When the First Year Is Hell

IMG_20170515_203825766
Happy Anniversary to us! (Overpriced Italian food in the pouring rain when I’m exhausted, nauseous, and congested, and when he comes home asking if we really can’t just make tacos and Dumb and Dumber our permanent anniversary tradition, starting now. We are so romantic.)

It wasn’t a specific piece of advice that got me to our first wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the insistence of my closest friends that we’d be able to make it work, no matter what. It was a specific piece of someone else’s story — a story of someone I respected, with a marriage full of love, honesty, and honor.

“Our first year of marriage was hell.”

That’s the phrase I kept returning to, fight after fight after heartbreak after screaming-into-the-void heartbreak.

My first year of marriage was hell, too. Well — to be precise — the beginning of it was.

“Marriage is such a wonderful thing!” I once gushed to a engaged couple a few days ago.

“Bailey lies,” my husband added. “It’s only wonderful after the first seven months.”

And for us, that was true.

I won’t bore you with the details, but they involve selfishness, verbal abuse, cold shoulders, pointless 2 AM arguments about the same exact thing, a lack of trust, complete and utter disrespect for the other’s dignity, and contempt.

It was the most nightmarish thing I’ve ever experienced.

I once sobbed through a wedding out of biting jealousy that the other couple was happy and I wasn’t. I cringed whenever people asked how newlywed life was. (“The worst,” I wanted to say.) I hit rock bottom so many times. I begged for separation, I pined for my single days — anything to end the torture of loving and feeling unloved and the hateful rage that kept spewing out of my mouth because of it.

I am 100% certain, had our pattern of mutual disrespect and contempt and emotional bankruptcy continued, our marriage would have ended.

That is clear.

What isn’t clear is what changed.

Oh, I can tell you what changed, as in, we are now decent people who apologize and say kind words and laugh together and listen to each other and don’t actively seek to make each other’s lives miserable. We’ve got the crucial ratio of five positive comments for every one negative comment down. Our arguments — our rare, contained, occurring-during-daytime-hours arguments — actually end up with mutual understanding instead of despair.

Things have changed, for sure. I’m just not sure how, or why — or why then.

I had imagined me being the one to revive my husband’s affections for me through my mild manners and humility and deescalation tactics. I was the woman, I was the one with the emotional intuition and maturity to win him back. And I was the one who went to counseling.

Not for the marriage. I went to counseling for me, for my faith deconstruction, for the anxiety I felt over shifting beliefs. I blamed all of that for making me the demon wife from hell.

That was the biggest change I made — taking responsibility for my own emotions, working constructively and independently on tackling my anxiety and fear, and finding a skilled listener other than my husband to hear every paranoid, odd, and overwhelming thing I felt.

But through no mild manners and humility of my own (though I really did, mostly, try or intend to try), my husband started treating me respectfully. He’d say something that would tick me off, I’d raise my voice to the highest decibel, expecting the same old repeat 2 AM argument, and he’d gently, humbly, respectfully, apologize.

And he kept doing it, even though I lost my temper every time, even though he lost his temper sometimes.  When he did, he’d stop, take a big breath, apologize, and clarify.

It was like a completely different relationship.

We were communicating. We were conversing. We were healing.

I don’t know why it didn’t work all the other times one of us tried to be the bigger person, or when I poured out my soul to him, or when we researched the key components in a successful marriage. I don’t know what clicked for him, or what clicked for me, or why they clicked at roughly the same time with miraculous results.

Maybe it was a miracle.

At any rate, we acquired these miracle-working communication skills — or he did, or I did, and we rubbed off on each other, or maybe we didn’t, I don’t know — around mid-January. And it’s been heaven ever since.

I want to stress this: the first seven months were literally hell — if hell is the absence of goodness and love and hope. And these past five months have been literally heaven — if heaven is the presence of kindness and laughter and happiness and love and occasional arguments about dishes.

I stress those two things, because it was hard for me to believe that anyone with a hell as real as mine could experience anything like the happiness I’m now experiencing — with the same person. Anytime anyone talked about hardship in their marriage, I doubted either the intensity of their hell or the reliability of their happiness.

As far as newlywed encouragement goes, this is all I got: I walked through hell my first year of marriage.

How we did it, I don’t really know. It took two people deciding to change. Any advice or formula I can offer will only affect one of those two people.

Whether you can walk through it too, I don’t really know either. But at least four people have — my husband and I, and the couple whose first-year hell allowed me to keep going.

God’s Unfaithfulness

przemyslaw-reinfus-192379

Not surprisingly, I deconstructed many of my beliefs about God through teaching children. Faith like a little child is so clarifying. It’s so devoid of the systematic, the splitting hairs. A child’s faith calls it like it is.

