Miscellaneous Monday: Don't Say It (Part 1)

I actually wrote this post several months ago and my computer and phone weren’t communicating. Somehow in switching between the two, the content of the post was deleted. I wasn’t sure if I should rewrite it or not, but a recent series of conversations has brought me to the point where I think I do need to write this. These conversations have helped to refine my thought process. I’m going to do my best not to step on any toes; please know in advance that I am not speaking out of anger or malice. My heart is for growth and sometimes that does require us to talk about things that might not feel great. This post is focused on women, and in a future post, I intend to follow this same premise to discuss a more general principle.

The basic premise: Don’t tell kids they can be anything they want to be unless you genuinely mean that.

I was very blessed to grow up with parents who encouraged me to think for myself, who fostered my love of learning, and who supported me with my whims of what I wanted to do. But outside of my home, I heard from people all the time: You really could do anything you wanted to.

They didn’t mean it. I’m sure people have the best of intentions when they say things like that. In fact, I know the goal is typically empowerment. It’s an easy way to tell kids: You don’t have to conform to a particular career mold. There’s a lot to be said for trying to help kids see that there are endless possibilities out there and trying to engage their imaginations. A lot of that is lost today, unfortunately. But please, just don’t say it; don’t tell kids they can do anything they want. This isn’t actually about setting limits and boundaries; that’s for another time.

This is about the underlying message of that statement, the one most of us don’t even realize we are communicating. If we did, we might take a step back.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being particularly interested in being married or having kids. I wasn’t all that fond of children, even as a child myself. But I do remember hearing over and over how much of a waste it was for a girl to go to college, to get a career, and then to throw it all away to be a stay at home mom. I heard how hard it was to be a working mom. I knew how much I loved that my mom was home with me and when she did work, it was at the school I attended so she was gone when I was gone and home when I was home. I watched and listened, as kids do, and found myself confused by the message people were communicating. What I heard was you can do anything you want, but what I saw was if you are book smart, you have to go to college and get a career and if you do that, then family is just a burden. Don’t bog yourself down with a husband and kids; don’t even get pets that need a lot of attention because work is going to be everything. If I ever mentioned not going to college, the response I received was to tell me how smart I was and that I had so much potential and could be anything. But anything didn’t really mean anything; it meant anything that involved getting an advanced degree and throwing myself into that career field completely.

The problem was further compounded by the fact that as I grew up, I saw that once a woman decided to be a stay at home mother she was isolated from people who weren’t stay at home mothers. In some ways that was a choice accompanied by apologies for the state of her home if she did have anyone over or by statements of how it was just too hard to stay connected with other people because her kids demanded all of her time and attention. In other ways, it was forced upon her by people who shunned her because they didn’t like or understand her choice. This created several issues. For one thing, it spoke a message that motherhood and children are burdensome and joyless, something to be apologized for rather than rejoiced in. For another, it isolated me from women who could serve as examples of godly motherhood. It created a stigma that stay at home moms are completely absorbed in themselves and their homes without regard for other people.

When I heard a girl say she just wanted to be a mom, I watched as people called her desperate, needy, dependent, incapable, etc. In other words: you can do what you want, just don’t want to be a mom. Don’t degrade yourself to that position. I was bitter in hearing that because while I didn’t want to be a wife and mom, I had so much respect for my mom. She is a brilliant woman (though she doesn’t believe that about herself), creative, kind, godly. She knows how to think for herself, how to figure things out. She is the furthest thing from desperate, needy, dependent or incapable that I can think of.

So when, in my later high school years, the desire to be a wife and mother cropped up, I was very cautious to say anything to anyone. And when I did, I explained that I figured if I was going to get married it would have to be fresh out of high school because if I went to college, I was going to throw myself into it, get my degree, continue on to advanced degrees. I wouldn’t want to be a working mom but if I got all that schooling under my belt, I wouldn’t want to “waste” those degrees, that time and money, by just ditching my career. And no one I told that to called me out on it. They typically agreed, though cautioning me away from getting married at a young age. Basically, without telling me so, they were saying: “Well, I guess you’re just going to be a career woman then, because heaven forbid you waste that brain of yours on something so menial as being only a mom.” Further, any guy that would want a wife who was willing to stay home was labelled as controlling, manipulative, and only interested in a baby factory rather than a partner.

I was very interested in a particular career path, so when I graduated from high school and had no prospects for a husband, I threw myself into college completely. I had interest in guys along the way, but I didn’t date until late into my college days. I managed to find the guy that really was controlling and interested in a baby factory rather than a partner. It didn’t last (praise the Lord). And I retreated back into the realm of not wanting to admit that I possessed any desire to be a wife and a mother; if what people said about guys was true, then clearly what they said about moms was true too.

Six years of school and seven years in my career field later and I knew something needed to change, but I didn’t know what. I was still hearing, “You can be whatever you want to be,” but I knew that didn’t include wife and mother. And when I left behind my career and went back to school in a completely divergent path from what I previously followed, I was made aware that full time vocational ministry wasn’t acceptable either. But at that point, I was so certain of God’s leading to go, that I went without a whole lot of social support. Again, my parents were outside the norm and encouraged me to pursue God above anything else. If He sent me to Bible school in the middle of nowhere, I needed to go.

