God Can’t Meet Your Emotional Needs

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Christians say strange, pious things all the time, but one of the most confusing of those strange, pious things is the idea that God is the one who must meet our emotional needs. I feel scandalous even questioning this idea, because it sounds so right on the surface.

As depicted in Christianity, our relationship with God is one of deep emotion and intimacy — God as father, as mother, as friend, as lover. Christ promises rest for the weary. He binds up the brokenhearted. Never will he leave us or forsake us. God is love.

Out of this, we’ve understandably developed this idea that God meets all our emotional needs. “Put your relationship with God first” translates into, “Run to God first with all your joys and pains.” Jesus is your best friend, Christians will say. Jesus is my boyfriend, teen girls will say. And woe to those who say otherwise — if you don’t find your emotional security in God, we’re warned, we’ll ruin all our relationships, human and divine.

It’s idolatry to expect any one person to fulfill all our needs. Only Jesus can do that.

When I first started dating, I felt guilty and idolatrous all the time, because, frankly, I preferred my boyfriend’s comfort to God’s. When I ran to God first and sobbed it all before him, I was met with silence. No words of advice. No hugs. No stupid jokes that lightened the mood. Just cold, existential silence…and the constant nagging thought that any comforting emotion I did feel was probably of my own manufacturing. And the other nagging thought that I shouldn’t think that way, and then that other one, where it was sinful of me to even expect an emotional experience, because spirituality wasn’t all about emotions, even though only God could ultimately meet my emotional needs.

Running to God first left me more distraught than running across campus to curl up next to a physically present person who verbally whispered, “I love you,” who advised me out loud in real time, who had real arms to hug me and a real mouth to tell me it was all okay.

Did he always meet my emotional needs? No, of course not. But it was less painful, even if equally frustrating, when my fallible boyfriend (or friend, or parent, or sibling, or professor) let me down emotionally than the perfect, omniscient, omnipresent God.

And the best of human comfort was by far preferable to the best of comfort I experienced alone with God. I could walk away from friends and family and feel full to the brim emotionally. I could walk away satisfied from a “God moment,” as I called them, but it was shorter lived, involved more emotional investment, was not reliably accessible, and rarely, if ever, left me overflowing.

For much of my childhood, I experienced periods where only Jesus was my friend. It was fine. I got by. But I much prefer life when I have human friends who laugh and hug and tease and physically exist without any mental exertion. Just Jesus was a lame friend, to be blasphemously honest, even if he was, in some vague, inaccessible sense, always there.

Like I said, scandalous. Idolatrous. Real Christians don’t feel that way. Hence the intense amount of guilt I felt about my closest relationships.

I question that now.

In much of mainstream Western spirituality (both Catholic and Protestant), emotions are categorized as primarily spiritual. The measure of one’s spirituality, to some extent, is one’s emotional connection to God. We might not admit it in our doctrinal statements, but I don’t think I’m alone in identifying the Christians with their hands raised, eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces as the more spiritual (especially if this response is consistent every single Sunday).

This is called pietism, an Eastern Orthodox priest told me. We prefer powerful sermons. We like our music stirring and emotional. If you’re Catholic, you depict Christ primarily as battered and anguished, hanging on a bloodied cross.

All of this to evoke some sort of emotional response, with the assumption that emotions really are spiritual, transcendent, and other-worldly.

But are they?

The more I study psychology, the more I’m convinced that emotions belong solidly in the physical realm. Physicality — illness, chemical imbalances, stress on the one hand; massage, exercise, warm baths on the other — affects mood. I’m amazed at how many problems a good night’s sleep solves when nothing else will.

And touch, we’re learning more and more, is vital to human well-being. Psychologists link a lack of human touch to aggression and an inability to regulate negative emotions in men, because there are limited forms of physical affection that men can give and receive without being perceived as sexual. Neglected infants who rarely receive cuddling suffer developmental delays and permanent mental damage. And on the flipside, infants who get regular skin-to-skin contact with their caregivers receive a developmental boost.

But we don’t need science to tell us how difficult life is when you’re far away from close friends and family and there’s nobody there to listen or give you a hug. It’s no shocker that we’re happier and healthier when connected to a good marriage, family, or community.

It shouldn’t be blasphemous to list consistent emotional and physical connection to other humans as a psychological and physical necessity. Yes, necessity.

We Christians are uncomfortable with thinking of companionship as a necessity, partly because of pietism and partly because good relationships aren’t as easily acquired as other necessities in life. It seems selfish to call relationships a necessity when so many come from broken families, operate without close friends, or long to be married. We want to offer hope to those less communally fortunate (especially if we find ourselves one of the lonely ones).

That’s where much of our strange, pious sayings originate. We tell women that Jesus can be their boyfriend to take away their heartache about being single. We tell kids that Jesus can be their best friend to give them something to grab onto when they’re bullied or isolated. We tell the lonely that Jesus is everywhere and always there, unlike any human. And we beef up that relationship with Jesus — he’s all I need; if you’ve got Jesus, you’ve got everything; even people in happy relationships need to run to Jesus first, or they’ll be a wreck.

