s ongoing campaign to convince women they’re primarily sex objects, we’ve all heard that a husband needs on-demand sex, and it’s a Christian wife’s duty to give it to him — even when she doesn’t feel like it.

Someone gave me this advice when I was a newlywed. It rubbed me the wrong way then, when I knew nothing about married sex, and it rubs me the wrong way now, as I know a little bit more than nothing about married sex.

It threw more guilt and pressure on the already overwhelming amount of baggage I was carrying in regards to sex. The times I felt chastened enough to follow this advice ended in an unsexy mess of tears and anxiety.

I could write a whole post on the damage this teaching does and/or can do to women, but I also oppose this teaching because on-demand sex that ignores the wife’s feelings isn’t even the best way to meet a husband’s deepest needs.

The premise of on-demand sexual gratification for hubby is two-fold: (1) men need sex (at least in a way women do not), and (2) there are no real, legitimate reasons for a wife to decline satisfying his needs.

In all the time I spent in purity culture, the focus of sex was intimacy, the physical uniting of two souls into one flesh. That’s why we didn’t sleep around. Sex wasn’t just a biological function. It helped facilitate something deeper, something spiritual, even.

But then you read the advice for married ladies, and that beautiful vision of intimacy turns out to be a crass hoax. In reality, sex is about keeping your husband’s animal drives at bay so he doesn’t get frustrated and cheat on you.

It’s put more delicately than that, of course — something about sex being the primary way men experience intimacy, etc. — but the practical advice boils down to about as much:

Wear make-up every day so that you’re just as pretty as all the other women he meets out in the world.

Keep up your figure — you wouldn’t want his eyes wandering to thinner women.

Never say no to sex, or he’ll start looking elsewhere.

We can debate whether sex is all men’s or some men’s primary way of experiencing intimacy. It’s fine if it is. And even if it isn’t, sex should be a priority in marriage.

But this way of talking about sex and men’s needs ignores the ultimate need of everybody, male or female, husband or wife — we all need intimacy, oneness, and connection with another.

Sex should be a priority in marriage because intimacy is the goal.

Since intimacy is the goal, there is more to it than a man releasing his sexual appetite whenever he wants to at the wife’s expense.

When sex becomes the main goal, other aspects of intimacy will suffer (like emotional connection with a wife who doesn’t want sex that night — for starters). When sex is the main goal, it is completely possible for a husband to end up treating his wife like a sex object. When sex is the main goal, it is completely possible for the husband to be oblivious to what’s going on in his wife’s heart and mind, wrecking their marital intimacy.

When sex is the main goal, what a wife feels, wants, or needs mean nothing as long as she pleasures her husband.

But when intimacy is the main goal, what a wife feels, wants, or needs is just as critical as what her husband feels, wants, and needs. The process of understanding and reconciling those wants and needs when they’re at odds brings about a measure of intimacy needed for a healthy marriage to function.

Newsflash: there are real, legitimate reasons why a woman might not want to have sex. Always. Whether she says no one night or whether she says no frequently, there is a reason.

The problem with the marriage is not that she won’t have sex but why she won’t have sex.*

Even on a purely pragmatic level, the best sex happens when a wife wants to have sex, enjoys having sex, and knows how have good sex. Doesn’t that sound a million times better than on-demand sex with a wife grinning through her gritted teeth? Why doesn’t it ever occur to these older married women pushing this idea of on-demand sex to tell women to pay attention to and work through their reservations, rather than stuffing it all down night after night?

I think it never occurs to them, because it’s almost assumed that women don’t really want sex — at least not as much as men do. (Lies! And tragedy.) And I think they assume that women don’t really want sex, because they don’t understand how women’s sexuality often works.

Emily Nagoski, in her book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, discusses how misleading the idea of the “sex drive” is. Men (stereo)typically are ready for sex at the drop of a hat (or likely before), so we label their sex drive as “high.” Women (stereo)typically aren’t rarin’ to go for sex 24/7, so we label their sex drive as “low.” Because men’s high sex drive was used almost a baseline for desirable sexuality, women’s sexuality was misunderstood or outright dismissed as unimportant.

Research now explodes the idea of a “sex drive.” Instead, every individual has a sexual accelerator and a sexual brake that work in tandem to produce individuals with traditionally understood “high” or “low” sex drive tendencies. 

Some people have extremely sensitive accelerators — all kinds of things turn them on with little encouragement necessary — while some people have more stubborn accelerators that need lots of coaxing to get started. Some people have extremely sensitive brakes — almost anything can screech their sexual inclinations to a halt — while some people’s brakes hardly ever engage.