Very shortly after arriving at school, I realized that the true desire of my heart was to be a stay at home pastor’s wife and to have children. I was completely unsure how to even work toward that goal and the responses of those who knew of this desire was anything from: “That’s great!” to “You’re just desperate.” The frequent cry of my heart was for someone to help me know how to handle this newly admitted desire. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t discontent but that I was also actively pursuing what God had for me.

Answers didn’t really come. I don’t blame anyone for that; in fact, I completely understand that it’s become more difficult to know how to walk with someone on that path. Our culture is so permeated with feminism that we don’t even realize it has increasingly influenced our churches. We have been told we can be anything we want with the underlying message being as long as that doesn’t involve being a wife and mother, especially if the person in question has already achieved much in the workforce. When we hear of a desire to be married, we instantly respond with something along the lines of, “That’s ok, just don’t hold that as an idol.” It’s the only career path I have ever brought up that I have heard those words. Why? Well, for one thing, Satan has attacked the family because it is the most important realm of discipleship. He has convinced us that children are a burden, that moms have to be isolated, that marriage is only for a select few rather than the Creator’s design. And because of that, when a girl says she doesn’t want to pursue a college degree or career or worse still she leaves behind those things, even within the church we tend quite unconsciously to make her feel like she has misplaced priorities.

Yet the Bible makes it absolutely clear that children are a blessing (i.e. Psalm 127:3-5), that even moms are not to live in isolation (i.e. Titus 2:3-5), and that God’s design from the beginning was marriage between one man and one woman for life (i.e. Genesis 2). Rather than tell a girl she’s too smart to settle for being a wife and a mom or she’s too talented or whatever reason we give her why she should consider herself above the call of parenting, we should nurture her.

Recently, I have been incredibly blessed to be invited into the homes of several moms, to interact with them and their children at parks, and to be able to have them into my home. In the past three months, I have learned so much about being a godly wife and mother, and you know, most of it hasn’t been in opening Scripture together or in talking directly about being married or having babies. Most of it has been by observing women in their God given roles. Some of them homeschool. Some of them public school. Some have blended school experiences. Some are married to men in full time vocational ministry. Some are married to men who have to be gone a lot. Some have husbands who are home when they’re home. I’ve gotten to see a wide variety of circumstances. I have been able to hear their different stories of how they met their husbands, how they made their decisions about birth control and child birth and child rearing. I’ve seen them in good moments with their husbands and children and I have seen them in rough moments. They have been tired, interrupted a million times, worried, joyful, at peace, rested. This is the discipleship I have longed for but didn’t know how to find. And I don’t think the women I was surrounded with when I wasn’t married knew that they could have such a big impact just by inviting me to spend time with them doing life.

I don’t have any one particular woman that is sitting down with me each week to walk me through what the Bible says about various topics; I have a whole bunch of women at various stages of their journey walking alongside me and letting me in to see how to do life and ministry as a stay at home wife and soon to be mother. And you know what? I have been freed from a lot of fears by their tender ministering to my soul. Fears that I think probably wouldn’t have held such sway in my life had I not learned that marriage and children were only for the weak minded through the unconscious messages spoken to me throughout my life.

One of the cool things about this stage in life is that these beautiful, amazing women who have come alongside me and loved on me have also let me know things they see in me, ways they think I can serve. They’ve encouraged me to find my niche, to reach out, to not live in isolation. They’ve acknowledged that when we have our kiddo, life will change, and priorities for activities outside the home will have to change but that doesn’t mean I have to do it on my own. They’re open to questions and willing to share their experiences.

There are different needs; there are different positions God calls people to. And there is no need for a woman to hide in seclusion whether she is married and has a bunch of kids or is unmarried and seeking a career. In fact, it is unhealthy for any human being to live in complete isolation. God designed us for relationship and gave us to the local body of believers to build each other up. He designed fellowship and discipleship so that we would show each other how to pursue God even in those seasons of waiting.

One thing we can do to help young women pursue God while they’re waiting is to help them find where they serve, and to invite them specifically into positions where they can interact with women who are married and have children. Babysitting and children’s ministries are areas where we tell girls they can serve, but we really just drop them there a lot of the time. We expect that they are instinctively going to know how to take care of kids and how to teach them because we still have it ingrained in us more deeply than we realize that women are designed to nurture children. Titus speaks to this in telling the older women to teach the younger women to love their husbands and children (same passage as above). It isn’t instinctive; our sin nature makes us a lot more selfish and a lot less nurturing than we should be.

Babysitting and children’s ministry are fantastic opportunities for older women to come alongside younger women and show them how to teach and nurture kids. It shouldn’t be only when a woman is finally married and pregnant that we teach her these things. There really are women who will never be married or have kids; there’s nothing wrong with that. But when we equip her for that task, we make her much more effective in other areas of life as well. And we help her to be less afraid. No one will ever be fully ready to be married or to parent or to really do anything God has called them to do; God’s strength and provision in those times when we are unprepared bring Him so much glory. But He still tells us to equip each other. We are always to be about that work.

Equipping someone to do what God has for them does not involve telling them they can be anything they want to be. We should be looking for strengths, weaknesses, spiritual gifts, and desires in those around us. We should be encouraging them to use those things in the church and teaching them how to do that. The training we receive within the Church (not just in the sermon or even in the church building but when we spend time in each other’s lives) is applicable to all of life. And that is where we will pick up when we come back to this topic for part 2.