We were working through a reader on the time Elijah informed Ahab that his whole kingdom would experience famine until he repented of his wickedness. We spent days discussing how the body can survive only so long without food and water. We analyzed the emaciated cows on page 5. We predicted how God would use the crows to feed Elijah. “The eggs!” a couple of them shouted. “Maybe he’ll eat the birds?” another wondered.

Happily, no crows were harmed in this story, and neither was Elijah. “Did God provide for Elijah?” I asked the group of six-year-olds. “YES,” they shouted. “Was God faithful to Elijah?” “YES.”

And because I was curious, I asked, “What do you think happened to all the people in the famine?”

“Oh, they died,” the kids informed me.

“Do you think God was faithful to them?”

“No-o,” they droned.

If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t blame me — I’m not the God who starved an entire nation to rattle one wicked king and then ignored all their prayers for basic sustenance.

Because if we’re defining faithfulness by “God meeting our basic needs” (as we just did in Elijah’s case), then no, he wasn’t faithful.

I didn’t tell my kids any of this, of course. That was my own thought process as I zipped the readers back into the Ziploc bag and all hell broke loose during center time clean up.

But I thought about it again, yesterday, when I read to them a lesson on prayer. “God doesn’t answer our prayers for bad things,” I was teaching them, “but God will always give us what we ask for if we ask for good things that we need.”

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t all the time give us the things he promises. There are many times when you ask, and it won’t be given to you; you seek, and you never find; you knock, and the door remains bolted from the inside.

And of course, I’ve learned all the caveats — God’s grace is sufficient, God works all things together for good, you have to ask in faith (are you sure you didn’t believe hard enough?).

It’s an elaborate system of caveats and exceptions to the basic promises that God is faithful, he will always come through, and he will provide for our basic needs. But the promises don’t always hold true. His yes doesn’t mean yes, and his no doesn’t mean no. Contrary to Jesus, not all of his children are clothed like the lilies or eating like the sparrows.

And the caveats of spiritual improvement don’t always function, either — the sufficient grace or the peace that passeth understanding down in our hearts. We get emptiness, silence, and angst. We get the joy of wondering where God is and what he is doing and what is the point in believing all of this.

We’re left with famine while God seems busy giving out A plus grades when the student didn’t study and free Starbucks drinks “just because he loves me” and a spiritual insight “right when I needed him most.”

It is, frankly, abhorrent to me that God would prioritize getting a cappuccino to one of his princesses who woke up a little down today while his other princesses are getting slaughtered on the other side of the world. (And how convenient that those who get the most from God materially seem financially positioned to get the most, anyway.) It is abhorrent to me that people attempt to find God’s love in neglect, that God’s perfect plan involves so much hate, violence, and evil.

But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.

I’ve given up on believing in a system of how God works — particularly regarding prayer. In fact, I don’t petition God for anything anymore. There’s nothing more terrifying than being at the end of your humanity and knowing that God might choose to withhold his divinity. There’s nothing more devastating than hoping against hope for a miracle of a more earthly nature and getting the final “no — I think I’d rather work on your spiritual improvement right now.”

What happens happens. If he’s determined to ignore the pleas of innocents as a way to show them his sufficient grace, so be it. Who’s to argue with God, so why try?

And yet I believe in a God of love. And yet I believe in the possibility that God does intervene in this world in a way that doesn’t make him a capricious monster.

That’s the mystery, always — how an omnipotent and loving God can interact with or tolerate or coexist with finite humans and the evil let loose in a once-perfect world. To deny the omnipotence or the love of God or the distinction between good and evil is to leave one utterly without hope. It makes God out to be a monster.

To deny the seeming absence and capriciousness of God is equally hopeless. It makes you out to be a faithless, doubtful sinner.

I believe in God, but I don’t believe in systems about God — and what that exactly means, I’m not sure.

I think it means believing in God as he is, not in God as he does — God as goodness, light, beauty, truth, love. Because there are always some glimpses of them, somewhere, if not in your life right now, than in your past and hopefully your future and definitely in someone else’s life. And those good things are just as real (and hopefully more real) than the bad.

I think it means acknowledging when God is here and when God isn’t here, being grateful for the good and grieving for the evil. God is in the good things. God is not in the bad things, and he hates them as much as you do, so why he doesn’t stop them, I don’t know. Sometimes God answers your prayers, good or bad. Many times he doesn’t, and I’m not sure why.