But we know, deep down, that’s not true. Yes, Jesus can give hope, but Jesus cannot meet our emotional needs, not the way a human can, because emotional needs are primarily physical needs — like clothes and food and shelter. Just as we cannot wear, eat, or set up house in Jesus, we cannot meet our emotional needs in him.

There is a sense in which Jesus can meet our emotional needs, and it is in the same sense that he meets our other physical needs — through other people. He provides for our emotional needs through our own efforts to reach out and join community, just as he provides for our other physical needs through our own efforts to find a job and earn a paycheck. And when we are incapable of meeting our physical needs — whether it’s an emotional poverty or a financial poverty — he commands his body to be there with food, clothing, shelter, and, yes, friendship, if need be.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. — Teresa of Avila

Ironically, this meeting of physical needs is a deeply spiritual act. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this,” James tells us, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” He goes on to say,

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This is precisely what we do when we tell emotionally needy people to run to Jesus. “Go in peace,” we tell them, “find friendship and love,” when it is through our physical body, our friendship, our presence that God wishes to reach them.

We can run to God when we run to others. We can connect with God when we connect with others. God is pleased when we eat real food, live in real houses, feel real heat, and get real hugs from real bodies when we need them. It is a terrible, terrible lie to guilt a person for wanting human touch and companionship, to send them on their knees to Jesus without giving them the tools to meet their emotional needs.

Which leads me to say that the tools to meet our emotional needs are not merely having friends, being married, or starting a family. People will not always be there, and even if they’re there physically, they’re not always there emotionally.

And even then, we can misdiagnose our emotional problems when we rely too heavily on others without developing self-regulation, self-soothing, and independence; when we pine away for a boyfriend while ignoring other relationships right in front of us; when we put too high of expectations on others. Sometimes our desire for companionship can distract us from the need to love ourselves, meet other physical needs, get an attitude adjustment, or just go take a nap. And of course our desperation for human love can manifest itself in a myriad of spiritual problems too.

But this is true for all physical needs. We can have too much or too little of material things that then causes mental, physical, and spiritual problems. We can be unregulated in our desire for material things. That doesn’t negate our need for food or clothing or work; it’s just to say that sometimes we need other things too, or we need to order our desires to get the most out of what we already have.

Many Christians today, particularly if they bow out of the long tradition of sacramental theology, are ascetics and reductionists when it comes to spirituality: the more you can believe without any sort of physical aid, the more you can deny your physicality (this unconscious thinking goes), the stronger Christian you are. Rosaries, weekly Eucharist, icons, the other five of the sacraments, candles, and incense are seen as primarily stumblingblocks to a real relationship with God.

Human relationships are treated the same way. Some Christians never attend church because their relationship with God allegedly doesn’t need a communal aspect. And if you try to tell someone that a big part of your relationship with God involves giving and receiving human love, you will get many questions about the legitimacy of your spirituality.

This is completely out of touch with the spirituality presented in Scripture, tradition, and the reality of who Jesus is.

Jesus became God with us in an incarnate, physical way. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He took a child on his knee. He developed relationships with others, who became so close to him that they leant upon his bosom during a supper that two thousand years later allows us to partake of him in a physical way. And even though he is no longer on earth, we experience God’s grace and presence through bread, wine, water, and chrism. Christianity is sacramental because our God became incarnate, and our God became incarnate because he knows our physical needs.

Sacramentalism aside, the fact that God instituted a community of people and commands that we partake in that community shows us that God will not call us to loneliness — ever. Loneliness is not a sustainable life for any human, even a human who has Jesus in her heart.

But loneliness builds dependence on God, a pious Christian might argue. It might, just as starvation might bring one closer to God. There are many mysteries about how this world works and how God works in it for good, but we do not stop feeding the hungry and helping the poor just because God might do a spiritual work.

In the same way, as part of Christ’s body, I am obligated to help those who are emotionally impoverished, regardless of what God can do and is doing spiritually through that impoverishment. And as a human being with a body, I am obligated to meet my emotional needs in a physical, emotional, human way.

So I will first run to my husband’s arms when I need comfort, and thank God that I can.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Saved by Affirming the Right Moral Stance

Just a quick thought, in light of Article X in the Nashville Statement: If our salvation is dependent on picking the right side during turbulent culture wars, the majority of our heroes of the faith is in hell for racism, sexism, and violence.

Martin Luther advocated horrific violence against Jews.

Augustine was, shall we say, not trying to look anti-misogynist.

Many great American Christians owned slaves and thought white people were superior to black people because the Bible clearly says so. 

Do we really want to get into this territory of deciding who is in and who is out based on where they land during the culture wars? Do we really want to take it upon ourselves to condemn the millennia of Christians before us who held the wrong social views? Do we really want to go there?

I certainly don’t. I’m not qualified to judge other people’s souls or the work God is doing in them. I believe there’s great urgency and need to discuss what is the Christian view on certain social issues, but that is far different from saying there’s a need to discern who is damned and who is saved — particularly on the basis of one, controversial topic.

