One of the most influential people in my current life is a stay-at-home mom of three children, all under ten. We got to know each other a few years ago, when our sons started first grade together, and have bonded over the shared joy and frustration of raising active sons, watching baseball in freezing weather, and wondering what we might cook for dinner, given our limited culinary abilities. My friend is well grounded spiritually and widely read. She is a great listener, and asks wonderful questions. She is well-liked by her community, creates space for herself and others in the midst of parenting chaos, and admits keeping her house clean and making a wholesome meal every night is not her highest priority, even though she’s been known to make mean Kale chips now and then. I am grateful she is in my life, and I honor the choices she’s made for herself and her family, even though they are different than mine.
When we can, my friend and I meet with T. and his wife for coffee. T. is a stay-at-home dad of three children, all under ten. We got to know each other a few years ago, when our sons started playing soccer together, and T. has served as their coach every year since; this past fall, I helped out with the team T. led, and we had a great time shaping fourth-grade boys into disciplined young men, if only for a season. T. is a great dad, attentive and thoughtful, spiritually grounded and widely read—though we also connect on our shared love for good television. I am grateful to have T. and his wife as friends, and I honor the choices his family has made, even though those choices are different than mine—or my family’s.
When I became a mother, my husband and I decided I would continue to work outside the home, and that he and I would share childcare duties. This seemed the best choice for our family at the time we started raising sons, and has continued to seem the best choice. Our decision to be a dual-income family was based less on the need for income—we could probably survive on one—but on the sense of calling we’ve both felt to teach at George Fox, the belief that we are both involved in an important ministry here, and the longing for both of us to be an integral part of our sons’ lives, something we could not so easily do if one or the other of us solely carried the financial load for our family. This choice has not always been easy—I saw my husband for about five minutes yesterday, for example—but it has been the best for my family, I feel certain.
Feminists often take the fall for destroying family values. They are caricaturized as being harpies who demean stay-at-home moms, beating the drums for women to abandon their kids, jump into the work force, and—if possible—emasculate their male colleagues. A good many evangelical books lay society’s ills at the feet of feminism, letting their readers know that feminists hate mothers, especially those who are primary caretakers; abhor children, and do everything possible to avoid having their own; and believe the only viable life path for women is into the workforce, triumphant over man.
I want to say emphatically that this is simply not true. The feminists I know are mothers and fathers, women and men; if they have families, they are committed to them wholeheartedly; they are young and old, having found feminism recently or embraced its ideology decades ago. Some feminists stay home to raise their children, and some enter the workforce while their children are young. The decision to do one or the other is fraught and complex; and no one I know makes these choices facilely, believing that their own path is the only—or even the best—one they might take.
What Kendra and I have been trying to say on this blog—and, I worry, failing to say clearly, given some of the criticism we’ve received—is that much of evangelical culture conveys to women that there is only one godly path they might tread. That if they are truly going to be women of God, they must choose family and domesticity. That there is only one approach to godly womanhood, and that is submission, silence, and complete sacrifice to a husband and children. (Which means, of course, that those without spouses or children fall even further outside this paradigm.) This evangelical message has been damaging to Kendra and to me and to countless other women, who bristle against this “one-and-only” biblical model, and who struggle to understand why God might give them gifts to teach, write, preach, lead (et al.) but then tell them those gifts cannot be used, because godly women must follow one cookie-cutter “design” for their lives.
When we call into question this deeply-entrenched model of “biblical womanhood,” Kendra and I are not denigrating those who’ve chosen a pathway different than ours; after all, Kendra and I have also chosen diverse paths. When we challenge what we see as a narrow reading of the Bible, we do so grounded in the belief that the Bible is one way God speaks to us, and that scripture offers us freedom and joy and release, not a hardened mold into which many women and men cannot fit. When we call into question the judgment Christians have placed on women who have existed outside the “biblical womanhood” paradigm, we do so because we believe such judgments damage men and women, who feel shame and disgrace because they do not fit the images of womanly perfection that bombard them from ever sector of evangelicalism.
Trust me, I know what such judgment feels like. Here is one such experience: In 2005, when we brought my three-year-old son home from India to join our family (which included another three-year-old son), I had to continue working; our university didn’t have a clearly established family leave policy, and stepping away from my job for awhile wasn’t an option, given the vagaries of academic life. So I kept teaching, trying to parent an out-of-control son who was exhibiting classic orphanage behaviors. I felt the bad mom judgment when I took my sons to the story hour at the local coffee shop, and my youngest ran through the store, removing clothing; and when he climbed on furniture at preschool; and when his teachers suggested he shouldn’t be there. I knew some people believed his bad behavior reflected not three years in an orphanage, but rather my decision to “abandon” my kids so I could jump back into my much more fulfilling career, because I somehow valued my freedom and money more than family. But I was flailing, exhausted, wanting more than anything to make my family whole. And I was filled with shame: my imperfect, messy life—so un-Proverbs 31—was on display for everyone to see.
At that moment, I needed grace more than judgment. And at many subsequent moments since then, I’ve needed a similar grace: Grace that comes with the affirmation for each of our life’s choices and the freedom we have to make them, acknowledging we are all created in God’s image, and that creation can—and should—look different for each of us. Which is one of many reasons why I so dearly cherish my friends, whose families live by different choices than my own and powerfully reflect the image of God to me because of our differences.