A Woman’s Place Is In the Kitchen
I was newly married. And newly without a job. Our parents were helping us with rent and I was finishing my last semester of college. Times were not easy. But we were in that “honeymoon” phase and we just saw the whole thing as an adventure, albeit not a fun one.
One day, a friend of mine who I had met at church called me up to get together for dinner. His treat. So we could catch up, since we had not seen each other in a while. I agreed and we met up at Olive Garden one evening. We talked about how school was going and what our plans were once we had graduated. And then he asked me a question that made me uncomfortable, even at that time when I was still leaning conservative but was also deconstructing some of the less important aspects of my faith. He asked me, “So, when are you gonna get her pregnant? Cuz you know that is the purpose of marriage and the only way to keep a marriage together.”
I felt a sort of punch in the gut feeling. Or maybe it was my stomach turning. Maybe the question made me sick. At the time, I pushed the negative part of that feeling aside, choosing to believe it was the Holy Spirit nudging me about my responsibility as a man toward my wife. I did not give him a straight answer, just brushed it off with a chuckle and some offhand comment about how it just was not God’s will right now.
I never mentioned that part of the conversation to my wife, but the question simmered in the back of my mind for years.
The way I was taught with regard to the roles of men and women was that the man was “called by God” to be head of the household with his wife and kids in a kind of polite subjugation to him. This meant that he was the one who worked and brought in the money and the wife stayed home and cooked, cleaned, had babies, and served her husband till death do us part.
So when my wife and I moved in with her parents, and then a short time later wanted to move out, it became a bit of a conundrum. I was working at the time as a valet at a local hospital, but it did not bring in enough money for us to have our own place. And when an opportunity arose for my wife to work in the office of the apartment complex where her mom worked in exchange for a discount on rent, we had to actually pray about whether or not God thought it was okay for her to work outside of the home.
When, a few years later, that marriage went down in flames, that question asked by my friend at Olive Garden came roaring back to the forefront.
We had a child by this time. But having that child did not keep the marriage together. It fell apart anyway, for reasons altogether separate from the baby.
Off and on throughout our marriage, I would question conventional gender roles. They just did not seem to quite align with anything other than a dominant cultural expectation among conservative evangelicals. Plus, it was becoming increasingly challenging to live into those expectations unless you happened upon a really good-paying job. This was the early 2000s, and it has only gotten worse from there.
My time away from organized religion really kicked off at this point. The marriage fell apart and left me wondering about basically everything. I had been taught that marriages lasted forever. They were not supposed to end in divorce. Divorce was a sin. And it was especially heinous if you were a minister or an aspiring minister. That one single thing basically barred you permanently from the ministry. During this time, some of my evangelical friends even put the full blame for the end of the relationship on me, asking, in so many words, “What did you do to make this happen?”
There is nothing wrong with that question on its surface. Anytime a relationship fails or something bad happens to us or in our lives, it can be very helpful to do some soul-searching and figure out if there are ways in which we are culpable. But in the context of conservative evangelical Christianity’s picture of gender roles, the question carries with it a strong connotation of blame rather than a path to healing. As the head of the household, it was my responsibility to force the thing to stay together, and since it fell apart, I obviously was the reason it failed. “What did you do to make this happen?”
Over time, it has become increasingly clear to me that marriage is not about gender roles. We should not go seeking someone to marry as we would seek a new employee. For that matter, we should not seek out people to be in our lives with the intention of using them at all.
I remember at one time visiting a church and meeting some really cool people. I went to that church fairly regularly up to the birth of my daughter. One of these people invited me for coffee one day and asked me to bring my resume. I thought it was sort of odd, but also thought it would be helpful to have someone look it over and give me some pointers and maybe even help me in my job search. The problem was, by the end of our conversation, he had told me he did not know why we were hanging out because there did not seem to be anything we could offer each other business-wise.
Christians have come to treat marriage in much the same way.
Men and women are seeking out someone to marry so they can fulfill the misguided expectations that they have decided God has placed on them. The whole notion of a husband being the head of the household in a way that he does the work and the wife stays home has taken deep root in Christian circles (and even in the conservative camp more broadly). And when people question those norms, it is treated as though they are questioning the very words of God.
But this 1950s-esque picture of what the family structure looks like is really not what the Bible seems to be pointing to.
When God created the first people and split Adam into a man and woman, they never defined what their roles were. The first people were told to make babies and work together to care for God’s creation. It would be much later before men came to dominate women and other people. And much later than that before the family structure that was the norm that conservative Christians wish to perpetuate or return to became solidified.
Paul’s words about the husband being the head of the household even carry a different connotation than what the Christianity I grew up in implies that it does. The husband, in Ephesians 5, is given the charge to love their wife in the same way that Jesus loved the church: self-sacrifice. Servanthood. Compassion. Granted, there is definitely a lot of misogyny as the passage continues. But Jesus was a servant-leader, and if the husband is supposed to lead as Jesus did, then he is not supposed to dominate his family with cruelty and harsh demands.
As culture has shifted, I have seen glimmers of change in the evangelical landscape. Churches are ordaining women. Women are working outside the home with regularity. Even Christian couples are holding off on children and planning their families in much the same way that those outside the church are. The downfall of Mark Driscoll seems to have taken the man-as-dominator mentality with it, or is at least beginning to drag it down. And as we have come to understand gender outside of biological sex as a spectrum, I think we are also starting to see a picture of the “roles” people are “designed” to fulfill as being similarly fluid.
I am just not convinced the church is actually ready to have this conversation yet.