As Nagoski emphasizes, absolutely nothing is wrong with any combination of sensitivities or lack thereof. They’re all “normal.” If you’re dissatisfied with your sex life, however, there are ways to work with your natural proclivities — to ease up on the brakes and tap those accelerators. And that’s through changing the context.

This is the key to great, frequent sex — not trying to force your sexuality to happen on call, but to understand what sort of context you need for your combination of brake and accelerator.

A brake can be anything — stress, housework, trauma, lack of emotional intimacy, exhaustion, even negative experiences with sex like feeling forced to perform on-demand. Husband and wife need to work together to create a context that eliminates those things — the husband takes on more housework, the wife drops that extra commitment, the husband gives his wife the freedom to say, “no, not tonight,” the wife goes to therapy.

An accelerator is something like a scent, a place, a time of day, the light levels — anything that consistently turns you on. Husband and wife need to work together to create that environment.

This is intimacy. Not the free reign of the husband’s sex drive, but the mutual understanding of what makes the other person tick, the deep involvement in each other’s lives, the connection so tight that it easily leads to the physical level as well.

That’s what’s going to make a satisfying sex life. And even if a satisfying sex life is your husband’s deepest need, paying attention to and meeting your own needs is what’s ultimately going to meet his.

*I’m aware that sexless marriages exist, sometimes even after the problem has been diagnosed. I don’t presume to speak for those severe cases, and I grieve with those trapped in such a marriage.

Consent, Context, and Clothes: In Which I Refute the Idea That Just Because I Expect Men to Control Themselves Whatever a Woman Is Wearing, I Think Women Should Wear Whatever They Want

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Well, this week has been fun. I remembered why I hate talking about modesty. So I’m going to talk about it some more.

I’m going to talk about it in terms of consent and context, which totally revolutionized this whole conversation for me.

One of the biggest problems with the typical modesty wars is the assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, should be seen as inherently sexual, and must be seen as inherently sexual. There’s an assumption that any time a woman wants to look attractive, she’s somehow seeking male attention, sexual attention, or wrong attention. There’s an assumption that “looking good” is prideful.

There is no concept of the beauty, power, and goodness of the female body apart from sexuality.

I completely reject this idea. It’s a byproduct of a culture uncomfortable with the female body (looking at you, Christian West) and exploitative of the female body (looking at you, current culture).

Most of the women fed up with being told they’re a stumblingblock to men aren’t, as people often assume, wanting to do away with concepts of decency and appropriateness. They want to do away with the idea that their bodies are inherently sexual, all day, every day, no matter what they’re wearing, doing, or saying. 

Many articles talk about how clothing “speaks” — and I agree, it does. Clothing conveys meaning. Clothing informs a social conversation, a social dynamic. The problem is that some people, having it drilled into their heads that women’s bodies are sexy, sexy, sexy, have become deaf to the other facets of the social conversation.

Here are some of the women sick of the stumblingblock argument:

The woman who had a change of heart about dressing modestly, layering her low-cut shirts with a tank top to hide all cleavage, and was still told on two separate occasions to wear a higher top.

The girl who was asked to change her tank top to a t-shirt lest she cause her biological brothers to stumble.

The woman who was catcalled while wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves.

The girl wearing a cute vintage one-piece that prompted a guy to tell her he had to avert his eyes because of her bared thighs.

The woman who was sexually assaulted while dressed in her conservative best.

The young teenager who “caused” adult males at church to sin by wearing a shirt with a normal neckline.

The big-busted lady whose breasts and butt are prominent in whatever outfit she chooses.

What’s the common theme in all of these instances of violation and lust? I’ll give you a hint: not skimpy clothes.

In all of these situations, none of the women were signalling sexual attention. None of them were engaging in a context that invited sexual attention. Not even their clothes were asking for sexual attention. Sexuality was imposed over and against every other cultural cue in these interactions, simply because they had female bodies. 

That’s the problem here — when the sexualization of female bodies gets superimposed onto nonsexual situations.

***

Do women actually seek sexual attention? Of course. Do women use clothing to seek sexual attention? Of course. Should you assume a woman is seeking sexual attention based solely on how much skin is showing or what article of clothing she is wearing? No.

I say no with such vehemence because clothing by itself, divorced from context and consent, is not as clear a message as people make it out to be.

