The major ministry to which I’m devoting my life at the moment is raising two little Friends. As far as ministry goes, this feels both huge and small. Raising kids is no easy task, and yet, when looking at my own little life from the scope of the whole world, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. I have to admit, I struggled a bit with writing this article. I wished I could submit something about some impressive-sounding work I was doing—convincing terrorists and army personnel to lay down their weapons and become pacifists, or harboring undocumented immigrants in my home and doing some incredible nonviolent direct action that would make people see the dehumanization inherent in our country’s immigration policies.
But mostly these days, I’m “just” a mom.
As a lifelong Friend, it makes me sad that I have this ingrained, belittling stereotype of the mothering role, but there it is. So I decided to write an article about my journey as a mother, the role of “mother” and gender in our society, how this impacts and is impacted by my Quakerism, and a few things I’ve learned from my kids.
I’ve been a parent for a little over four years now, and each day I realize how much I have to learn about this role. I also come face to face with how lucky I am that I get to be a part of my little sons’ lives. In our culture—even our Quaker culture—I don’t feel like people always value parenting as much as perhaps we should, and that makes it difficult for me to value my role as a mother. And yet, when I really think about it, realizing the positive impact of my own mother on my life and the importance of an upbringing that allows children to grow and flourish, mothering takes on great significance. I also struggle with how to balance my time and energy between family and working for justice in the larger world.
When I first found out I was going to be a mom, it took me a while to adjust to the idea of filling that role. There are so many cultural expectations piled on the term “mom,” from the nurturerextraordinaire to the nag, from the soccer mom to the working mom. The connotation of a stay-at-home mom is often a conservative woman who is happy to be under the authority of her husband, and yet if you don’t stay home with your kids and instead you put them in daycare, you’re seen as uncaring and there are questions about your parenting capabilities. I couldn’t see myself in any of those stereotypical roles, so going into motherhood brought fears that I would be forced to change into someone I didn’t want to be.
No matter how egalitarian a couple is, there are some things that a mother either must do or has more social training to do. In our case, since we had biological children, I had to be the one to bear the children, and in order to give them as healthy a start as possible, I was virtually the only one to feed them during their infancy. Although my husband was (and is) very supportive, he wasn’t able to do those things. Also, no matter how hard we try not to live out stereotypical mom and dad roles, we often realize that the things we have learned to do are the things that fit into those stereotypes, and therefore we live them out because that’s what’s easiest— I have no idea and no interest in learning how to work on a car or do many home improvement tasks, and in exchange I end up cooking and buying groceries more often. We’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s okay that we live that way to some degree. In any culture there are going to be “male” jobs and “female” jobs that are passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, and there is some comfort and sense of stability in that. As long as we don’t unthinkingly try to do tasks that the other person is actually better suited to do, sometimes it’s fine just to fit into the “mom” or “dad” roles.
Sometimes, however, we try to buck tradition. We’ve taken turns staying home with the kids when we can. Neither of us has been complete stay-athome parents; we’ve always been employed at least part-time or working on freelance projects. And yet we’ve made it a priority that at least one of us has a job that is flexible enough that we don’t have to send our kids to daycare all the time.
Another challenge in terms of gender roles is how to raise our sons. Our culture has definite expectations about the kinds of things boys and girls should enjoy and the ways they should be. As I’ve parented boys, I’ve noticed that some “masculine” traits are apparently innate, no matter how Quaker the parent. At a very young age our older son picked up sticks and pretended to shoot people with them. Where did this impulse come from? Certainly not from anything we taught him or in which we knowingly let him participate! He started playing with guns before he even knew the word “gun.” Before I had my own kids, I thought this must be something that was socialized, or on the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. It seems that it is not. On the other end of the spectrum, my son’s favorite color is pink, and he loves stories about princesses, fairies, and ballerinas. When asked what color he wanted us to paint his room he immediately responded, “Pink!” Because neither I nor my husband wanted an entirely pink room in the house, and because we caved to convention somewhat by not wanting our son to eventually be made fun of for such a choice, we compromised by painting a mural. This mural includes a rainbow with a pink stripe and some pink flowers and animals. Whenever he gets to choose something, be it a new water bottle or a tube of toothpaste, he chooses the one that is pink, and preferably one that has princesses on it.
In the one case, my son’s natural tendencies go against my Quaker beliefs and my desires for his life. I don’t want him to like guns. That’s not Quakerly!
In the other case, his preferences go against what our culture deems normal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or with princesses. Why should I not allow him to wear pink clothes? As a Quaker who believes in equality, shouldn’t I try to break down these inane gender stereotypes and allow him to be the person he wants to be? And yet, if I do that, am I doing more harm than good to my son, by setting him up to be made fun of and to feel badly about himself once he realizes he’s not acting “normally”?
Finding this balance of allowing my sons to grow into their own personhood while shielding them from a ruthlessly critical culture is part of the difficulty. It’s a struggle not to force my own opinions on them, and instead, to trust the Spirit to mold them into the people they are called to be. It’s a struggle, too, to know the things to take a stand about, which things don’t matter, and which ones should be their choice instead of mine. These issues of gender roles and norms, for mothers, fathers, boys, girls, men, and women are difficult to navigate, at least for this Quaker mom. Learning to teach the equality of all persons, and at the same time not set up my sons for embarrassing situations, is a fine line to walk.