It’s telling that those who support Article X don’t want to “go there” when it comes to any other moral issue. Apparently, supporting LGBTQ+ people after careful research, prayer, and study is a damnable offense, but the Christians who came before us who advocated violence instead of peace, racism instead of dignity, misogyny instead of equality — they get a free pass? God isn’t as strict on the supporters of other social evils as he is on the supporters of homosexuality?

How pathetic a gospel whose effectiveness wears off with one dose of LGBTQ+ acceptance! A gospel that covers a multitude of racial sins but just can’t quite reach LGBTQ+ acceptance. Knowing my own proclivity toward ignorance and misunderstanding, I find no comfort in grace contingent on me figuring out an issue as complicated, personal, and emotional as same-sex orientation and gender dysphoria.

The irony is that we all struggle with what is right and what is wrong. We all fall prey to misinformation and a lack of opportunity to learn the truth. We all have a tendency to get caught up in what our tribe says and lambaste the opposing side. We all share the same nature and the same Spirit and still come to radically different conclusions. We all believe that our careful, prayerful opinions (and even our rash, bigoted ones) are the Christian way. And often, we all once held the viewpoint we now oppose — with equal conviction about what the Bible clearly says….

Do we really want to be damned by the same standard of human frailty we all share?

Do we even want to judge ourselves in this way — that back when we believed such and such a view, even while we loved Jesus and sought his heart, we were damned? But now that our thinking evolved through whatever journey it took, we are saved by our affirmation of this moral, political thing?

Lord, have mercy on my soul if that’s the case, because I loved Jesus and believed some pretty abhorrent, ignorant things at the same time. Thank goodness I reached a state of enlightenment on moral issues before an untimely death.

This is what is meant when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you too be judged.”

Nobody escapes damnation if salvation is dependent on believing the right things instead of on the scandalous mercy, grace, and love of God.

If we want a gospel, a grace, a salvation dependent on our political, moral stances, so be it — but we too will face the hellfire to which we damned others.

The Irrelevancy of the Nashville Statement

Article 10 of the Nashville Statement.

I waffle back and forth between anger and uncontrollable laughter at the Nashville Statement. Anger, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf. Laughter, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf.

Nothing prompted the Nashville Statement except the same old impending, post-Christian apocalypse already upon us, driven by the spirit of the secular age. In other words, there was no particular driving force except everyday evangelical paranoia. I mention this only because there are several other things that immediately come to mind as more timely for evangelicals to address.

How about a statement against white supremacy, what with this year’s national displays of xenophobia and racism culminating in white supremacists marching in the streets and feeding off the President’s forgiving words? Or speaking of the President, perhaps a statement against the many sexual sins he embodies? Surely, if it’s always timely to make broad, sweeping statements of judgment about sexuality, this year — when many in the evangelical church actively support a serial, unrepentant adulterer, fornicator, accused rapist, and sexist — would be a great year to chastise the church’s departure from the traditional Christian (hetero)sexual ethic.

Or if evangelicals must publicly state something about homosexuality, why not address all the grieving, estranged LGBTQ+ Christians whose “loving” families abandoned them, ridiculed them, and persecuted them? Why not apologize for the many ways the traditional Christian sexual ethic has been wielded as a weapon rather than as a healing? Why not acknowledge the high suicidal rate among transgender kids? Why not finally take the pastoral stance this issue desperately needs?

Of course, this is an oft-repeated criticism of the evangelical church — why are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? But I will repeat it: Why, evangelical church, are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? Even if you believe in the traditional sexual ethic, why is it that two gay Christians in a loving relationship is cataclysmically destructive in a way rampant divorce, adultery, white supremacy, abuse, and hateful rhetoric are not?

Yes, the breakdown of the family is alarming. But it should not be controversial to say that parents shunning their gay children, transgender kids committing suicide, husbands abusing their wives under a divine mandate, authoritarian parenting, porn use, infidelity, an adulterer-in-chief — those sorts of heterosexual sins are breaking down the family in a way gay marriage and transgender identity cannot and will not.

Like I said, when I first heard about the Nashville Statement, I wanted to laugh. The actual evangelical church — not to mention the church at large — is not particularly interested in hearing the same old stance against homosexuality. They’re more caught up in discussions of race, leaders trading their moral authority for political affluence, and the Christian machine’s destruction against those who disagree on secondary issues.

The Nashville Statement is thus wholly irrelevant to conversations and concerns that are most pressing or should be most pressing to the American church in its current political, sociocultural, and historical context.

Then again, I’m not surprised at its irrelevancy. Its callousness, poor timing, and ignorance of the concerns of real people who actually struggle with being a person of color or gay or gender dysphoric in the church is not a coincidence.

The statement was named after the location of its drafting, in the footsteps of historic articulations of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed. The hubris of even daring to associate the Nashville Statement with the likes of the Nicene Creed shows an appalling ignorance about orthodoxy.

