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

An Important Life Update

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I am approaching the last frontiers of womanhood, the last few “big life announcements” that garner hundreds of likes on Facebook and make blissfully easy small talk among people whose names you once knew.

I’ve ticked off graduating high school, getting into college, graduating college, getting into a relationship, getting engaged, and getting married. As I am not an ambitious person I took the life route that skipped the subsequent accomplishments of getting into and graduating grad school, etc. or earning a promotion, etc. or becoming president, etc.

The only interesting, noteworthy things left for me on the Normal Life Track are having a baby and writing a book. Once those things happen, unless I am charismatic and funny and popular or ambitious (see alternate life route above), I shall recede into life as one of those people who report only their children’s accomplishments and/or their book sales.

Can I get a moment of silence for the impending death of my personal interesting-ness?

Thank you.

Without further ado, I am crossing off another noteworthy thing on the Normal Life Track.

Meet Baby Stegersaurus!

He’s healthy, perfect, and twenty-weeks-old, due December 27. (He’s sending salutatory kicks delivered to my abdomen as I write.) I am pretty dead confident he’s going to look exactly like his daddy, which hopefully means my genes for horrific teen acne and flat feet get cancelled out.

He came into existence around the time I was laughingly brushing off my friend’s inquiry as to when we were planning on having kids. “Oh, not for another year, at least,” I said. “Erich and I just talked about it. Another year with just us, and then we’ll think about adding a baby to the mix.”

It was a great plan. We were buying a house, we needed my second income, we’d spend the year fixing up the house, I’d further my career as an elementary teacher, we’d maybe even save up for a spa getaway for our first anniversary.

Then a few weeks later, I was following the directions on a 99 cent pregnancy test from Walmart, at my sister’s request. Sure, my period was late. But it was late once before, a few months into marriage. I’d stared at the test line for the full recommended three minutes (and counting), only to see nothing else show up.

It was the exact same situation this time, I told myself. No pregnancy symptoms whatsoever, just a tardy period. I prepared for the three minute and counting wait for the nonexistent second line to show up.

There was the test line. The wet traveled further down. A second line. A thick, full, undeniable second line. All within two seconds of each other.

I had always planned on being the cute little wife who takes a pregnancy test early in the morning after hubby leaves for work, comes up with an elaborate scavenger hunt in his absence, and surprises him with the amazing good news that he’s going to be a daddy. We’d kiss and giggle and curl up on the couch to dream of our upcoming life with baby, and we wouldn’t have to rearrange our finances.

Instead I was the wife who yelled hubby’s name from the bathroom and walked out, shellshocked, to announce through tears that I was pregnant. No kisses, no giggles, no scavenger hunts. Just one new mama caught off guard and wading through the remnants of her shattered two-year life plan.

Erich was researching bridesmaid dresses for an upcoming wedding. He looked up at his distraught wife and said what any happy father says: “That’s nice. What do you think of this dress?”

It was exactly how I hadn’t imagined our first pregnancy going down.

We both wandered the apartment, processing our horror and happiness in our separate ways, and then Erich said something about baby names, and I said something about was he mad at me for being pregnant and ruining our life plans?!, as if it was my fault. And he said he already knew I was pregnant, and why would he be mad?

That was significant, you see. We are both emotional people — things hit us squarely in the gut and take a while to travel up to our brains. When Erich is overwhelmed, he is silent, changes the subject, and/or says the wrong thing (always). When I am overwhelmed, I cry and tell Erich he always says the wrong thing.

Don’t be alarmed. Everything goes up to our brains eventually, and Erich starts saying on-topic things (like baby names — very on-topic for a man who just found out he’s a daddy), and I start expressing my emotions in a more coherent, accessible way.

We’ve spent the past twenty weeks rearranging our finances and life plans, adjusting to pregnancy (yes, both of us), and mistaking bowel movements for baby kicks. (It was a very precious time of family bonding, nonetheless.)

All of that to say, we are extremely excited for this little one. This blog will, most likely, be flooded with mother-related posts for a while, until other interesting, personal things happen — like writing a book.

But right now, I can’t think of anything more interesting than this little guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like we girls do.

Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash

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

What to Read During a Faith Crisis

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Back in college, I experienced a massive spiritual crisis — like usual. I wondered if God wasn’t real and humans had invented religion to survive the soulless empty universe — like normal. This time, however, it wasn’t just my brain churning up question after unanswered, unanswerable question. Schleiermacher and Freud and William James were hammering these questions even when I wanted to check my brain at the dining room door and talk about dating.

My spiritual crisis paralleled my recent Android phone meltdown.

I first noticed something was wrong when my phone contracted demon possession and began typing sweet nothings to my husband (such as ccccccccccccCCCCCCCCCCCCCCççççç). Nothing a restart can’t fix, I thought.

Wrong.

The sweet nothings worsened. Then the demon refused to let me close out of my conversation with my sister, and when I overrode it by shutting down Messenger, it petulantly opened Snapchat and Ibotta and Duolingo, rearranged the app order, and wrote insults about my technological abilities.