I think it means that God is hidden and obvious, absent and here, faithful and unfaithful, according to human definitions and human experiences. For some reason, certain faith-filled people experience him one way, and certain faith-filled people experience him another way, and we’re missing crucial information to mesh those two experiences into one, coherent, loving, omnipotent deity.

But here’s the certain hope, often uncertain: in the end, the very end, goodness and love and God will win. Humanity has always known this. We don’t always get eagles ex machina or the free Starbucks or the basic sustenance to survive (or maybe we do), but somehow, someday, when the story ends, we’ll make good on our hope in God.

P.S. See Psalm 89 for proof I’m not a heretic, plus more thoughts on good and evil.

How to Call Your Representatives If You Hate Talking on the Phone

gaelle-marcel-156147

1. Spend days alternately horrified by X issue and terrified of what everybody else will think of you for feeling horrified.

2. Realize it’s now or never.

3. Work up your courage (minimum 30 minutes).

4. Google (again) to confirm that representatives really only care about calls, not emails. (Seriously?! WHY.)

5. Continue to work up courage. This time, stare at your phone.

6. Google a call script that fits your personality.

7. Edit out verbs like “outrage” and adjectives like “tone-deaf” and sweeping generalizations like “EVERYBODY ELSE AGREES WITH ME!”

8. Pray, pray, pray that staffers don’t stay past 6 PM.

9. Pray some more that if they do, they’re staying late because constituents are flooding the lines and you’ll get sent to voicemail.

10. Hit the dial button/panic (simultaneous).

11. Stumble through. (THANK GOD IT’S VOICEMAIL!)

12. Repeat for X number of representatives.

13. Celebrate democracy, 9-5 work days, and beloved voicemail.

14. Post to Facebook.

Future Daddy

Marrying a man who liked kids was a must.

I adore children. I’ve got big plans to teach them, work with them, foster them, and/or raise five or six of them (both biological and adopted). Erich’s not quite there yet with all of those plans, but he finds children generally agreeable. He didn’t grow up changing younger siblings’ diapers or teaching preschool at the age of seventeen, so much of his baby love is theoretical.

We talk a bunch about future mommy- and daddy-hood. Hopefully, our first child will be a girl, because we already fought a tooth-and-nail battle over what to name her, and called a truce over a beautiful name that I won’t share with you in case we never have a girl. But we talk about her, as both a specific future child we’re excited to meet and as a catchall for future Stegersauruses. We talk about how we’re going to raise her, what we want her to know, what we’ll read to her, and what hobbies we’ll introduce her to.

Baby Stegersaurus is a long way from coming into existence, but already, I’m trying to consciously let go of the Psycho Control Freak belief that I, as the mother, as the person who has worked with children literally my whole and read all the parenting articles, am the Primary Caretaker Who Knows Best. I’m starting right now to make space in my thinking for Erich’s unique take on parenting and interacting with children.

So it’s been fun to watch him get to know our niece, the sweet and screaming Ella. At first, Erich declined to hold her and commented mostly on her projectile vomiting skills. (In his defense, she aimed one squarely for his open mouth.)

But this past Easter weekend, he shocked me by asking to hold the baby while her parents took a much-needed break. When thirty minutes passed, I hunted them down. I discovered Erich walking around in the spring weather and murmuring the tiny bit of Spanish he’d learned from his Mexican coworkers. “Es un horno,” he repeated (a lot).

Ella was fast asleep.

Context: This child gets cranky real quick and real permanent. But that whole weekend, she was quite content in Uncle Erich’s arms, listening to his broken Spanish and enjoying the great outdoors.

Fingers crossed that same magic works with all future children.

House Hunting

IMG_20170417_201540651

We just put an offer on a house!

For the past year, we’ve been living in a one-bedroom apartment, and we’re ready to get out of there to a more spacious, permanent residence.

Impeccable reasons for buying a home:

No dishwasher (I need a dishwasher); no air conditioning (I NEED AIR CONDITIONING); no in-unit washer and dryer (we’re out of quarters); no garage for Wisconsin’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas (boo); no outdoor access (waah); no place for out of town guests and family visits (sadness); and we can’t hang anything on the walls; and it’s quite a workout to haul groceries half a mile to the kitchen; and we both need to pee at the same time (not often, but when you gotta go, YOU GOTTA GO) and there’s only one bathroom.

We started our house hunt like all the pros do — watching Flip or Flop. (We recommend a steady intake of four or five episodes a night for at least three days straight.)

Then we got serious and started poring over the Home and Gardens magazine.

(Don’t worry; we got around to Googling pertinent questions, like, “How on earth do I find the right house???”)

