Within the past year, one of my husband’s co-workers came up to him jocularly and held up five fingers. Ticking off each finger, he took inventory of my husband’s status. “Well my boy, you’ve got a job, you’ve got a wife, you’ve got a house, you’ve got a dog…” With a loaded silence and stare he then tapped the remaining finger. Well, he can now tap that finger off too, for I am pregnant. At this point, I am very pregnant, with a due date around Easter. The situation is a simultaneous surprise and long-anticipated event. Indeed, it is a surprise precisely because it has been long-anticipated.
I have always been one to shy away from rigid, long-term commitments in expectation of this change. I grew up in the gravitational well of American evangelical fundamentalism and have been told what to expect. But I don’t agree with all I was told, and I don’t know what to expect. As I try to get some vision on what my future might look like, I have to also wrestle with my patterns of hesitancy and acquiescence, and my disagreements with some contexts of my upbringing that will soon have to be proven through application.
There has always been a hidden clause in my life that I am not my own person. It’s not that I’m not the master of my own life, per se; I am still expected to set ambitions, manage my circumstances, and be in general terms not helpless. It is that my life has always been expected to serve one purpose: to create the next generation. Perhaps your knee-jerk reaction to this is “sexism!” in the assumption that this is due to my being female, but that’s not all true. I did not see in my brother’s life any smaller dose of the same messaging. For the American Protestant community that I grew up in, there’s no higher good than raising children. It distresses me that American churches by and large have nothing better for their members to do than birth and raise children. I think a great source of disillusionment young adults have is graduating from the attention and idealism of youth programs to find that the church’s actual vision for them is to restock those programs with another generation. And unless your church systematizes its reproductive cycle like the LDS church with its singles’ wards, many young adults find themselves unable to find standing in a church that keeps expecting of them things over which they don’t have much control. Even if you prove yourself an active, faithful member of your church, you’re constantly being told how crazy it is that you aren’t married yet –and the only reason to care that you aren’t married is that you thus aren’t pro-creating. I don’t see men being exempt from this “duty,” nor do egalitarian churches differ in having the same need. Much of how American Christianity sustains itself is through generational transmission.
Having aired that, it’s tougher on women in certain churches. By the social ordering of “complementarianism” –the belief that men and women are comprehensively different and thus functionally different– women are tasked with the greater load of duty in producing and raising the next generation. This is frustrating because (a) said ideology also frowns upon women taking active steps to fulfill that duty through pursuance of men and (b) an awareness/belief of the greater cost of child-raising keeps women from undertaking deep commitments that might be interrupted. You can have a job (i.e. side-hustle) and a family, but a capital-C Career? Ehhh, be careful, because probably not. The highest identity a woman can have is first a mother, then a wife. (Some might nitpick that the most important identity would be “Christian,” but the community evaluates your Christianity by how you perform these other roles, so I’d say one’s perceived Christian identity is ultimately subject to them.) So beware making commitments that will have to be upset once your family status changes.
And lets not contain the influence of patriarchy to within church walls. Men are secularly obligated to have a career, be a producer, achieve fame and fortune through their wage-slavery to capitalism. Contrary to secular pressure, I find that churches are more critical of the career-man archetype, encouraging men to subject their careers to the needs of their family. However, this is always a blurry topic given that men are also expected to have successful careers in order to provide security for their family. Once you bring in that word “successful” you bring in cultural and, in America’s case, capitalist definitions of “success.” If you aren’t successful, then you aren’t properly providing for your family, and then you perhaps you aren’t really subjecting your career to your family after all. Once you emphasize the importance of careers to men –whether for individual good or some remotely familial good– men’s lives arrange themselves very differently than women’s, often allowing more room for personal satisfaction though also subjecting them to other kinds of self-negating obligation. Feminism has been expanding this pressure/freedom more and more to women too, something I touch upon in my post What Do You Do? Am I glad for this? Sure, but I don’t see any ground gained in freeing men to choose home-making (though it’s encouraging to see more equitable paternity leave on the promotional table). So long as men aren’t allowed to leave public careers, there never will be a proper acknowledgement that historical “women’s work” and the women who still choose it are really valuable. And so long as those things are still undervalued, the patterns set by complementarianism (which is ultimately a euphemism for patriarchy) will still level segregate the lives of men and women into unequal averages.
