The following article was published in longer form in the Autumn 2012 edition of Mutuality Magazine. Micah is 7 now, and I will be posting an update on our endeavor in a future post.
“God is a woman,” my son, Micah, announced one day last summer when he was still 3. Then he added, “You can see Mama, but you can’t see God.” My husband had just explained that it was God who made the peas we were shelling in the shade of our tree. Intrigued by Micah’s response, I assumed he associated my love and closeness to the feelings of warmth and care he experiences from God.
How long will his reverence for me and my Super Powers last? I ask myself sometimes, now that Micah is 4 and has had another year to glean information about God and gender from American culture. The other day Micah was stringing an old computer cable down the stairs. When he reached the kitchen, he said to me, “I’m glad a guy did that and not a woman!” Dismayed, I asked him to repeat what he had said. He looked down, sensing he had something I didn’t like, and replied, “I’m glad Mama cuddles me.” I saw a 4-year old boy again and not another sexist man. So I gently reminded him that women can do all the jobs he admires.
You have to understand that this is a feminist household. I have written a book meant to bring healing to women hurt by the church, and my husband teaches feminist philosophy at a Christian university. At just 2, Micah had heard enough of our discussions to shout, “No more feminism!” My husband asked, “Do you want to know what feminism is?” Micah said, “Micah doesn’t want to know!”
But we do want Micah to know a few important things about women and men. So, my husband and I have carefully selected the words we use with our son. One day our little tyke said “he or she…” instead of “he” to represent a person, and we smiled at each other with parental pride. Other words, like “mankind,” and “craftsman” we change to “humankind” and “craftsperson.” We try to avoid giving God a gendered pronoun, although neither of us finds it easy. The wonder to me is that God is (or was, for one bright summer afternoon) a woman in his mind, and not the Man Upstairs.
With regard to other cultural values about gender, we take creative risks. We let him buy pink sweats and wear them when he wants to. His favorite toothbrushes feature the cartoon Hello Kitty. And we have bought him dolls and pink doll houses. He has always loved the houses, but admittedly, not the dolls. But he does loves decorating and gardening. He stands up on a stool to help Dad make breakfast most days, and he enjoys vacuuming the house.
We have done our best to give our son the freedom to develop into who he is, rather than pushing him to develop into a gender role. Knowing this, you would think our family would look less traditional than it does. My husband and I both grew up with Happy Days messages and models of what moms do and what dads do. To our own embarrassment, we default to these learned behaviors. One day last year as I was getting Micah settled in his car seat to go on a Home Depot trip, he said, “Mom will stay home, because someone has to clean the house!” I am a “Stay at Home Mom,’ which does bring that old 50s show Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver to mind. I do clean the house more than my husband does, but not without periodic re-negotiations. I am not particularly handy with a drill or table saw, though I have used both. All of this sends a message: Moms clean the house and nurture the children; dads take you to the hardware store. And this from two feminist parents.
But the fact is that Micah seems to need me intensely right now, and that is why I’m at home with him. I would like to have some clearly non-sexist explanation for Micah’s strong mom-preference. But I guess I should just accept my Super Powers, knowing that someday they will wane and I will return to a humdrum Lois Lane status. I’ll rejoin the respectable “work force” when my son needs me less, and my husband and I will be able to model more equal co-parenting.
If we have made any other mistakes with regard to passing on our egalitarian values, it would be allowing Micah to watch too many DVDs that promote gender stereotypes. If we have made any real gains, it’s because we do not have access to television shows. And yet, I know that avoiding TV won’t make sexism go away. I can steer him, at age 4, away from the images that objectify women and are placed at a child’s eye level in the supermarket check-out lanes. But he will be 14 in just a decade, and by then he will have absorbed many sexist assumptions about girls and women. He will have observed them treated as sex objects, many times, on the cover of magazines, in advertising, on the internet, perhaps from his friends, and of course, when he finds people who will let him watch their television. But I hope that a little boy who intuits the feminine aspects of an omnipotent God and understands the powerful nature of a mother, has the seed within him to become a man who respects women as human beings. With God’s grace, as the seed grows, I trust we too will grow into better models of what it means to be completely human.