Three things were in our favor: a small budget, which limited our options; an amazing buyer’s agent from Vesta Real Estate Advisors; and marital agreement over what we wanted in a house. We both wanted a large enough house to grow into over the next seven to ten years. We were open to a fixer upper, but I wanted something we could move into with minimal interior work. Three bedroom, two bath, an open layout, a good-sized yard, a neighborhood not too suburban but not too isolated — those were our other requirements.

We looked at pretty much every home in our budget — from an 1800’s house with the original farmhouse still attached (and a blue pickup sitting in the massive garage), to a tiny bungalow with a neighborhood dog greeting us at the doorstep.

Our first love was an open-concept, modern condo with an Eastern vibe and the most relaxing, romantic master bedroom I’ve ever stepped foot in. It was at the top of our budget, but we were willing to bite the bullet and make adjustments for this gem. Then Erich’s eagle-eye noticed that the condo docs only allowed a three person max per condo.

What.

I’m just going to stop there, because I’m still bitter at the condo docs and their stupid rules and that beautiful, beautiful home…..

Anyways, we had our mandatory couples fight over finances that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night — glad to get that out of the way — and went back to looking at houses. My mother-in-law suggested we reconsider the foreclosure with the scary basement that I immediately wrote off because the roof needed repairing and the soffit was falling in and there was black stuff growing everywhere. 

Advice: listen to your mother-in-law.

Now that we’d looked at twenty houses in three weekends and knew the comps of the area (sorry, had to channel my inner Flip or Flop at least once), we knew that despite the forest growing in the front yard and the puddle in the backyard and the random mold on the third bedroom wall, this house was a steal.

My father-in-law said when you’ve found the right house, you get this “feeling.” And I got that feeling — despite the spray-painted fish in the basement and the caving garage floor and the outdated amp service.

But you know what? It has a dishwasher.

I’m excited.

I’ll keep you updated on whether the offer goes through or not. In the meantime, tell me about your first home!

Why You Should Watch “13 Reasons Why”

17492506_1307008379335386_4480011134313107050_o

Have you seen 13 Reasons Why on Netflix?

Hannah Baker committed suicide a few weeks ago, but before that, she recorded thirteen tapes — thirteen reasons why she did it — thirteen people who made life unbearable. Only those thirteen people know what’s on the tapes, and only they can figure out what to do with their darkest secrets and worst mistakes.  

No story has ever made me feel responsible before — responsible to keep watching, responsible to understand, responsible to pay attention, responsible to make this story a priority. But this one did.

I binge-watched it in four days. Four school days, with strict 11 PM curfews that didn’t prevent me from laying awake processing it all. I internalized the story. It kept me up at night. It gave me nightmares. It made me show up to work exhausted and puffy-eyed.

Normally I wouldn’t consider those things signs of a good story. But in this case, it was. I was listening to the tapes for the first time. I was connected to the story. I needed answers just as much as Clay Jensen did.

It’s partly the subject matter — bullying and suicide. I have stayed up until 3 AM on the phone with a friend to make sure she lived through the night. I have driven across states to take someone I love to the ER for suicidal ideation. I have made thousands of little decisions over texts going out to depressed loved ones — what words to use, when to use them, should I pry, should I let it go, should I listen, should I say something, what’s the right tone. I have experienced situations where my advice was a matter of life and death. I have waited through nights wondering if the person I just got to sleep would be alive when I saw them the next morning.

And it’s everywhere. Almost every girl I mentored cut, attempted suicide, and/or wanted to attempt suicide, on top of mental illness of some sort.

Despite it’s prevalence, there are still so many questions surrounding suicide. Who’s to blame? Can we truly save someone? Should we expect a person, stripped of dignity, hope, and friendship, to respond in any other way?

We’re even still debating whether suicidal ideation is serious or a cry for attention.

Then there’s bullying. I’m already living 13 Reasons Why in the kindergarten classroom. Mean girls tearing each other down. Students scared of standing up for the victim lest they get teased too. Six-year-olds coming home in tears everyday and begging not to go to school. My students. Their moms come to me and they all say the same thing: “I didn’t experience this until middle school.”

I’m reeling, because I didn’t experience this at all.

I’ve been feeling like if I do the right thing, I can stop a girl’s suicide years down the road. And if I do the wrong thing — how much am I to blame?

You’d think these would be easy things — or if not easy, at least straightfoward. But this story knows they’re not. It understands the complications of goodness, the bravery it takes to be a decent human being, to be honest, and to take responsibility. The “heroes” are the villains, and even at their best, they don’t do anything above and beyond the Golden Rule. But it’s still a herculean task to love well and do the right thing.