As a Quaker mother, I also want to teach my kids other Quaker values and beliefs but leave room for them to choose their own path. This balance between tradition and freedom is something we must all be aware of in many areas of our lives. Quakers from the beginning tore down anything that was a tradition for tradition’s sake, helping us learn not to blindly follow ways that are no longer relevant or truth-infused. But we also benefit from the sense of grounding and continuity afforded by ritual and tradition. Traditions can be lived as a carrying-forward of the sacred gift of truth learned by our ancestors.
In some ways, teaching my kids Quaker values is simple. People in our culture teach kids not to hit, to use kind words, to be curious, to love God and others and themselves. These are all things Quakers value. And yet it gets difficult when one digs deeper. I want to encourage my sons to think for themselves and not obey blindly—at least not obey anyone else blindly! But I often catch myself wanting them to obey me blindly, because I know what’s best for them! At least, that’s what I convince myself. I find myself in power struggles with my four-year-old, wanting him to obey me because I’m the mom—and isn’t that how things are supposed to work? For his own safety, many times he just needs to obey me and ask questions later. I want to give him rights as an equal person in our family but I also know there is a line at which a parent needs to exercise some authority against a young child’s will. Finding this line is difficult for Quakers, since our religious tradition tends to downplay the value of good leadership.
I also want to teach my kids about difficult things in the world so they will grow up with a sense of gratefulness that their needs are met and will not feel entitled to our relative amount of material wealth. I want them to learn compassion and empathy for others who experience hardship. It is a challenge to know when it is appropriate to expose them to the world’s harsh realities, and how to speak to them about these realities in ways that value the individuals living those realities rather than just feeling sorry for “the poor” or “the hungry.” We have tamales delivered to our house by a family of recent immigrants each week, and one time, before they made it out the door, my four-year-old son hollered out, “Mom, are they poor?”
But sometimes he gets it more than I do. Once we saw a homeless man with a sign, asking for help. We had just left the grocery store and were waiting at a light. It was the first time (in my son’s memory) that I’d had him in the car at the same time as I’d had a “homeless kit”: a gallon Ziploc bag we’d made at meeting, filled with non-perishable foods, a pair of socks, and a water bottle. I changed lanes, drove over to the man, and handed him the bag. This prompted a number of questions from my son about why the man was standing there, why he didn’t have a home, why he didn’t just go to the bank and get more money if he didn’t have any, and why we gave him that food.
It took about 20 minutes to drive home, and about every five minutes, my son piped up from the back seat, “Where is he now, Mom?” At first I didn’t know what he meant. I had almost forgotten about the incident. “Where is who?” I asked. “Where is that man—the one we gave the food to?” I explained to him that the man was still back on that street corner, but now he had a bit of food and some socks. And then he asked a more difficult question: “But Mom, what else are we going to do?” Well, we had done a little bit to help him, and if everyone else did a little bit, then he’d be taken care of.
My son thought about this for a couple minutes. He watched the cars driving by, each to their own destination. “But Mom, everyone else doesn’t help.”
What I really want my sons to see is their dad and me caring about people, spending time working for justice for the oppressed and building relationships with people regardless of their economic or any other status. Often times, this is what really gets to me about being a mom: I don’t have time to go out and do amazing social justice work.
I’m consoled by looking at historical Quaker women, most of whom had numerous children, and yet managed to make a difference. I especially appreciate Elizabeth Fry. While her children were young she did some things: she became known as a minister by speaking in meeting when Spirit-led, she did some visitation of the sick and poor, she taught poor children in her home, she served on committees, and she hosted traveling Friends. She had ten children in fifteen years!
At the tail end of this child-bearing time, Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate Prison for the first time. Over the next ten years her visits there became more and more frequent. She began teaching the women and children in the prison to read, and she taught many women to sew in order to provide them with a trade to sustain them once they left prison. She organized other women to do similar visitation and training at Newgate and other prisons. She also traveled with her brother, speaking and preaching as a recorded Friends minister, drawing attention to the needs of those in prison and demanding reform. Now her face is on the British five-pound note.
As her children grew, they watched Elizabeth Fry’s passion for prison reform incubate and grow, but she also focused a good deal of attention on loving her children and taking care of her household. She saw this as her main ministry for a time in her life. She focused her resources of time and energy in a relatively small circle for a time, but this did not mean she didn’t care for others outside of her family. She faithfully lived out her calling to her family and home. Then, in a different stage of life, she faithfully lived out a calling that extended well beyond her own family. I hope I may have the patience to wait for God’s timing, and to truly see this mothering stage of life as the important ministry I know that it is.
During this stage of my life and ministry, I query myself often, making sure that what I’m doing points my kids to the Light of Christ, that Inward Light that points us outward. I will leave you with some of those queries, and trust that the Spirit will also query you.
- What do I value most at this time in my life?
- Am I called to make the self-sacrifices to live with less in terms of material and experiential goods but have more time with my family?
- Am I willing to give up my career aspirations for now? Am I called to do so?
- Where is the line between what is practical/necessary and my fears of “not enough”?
- How can I more faithfully live out my calling and do all the things that are necessary details of life, while not living out a stereotype of my culture’s expectations?