I will start this tale with a confession: I have never liked housework. My husband would rather read or write than dust, too, but for some reason that isn’t confession material. I started my marriage with a commitment to fairness. I would do no more housework than he did. We went weeks without cleaning the bathroom, or mopping the kitchen. Yes, I would have liked it cleaner, but my principles drove me. We had a rotating schedule for doing the dishes, which we adhered to, and everything else went to pot.
We began to discuss cleaning after our son was born. We now had a family member around who spent a lot of time close to the floor; our choices affected him, not just us. Exchanges went like this:
“I do too sweep the floor!”/”When was the last time?” or even
“No one cares about a clean floor!”/*silent wrath & ire*
Sometimes we negotiated but it would never really last. I had no idea why.
I think, now, that things got muddled around the term Stay At Home Mom (which I became), because part of my job description is to clean the house. Marion Cunningham said so (a la Happy Days). Well, I sort of bought that for a while (I grew up watching Happy Days, after all), but my job was hard enough as it was, just being responsible for the well-being of a child, and my own well-being. Boring, repetitive tasks that used two brain cells wore on me, and the underlying societal assumption that I was uniquely qualified for such tasks diluted my self-esteem. Finally one day, during one of those discussions, I said, to myself more than any one, “My JOB is taking care of our son!” (my husband had never actually said my job was also to clean). That was when it crystallized for me; I was not unpaid house labor no matter what my title implied.
The author of Lazy Husbands: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. notes that our confusion on this issue comes from comparing ourselves to other women and men. Women look at other women, including our mothers (think 1950s) and if we are doing less than they are, we figure we should do more. Men compare themselves to other men, like their own fathers, and find themselves looking quite good. And it’s absolutely true of my husband that he shines bright. From day one, he has prioritized our son: diapering, stroller-ing, feeding, reading books, he has done it all. He uses his handyperson skills as needed and teaches them to me as well. He does occasional jobs I don’t like, such as taking the pets to the vet. He grocery-shops regularly and bakes pies. And when he tackles the dishes, he tackles them—not a single pot is left in the sink (whereas I say “let them soak”). And if you compared me to those 1950s women, to the current “Retro Wives” who can tomatoes and sew clothes, and to all the women who work full-time jobs and then put in 20 plus hours of housework a week, you’d have to say I need help with time management. And so, in light of those positives that make him look great compared to our idea of what other men are doing, and my homemaking imperfections that make me look like I am The Anti-Betty Crocker, we can end up with household unfairness. He looks great, and I am the one not doing enough. It’s easy to buy into those comparisons and not really try for equality.
For me, I finally realized defensive discussions were never going to get anywhere. What I needed was better boundaries. The reason I felt so uncomfortable when people would come to the house and there were dust bunnies running under foot, was that, as Coleman points out, people still look to the Woman as Keeper of the Hearth. If they are going to judge at all, then people judge me for a messy house even though other people live here, too. And if *all* I do is stay at home, why aren’t I cleaning the house? Lazy Wife Syndrome, they must suppose. She watches soap operas (we don’t have cable). She is spending all her time eating Godiva chocolates and reading novels (sounds good, but no). She is depressed (no because I take fish oil and exercise). Coleman is the first person in print I have read to point out the judgment placed on Women-Who-Don’t –Clean-The-House-Well-Enough. And that was so freeing to realize it is REAL. I am not imagining it. My shame is societally induced.
And so, though I can’t completely get rid of that shame, I can see it for what it is. I can choose to live as though it doesn’t exist. I now prioritize my writing over housework. For me, that is “showing up for life,” as author Anne Lamott encouraged in one of her recent Facebook posts. Portland author Ariel Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead) says she puts in no more than one hour of cleaning a day. So, inspired by them, I have to actively let the house accumulate dirt some days. Other days, I delegate. Other people in the house choose their priorities, too, though. As I write, the kitchen floor needs mopping and there are dishes in the sink. But you know what? This same week, I wrote an essay that was immediately accepted for publication in a magazine I respect. That’s two in one month. So, I can live with our current standards. Just don’t come by the house without calling first.