I don’t want to imply that 13 Reasons Why is a propaganda piece for Stomp Out Bullying. I think it’s a truly masterful story — and a complicated one. There is nothing simplistic about its themes, nothing moralizing about it’s open-ended finale, nothing trivial about its characters, nothing stilted about its plot, nothing easy or explainable about it.

And if that’s not praise enough, I’m thinking about going out and buying the book rather than wait for the other 51 library holds to thin out.

In short, watch this series.

Confessions of a Talkative Female

bla

I didn’t expect these doors to upset me as much as they did. I mean, cliché fonts and misspellings do normally upset me, so I was prepared for that. But I wasn’t prepared for a huge wave of insecurity over the age-old stereotype that women talk more than men.

Look, I do my best to smile thinly at gender stereotypes and move on. Most of the time I can rant underneath my public face about how I know half a dozen women who aren’t like that and how no guy I know would ever say this.

But this time the gender stereotype cuts too close to home. I talk a lot. I do. And I’ve always felt insecure about it — particularly when it came to my relationship with Erich.

We could have been the inspiration for this stereotype. Erich can sit in silence for days. The only reason he doesn’t is because, if he fails to respond within one minute, I wail about how he doesn’t love me anymore. To which he says, “Huh, no, I love you,” with that exact inflection, and I say, “See?” and we carry on with that topic for awhile until I realize that he doesn’t require normal human conversation to sustain existence.

Me? I talk to myself. In the mirror. In the shower. In the car. Out loud.

Erich has only commented on this once, early on in our marriage, where I took a particularly long shower and decimated bad theology in one go. “Are you talking to yourself?” he called from a room away.

“No,” I called back, and whispered the rest of the conversation to myself.

Talkative people get a bad rap in general — people who prattle on and on as if their companion is listening (or cares), whole “conversations” where only one person is relaying all the movies they’ve watched in the past year (in detail) and the other person smiles and nods until they realize their smiles are turning into yawns and their nodding is turning narcoleptic.

I remember tag-teaming such conversations with friends. We’d decide through subtle eye movements whose turn it was to smile and nod and who could safely make up an excuse and walk away.

The irony is that though I love to talk, I cannot stand talkative people. Some days it’s so bad that the only reason I listen is to respond. It’s terrible.

My dislike of talkative people probably fuels my insecurity about how much I talk.

The other factor is being a woman who loves to talk.

Do men feel the same insecurity about being talkative? I’m curious to know. My insecurity about this gender stereotype came from Jane Austen novels and all the Proverbs groaning about a woman’s tongue. A woman’s words were dangerous. Destructive. Annoying. Unproductive. As helpful and as interesting as a dripping faucet.

(Have you ever lived with a dripping faucet before? Not a metaphorical one, a real one? I once spent a whole weekend alone with a dripping faucet. It drove me insane. Nails on a chalkboard insane. And no, I didn’t fix it because the gender stereotypes about women being unskilled manual laborers most definitely apply to me.)

Lots of women’s articles and books talked about women and their nagging, about women and their chatter, about women and their need to get a grip and give their men some mental space already.

Maybe that’s why women apologize a lot. I know that’s why I do. I lead off every work conversation with, “Sorry to bother you, but — ” Especially with men. I’m convinced my boss cringes every time he sees me open my mouth.

It’s a subconscious thing. Words, words, words. Too much of them. Too much of me.

It’s the same thought: too much words = too much of me. I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Here’s the thing: I don’t enjoy “talking.” I really don’t. When I talk, I mean something — especially when I’m talking a lot. I’m not gushing blah, blah, blah. Not trying to, anyway. I’m trying to communicate something that matters to me.

That’s why this stereotype grates against my skin. It reduces my passionate rants to the drip, drip, drip of a faucet. It equates my attempts to connect and unburden with the prattle of stupid women. It assumes the mechanics of moving my jaw and vocalizing syllables is the be all, end all to this conversation. It’s all blah, blah, blah — no substance, no meaning, and not worth hearing.

That frightens me most, I think — an endless scream into a void, the perfect words falling on deaf ears, feeling disabled from communicating with the rest of the world.

And it makes sense, of course, why people would start interpreting a monologue going on ten minutes as blah, blah, blah. If your words are so important and meaningful, why air them so often and so repetitively?

***

My husband pointed out to me during our infamously horrific newlywed car rides that I “spoke in triplicate.” I’d repeat my main point three times. He’d keep count: “You just said that. Oh — that’s the third time. Do you know you speak in triplicate?”

“Yeah, well, that’s the third time today you’ve pointed it out,” I’d snap.