For me, whether I was duty-bound to have a nuclear family or to “find myself” in class climbing and career was always a moot point. I see in myself someone who is extremely, definitively, categorically average. An oxymoron, I know, but it is a joke of mine that there is no trait in myself that cannot qualified with the suffix “-ish.” Even if I’m not in the center of the bell curve on a trait, I’m still positioned high on the hill. Average-ish, if you will. Given the statistical likelihood of it, I always expected that in my life I’d get married and have children. In my teenage years, at a point when I had the least idea what career I wanted to try for, I once answered the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a wife and mother.” And the questioner –with the gauche feminist good intentions also typical of the era– chided me out for it. She failed to understand that what I said wasn’t a real expression of desire but a resignation to probability. Becoming a wife and mother was not actually something I aimed for because –and I can’t impress this enough– I never saw it as something you could aim for. A prudent person –one who does not throw themself into the family way at any opportunity no matter how unwise the details– has very little control over when they will be able to start a family. It takes two, after all, and not just any one-plus-one will do. By the complementarian ideal in which the only way for a woman to actively pursue this duty is through passive attraction of the right kind of man, that control dwindles to near nil. I just trusted the statistics that such would happen for me anyways.
Beyond resignation, there also was a self awareness that I like domesticity. The idea of having and raising children, and staying home to do so, was not something I was resentful of or resistant to. I would even say I have a passion for home-making. “Home economics” is a very good term, even if trivialized by its form in schools (if present at all). As with many people who have grown up secure from the real need for money, I never felt I needed money. In my privilege, I’m even entertained and esteem-boosted by the condition of making do. So I did not feel the need to pick a high-powered, capital-creating, life-fulfilling career. Neither did I have the passion for any particular field or area that I felt called to commit my life to. I was satisfied to pick the kind of pink-collar work that I could more lightly slip in and out of should the statistically likely happen.
The First Wait
Of course all that up there? Ideology, and as I said ideology was for a long time a moot point for me. Except for one youthful relationship which I prudently ended, I had no prospects for a long time. The only thing I felt I could actively do was to renounce marriage and family and devote myself to a celibate life. Being protestant, though, there wasn’t really a viable way for me to do that meaningfully. My community would have constantly undercut me and disregarded the commitment with rolled eyes and the cheek that I just hadn’t found the right man yet (or rather, been found by the right man and discernfully accepted him). Nor would it have given me any other meaningful commitments. Any work I did in a complementarian church could be ripped away from me at any moment by a man who felt remotely qualified to take over or challenged by my accomplishments. I’ve seen it happen to my mom time and again, wherein her only recourse is to find another man with the power to advocate for her. Short of fleeing overseas on some mission, there was no way to be a celibate and get treated seriously, and also very limited ways for me to function in my community. Plus, I didn’t feel secure enough to make life long celibacy a real commitment anyways. I wanted companionship. And yes, St. Paul, I wanted sex. I am my body, my body is sexual, and there was a physical and emotional toll to denying it. So I never shook off that statistical likelihood that I would, eventually, be a wife and mother.
This did have a toll on my ability to make commitments. My ambition was subtly hampered by waiting for the nigh inevitable. I felt unable to make strong, rigid commitments for fear that I’d have to abandon them. I followed the college benchmarks expected of my social class in stints: associates, bachelors, masters. Each phase was something I could do and finish within the reasonable timeframe of a romantic relationship. The specialties I chose (public music education and private piano) could be resolved in a short period of time or downgrade to a lighter commitment. Then the likely did happen during my graduate program. I met my husband and we married after I graduated, so I never had to directly face the question of commitments. If marriage hadn’t happened, I probably would’ve fled to some cause overseas to escape the waste of a life spent waiting, and the pressures of a community that had no more radical vision for me to live up to.