For one thing, all historic articulations of orthodox faith were ecumenical. The whole church got together and hashed out their differences with the hope that the Holy Spirit would guide them. There was an understanding that the truest devotion to Christian orthodoxy could not be accomplished by one church alone but by the whole, catholic Church. This is true from the very beginning, when the apostles met to discuss issues of inclusion and moral practice back in Acts 15.

There is nothing like that about the Nashville Statement — no wrestling, no invitation or openness to hear what God might doing in the LGBTQ+ Christian community, no input from those who disagree. There was nothing at all surprising about the Nashville Statement: it repeated the same poorly articulated fundamentalist party line about sexuality, with the intention of drawing a line between its adherents and its dissenters.

It’s backwards from how the church has operated when defining things as orthodox: first, the drafters of the Nashville Statement articulated what orthodoxy is; then, they issued it to the larger church to deal with.

This “sign your name” style of orthodoxy only further divides a divided, uninformed church catholic. The fact that there are counterstatements popping up around the internet, also articulating the one and only stance on Christian sexuality and inviting signatures from laypeople and clergy alike, demonstrates how ultimately ineffective the Nashville Statement was as an attempt to clarify orthodoxy once and for all.

But it’s not really about orthodoxy, is it? It’s not about rallying the church catholic to truth or inviting the LGBTQ+ community into wholeness and healing. Those who signed the Nashville Statement thinking such were sorely deceived. As president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood explicitly stated, it’s about division. It’s about drawing lines in the sand.

It’s the classic evangelical obsession of reducing Christianity to who’s in and who’s out.

But the current debate is not primarily about the traditional Christian sexual ethic versus the secular spirit of the age — the who’s in and the who’s out. The debate is about whether the effects of the traditional Christian sexual ethic and the articulation of the traditional Christian sexual ethic are consistent with Christ. There is a huge gulf between those who signed the Nashville Statement and those who didn’t — and it’s, surprisingly, not between those who support the traditional Christian sexual ethic and those who don’t.

The signers of the Nashville Statement talked about the doctrine itself (“beautiful” and “precious” were common adjectives). The dissenters, even if they agreed with the traditional Christian sexual ethic, talked about the ugliness, despair, burdening, and violence these views and the traditional way of expressing these views had on the LGBTQ+ community.

Jen Hatmaker sums up the real issue in a series of tweets: “If the fruit of doctrine regularly & consistently creates shame, self-harm, suicide, & broken hearts, families, & churches, we [should] listen. … If the natural end to a doctrine is not consistently leading to whole, healthy, vibrant lives in Christ, something is wrong with it.”

This is at the heart of the evangelical debate on LGBTQ+ issues.

The Nashville Statement fails to understand that debate. It dismisses out of hand that its precious, beautiful doctrine, as stated, is or could at all be partially or wholly responsible for LGBTQ+ suffering. It offers its doctrine as an unequivocal solution to LGBTQ+ pain, when the people closest to the pain are insisting the doctrine is the cause of that pain.

Because of this misunderstanding, the real losers are those who think the Nashville Statement’s exclusion will affect the church. The Nashville Statement drew so sharp a line in the sand that its adherents cut themselves off from the rest of the church still in the throes of this debate. By regurgitating a solution without understanding the problem, they made themselves irrelevant. Laughably, they think a small segment of conservative evangelicalism, already compromised in morals and principles, has the authority to determine orthodoxy for the entire church catholic. In their zeal to decide who’s in and who’s out, they have only made themselves the outsiders.

But the Nashville Statement has no authority — neither in actuality nor in reputation. And so the rest of the church will grow deeper in wisdom, love, and truth, while the Nashville Statement fades into obscurity.

The Nashville Statement is nothing more than people wanting to be right stating their beliefs in public with no desire to hear about the real life consequences their beliefs wreak on the weaker — just another clanging cymbal in a cacophony of irrelevancy.

Photo Credit: Religion News Service

There Is No Such Thing as Female Submission

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that many Christians disconnect their views on women’s issues from the larger, more general teaching on Christian virtue. Case in point — submission.

If we’re discussing Ephesians 5:1-2, 21, for example, both women and men get the same, gender-neutral exhortation to “follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. … Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We might ponder aloud in our Bible studies how we follow Christ’s example in our everyday lives.

Then the next verse lands, and all of that Jesus role playing comes to screeching halt. Husbands are Jesus to wives, and wives are the church, and that’s the end of that. With this new metaphor, the definition of submission changes from following God’s example, laying down one’s life, and mutually submitting to male submission = final authority (because Jesus gets the final say over the church, duh) and female submission = unilateral acquiescence (as is proper for the church submitting to the Lord of the universe).

Now that a patriarchal construct is set up wherein women are wives before they are followers of Christ — that is, they do not get to play Jesus in their marriage like they do in every other area of life — submission gets gendered. Always greet hubby with a smile when he walks in the door, no matter how hard your day. Never contradict him. He gets the final say over your life and family. Give him sex when he wants it.

