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Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Monday, July 5, 2010

My dilemma and resolution

As an intellectually inclined, married, conservative Mennonite woman, I have a bit of a dilemma. As dilemmas go it's not such a calamitous one. It is simply this: my future has more or less been decided. See, being an intellectually inclined Mennonite woman can come with its challenges, but it is, for the most part, rather wide open (barring ordination, basically). Add "married", and all the wide-openness disappears; I will, of course, be a stay-at-home Mom. Since Landon is in school right now, and we don't have children it is perfectly acceptable for me to keep going to school, or work to support us, but the purpose of school at this point is suspect, and the job doesn't need to be anything with possibilities for future progress - I'll only need it until we can settle down and be a real family. The problem is that I'm a little uncomfortable with that. And I've been thinking some seditious thoughts lately.

Could it be that I don't have to give up my intellectual aspirations in order to maintain my stance on scripture (since I'm not willing to do the reverse)? When the Bible talks about God creating woman, did he have a specific role for her in mind in a societal structure that we think of as "the home", or did he have a specific relationship in mind between her and her man?

Being a stay-at-home Mom of multiple children is one of the most difficult jobs that I can imagine anyone doing. I know of no other job that has 24/7 hours and no paid vacations (while the rest of the family goes on vacation, Mom takes her work her). I rise up in the figurative gates and call my Mother blessed for the inhuman amount of stuff that goes into a day in her life. Being a parent is important (Mother or Father), it is something that I look forward to, and I don't want to imply that without something "else" a person is, ipso facto, unfulfilled. I have, however, begun to wonder whether our idea of what it means to be a godly wife and mother has been more influenced by scripture or the idealizations of our culture.

I recently read a book by Leora Tanenbaum, entitled Catfight: Women and Competition. While I would never recommend this book as a Christian view of women and femininity (Tanenbaum is Jewish, and her viewpoint is nonreligious), it has proven to be extremely thought provoking. Her perspective on feminism, work, and parenting differs almost completely from the viewpoints that I have grown accustomed to hearing; much of it would not be popular with most of the people that I know, and I find myself out of agreement with her on various point. On at least one point, however, she provided me with an epiphany.

In her chapter on motherhood, Tanenbaum explores the history of working mothers. As she sees it, most mothers have been working mothers for most of history. Of the infamous P. 31 women she says "She bought real estate, planted vineyards, collected food, and spun fabrics. The idea of 'staying home' with her children would have seemed ludicrous to her." (256) "[M]others" she says, "have always performed myriad tasks while they raised their children and while they delegated child care to others." (256) It is not until the Industrial Revolution that we see a split between the public sphere into which a man went out to make money, and the private sphere in which the mother remained with her children. Even with the creation of this separate role of "breadwinner" in the 1800s, mothers "continued to be central players in the economic well-being of their households (257)." In other words, they did a lot of things other than and in addition to raising their children. At this point in history, with men working outside the home, but with women busy keeping up the wellbeing of the home, staying involved with making some income, and having a positive economic effect (all of which sounds pretty good to me), Tanenbaum makes a distinction that I had not previously considered. She introduces as a completely new figure the "'full-time' mother (257)."

Huh? Unlike the busy, household managing, goods producing, maid-apportioning wife of most of history, the full-time mother is, apparently, a sort of unpaid nanny, whose entire focus is child care and ornamental housekeeping. She has no positive economic effect on the household, and her world is entirely child-centric.

As I read the chapter, and digested this distinction, it struck me that Tananbaum's recording of a cultural shift brings out an in important differentiation that I have sensed, but never been able to tease out of my mind. The ideal of women being able to stay at home and concentrate solely on the children and the house, without needing to contribute economically to the workings of the household, is a fairly recent cultural construct; yet when Christian women talk about not working, it seems that this is what they have in mind. This is a role to take upon oneself, and a distinct sphere in which to operate. Certain verses in Paul's epistles are read with this cultural construct in mind, and subtly the attitude begins to steal in: if you aren't being a "full-time Mother", you are creeping outside the lines that scripture draws for you. But is scripture drawing this line, around this cultural box?

I don't think so. As I pondered this, and mentally reviewed scripture (from Genesis on), I came to see being a wife and mother as a position, and not a role. It's a position in relation to God, my husband, and other people, but it is not a part to act with a script that comes with it. This is immensely exciting to me. It opens the possibility that my life can look culturally non-traditional, yet be exactly in line with God's revealed truth.

Here is how I see the distinction that I'm trying to make. I have internalized (but always felt profoundly uncomfortable with) the idea that to accept a role as a helper suited to your husband, you have to do the support work while he does the mission. Men have callings, women have husbands. That's a simplistic rendering of the the basic framework that I ingested. Men have jobs, women have houses and children.

What if, instead, a man and a woman who join their lives to create one entity share one calling?What if marriage doesn't mean that a woman gives up her ambitions to her husband's, and a husband gains a ground support team, but instead that the two of them decide on their mission, and go at it together, whatever that looks like? What if the specific roles that they play have more to do with what their mission calls for then what the culture idealizes? It might end up looking a lot like a male breadwinner/female homemaker standard combo. It might end up being parents who each work part time and care for children part time. It might be two people working separate full time jobs, but with the same goal in mind at the end of the day.

Being a good wife doesn't have to mean staying inside the protective shell of "home" while my husband goes out into the wide world to bring the necessary money back into the home for survivals sake; it means being on the same team. It is not the taking on of a specific "role", but rather a fundamental shift in loyalties. By marrying Landon I have taken up his banner, decided for his cause, declared for his side, and it's a knock down, drag out battle to the end for me. My responsibility is not merely to send him out,then wait for him to come back to my safe haven to lick his wounds. Nope, I'm going with him. Whatever this means. And into this battle will come our children, for whom we are both responsible. We don't operate in different spheres, my husband and I; we may operate in different places in the same sphere, but you better believe that it's the same one.

I don't have to try to make myself smaller in order not to threaten my husband's leadership, instead I have to exert every ounce of strength that I have to further our mission. I don't have to try to figure out how to defer to him; there will be chance enough for that when we have a real disagreement. I don't have to stuff myself into a box in order not to compete with him; we're working for the same goal here. My success and his success are the same thing. Marriage does not need to be an obliteration of one person's goals in pursuit of the others, or a delicate balancing act between two people's ambitions: this is a pursuit of one goal by two people, where each person's gifts are stretched to the max.


  1. I rise up and call you blessed! Amen! You go girl! and other positive-inflection superlatives that may fit....

    I affirm the directions of your thought; I affirm the theological basis which you are bringing into application; the challenging thing is to simply "live the change" which you want to see. Unity in mind, spirit, and body (two in full agreement) is powerful in the Kingdom of God; and your marriage is where God wants to be glorified. Is my marriage making God look good? (giving him glory?)
    Working together in the same sphere, unified in purpose & calling, united and agreeing in prayer-- can anything else be better to show the goodness and glory of the relational God who gives us Life?!
    And go ahead and preach it (with words when necessary) where God gives you opportunity; there's a huge difference between preaching and "usurping authority".

  2. Thanks for the affirmation! Marty, you're right that the challenge is living the ideal here; it's being exciting to take some small steps and see things falling into place. :)