Then something odd happened: we didn’t conceive for years. No known reason. And in my mind, I began to wonder if I finally had my anomaly. Was I actually… infertile? For all my life I’d been resigned to the normalcy of having children, counting on the cost to my body and time and energy, hesitant to commit to anything that might have to be sacrificed to that. But to be infertile was to be abnormal in a way that I was not accountable for, and I had no intention of going through treatments to fight it. There was a glimmer of freedom there, a freedom to really commit to something. People in the know felt concerned that I was stressed or sad or angry at my lack of children, but that didn’t feel true to me at all. I was growing excited, almost relieved at the start of each cycle to be proven abnormal yet again. I started thinking about what my life would be like without the cost of motherhood. Could I return to school and develop my Quran project into something truly academic? Could we give up all the security we’d prepared for children to participate in some radical cause? Could we take on the role of foster parents, and undertake the trauma of hurt and lost children?
Turns out I’m infertile…ish. Even as I struggled with my insurance company to get birth control in order, I was pregnant. The news was surprising but not unwelcome. My wait for motherhood and its pattern of hesitancy was over. Were also my alternative ambitions?
The Second Wait
I grew up under complementarianism. Maybe not to the extremes of the ideology –my family circumstances and history wouldn’t allow that– but well educated in its axioms and arguments. It didn’t fully resonate with me. As I touched upon in One of the Guys, I never felt like I was different from boys. Most of the protagonists in my books, games, and movies were men, and if I related so much to them how could I really be all that different? But I did agree that my female body made children much more costly to me. This would become even more important to me as I grew more connected to my body through my study of music, and as I connected through experience the way my physical condition impacted my mental condition. Regardless of my disbelief in the complementarian viewpoint that women –but not men– naturally have the emotional and intuitive skills to raise children, I cannot deny what will be demanded of my body and what that is going to do to me mentally as well.
Having children is the first thing I do that is going to truly cost me something. Getting married didn’t cost me anything. Our marriage is exceedingly harmonious and easy, and I’ve only had gain from it. I don’t have the remotest doubt that children will not come so easily. I know too much about the struggles of women in poverty, can’t even imagine the life of single parenthood, have watched the drain on my friends and family with children, and seen all the nannies hired in the affluent neighborhood to my north. It’s not that I expect my life to end when I have children, or that I don’t think I’ll get reward from it, it’s just that I don’t know what it will look like. How much energy and attention will I have leftover from what I give my child?
Pregnancy has been costly to me already, and I’m having a veeerrry easy pregnancy. The greatest toll is lots of fatigue, combined with lots of insomnia, which has disrupted my productivity. As a homemaker who justifies my profession with regular progress in my projects, including this blog, that has been a hard blow to my esteem. It makes me worry about what is going to come. I know that the work will get lighter/easier/different as the child gets older, but I also don’t want to live those years without any progress in the things important to me, nor to I want to rush time in order to return to them. I always feel the irreclaimability of time, and always agonize about how I’m spending it. I don’t want to wait for parenting to end before I add real commitments into my life.
Even though I’ve moved beyond complementarianism, I still am programmed with the guilt that there is no such thing as putting too much effort into your children. It’s not a complementarian guilt or even a distinctly Christian one. What society in the world doesn’t answer –when asked “what can I do for my children?”– with “More!”? And under that pressure, what kind of commitments can you undertake as a parent? I see a social cost to this unconditional devotion to children, and I also see its failure. The homeschooling community is chock full of parents who believe that if they have control over their children’s information, emotions, health, and behavior, then they can create the child of their dreams. They pour themselves fully into their children and seek to do more, more, more. Again and again I’ve seen that fail.
So I’m worried, and I’m waiting to see what will be demanded of me as a parent. I don’t want my second wait to be waiting for the child to grow up, lest I get to the end of my life and find the only work I can present to God is that I raised children –a thing almost everyone else does with just as much good intention and effort as me. Nor do I want a life for which the value is dependent upon the accomplishments of my children. I can neither ultimately control who my children will be, nor should my life be on their shoulders. I want to finish my projects and affect my present world for the better. And in being Christian, I feel called to do something more radical than just sustain my own comfort and vaguely feel I’ve done no harm, a compromise that the role of parenting can easily lead you into.
And that’s what I’ll write about next week, God willing. I’ve grown up in an American Christianity wherein child raising has been centered upon as the Christian mission. But is that really what I’m called to do? If it’s not, how do I live up to my mission and still do my best as a parent?