This female version of submission is not only bona fide virtuous but also magical — it converts husbands, changes hearts, saves marriages, and (with a knowing wink to the ladies) ultimately gets women want they want, anyway.

It’s hard to know where this female submission diverges from Jesus’ example and slips into 1950’s manipulation tactics” “Oh, darling, always make your husband think that it was his idea first.”

It’s an understandable phenomenon: our culture loves finding gender differences, so whenever women are addressed in Scripture, we lose our minds and the objective of the Christian faith — which is living a life like Christ.

This is bonkers. Whatever is real about a woman’s spiritual state before God takes precedence over the temporary state of marriage. In other words, women get to play Jesus too.

We see this in the simple fact that the majority of moral and theological injunctions for Christian life are directed to everybody. Women are co-heirs, co-rulers, and one in Christ before they are wives. They too are priests and prophets. They get to follow Christ’s example and exercise their actual spiritual identity just as freely and exactly as men do.

And if a patriarchal power structure prevents that, well, you know it’s one of those worldly principalities and powers we take out as part of bringing in the kingdom.

The common objection is, of course, that applying the gender-neutral virtue of submission to specific instances is not the same thing as redefining it. “Submit one to another” simply looks different for the people on top than the people on bottom. It would be absolutely silly to suggest that parents submit to their child in the same way their child submits to them, would it not? A slave’s submission (or to make it less pointed, a servant’s or employee’s) submission to his master obviously doesn’t look like a master’s submission to his slave. Why get up in arms about a wife’s submission looking different than her husband’s submission?

Well, for one thing, the implication that wives are on the same level as children and slaves — that’s mildly upsetting to any self-respecting person.

But I don’t want to get into an argument about patriarchal power structures and their potential role in the twenty-first century. I simply want to call a spade a spade: control of any sort is not synonymous with submission, laying down one’s life, or following God’s example of love. Period. That’s why we dismantled slavery and why we’re working on dismantling patriarchal models of marriage and authoritarian parenting.

There’s not a pink version of submission that borders on subservience and a blue version of submission that borders on domination. Submission is submission, no matter the context.

I want to counteract this idea of pink and blue virtues not only because it enables oppression of women but because the pink virtue of submission just plain doesn’t work in the magical way complementarians tell us it does.

Female submission boils down to silence and acquiescence at some point. Of course, depending on the couple, a woman may get a say, if she gets even that. But even if she gets to be a part of the discussion, she doesn’t get to be a part of the decision. And once the decision is made, she must accept it and go silent. Voicing her opinion once her husband has made a decision, even if it’s over her own life, is the definition of an unsubmissive wife.

Silence and acquiescence are the opposite virtues of a healthy, abuse-free marriage — that is, communication and compromise. Those are the two biggest keys to relationships as intimate and complicated as marriage. If a definition of submission cuts women off from initiating communication and compromise in any way, shape, or form, that creates, rather than resolves, conflict.

Sacrificing one’s life is supposed to be about creating oneness, not about enabling abusive authority or laying out the doormat. Christ’s sacrifice means nothing, Paul says, if it’s used as an excuse to sin. Same thing goes here — a wife’s sacrifice means nothing if it’s taken as an excuse to sin.

And it can and will be taken as an excuse to sin — which is why anyone serious about bringing health and oneness to her marriage must arm herself with impenetrable boundaries.

I was flabbergasted to find out how obtuse my husband was to my sacrifices.

It was his job to the dishes, for instance. I, being the meek, mild wifey, took the time to wash up for him. I did it out of love, yes, because everybody needs a break from the dishes, but I, born and bred in patriarchy, am not immune to the myth of passive aggressive pink submission’s powers. Surely my act of kindness would rain down burning coals on his head and bring about a converted husband who didn’t leave all his chores to his wife.

Boy, was I wrong.

He wouldn’t even notice I did the dishes, for one thing. When I pointed it out that I did the dishes because I loved him, he happily hugged me with a guilty grin. And then didn’t do the dishes again that night. Or the next. And the more I did the dishes, the more he felt free to ignore them.

I mean, it made sense. I would do the same thing. Why take the effort to address one’s chronic laziness when you’ve got a meek and mild spousey to do so for you?

You know what comes next. Not really being the meek and mild wifey, I exploded at him. (That also didn’t get the dishes done, by the way.)

What did get the dishes done was sitting down and figuring out why he never did the dishes. Turns out he strongly prefers cooking to washing dishes, and a simple job switch was in order. We’ve never gone hungry when he’s in charge of the cooking.

Problem solved. Now I avoid doing the dishes.

All that to say, the funny thing about humans is that it’s easier to take advantage of nice people who never complain than to buck up and change. If your husband’s a real loser, you’re better off having some hard conversations in therapy than meekly agreeing to whatever he says.

This then brings us to the last and final point: Submission, not even magical pink submission, is not the be all to end all in a relationship. Just because a couple passages specifically connect women with submission doesn’t change the messy, honest reality of how marriage works.