Just kidding on the last one, but the phone was thinking them, I’m sure.

The demon possession drove me to the holy book of Google, where I tried to exorcise it via installing a virus scanner. It wasn’t a virus. That left actual demon possession, or a scrambled digitizer and flawed touchscreen. Something was wrong with the phone itself.

That’s how I felt about metaphysics at that point. A few little bugs here and there might indicate something could be horrifically wrong with the theistic worldview. Nothing a good brain restart couldn’t clear up, a la C. S. Lewis. Then the bugs persisted. And worsened. And C. S. Lewis stood by helplessly as I drowned in the quagmire of atheist epistemology — or, to put it in technological terms, every single doubt was opened, rearranged, and refusing to close out.

I puzzled over philosophy as I puzzled over badly spelled Android help forums. You’ve got a virus in your thinking, Christian apologetics suggested. Run this line of thought against the heathen philosophy. But Lee Strobel and random apologists who ran ugly websites in exclusively Times New Roman font were no match against the wiles of epistemology.

My thinking didn’t have a virus, I concluded. The whole theistic system was just broken. I didn’t want to believe it, in the same way loving Christians feel forced to call gay marriage an abomination simply because the Bible says so, against all evidence to the contrary. Except in this case, all evidence pointed towards theism’s brokenness, and only a desperate intuition that this couldn’t be all there is to life made accepting that evidence difficult.

I dragged myself into my history professor’s office one last time to share the embarrassing news that I’d lost the good fight to empiricism, dreading another unhelpful Christian argument that even further convinced me that atheist’s had the corner on rational discourse.

He offered me one suggestion: stop reading philosophy, and start reading theology again.

That helped. A lot. (But pro-tip: don’t count Aquinas’s Summa Theologica as helpful theology in this regard.) Discovering Orthodox theology changed my life. Reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? came the closest to satisfying my questions on theodicy. Then a friend mailed me Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts. 

It didn’t solve my spiritual crisis, but it took control of the bugs opening doubts without my permission. Now I could open them myself, gently, calmly.

My professor also told me something else that day — that the weight of all humanity believing in a higher power might mean something — and another professor told me that to know truth from untruth, you must experience it. I didn’t know it then, but their words gave me permission to listen to the intuition battling against the bleak empiricism I felt forced to follow.

And where do you listen to intuition, where do you find experience? Why, in a class on modern British novels, of course — which reminds your beleaguered soul about the power of narrative to convey truth in the best, most honest way.

If I were a professor now, and somebody as spiritually and intellectually scrambled as junior-year Bailey walked into my office, I would recommend not only theology but specifically theological memoir. Anne Lamott if you’re more liberal. Ann Voskamp if you’re more conservative. Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Addie Ziermann if you’re deconstructing.

When the little demons are flying and the doubts are opening and shutting and getting punted all over your metaphysical framework, when you’re no longer sure of specifics like up or down, or perception or reality, or true or untrue, narrative cuts through that. Narrative takes it down a couple theoretical notches. Narrative gives you permission to sit and observe — maybe you’re getting the answers wrong because you’re missing a couple crucial pieces about life. Narrative doesn’t demand you come to conclusions. It simply demands you listen, and respond (usually with tears and exclamations of Why didn’t anyone ever say this out loud before?).

Narrative gives you another, earthier, human way of exploring truth — via vicarious experience. Narrative takes on flesh and walks among us. And narrative is honest — it just says what things are; it leaves tensions and mysteries in all their frustrating, beautiful, awful, true, contradictory ways; it doesn’t trick you with moralisms and platitudes; it doesn’t try to fit everything in the universe together into one unsatisfactory metaphysical system.

It focuses on one story, one thought, one paradox of life at a time. It requires faith, real faith that accepts both the revelation and the hiddenness of God working through a present-day narrative. It integrates body, soul, and mind as only a good story can. It satisfies the intellect as well as the intuition.

When you’re in a spiritual crisis, read those books. God isn’t a problem to troubleshoot. God is here to be experienced.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

My Deepest Insecurity as an Educated, Talented Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t resent those opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

Because I’m terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know how to explain it.

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

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

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

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

The young men got to teach the youth group lessons.

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

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

That’s all I’m saying.

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

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

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

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

I know the answer to this.

I’m a woman.

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

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

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

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

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Fighting Your Own Home Maintenance Battles

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Even as a passionate feminist, I must admit — when it comes to physical labor, I do greatly enjoy playing the helpless damsel in distress.

“Oh, honey, can you open this jar for me? I tried halfheartedly for three seconds and already permanently injured my hand.”

“Oh, baby, can you go get that thing on the top shelf in the closet so I don’t have to get off my rear end, find a stepstool, and get it myself? It’s so heavy.”

“Yes, I’ll definitely let you change the car battery in negative winter temps.”

“Babe, the sink is clogged again.”

“And so is the shower.”

“And I can’t figure out how to turn on this appliance. Again.”

It’s been burned into my brain that men are more naturally gifted at figuring out user manuals and things with random screws. Some of that I get from my upbringing. Boys took out the trash, girls did dishes. Boys held open doors and carried boxes, girls walked through doors and sat around while men worked.

