I grew up in a conservative family, in a conservative church. Most of the moms I knew didn’t work, and most of them homeschooled their kids–the rest sent them to private schools. I can only think of a single friend in elementary school who went to public school. My mom loved homeschooling, and she genuinely wanted to have a large family, she says it was her calling. I never felt like she was unhappy or chafing at the boundaries of her existence, so I kind of assumed that I’d follow in her footsteps–because it’s all I knew, and it was a worthy life’s work. I agree with the primary values behind my parents’ decision to homeschool: having your kids close to you, having a strong family dynamic, and allowing plenty of time for free play. Other factors probably included being afraid of what we might be taught outside the home, because I believe a lot of conservative Christians tend to be fear-based in their decisions of how to parent. Overall, though, it was a truly positive experience, and my parents grew as they went, becoming more flexible where it was warranted.
Once I had kids, though, I quickly began to feel like I was, well, not my mother. I definitely did not want to keep having kids. As much as I wished I could, because traditional schooling seems like a colossal misuse of time, I couldn’t imagine homeschooling them. I also wasn’t like some of the other moms I knew, who liked playing with their kids more, or doing crafts, or throwing cool birthday parties. None of them acted like motherhood was all make-believe and glitter or anything, I just had zero interest in those things and even found them painfully boring. I spent a while feeling horrible about this. Then Matthew finally convinced me that for me to be healthy I needed to work outside the home. He was perceptive, and right.
In typical fashion, when I realized I didn’t need to be or do all those things, I figured I wasn’t maternal in any way and therefore wouldn’t stay at home at all. I also felt the pressure of the all-or-nothing mindset I absorbed growing up. I don’t know if the things I believed were taught explicitly, if they were just implicit in the culture around me, or if my anxiety turned it into something more (probably some happy cocktail of all three) but I felt like if you weren’t doing God’s will, you were outside of God’s will–like there were just those two options. Redundant, but scary. If you weren’t being obedient to him or whoever was in charge, you were probably outside of his will. Also scary. I felt so much anxiety from internalized pressure to want to stay home and care for my kids that I couldn’t help but swing to the other extreme when I first began to consider what it looks like for me to be a mom. To be a person, really. I thought about going to law school. I guessed I’d work full time. I had trouble reconciling the dreams I’d had for my family and the nonconforming life I’d imagined as a college student with the person I felt like I was now (thanks, anxiety!).
Complicating my feelings further, even though the church I attended for most of my adult life is much less socially conservative than the one I grew up in (there’s alcohol at church functions! the pastor smokes cigars sometimes! an elder said “shit!”), it was still tricky for me to figure out where I belonged. There are lots of moms who didn’t work, plenty who homeschooled, some who worked full time, all of which I knew were valid yet still I wrestled. In the years I worked there, I was told I was being blinded by ambition, that I was railroading over my husband’s desires so I could work more. I was told to smile when I was leading worship. I was told by a man who wasn’t even my boss that I should not wear a particular outfit on Sunday.
The hardest part about those things was that they were all said by people who are lovely, genuinely lovely. People who care about me and about the church. The only way I can reconcile it is to realize they were all influenced by extremely narrow perceptions about what it means to be a woman in general, and even more what it means to be a godly Christian woman. That we’re supposed to be these nurturing, helpful, gentle people who assist our husbands and sweetly care for our children. That we’re designed to be maternal, and that, generally speaking, it looks a certain specific way.
I’m realizing now that I am maternal in the same way that I always was, even as a 19 year old college student. I am passionate about caring for people, about knowing their hearts and bringing them into meaningful community. I want them to understand their motivations and I want to call them to the life they were meant to lead. I want systemic justice, for the church and the world to be called to account and be better, for my children and others’. I am maternal, and so is God. I am a woman who is uniquely made by God to speak truth powerfully and care for people. The external trappings may and/or may not look the same as generally prescribed, but social norms in and out of the church do not determine what it means to be a woman called by God, and they never have.
I am learning what it looks like for me to live out of that truth. Right now it means recognizing that I do have a heart for my little children, and connecting with them in the way I was uniquely made to do. It means finding ways to use my leadership abilities in the work place and in the home. It means prayerfully considering what it means to be a woman in the church, and what it looks like for me to use the voice God has given me. It means freedom.