Women must look to the whole example of Jesus — the meek man who turned over tables, questioned religious authority, and drove out moneychangers with a cord of whips — to understand what Christian submission and sacrifice looks like in their marriages. And we must afford them the tools and the space to do so, starting with Christocentric, gender-neutral definitions.

Photo Credit: Brain Sauce

Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People

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

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

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

It shocked me.

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

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

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

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

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

No buts. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Some Uncompelling Reasons You Should Use NFP

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Dear People Who Feel We Shouldn’t Talk About Reproduction and Sex and Stuff in Public — I disagree, but am honoring your opinion by giving you a disclaimer that this post talks openly about reproduction and sex and stuff. Proceed at your own discretion.

I don’t have a strong opinion on natural family planning. I have strong experiences, mind you, but they are not the kind of experiences ideal for prescriptive purposes.

First of all, I am a fatalist when it comes to family planning. I have friends who conceived on NFP, the pill, and an IUD. Not the “oh, I knew somebody who knew somebody” “friend.” Immediate friends.

Your body wants to have babies. It will have the babies it wants. That is my current philosophy on reproduction as I cry over the prospect of being indefinitely pregnant until menopause.

Second, my use of NFP is borne of bitter travails with my body rather than a joyful acceptance of it. I don’t have a happy conversion story where NFP fixed my life and my marriage and my body image and prevented unwanted pregnancy.

Mostly, I just hate condoms. Hate them. And I am terrified of hormonal and chemical birth control’s side effects, which would mess with all my existing problems.

I’m of the opinion that the more natural a method is, the better, but I’m more of the opinion that something should get the job done. I take zinc for colds not because it’s natural but because it works. I take ibuprofen for cramps because peppermint oil and warm baths don’t. Natural and side effect free is a huge plus, but it is, in the end, only a plus.

I’m far more utilitarian than idealistic in my approach to the natural vs. unnatural showdown.

But since I’m a reproductive fatalist (see above), it’s nice to weakly combat the body’s intense desire to get pregnant with a natural method that doesn’t complicate sex or my mood.

Feminist friends, I am partially kidding about my reproductive fatalism. I’m not trying to spread misinformation about the effectiveness of certain reproductive methods over others. I’m not trying to disempower women’s choices over their bodies.

I’m just saying that my personal motto is, if you’re having sex, you might have a baby. Babies and sex often go hand in hand. It’s a natural thing. It’s a good thing — at least, babies are, even if the having of them isn’t. And I appreciate that NFP keeps that emphasis on natural in this context — using the body’s natural infertile period to plan your family as opposed to drugging up and suiting up as if you actually were in combat with your reproductive system.

On the flipside, I am no Michelle Duggar, God bless her. I love children. I love them so much that I believe they deserve as much time and individual attention as Mama can give them. My goal is quality, not quantity, mothering. If that means I feel I can only raise a handful of kids, so be it. If I feel I can effectively mother a string of five or six siblings one and a half years apart as planned, great. My actual children come first over potential children that I theoretically want.

That’s the idea, anyway.

With that in mind, I am strongly opposed to any notion that I should have a certain number of children or just forego all family planning and let Jesus take the wheel.

Obviously, there’s an important, abstract part of my beliefs that will happily welcome any child, no matter whether she’s number two or (gulp) number ten. But there’s also an important, practical part of my beliefs that knows that resources, time, and energy shrink the more children one has.

I don’t think it’s immoral to steward those resources, time, and energy for the good of existing family members, even if it involves unnatural means of family planning.

Fortunately, NFP provides an effective natural planning method (99% in fact, if you can forget that everybody you know got unexpectedly pregnant using NFP).

That leads to my experience with NFP itself.

Here’s my vote of confidence: I got pregnant while using NFP.

In NFP’s defense, we did not follow NFP strictly. We didn’t have any Catholic guilt or deep desire against children egging us into abstinence during the fertile period. We got lazy and lustful, relying too much on our luck and the regularity of my cycle to pay too much attention to basal body temperature or the exact consistency of cervical mucus.

So that happened.

I honestly don’t know what I’ll do if I ever want to actively prevent pregnancy, instead of half-heartedly saying, “Eh, maybe we should wait a year or two.” I extremely disliked intensive, conscious NFP tracking.

I’ll go into more detail in another post, but my time with NFP was nothing like the happy Catholics told me. It was wonderful to understand the rhythm of the female reproductive cycle — something I now miss as a pregnant lady — and that’s an aspect of NFP I think all women should learn.

But it also inadvertently introduced me to my reproductive fatalism. My body desperately wanted to get pregnant. It was made for pregnancy. I was nothing but a baby-making machine. 

That was my happy encounter with NFP.

It felt dehumanizing, frankly, to check for cervical mucus all day, every day. I was being a drama queen about it, but that was my honest reaction. It was a headache trying to figure out how that particular consistency of the day matched up with the three vague categories of egg whites, water, and school glue.

And don’t even get me started on basal body temperatures. I struggled far too much with insomnia, particularly when I first started tracking as an engaged college student, to go to bed and wake up at a regular enough time that my BBT meant anything.