I’m also not at all dexterous with my hands (ask my sister who taught me to crochet three times), blessed with spatial awareness (ask my husband who watched me crash into a wall while trying to plug in my phone), or gifted with any muscles in my upper body (ask anybody). Plus, I’m short. And cute. And sometimes I paint my nails and can’t have them ruined by manual labor.

Once, my dad took the time to teach me how to change a tire. I tried very hard to pay attention and ask intelligent questions — or rather, I tried very hard to ask intelligent questions so that I looked like I was paying attention. I wouldn’t remember this anyway, right? There was a manual for this somewhere in the glovebox, right? And wouldn’t I just be calling my dad and having him come out and change the tire for me, anyway?

It didn’t occur to me that I could learn and master a mechanical challenge.

I don’t think it occurred to my dad, either, because at the end of his presentation, as he crawled out from under my Ford Escape, he said, “And if you forget any of this, Erich will know what to do.”

Which, actually, he would not, come to find out. My husband is surprisingly unlearned in all the skills my dad possesses. He doesn’t memorize the timetable of when all the cars need oil changes. He doesn’t know where I misplaced important documentation. He can’t answer any of my questions about insurance. He doesn’t immediately start taking things apart when I complain about them not working.

In fact, there’s not even much effort on his part to fight my material battles. More often than not, he’ll start tinkering with whatever problem I face, hit a roadblock, shrug, and say, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know? A live, flesh-and-blood man, saying I don’t know as if he doesn’t possess innate knowledge of the home maintenance world?

Clearly, this is not a real man.

(I spend a lot of time on the phone with my dad trying to solve problems my husband can’t fix.)

Even more shocking, I discovered this pseudo-man I married, this impostor of a knight in shining tool bet, isn’t skilled in anything particular other than knowing how to Google WikiHow articles.

And he has patience. Immense patience. Patience far longer than the three seconds it takes me to give up unscrewing a pickle jar.

I guess he didn’t grow up with the assumption that someone of the opposite sex would always be around to fix his problems, so he had to figure them out himself.

I began to feel bad about this whole situation. If solving all the problems I didn’t care to fix was an issue of Googling and patience rather than natural male prowess, did I really have an excuse not to fight my own home maintenance battles — myself?

We recently moved into a new apartment. Being unemployed, I got stuck at home with a menagerie of strange objects — unfamiliar blinds, a dishwasher without a start button. And I got stuck with a menagerie of strange tasks — figuring out how to forward our mail, changing our address on everything, setting up the internet.

It started with the internet. No, it actually started with the blinds.

The night before, Erich showed me the particular way I needed to close and open the blinds without breaking them. Like a typical damsel in distress, I nodded absentmindedly, knowing my dashing knight would be just around the corner to help me. (In other words, I wasn’t at all paying attention.)

But then my dashing knight went to work that morning, and I wanted the blinds open. I ended up jamming the whole system and breaking off two panels. Fearful of breaking something else, and being short, I left the panels on the floor for my knight to wrangle upon his return home.

Then I set about starting up the internet. “Just plug in the modem,” the nice lady at Spectrum told me. So I plugged in the modem. And waited. And unplugged it. And replugged it. And restarted my computer and my phone. And tried to connect the ethernet cable somehow. And sent a bunch of flustered and desperate texts to my husband, which convinced him to skip lunch break soccer to come fight this dragon for me.

“I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong,” I whined, trailing him into the office. “I plugged in the modem.”

“That’s not the modem, Bailey. That’s the router.”

Well, how was I supposed to know? I’m not a man!

Then I tried to start the dishwasher, but like I said, there was no start button. I rotated the knob several times. I pushed it in. I pulled it right off the dishwasher. Nothing.

“ERICH!”

He walked over. Rotated the knob. Pushed it in. Pulled it right off the dishwasher. (See, I was catching on to the male intuition.) Then he flipped the outlet switch and the dishwasher roared to life.

“Weren’t you wondering what that switch did?” he asked incredulously.

“Not particularly,” I grumbled. Again, obvious point: I was a helpless female.

I was beginning to feel frustrated with my own incompetence. It wasn’t convenient or empowering to wait for my husband to put out these little fires that made my life so difficult. It wasn’t productive to put off all the work until 4:30 PM when he could unstick all the projects that got stuck during the day.

So when the plastic white band on the frozen orange juice can snapped and I couldn’t dig it out or pry the lid off, I stabbed it open with a kitchen knife.

And when the dishwasher sprayed bits of food onto the dishes that got cleaned and didn’t clean the other dishes, I Googled how to unscrew bits and pieces, clean out the gunk, and run a cycle of vinegar and baking soda.

I emerged from the dishwasher after about an hour, sweaty and gunky and oh-so-proud.

It felt good. I hope I never have to do that again, but it felt good — to try something new, to not give up, to challenge myself, and to come out victorious over my home maintenance battles.

Plus, my husband was overjoyed that he didn’t have to stick his head in a disgusting dishwasher. A fairytale ending for both Prince Charming and his damsel in distress.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

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.”