He didn’t mean it as an insult. He says he’s fascinated, frankly, by how much emotion and verbiage I can muster up every day. And I know he’s telling the truth — because when Erich says something, I listen. It’s easy to keep straight what he has said, because he doesn’t say it often.

Last night, for the first time in our relationship, I got to say, “Yep, you told me that story already.”

He uses that phrase with me every day.

***

Speaking of repetitive, here’s a phrase I used to use every day: hard to love. Hard to love, is how my talking made me feel. Hard to love, because my emotions — not the exhausted cry or the ticked off anger, but the soul-stuff that makes life bearable or not — were bound up in my words. Heart on my sleeve, like I said.

Nobody, I thought, could handle me with my emotion-words. Nobody, I thought, would get that I didn’t talk to fill empty space but to empty the space where I felt things the most. Nobody would understand that every time I opened my mouth (except with small talk — a whole other story), I meant something.

I felt like I prostituted my words.

My words are intimate and sacred — and I want them to stay that way, even if I talked to five different people about the same thing. But it makes me feel dirty and used up, talking so much.

It makes me feel dirty right now, writing this all down. Makes me feel whiny. Insignificant.

***

Well, I learned a few things as a talker. I learned that I wasn’t hard to love. I was quite easy to love, actually. I was very self-regulating. All I needed was a good listening ear, a hug, and some quick affirmation, and I could work my way through any problem. Erich is that listening ear for me now (and he gives great hugs, too).

Even though he’s a man, a strong and silent man, he finds me underneath the waves of emotional verbiage. He knows they matter. That I matter. I had to learn those things too, along with him, because I struggle more than he does to believe that my words and soul-stuff mean anything.

I also learned that there is some soul-stuff that no talking and no listening can fix. I use a different medium of words for those situations.

Silence is good too, I’ve found. That, or talking to myself in the shower.

Are you talkative? Is your best friend or partner talkative? How do you feel about it?

Job Hunting for the Vastly Unqualified

tran-mau-tri-tam-66497

Do you work a job for which you were technically unqualified or underqualified?

I’m currently on the prowl for both a temporary summer job and a full-time teaching job. Reading through job qualifications is a surefire way to take to my joy from sixty to zero.

One of my first bosses, a liberal arts grad who triple majored in Latin, music, and history, told me the key to getting a job is fake it till you make it. (He works in marketing now.) One of my friends said that nobody gets a job unless they apply for jobs for which they’re not qualified. Everybody at school said that everybody in the real world valued critical thinking skills and a good work ethic over previous experience.

I don’t know if I believe them.

Having attended a liberal arts school, we got pep talks all the time about the incomprehensible value of a liberal arts education…and the impracticality of it. You’ve got two options as a liberal arts major: go to grad school, or teach.

Being burnt out and broke, I opted for teaching — which I love. Unfortunately, I am not only uncertified but unable to be certified unless I go back to school. This is not realistic for me right now. (See “burnt out and broke,” above.)

My husband used to tease me about not having a real major. I used to chase him down the halls of the Strosacker science building every time he made a jab at my beloved Christian studies major.

But now I see his point. He majored in chemistry and got a job within a few weeks of looking, in a field wherein paychecks swiftly accrue more zeroes — at least compared to my job options.

Me? I’m still having this conversation:

“What did you major in in college?”

“Christian studies.”

“Oh. What can you do with that?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh.”

On the plus side, when I lift my head from yelling into the existential void of how royally screwed I am, I theoretically can reinvent myself. I’ve been looking into criminal justice (thanks, Criminal Minds), real estate (thanks, Flip or Flop), community planning (thanks, extroversion), and chaplaincy (thanks, Biblical egalitarians).

Everyone wants a relevant degree, plus at least two years of experience.

Cue scream into the existential void.

I’ve just started searching for “jobs in Ozaukee County” now. Just generic, unspecified jobs.

OoI can answer phone calls for a nail salon! “Looking for a friendly, fashionable” — never mind. NEXT.

Oo, I could walk dogs this summer! “Must have five years of relevant dog walking experience.” NEXT.

Oo, I could work at this daycare! “Must hold this, that, and the other certification, and have worked for over twenty years in the early childhood sphere. Bilingual preferred. Pay less than what you’re earning right now.”

I give up.

What’s your job? Were you qualified for it? Do you love it, hate it, recommend it?

The Billy Graham Rule

tim-gouw-60216

I’ve been listening in on a lot of conversations about Mike Pence’s decision not to eat alone with another woman.

They covered all sorts of territory: Can men and women have close relationships? Does being “above reproach” mean maintaining your reputation at any cost or doing the right thing no matter who’s looking or not looking? Are all male/female relationships one hop, skip, and a jump from adultery? Is it reasonable to fear a loose women might try to destroy your career?