But I couldn’t stress too much about tracking, because stress (and alcohol and travel) also could throw your predictions off.

I don’t know who these 99% effective ladies are, but they’re definitely all stress-free, teetotalling homebodies.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of NFP for me was the failed promise that NFP would bring my husband and me closer. “He’ll understand the natural rhythm of your body!” the brochures said. “He’ll track with you! Your marriage will be rainbows and sunshine all because of NFP!”

Yes, my husband understands how women’s bodies work and mine in particular. He suspected I was pregnant long before I did and could roughly predict where I was in my cycle. That was nice, and helpful. I could commiserate in my reproductive fatalism with him, and he would listen politely.

But beyond the emotional support, there wasn’t much of anything he could do to help me. I was the one sitting alone on the toilet checking cervical mucus. I was the one entering data in my Ovia Fertility app. I was the one pausing during cuddle times to remember how close I was to my fertile period.

It brought us together in one sense, but it also reminded me that men still don’t have any clue of what it’s like to be potentially pregnant and how stressful that is if one wants a life outside of being a pregnant and nursing mother. (He meekly agrees to carry the next child to term whenever I complain about this. If only. But he’s a gem nonetheless.)

So those are my strong experiences. To try to extrapolate some helpful advice from those experiences: NFP works, allegedly, and if it works for you, I highly recommend it. If you cried as much as I did, I feel you. And if you think your beloved form of birth control or family planning will protect you from you body’s reproductive wiles, well, I’ll start prepping your baby shower gift right now.

I’M KIDDING.

(Kind of.)

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

We Can’t Even Agree on Science!

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I had the great (mis)fortune of deconstructing during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Not only was my spiritual epistemology falling apart, but the whole country’s ability to discern basic fact from fiction was too. Politics was just one giant gaslight — I couldn’t trust my eyeballs and subitizing skills when it came to crowd sizes; I couldn’t trust my basic instincts to identify a bully and a narcissist and an affront to morality; I couldn’t trust anyone in the media, even the people saying I couldn’t trust anyone in the media.

And on top of the spiritual and the political fake news, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and Plexus advocates kept popping up around me like epistemological whack-a-moles.

There is no truth and nothing makes sense and if we can’t even agree on if the earth is round, how can we know anything?!

It was quite the dramatic time.

But dramatics aside, I really did and do feel frustration about how hard it is to figure out allegedly objective, empirical things such as science, medicine, and crowd sizes — much less more complex ideas like politics, theology, and sociology.

How do you even begin to navigate the complex when the obvious is just as confusing?

As I dug into issues in more detail, I began to see some helpful patterns for untangling science, medicine, statistics, and, well, truth in general.

1. People have different senses of reality. Well, obviously. But my young earth creationist upbringing was right: we all interpret reality according to who or what we trust — or perhaps more accurately, who or what we fear.

For example: there are Christians who see the Bible as so authoritative on every area of life, that they deny the earth’s old age or its roundness, and even that the sun is a star — because, as the Bible says, God created the sun, moon, and stars.

It makes more sense to them that all of the governments and scientific institutions of the world are perpetrating a huge conspiracy about basic scientific facts than that the Bible is, perhaps, not interested in discussing details in accordance with the modern scientific method foreign to ancient Hebrew writers.

Which came first — a devotion to Scripture, or a fear of government and the elite? Who knows, but both their trust in the Bible and their conspiratorial fears make these people impossible to engage. When they’ve got even Ken Ham pegged as a brainwashed liberal, you know they’re too far gone.

Along these same lines, there is an incredible paranoia of the establishment or the elite. Alternative medicine and alternative facts alike, people feel duped and distrustful of organizations and triple PhDs.

As I deconstructed, I realized I had internalized a deepset fear of experts. The more educated and researched a person was on a certain topic, the more I doubted their claims to be true or unbiased. Instead, I sought the refuge of the internet, where the uneducated and the less educated can sound just as convincing as the Top Professor at Pompous-Sounding Institution (especially if they’re validating what I want to believe).

And of course, the picture is never as simple as “trust the elites.” The medical community at large mocked Ignaz Semmelweis for washing his hands before operating. Galileo was a lone voice advocating for a heliocentric universe. Sociology of the day deemed women’s brains unfit for any work other than housekeeping. Popular theology and science argued that black people were inherently subservient to whites.

Where would our society be without the mavericks who dared stand up to the elite, the frustrated prophets speaking out against the immoral majority?

There’s sometimes a whopping grain of truth in listening to the outsiders over the insiders.

All that to say, “facts” get circulated and believed based on people’s fears and trusts. I’ve got a good nose for sniffing out fake news because I’ve learned a healthy skepticism of clickbait titles, obscure websites, and sensational headlines THAT THE MEDIA WILL NEVER TELL YOU ABOUT. That’s because I don’t inherently distrust mainstream organizations or experts. Others find the mainstream so deceitful that the Sandy Hook shooting becomes a government conspiracy and Donald Trump transforms into a godly man.

Amidst this insanity, it’s enlightening to ask, “Who or what do they trust, and who or what do they fear?”