Our society doesn’t agree on what counts as “modest” or “immodest” clothes. (Check out the comments on my last post if you need any proof of that.) This guarantees a confused conversation. This guarantees distress on both sides, men insisting that women are trying to be sexy when they wear X and women insisting that they’re just trying to live their lives.

The elixir of clarity in this mess is not, as some posit, women adhering to a dress code. The solution is factoring in other social cues into the conversation — namely, context and consent.

But before we go there, we need to get rid of the toxic assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual.

Christine Woolgar cuts through the modesty kerfuffle with the most reasonable and rarely heard suggestion: modesty is not about the body; it’s about knowing when to display your “glory” and how to display it without excluding others.

This eliminates the underlying assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and by extension, inherently inappropriate for view.

For many women, attractive bodies are their glory. There is absolutely nothing wrong for a woman to draw attention to her figure or dress — for the right reasons, in the right context. There is nothing absolutely sexual about a woman drawing attention to her figure or dress. An attractive dress or an exposure of skin does not automatically make her prideful, sexual, or inappropriate.

And, incidentally, if a woman is displaying her glory appropriately, in the right context, she should be prepared for people noticing her glory.

***

Let’s talk about complimenting women.

If a man stops a woman on the sidewalk to say, “You look nice in that dress!” she will probably feel threatened and degraded and walk away thinking he’s a creep. “But she was displaying herself!” the poor man might protest. “She was wearing an attractive dress! Shouldn’t I have the right to comment on something she chose to wear in public?”

No, because clothing alone does not get the last word.

The context of a sidewalk and a strange guy does not invite attention. In fact, that’s the classic scenario for a scary, uncomfortable situation.

But change the context to a night out dancing, and you’ve got a totally different situation. People dress up to go dancing. They go dancing to interact with people. There’s an understanding that flirting and small talk — including niceties such as “You look good in that dress!” — are accepted. There’s common ground between the guy and the girl, a mutual understanding of why they’re here and what their interaction might be.

This context gives extra meaning to people’s dress, words, actions, and intentions. When somebody dresses up for dancing, she’s probably okay with getting attention on her appearance. When somebody gives a compliment, he comes across more as a gentleman than a creep.

That’s the power of context.

Context is more than just a place. It extends to who the individual is and what your relationship with that person is. We automatically know not to feel attraction for our relatives or minors. We automatically know that a stripper at work wants a sexual response. And if we know the individual, we’re aware of how he or she perceives things — or how they perceive us. Our relationship gives us insight into how we should perceive or interact with another.

But there’s another crucial element in this social conversation — consent.

Consent operates on all three levels — clothing, context, and signalling.

If a woman is standing in the back of the dance floor, arms crossed, her signals outweigh whatever she’s wearing or whatever context she is in — she is not interested in attention. She is clearly not consenting to whatever is happening in this context or whatever associations people are making with her clothes. She wants to be left alone.

It’s consent that makes up context. If a workplace establishes a dress code that forbids cleavage for ladies and bare chests for guys, they’re not consenting to a woman coming in with her boobs spilling out over her push up bra or a guy walking in shirtless to purchase his gas. A nudist colony consents to viewing and displaying nudity in a nonsexual way. Our society has not consented to public displays of nudity.

This makes it inappropriate to wear certain clothes to work, to walk around naked on Main Street, or to claim nudists are trying to tempt you sexually.

Consent applies to what you’re willing to wear and potentially convey, too, especially as your context and signalling changes.

If you’re going to display cleavage, you’re going to have to be okay with people noticing your cleavage. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub, you’re going to have to be okay with people assuming you’re drawing attention to your well-endowed figure. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub and make eyes at the dashing man across the room, you’re going to have to be okay with him interpreting your signals as a flirtatious advancement — maybe even a sexual one.

Does all of this automatically mean a woman wants sexual attention? Nope. After all, language still gets garbled — maybe she was unaware of how sexy her dress looks, or maybe she meant to be friendly rather than flirty.

But it does mean that it’s unrealistic to speak the language of sexual attraction loud and clear and get horribly offended if someone interprets it that way.

You’ve got to be aware of what your clothes, context, and signals convey in combination with each other. That’s knowing how to speak the social conversation.

That’s the essence of decency.

 

***

How is this different than arguing that women shouldn’t wear X article of clothing because it conveys sexiness or that men shouldn’t be expected not to interpret her clothing choices as a cry for sexual attention?

I’m arguing for a whole personbig picture approach — one that takes into consideration more than just a female body and/or a particular article of clothing.

Instead of trotting out the much-used bikini, I’m going to turn the gender tables and talk about shirtless men.