When I was in seminary at Regent College, a man named Ron [not his real name] who was both homosexual and married to a woman came to speak to us in a class on Gender and Sexuality. At the time, Leanne Payne, an author who writes about inner healing prayer, predominated my thinking about homosexuality. It was a result of brokenness. It could be, should be, healed. I said this to Ron in a small gathering of students. Ron, never defensive, invited me for coffee in the Regent atrium, where he shared his story. As a Christian, he had decided to try to be celibate, and he had married his wife who was disabled and whom he cared for. But he wanted Christians to understand something important: he didn’t choose homosexuality, any more than any one chooses heterosexuality. It was not something he could be healed of, any more than a heterosexual person could be healed of heterosexuality. He asked me a simple question which at the time dinged off my defenses, but which stayed with me over the years as I reflected on this issue. It was, “What did you think of the slide presentation by Dr. Hui?” Edwin Hui, MD, is a professor who taught on bioethical issues at Regent. He had nothing to say about his views on homosexuality and the Bible. He just showed slides of a variety of chromosomal combinations—way more than I thought possible– which could result in varying sexual orientations. Ding. I saw the slides, heard the question, but they were meaningless due to my armored belief that homosexuality was a result of wounds from childhood.
But I considered my theology at Regent to be incarnational. Meaning, embodied. I needed to know people, to encounter the people I discussed and thought about ethically. Those people would provide the needed lens to read the Bible well. So, I was choosing to live near Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside where my neighbors would teach me good theology by letting me get to know them. One of the people I met was Jan [not her real name], who had had sex change surgery a few years earlier. She had engaged in prostitution in the past and so I wanted to interview her for a paper I was writing on ministry to sex trade workers. She invited me to her Downtown Eastside apartment to talk. When I introduced myself, she smiled slyly and said Susan had been her street name. We became friends for a time. She was a warm extrovert who sometimes came off as a kindly uncle type; the deep voice couldn’t be diminished by hormones. She said even though she had to have the surgery to feel comfortable with herself, it wasn’t a perfect choice, not a perfect fit. It was a hard life, too. Jan came to church with me a few times, but wasn’t exactly readily accepted. And the church usually welcomed a variety of people—those with schizophrenia, with disabilities like obesity or brain damage, people with addictions. But sexuality was a different matter. They didn’t reject Jan, but they ignored her.
Small dent, you could say, in my defenses. I was learning through people like Paul and Jan who were living what I was discussing. Would Jan really have chosen to go through all she had? Or, could she have been healed if she had only had properly trained inner healing pray-ers? And, what if she didn’t want healing in the inner healing prayer way? That kind of prayer is intense even for long-time Christians. My usual answers were getting a little fuzzier, like those chromosomes on the slides.
After I graduated from Regent, I read the book, Middlesex, intrigued by the title and subject matter. In that book, I met more people; fictional, yes, but possible still, due to the research behind the book. The main character of the book, Cal, is a hermaphrodite due to a genetic condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. Cal lives as a girl through her teen years, as the condition brings out feminine traits. Her condition is eventually discovered by the medical establishment, and they attempt to do genital surgery on her which she evades by running away. Cal decides to live as a man in his new life. Meeting Cal brought those chromosomal slides to mind once again. Sexual variety can be a biological reality. I finally got it.
In the first years of a doctoral program in clinical psychology, I eventually learned about the brain’s plasticity in regard to sexuality. Sexuality is inborn; it is also learned and shaped through our experiences. So, I do not reject the idea that a man or woman could receive healing from experiences that shaped sexuality in unwanted ways, whether homosexual or heterosexual. That’s a reality, too.
Speaking of heterosexual, let’s name the elephant in the room. Heterosexual people, heterosexual Christians, many of whom who are vocal about the sinfulness of homosexuality, are only finding new ways to reshape heterosexuality in unhelpful ways. A thousand Christians were surveyed about pornography use in 2007; half of the men and 20 percent of the women confessed to a pornography addiction. In 2003, 30 percent of 6000 pastors surveyed confessed to having viewed porn in the previous month. And that was ten years ago; wonder what it’s like now?
Yet pornography viewing is no litmus test for ordination or Christian ministry. What people do in front of their own computers is kind of thought to be their own business, just by virtue of the fact that no one asks. Heterosexual sins just seem more “okay”, somehow, even though no one would condone them outright. But the tiny minority of people with other sexual orientations are often looked at as choosing to live in sin and so are inappropriate for ministry. Or are ignored if they show up at church and are obviously sexually different. That’s the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus liked to point out in the gospels.
Back to me. I am now living far from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, ten years hence. I live in a suburb where people tend to all look alike, on the surface anyway, and sexual orientation is not up for discussion. I continue to need to grow further in my incarnational theology by simply knowing people like Paul, Jan and Cal and hearing their stories. Can any of you help me by suggesting books to read or people to encounter?