2. The truth is often in what’s left unsaid. Mystery and crime aficionados know this well. All of the evidence points to this obvious conclusion, and then one, solitary bit of information pops up and radically changes everything. Even the smallest new fact can alter one’s perspective.

This is why we look for the whole story. Individual facts can be true but situated or arranged in a certain way that obscures the bigger picture.

As a fiscal conservative, I was surprised to find out that many of the government bailouts during the 2008 recession were not only repaid but repaid with interest. The government made money off the bailouts. By the time the government got its returns, however, the news cycle had turned its eye on something else, and fiscal conservatives grumble against Obama to this day.

It’s a fact that bailing out banks and the Mexican economy put us into massive debt. It’s a fact that it was a huge risk. But the whole story involves a fiscally happily ever after. (And as I’m no economic expert, there’s probably more to the whole story than this brief bit of information my husband shared with me when he looked up from his book.)

It’s not only pieces of information that get left out — unclear definitions can either obscure or clarify the facts. What does “sexual assault” mean in any particular study, for instance, and is it the same for every study on sexual violence? Perhaps it might make a difference to pro-life anti-vaxxers that regarding the cell cultures gathered from an aborted infant, the infant was aborted or miscarried in the 1970’s for purposes unrelated to vaccine development.

3. Even statistics have contexts. My husband and I recently looked into the circumcision debate. It was fascinating how many websites — good, neutral, factual websites — failed to put statistics into context. For instance, many of the websites framed statistics like, “Circumcised infants are less at risk for a rare penile cancer,” “Circumcised men are at a lower risk for HIV infection,” and “Uncircumcised infants are at a higher risk for UTIs.”

Convincing, no?

The full context is that this penile cancer is too incredibly rare among both circumcised and uncircumcised males to warrant circumcision; the study on HIV was conducted with African men with unclear conclusions for American males; and the risk of UTIs for all male infants is only 0.5%-1% to begin with.

Not very convincing evidence, after all.

I encountered this same thing when a loved one sent out a group message warning against the cancerous properties of red dye. Being married to a chemist who once spent a whole afternoon opining on the LD50 table (lethal dose, for all you humanities people not married to chemists), I pointed out that red dye in Skittles is only poisonous if you consume an impossible amount of them in one sitting.

I don’t normally try to sound like a know-it-all, but forgive me — Skittles were on the line.

The popular documentary What the Health? that’s turning all my friends into vegans also makes these statistical mistakes. It claims that eating processed meats will increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s technically true — but only if you eat processed meats every single day. And even then, your risk of colorectal cancer is only 5% to begin with. Eating processed meats every day for your entire life boosts your 5% chance of that cancer by 1%, which means a 6% risk, which is 18% of the original 5% risk.

I’ll take a chance and eat my occasional Subway sandwich, thank you very much.

4. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about. We all receive a massive influx of information every day about all kinds of issues. And we all have the opportunity to send out a massive amount of information every day about all kinds of issues. Our social media platforms can become echo chambers, with the only people policing our facts being that one grumpy conservative posting memes or that flaming liberal you befriended at drama camp sharing Huffington Post articles.

It’s like a giant game of Telephone — except there’s nobody to clarify what exactly was said.

And our go-to method of fact-checking is finding whatever website we trust the most and seeing what they have to say about it.

It is so easy for uneducated or undereducated people (whether in general or in a particular subject) to grab onto these rumors and misreported statistics and pass them on to others with their own wrong understanding or failure to catch errors. When people or sites we love, trust, and respect start circulating this misinformation as confident fact — especially when it appeals to who or what we trust or fear — we buy it uncritically. We absorb it into our system of beliefs and values. We then become immune to rethinking facts and opinions, because those things shape our sense of reality.

We’ve got a crap ton of information coming in, we’re not even equipped in the 101 of that field, and we all feel like we or our belief system must have an opinion on everything.

No wonder we can’t agree on anything.

5. If you’re stumped, read books, take classes, and talk to people in the field to get the lay of the land. These are more surefire ways of understanding what’s left unsaid and the context for tricky statistics. And let me clarify — I’m not talking about your favorite blogger giving a summary of the scientific evidence from your pet perspective. I’m talking about reading firsthand accounts, watching serious debates between multiple different professionals, and talking to somebody who actually studied the issue in a peer-reviewed setting with an open mind.

Then again, I just showed who I really trust, didn’t I?

This post was inspired by all the medical decisions I have to make as a parent and Pete Enns’ excellent article, “11 Recurring Mistakes Evangelicals Make in the Evolution Debate”

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Should I Encourage My Son Toward “Feminine” Things?

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven forbid.

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

Not so for boys, as my own fears betray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Harm in Letting Boys Be Boys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys and Baby Dolls

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

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

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

Not my son.

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

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

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

Boys and Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know anything about raising boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Boy or Girl Always Does Anything

Boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar.

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

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

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

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

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

But All the Boys I Know….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s another one of my biggest regrets.

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

Bringing It All Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

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.