I grew up in a culture where male/female friendships were frowned upon, where I felt uncomfortable with a dad driving me home after babysitting his kids, where this Billy Graham rule of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex made perfect sense. I’d never thought all the way through the implications of a man making this “rule” his own, and I’d never heard the stories I did during these conversations — men moving their desks outside of an office to avoid sharing it with a woman; women never getting mentorship or advancing in their field because they could never privately meet with their male supervisors; women awkwardly listening in as a husband dialed his wife: “Hey, I am in the car with another woman alone right now — just so you know.”

Many women shared how demeaned, sexualized, ignored, excluded, and distrusted they felt when men declined to meet with them one-on-one for business, mentorship, or friendship.

***

One of the big reasons men follow the Billy Graham rule is protect themselves against the end of their careers and reputations because of rumored misconduct.

My take on it is this: I get wanting to protect yourself from false accusations.

I’m a teacher, and we have rules about being alone with students, particularly in a bathroom, both to protect against child abuse and to protect teachers from false accusations that could destroy their career and reputation. We don’t have that rule because teachers feel like they couldn’t control their sexual urges around children; it’s mostly for reputation’s sake.

A safeguard designed to protect both children’s well-being and teachers’ reputations seems reasonable. Likewise, a safeguard designed to protect both the well-being and the reputation of two people of the opposite sex seems reasonable to me.

But where I would take issue with that sentiment is if it began to interfere with one’s work or to exclude women from networking, mentorships, or just plain doing their jobs.

Not all women are temptresses waiting to seduce a man. The Billy Graham rule came about not because he lunched with a trusted female co-worker but because a naked woman broke into his hotel room. A woman building a professional relationship over a lunch outing or discussing company business over a coffee break is not remotely similar to a woman lounging nakedly on a hotel bed.

It comes down to this: Not all one-on-one meals or conversation with someone of the opposite sex are sexual in nature. Honestly, I would be a little offended and shocked as a woman if a man refused to meet with me one-on-one in a public place to discuss business, or to provide private counseling as a pastor or psychologist.

It would be like a woman saying, “Sorry, but I don’t meet privately with men in case they sexually assault me.”

That shows an egregious lack of trust and respect, in my opinion.

Yes, sexual assault happens. Yes, adultery happens. And yes, they happen mostly by people you know and trust. Reasonable safeguards against those things may prevent those realities from occurring. But reducing a professional partner or client to their genitalia and sexual urges and then fearing them because of it — that is not a reasonable safeguard.

***

I can’t speak personally about this situation. I’ve never had a man tell me, “Sorry, but I don’t meet with women alone.”

But I think about all the great conversations, relationships, and mentorships I’ve developed both personally and professionally with men. My college experience — the most transformative four years of my life — would be drastically different if my guy friends refused to grab lunch with me, just the two of us, or if my male professors wouldn’t meet with me in their office unless their wife was present, or if a priest was uncomfortable discussing my spiritual questions without a chaperone, or if my counselor turned me away because he didn’t want to be alone with a female behind closed doors.

I would be more broken, less educated, less well-rounded, lonelier, and missing out on a huge part of the college experience. I owe much of my education, spirituality, and quality of life to amazing male friends and professionals. I cannot imagine having that taken away from me because of an irrational fear that I would try to seduce them over lunch.

Part of working in a co-ed professional environment means working closely with those around you, even if they’re the opposite sex — and that includes developing relationships and maybe breaking bread together.

I think there are ways to be prudent about one’s reputation and opposite sex relationships — meet in public places, keep the door open, have a window in your door, etc. — while still having meaningful professional relationships with one’s female clients, co-workers, and peers.

Speaking as a Woman

les-anderson-197904

Hardly anything bothers me more than women dismissing other women’s concerns.

“Oh, come on. You’re not that oppressed. No woman know deals with that. Women and their victim complexes these days….”

And I get it. Sexism, misogyny, and oppression are not often words that describe my personal day to day experience as a woman.

I have never experienced workplace discrimination. I am paid the same wages as my male counterparts. I have never been catcalled, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped. I have never felt slut-shamed or body-shamed. My husband wouldn’t even think to tell me to submit or remember my place as his wife. I can think of only two guys in my life who treated me differently than they treated men (or perhaps I imagined it).

The only real sexist discrimination I faced came from a fundamentalist church that I no longer attend and ideologies from my past that I no longer submit to. I notice sexism around me, but it doesn’t cut too deep. I see that my Christian school asks only men to pray at our meetings, for instance, but I would guess they would welcome a woman praying in public as well. And I didn’t even attempt to look for a teaching position that corresponded to my major (Christian studies), simply because I’d never heard of a female religion or Bible teacher in a secondary school.