Is a shirtless man signalling sexual attention in and of itself? Depending on your experience or inclination, yes or no. Does he give consent for certain parts of the body to be noticed (not ogled, noticed)? Yes. If you’re ogling a guy simply for being shirtless, you’re potentially misreading the situation. If you notice his toned abs, you’re being a normal human with eyeballs.

Move on to the context. Is the context signalling sexual attention in and of itself? If it’s a beach, probably not. If it’s a sorority beach party where all the hot young singles come to hook up, potentially. If it’s the Bachelorette at the poolside with all her boyfriends and he’s one of those boyfriends, yes, he’s definitely presenting himself sexually.

And then finally, consensual signals. Is he swimming with his family? Probably not interested. Leave him alone. Is he reading a book on his beach towel? Probably not interested. Is he flirting with a group of girls? He might be. Did he laugh nervously and turn away when you made a comment about his abs? Not. Interested. (But don’t beat yourself up for making an honest mistake.)

 

***

Bodies are not (or should not be) the problem. An article of clothing is not (or should not be) the problem. The problem is when men equate “female body part shown” with “sex,” even when her signals and her context are screaming loudly that she has no interest in sexual attention.

The problem is when women ignore how they’re coming across in a particular context with their particular signals.

The problem is that many people won’t allow a context for nudity or physical beauty apart from sexuality.

And the problem is that not everybody interprets clothes, context, and signals in the same way.

The solution is paying attention to the cultural conversation that clothes, context, and signalling speak. Hopefully we can come to a clearer language that leaves everybody less frustrated, misunderstood, and objectified.

P.S. Want more modesty talk? Here’s my favorite momsplanation on decent dress. And seriously, read Christine’s piece, “Modesty 101: Modesty Is Not About Clothes, Rather Glory and Context.”

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.

Conscientious Wedding Objectors

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It’s not just gay weddings that can divide a circle of friends.

There are myriad possibilities, depending on one’s sensibilities and morals, that might prompt even close friends to decline a wedding invitation or back out of standing up in the wedding party: She’s marrying an abusive jerk. The reception will turn into a party of raging alcoholics. The groom’s an atheist, the bride’s a Christian. Dancing and a DJ will be present after cake cutting. The minister is a woman from a “heretical” denomination.

Whatever the offense, these situations often feel like a choice between your deepest convictions and your love for the couple in question.

I thought I’d left behind this problem along with my old judgmental scruples. Surely no problem would arise that a bit of tolerance couldn’t fix.

And then one summer, I was asked to sing a complementarian wedding song.

I found myself, once again, intolerant, unloving, and completely torn over my deepest values.

I had no problem attending a wedding with such a song. Every wedding I’d ever attended in my life had some sort of nod or overture to complementarian theology. That wasn’t the problem.

I just didn’t feel right with complementarian ideology coming out of my mouth — me, a vocal, public feminist trying to make it big in the egalitarian world.

Once I stopped crying about how I couldn’t believe this was happening to me — this horrific situation where I was the intolerant, unbending, convicted one — I tried sort out what was what.

I thought it was my conscience versus my love for this friend — standing up for what I believed versus deeply wounding an unsuspecting bride.

Really, it boiled down to this: not conscience versus love, but what my conscience could take. Could my conscience handle singing one line of complementarian thought? Or could my conscience settle with causing division, hurting a friend, and potentially ruining our friendship and egalitarianism’s (already extremely tarnished) good name?

Because it would. I wasn’t going to kid myself about that.

One thing was clear: I couldn’t sugarcoat my decision as doing what was somehow existentially or cosmically or eternally “best” or “loving” toward my friend. She wouldn’t perceive it as love in the moment, and she would never perceive it as love unless, somehow, miraculously, in spite of being wounded and misunderstood by this ideology, she later embraced egalitarianism.

I wouldn’t be changing her mind. I wouldn’t even be prompting her to change her mind.

In short, I would be doing absolutely nothing of benefit to her by standing up for what I believed in and following my conscience. It was either my sense of supporting what was right or her sense of dignity as a person capable of choosing good, right beliefs without my input.

How do I know this?

Because I was on the receiving end of this situation just a few months prior.

There was an issue among our wedding party because devout Catholics were not allowed to support a marriage wherein a “lapsed” Catholic declined to get a dispensation to marry outside of the Catholic church. Such a marriage was considered invalid in the church’s eyes — immoral, living in sin, akin to two sinners hooking up rather than a sacred union.