My husband and I like to watch 70s sitcoms—Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Bob Newhart, The Golden Girls. They make us laugh, and the historical references from the 1970s fascinate us. One of the obvious relics on the shows is the fact that the women on the shows are “girls” no matter their age. Well, this would have been a relic in the 1990s. But now it is strangely familiar. For the past decade, women have become girls again—and, even, ladies. She’s a [noun] + girl has become a part of everyday language. There is a series of popular books for women called The Girlfriends Guides, and even a cable show about twenty-something women called Girls. You can find two magazines on the Internet called Girlfriends, and one called Girlfriendz for boomer women. And on meetup.com in Portland you can join a “Ladies’” book club. While not denoting eternal childhood, “ladies” suggests frailty, otherness, rather than humanness. What is this language trend about? Is it a meaningless cultural shift, like dressing retro or wearing a 50s style apron?
I think some real changes have occurred in how women think about women. In grad school in the early 80s, my husband was told that men should never call women “girls.” But now, women themselves are viewing themselves as opposite to men in every way, including in maturity. In the 21st century, it is women calling each other “girls” more than men using the term girls (though notice strip clubs always advertise Girls ,Girls, Girls, never Women, Women, Women). Popular books that describe men and women as different species have somehow made this language shift seem okay (think Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus). The evangelical Christian subculture loves books on gender that encourage polarity (Wild at Heart, and Captivating); men hunt, women wait at the door in negligees. The toy industry tells our children that boys love violent images like skulls and girls love anything soft and pink. While meta-analyses of gender studies in psychology conclude there is little one can say definitively about someone based only on their sex, popular culture hasn’t heard this yet, and really doesn’t want to.
I note the resistance every time I bring this issue up. Women—not men–get angry at me for it. They want to keep their girlfriends and do girl-things. I think a kind of Girls’ Club has developed around certain stereotyped interests, like French manicures. But I also think that, on the positive side, women value certain qualities about themselves that are stereotypically female. They value their relationship-centeredness and their ability to share with each other on a deeper level. These values have become associated with the term “girlfriend” and so the word itself has become sacred, like our friendships. Can we look at the word “girl” more closely, though, with a little bit of distance?
It seems to me that we women increasingly accept that the idea that the way we look reflects on our worth as women. And we want to look young. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and even Ladies Home Journal both reflect that desire, and reinforce it. Though few would admit it, the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” speaks for many women, feminist or not, in 2013:
When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curls
I float as the clouds on air do
I enjoy being a girl
Pedicure culture is an example. Even fifteen years ago, women didn’t get pedicures regularly. Now it is almost obscene to wear flip flops without shiny toe nails and smoothed heels, as though you just walked off the shelf of the girls’ section of the toy store. Spa culture has spread, as well, as though being pampered is all about primping.
While many women may enjoy nail polish, facials and Brazilian Blow-outs as an art form, or expensive fun, or as something to talk about or do with friends, many men see our values and behavior as an invitation to be viewed as inferior objects of consumption. We are screaming, “Women are just girls. We are inferior to you, and our lives are all about pleasing you with our beauty.” The recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony is an example. The disparaging comments about accomplished women were shocking, but somehow made possible by all the culture’s hyper-focus on women’s bodies, clothes and faces.
Many men may assume all the effort to stay eternally young and girl-like is all about sex—with them. And seeing ourselves as just girls may be affecting our ability to say what we do or do not want when it comes to sex. The cable show “Girls” may be an example of this. Apparently one of the last episodes had a near-rape scene in it. What was willing sex the first time became highly ambivalent sex the next time with a drunk, pushy, inconsiderate jerk. The online discussion about whether or not it was rape is a healthy one, because these scenes likely get played out over and over again in “hook-up culture” where “girls” do not feel empowered to say what they want. Why didn’t the main character, Hannah, say, “See ya!” instead of following the guy’s directions to do what she didn’t want to do? It is always important to consider that she feared for her physical safety, feared that pushy sex would become rape .
Yet , I think that eternal girlhood is one more thing keeping some of us feeling powerless when it comes to a man’s desire for sex. Without thinking about it, Hannah lives the reality of an obedient child. Hannah probably spent hours picking the perfect outfit, polishing her toes, shaving her legs and arm pits (and where did that girl-like cultural expectation come from?), applying make-up and blow-drying her hair for this abusive date. And so somehow it made a little more sense than it might have if she was not trying so hard to please, to go back to this guy’s apartment even though he was drunk and already not-so-nice, and to do exactly what he told her to do.