I don’t feel that I am actively oppressed. I don’t often blame the patriarchy or think of the patriarchy or discuss the patriarchy outside of critiquing explicitly patriarchal views circulating in fundamentalist Christianity. Except in the Christian community, I feel free to be who I am and do the work I’m called to do, .

So if you asked me, as a woman, to weigh in on whether my plight looks like the oppressed female life feminists bemoan, I’d have to say no, not really. I notice sexism around me, of course, and how it sometimes ripples up in my direction, but it’s not screaming in my face at all times in all places. (Except in the Christian community. Gosh, I hate having to clarify that.)

But if the theoretical you that asked for my experience as a woman stops there, you would get a very privileged, lopsided view of what women face in the world, your country, your state, your city, even your circle.

I am, after all, only one woman among billions. And women’s issues is comprised of more than my experience and the women who chime in, “Me too!”

***

Women have incredible power to shape discussions on women’s issues. They have the power to create empathy and awareness in men and other more privileged women, and they have the power to dismiss, deride, and distract from real issues women face.

Almost everybody nowadays is somewhat sensitive to minorities, somewhat aware that things weren’t always done right by minorities, that white, male, cis, and/or middle-to-upper class people need to tread a bit carefully before speaking authoritatively about what minorities experience.

People get it.

And at the same time they don’t, because they grab hold of the stories and the experiences that fit their narrative of how things are — usually a narrative that downplays or denies the experience loudly protested on the streets and social media.

If women aren’t careful or if the conversationalist is on the hunt to hijack narratives, one woman could end up representing the whole of female experience.

“Well, my wife gets paid even more than the men at her workplace.” “My female friend has never been catcalled in her life.” “Bailey’s a woman — a feminist, even! — and she doesn’t consider herself oppressed.”

But worse than a man using one woman’s experience to gloss over other women’s problems? A woman doing the same thing.

I’ve seen women use their minority status to completely dismiss real problems women face. You have too — every time a beautiful woman films herself giving an anti-feminist rant, every time a confident woman writes the why she doesn’t need feminism trope, every time a woman implies or says straight up, “Well, I’m a woman, and I don’t feel that way.”

I wrote a letter to that fundamentalist church about how it felt to see only men in visible church positions — greeting visitors at the door, passing out the offering plate, reading the announcements, leading worship — and how it felt to slowly realize that nobody ever asked me to read the Bible on Sunday morning like the other teen boys got to, not because I wasn’t capable or even more capable of doing so, but because I was a girl. (Yes, I do realize that the full rationale was “because you’re a girl and the Bible says only men should lead and God wouldn’t say something unless it’s for the best,” but that extra reasoning doesn’t negate the utter sexism of the first part.)

I expected the men to get upset about it. (They did.) What I didn’t expect was the women feeling just as offended and incredulous. Women do all kinds of things in the church! Here’s a list! And you failed to address these Bible passages! Here they are! And even if this was a real problem, there are so many bigger problems to worry about.

And a woman can say that.

A woman can say hurtful, sexist, dismissive things, she can openly support a patriarchal system in a way a man cannot. A woman can say them in an authoritative manner. A woman can say them bluntly, shamelessly.

She can say them, because she is a woman, and what woman would actively support her own oppression? She wouldn’t (the thinking goes), and so the thing that another woman (or many women) feels is sexist or oppressive is deemed acceptable. And if a man is looking for an excuse to keep his ideologies the way they are, he can gently point all “oppressed” women by the way of the women loudly and proudly defending his ideologies.

I truly believe that little will change in communities where women, speaking as women, shut down other women’s experiences.

There’s already incredible pressure to not look like a chauvinist pig, so men are careful. I’ve noticed that many complementarian or patriarchal men honest-to-God respect and honor their wives, daughters, and other prominent women in their communities. If every woman spoke up against complementarian or patriarchal views, men would have no choice but to listen and conform.

If their wives were opposing it, if their daughters and their sisters and their mothers and the woman next to them at church and the pastor’s wife and their liberal coworker and the conservative neighbor across the street — if everywhere men turned women were vocally opposing or questioning certain ideas and practices that discriminate against women, communities would change.

But that isn’t happening. Men, genuinely curious about women’s experiences, can hear a feminist painting a picture of female oppression and go home to his wife, who rolls her eyes at feminism and the modern victim complex.

That is the danger and the responsibility of speaking as a woman.

P.S. Why reasonable, confident women support benevolent sexism