While a Catholic could attend the wedding, a Catholic could not stand up in our wedding. And Catholics made up half of our wedding party.

Everything about this was devastating. Hearing that our beautiful marriage was considered immoral. Having best friends decline to stand up in the wedding. Struggling with the guilt and pressure to follow the Catholic church’s rules rather than our own beliefs. Wondering how this would reshape or ruin our relationships with beloved friends.

I was never angry with my friends, never upset at them. I could never fault someone for following his conscience. But you can bet I was furious at Catholicism. You can bet that I slammed the door shut on even considering joining the Catholic church. You can bet it didn’t encourage my husband to repent and beg a dispensation off an archbishop.

It just hurt me, deeply, for a very long time.

Fortunately, because our friends really were trying to find a way to reconcile their religious devotion and our friendship, and because Catholicism isn’t entirely made up of heartless rules, our friends received permission from the local priest to stand up in our wedding — as long as they prayed that we would come home to the Catholic church.

(Which ordinarily would have been an incredible offense in itself, but beggars can’t be choosers.)

All of these wounds were fresh in my heart as I wrestled with what to do with this complementarian singing engagement.

I didn’t want to speak words I disagreed with. I was tired of hiding behind a complementarian facade; I was ready to be open and honest about what I believed. I didn’t want to promote an ideology that was at that moment wrecking havoc in marriages around me. I didn’t want her marriage to end up with that sort of pain on account of me endorsing it.

I really, truly, deep down in my gut hated the prospect of doing any of those things.

But I chose love. I chose her feelings. Because I knew that singing this song would have zero impact on anyone’s minds or marriages, and not singing this song most definitely would. Because I knew that standing up for my beliefs would wreck our relationship and never give me a credible platform upon which to share egalitarianism. Because I knew that if I was in her shoes, I would want my friend to support me and sing the song.

I ended up talking to her about my concerns. I probably offended her when I spoke about how I’ve seen this ideology ruin other relationships. I probably added stress to her life. I probably strained our relationship, anyways, by making this an issue.

But I was honest about my beliefs, I said what I felt I had to say, and I sang that complementarian song at her beautiful wedding as best as I could.

Yes, it chafed. It was uncomfortable. It was not ideal. These situations never are. They never have a happy ending, they’re never hurt-free for anybody. This is complicated, believing passionately, loving passionately, when your beliefs passionately part ways.

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know…but I did what I thought was right. I followed my conscience, however torn. And I hope that in situations as confusing and painful and awkward as these, that’s all that matters.

Personality Over Beliefs

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I just picked up on a strange bias of mine. When it comes to social media personalities, I tend to gravitate toward to INFJs and ENFJs — in other words, my personality. (I’m an I/ENFJ, split 50/50 down the introversion/extroversion scale.)

This might not be shocking — birds of feather flock together, etc. — but I’ve found that personality trumps even even deeply held beliefs. For instance, I’m a big skeptic and critic of any form of pentecostalism or charismaticism, but I love fellow Christian feminist Amber Picota and her hilarious honesty.

Or Jasmine Holmes (née Baucham). I recently discovered her new blog and Twitter account, and obsessively like almost everything she has to say — despite the fact that she writes for Christian sites I cannot muster the resolve to read anymore and operates from a far more complementarian, Reformed mindset than I do.

Or Anne Lamott, who’s politically a liberal Democrat. I love her.

And it’s not because I’m just a wonderful, affirming, open-minded woman who thinks it prudent to listen to people from all corners of the world. It’s just because I like them. We share a similar personality, a similar way of looking at the world and holding and communicating our beliefs, even if we’re diametrically opposed on specific issues.

It’s true in reverse too: there are some people who I agree with on specific issues but cannot stand. I follow them because sometimes they say interesting things, or because they’re prominent voices in the Christian egalitarian movement, or what have you, but I feel uncomfortable associating myself with them.

I often get more worked up by like-minded allies than I do by people who disagree with me. (Ask my husband. In-your-face feminists and Trump supporters alike bring out all the rage.)

So I’ve been trying to figure this out — my gravitation towards certain warm, authentic, loving, gracious, intelligent personalities over deeply held specific issues. Is it merely personality, in that I/ENFJs feel most at home with people like them? Perhaps other personalities gravitate toward people who aren’t like them, who are more complementary?

Or does it actually come down to beliefs, in the end — at least, a way of holding and communicating beliefs that reveals a deeper belief in what’s most important?

Help me out. Is this true of you? Do you gravitate more toward like-minded people or “like-personalitied” people?