I think it is time for women to think about what it means to be a “girl” at 25, 35, or 45. Do we really want eternal youth and beauty, including the immaturity, incompetence, obedience and powerlessness associated with childhood? Let’s make a start in changing a sexist culture by refusing to call ourselves, or any other woman, a “girl” or a “girlfriend” or even a “gal.” We can hang out with our friends, or BFFs, and keep the relationships we so highly value. And we can have fun, but forget the Valley Girl, Party Girl, Spa Girl talk. Let’s be the real, all grown-up human beings that we are. Maybe that will help the men around us grow up a little, too.
Are Vacuuming Men Really a Turn-off? A Closer Look at the Study, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” in American Sociological Review, Feb. 2013
At the end of January, many popular news websites were quick to report that men who do “women’s work” get less sex. Titles like“Want to Have More Sex? Men, Stop Helping with the Chores,” “Does Female Housework Make Men Less Sexy?”and“Husbands Who Do ‘Her’ Chores Have Less Sex,” abounded, making it seem like men had better “put down their vacuums and pull out their lawn mowers,” and fast. However, as usual with any scientific study upon which popular articles are based, there is more to look at than a provocative title suggests.
Most of these articles do mention the fact that this study contradicts previous research with opposite outcomes. This is important because the data used in the February 2013 study is 20 years old. The authors of the study in the American Sociological Review acknowledge the importance of the age of the data, but conclude that “given the durability of some features of marriage, including the gendered division of labor” the researchers “suspect our results would still hold despite the time that has passed since the data were collected.” That is a big leap of faith for scientists.
In fact, just one year earlier, yahoo.com reported this: “Men Who Do Housework Have More Sex,” and quoted a 2008 study commissioned by the US Council of Contemporary Families that, in fact, men benefit in several ways, including sexually, from doing traditional household chores like cooking and cleaning. Another article on the same 2008 study reported, “Psychologist Joshua Coleman, a senior Council fellow, said sharing household chores ‘is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction—and sometimes more sex, too’. He said: ‘Wives report greater feelings of sexual interest and affection for husbands who participate in housework.’”
Neil Cheithik conducted a randomized national telephone survey of 288 men for his 2006 book, VoiceMail: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment. He defined housework as “inside and outside responsibilities (not including paid work) that contribute to keeping up the home.” What he found was: “…the actual frequency of sex tends to be higher when a woman feels that the housework is divided fairly.” His study can’t tell us how women perceive fairness. However, it has been noted in other recent studies that wives spend twice as much time on housework as husbands, on average. In Cheithik’s survey (taken in 2003-2004), housework was the third most contentious issue for married couples. Fairness in housework was under discussion, and when it was worked out, it mattered for a couple’s sex life. This is likely a more true-to-the-times message than “it turns women on when you change the oil but not when you sweep the kitchen.”
Beyond the fact that 20 year old data is likely irrelevant today, it is interesting there is an assumption that it matters whether or not men have sex 1.6 times more often in a month. Okay, maybe it matters to sociologists. But is sex really so important to the average married man that they would pull less of their weight around the house to get—maybe, on average—one and a half more rolls in the hay per month? (I would say something like “love-making sessions” but the approach of the media is to turn even married sex into a commodity). I’d hate to think that about men, but the popular media assumes this is true.
Another important question is the attitudes of the women who were engaging in more sex with the husbands who were doing only more of the traditionally male chores. Were the women more likely to submit to sexual pressure due to beliefs about women’s roles? Were the men pushier due to those same beliefs? The University of Washington researchers wondered about this too, but noticed that the women whose husbands did more traditionally male chores also had higher levels of sexual satisfaction. But did the women’s traditional values include an unquestioned assumption that “satisfying” sex means pleasing their husbands sexually, and rarely saying “No”? It’s quite possible, but the study didn’t ask.
A final question to ask is, does sexual satisfaction equal marital satisfaction for men and women? The study could not answer that question either. But what we do know is, sex sells, and so a study that added little to the public’s understanding of gender relations in 2013, and possibly did some harm, was exploited to its fullest by the popular media.