Two things strike me after listening to the NPR segment you mentioned between Alice and Nina Rossi, as well as the humorous song you referenced (“Daughters of Feminists”), and the grievous story of Rebecca and Alice Walker’s estrangement.
The first is that the process of differentiating from one’s mother is complicated for anyone, as you said. Add to that a mother who does not fit gender norms, or a mother who has neglected you for her work, and the process of differentiation might look a lot like rebellion. Grown children will understandably need to process their anger. From the perspective of the 4-year-old, it does not matter the importance of the work the mother is doing; what matters is that the child felt alone, and just might carry those insecurities his/her whole life. Rebecca Walker’s honest words clearly show the deep pain and neglect she experienced, though I think it is not fair for her to apply her experience across the board.
The second issue that arises for me as I read your letter is a reiteration of a thought I posted in my last letter to you: where are the fathers in these discussions of failed parenting? Why is the expectation seemingly only on the mothers? (In fact, Alice addresses this very question with her daughter Nina.)
Even as I heard the stories about Rebecca Walker and Nina Rossi, I am reminded again that we cannot live in an either/or world. The options must not be either we go back to the 1950’s “traditional” (and, yes, very middle class) view of parenting, or we neglect and harm our children. We have too much creativity as men and women to not work for a more balanced view of partnerships, families, and work.
But, I am not really sure at this point in my life how anyone—man or woman— balances caring well for their families with their desire to work for social justice or beautiful art or medical advancement. (And again, I know there are many moms who don’t have the privilege of not going to work, and who may not go to work to carry out their dreams but to pay their rent and meet basic needs. I don’t want to have this conversation and not acknowledge those realities.)
What I am Hearing Today
This morning, I just finished up listening to excerpts of a few sermons on gender roles and parenting. You must wonder why I do this to myself! (Sometimes, I wonder, too.) But, a friend of mine had told me about one sermon in particular, and I wanted to eavesdrop on the conversation. I was particularly interested in the ends of the sermons, where people can “text” their questions to the pastor and then be given live answers.
For my purposes here, I don’t want to name the pastor who gave the sermons I listened to, but I will say that he is one of the most influential Christian leaders in America right now, and tens of thousands of people listen to his podcasts. I am for the most part familiar with his theology (women submit to men, men are called to have authority and leadership, mothers are called only to the home, etc.).
In light of our recent exchange of letters on the topic, though, I found myself listening more and more not just for the theology, but rather the psychology behind the words of this pastor. What was apparent to me in terms of the psychology of his sermons is that the world is black and white. Men and women must maintain their “biblically” distinct roles (women inside the home, men outside the home). You can either believe this man’s interpretation of the Bible or be deceived by Satan. You will either be blessed by following this man’s interpretation of the Bible, or you will suffer pain, divorce, and “bad” families and marriages because you will be following the ways of the “world.”
One person “texted” during the end-of -sermon Q & A time and asked if it was OK for a father to stay home with his kids while his wife worked outside the home if she wanted to; or whether it was OK for both to work outside the home if they needed to. The pastor shamed stay-at-home dads and told them they were not “men” and that a wife could not respect a husband who does not “provide” for his family. “Provide,” apparently, only means monetary provision. There were no questions asked about whether the couples might have made their decisions mutually and with thoughtful reflection. No, these stay-at-home dads were simply not “men.” (Isn’t shame such a powerful tool in creating these gender constructs?) In fact, that pastor went so far as to say that such men are liable to church discipline. It is one thing to call men to be responsible; it is another to have such a narrowly defined view of what that looks like, and to threaten that a man who didn’t comply with that view would be kicked out of a church.
The pastor went on to say that he is not “legalistic” and in extreme situations, like the sickness of the father, a man would not be in “sin” for not working outside the home.
As I continued to listen to such a narrow construction of reality, my stomach felt like I had swallowed a lead weight. My entire being felt this terrible, tightening sense of restriction, as though parts of me would have to be violently cut off to fit this black and white world. This pastor was charming, authoritative, and sincere. I could see the seductiveness of his message. He was essentially saying (my paraphrase here), “You can be on God’s side. You can do this all right and have a good marriage and a good family. You just need to follow what God says.” Only, what “God says” is really what he, the pastor, says, because he fails to acknowledge that he is a fallible human being interpreting Scripture.
What We Fear
What struck me about the kind of paradigm the pastor presented is that there are not very many choices to make. If the world is “either/or,” there are fewer opportunities to mature as you navigate the grey. When gender constructs are black and white, your primary job is to adapt yourself, not ask yourself who you really and truly and authentically are. After all, the basic prototype is already there for you.
The existentialist psychologists and philosophers like to remind us that we as humans deeply fear or own freedom. When I first studied existentialism, I thought this was hogwash. Fear my own freedom? I love my own freedom! What were they talking about, anyway? I think I have only recently started to understand what it means to fear freedom and harbor a subconscious bent to just follow prescriptions.
When I listened to these sermons this morning, I realized again the profound weight of responsibility I must embrace if I do not conform to someone else’s expectations of who I am. If I am making my choices, I am the one responsible to care well for myself as I also care well for others. I must seek the balance. I must have the courage to be who I am, even as I seek to be a good friend, sister, mom, daughter. And in the midst of that freedom, sometimes we fail. When I heard the story about Alice Walker, in particular, it is hard to deny that there were profound failures in her relationship with her daughter.
Mother and Daughter Relationships
Letha, when you discussed the very public problems between certain feminist mothers and daughters, I thought to myself, “These problems make perfect sense!” When pastors are preaching these sermons and putting the entire parenting responsibility on women; when people who resist such messages are pioneering something new; and when most of society is not set-up well to allow for couples to truly share caregiving responsibilities, we are set up for some rocky cultural transitions. Add to that the fact that men are not typically valued enough as nurturers or expected to do an equal part with household chores, we will certainly see some significant issues arise as women try to balance both careers and families.
And yet, what is at stake if we don’t press on to more creative, equal views of partnerships? What happens when men and women are not given the freedom to ask thoughtful questions about who they are and their unique callings in life?
I think the harm of trying to adapt to a gender stereotype gets carried deep within a man or woman. I have several friends who are practicing therapists, and they see every day in their offices Christian women who must effectively dissociate and lose their own voices as they do their best to adapt to expectations.
OK, that’s all my angst for now! Thanks again for your letters, thoughts, and perspectives, and letting me process these rather complex topics with you. (And to our readers, I love your stories and comments, so please feel free to keep sharing them!)