Monday, February 20, 2006

A New Feminine Mystique?

June and the Boys

Betty Freidan, the mother of modern feminism and author of The Feminine Mystique, died last week. Freidan described the fairly rigid roles available to women in the early 60's and the way both women and men thought about women at that time, a mindset she called 'the feminine mystique.'

It got me thinking a little bit about the kinds of choices many women I know are making, particularly in the Christian community.

Feminism changed everything. That’s still true. We’re all familiar with the kinds of shifts in attitudes and behaviors feminism created, so no need to cover that ground again here.

A lot of women, though, particularly in the Christian community, are returning to more traditional women’s roles.

At least in my circles, I can’t think of too many younger Christian women who continue to work more than half time after they have a kid. Many become full time stay-at-home moms. Some are home schooling their kids.

In a number of instances I’m aware of, you’ve got a full time mom who is clearly more gifted in Christian leadership than her husband, but she moves out of that type of ministry for many years in order to devote herself full time to child raising.

Or put in another way, I rarely see women remaining single longer run in order to pursue ministry or leadership roles, and it’s very rare to meet Christian couples who choose to remain childless in order to focus on ministry or work. I used to see both of those situations far more frequently among Christians 10 or 15 years ago.

I think I understand some of the reasons for this noticeable shift.

In general, we’re living in a much more conservative time than we were a while back, so it makes sense those broader attitudes would shape the choices women make too.

We’re also in a time where parenting has become almost a profession, with a heavy emphasis on enriching kids in every possible way and directing them 24/7. I sense a palpable fear among a lot of young parents of doing a poor job of raising ‘em.

I contrast that with what I believe was simply a different and more relaxed parenting ethos 20 years ago. That older ethos is sometimes stereotyped by younger Christian moms as the “Stop bothering mommy, sweetheart, and go get me a martini” school of mothering :^)

Underneath the stereotype and the humor, though, is a strong committment to help kids avoid growing up in a dysfunctional home. The belief that the world is a very dangerous and Darwinian place seems more intense and personal now than it was not too long ago.

I mean, how many kids now just hang out in unstructured ways by themselves or with their neighborhood playmates? As the dad of a college student and a 13 year old boy I haven't seen too many over the past decade.

Parents have to work a lot harder in the current parenting environment and it appears women are bearing most of the brunt of those changes. That raises the question of how much men’s behavior has changed as a result of feminism, but I’ll leave that hot potato alone for the time being :^)

And I think there’s a concern that kids who aren’t super-enriched won’t be able to compete in the “global economy.” This has led to a change in the way people think about schools and education, something PBS commentator Sandra Tsing Loh calls the new "Asianization and fetishism of education."

And of course, lots of women are rejoicing in a new found freedom from what they view as harsh and unrealistic feminist expectations.

Anyway, I wonder if the shift has gone a little overboard. Do women sense they still have options, or are some of those hard won freedoms being slowly eroded away by shifts in cultural expectations, particularly in the Christian community?

Love to hear any reflections on any or all of this. Important and practical stuff in my mind.


Blogger limco said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:11 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I'm mixed on this. On one hand, I think that parents should be ultra-involved - show that they love in every second. The dysfunctionality of kids raised by underinvolved parents is obvious. On the other hand, I feel like kids need to be free to self-explore, to figure things out through play, to mature through finding themselves. I really hope that if I ever become a father, I'll be so concerned about falling to either extreme that I'll maintain a good balance.

"That raises the question of how much men’s behavior has changed as a result of feminism, but I’ll leave that hot potato alone for the time being :^)"

I do want to talk more about this. I have no idea what the answer is (I haven't lived through enough to see those trends and no one ever seems to talk about it). The effects of the feminist movement on women get talked about all the time, but I've never heard real discussion on the effects on men, even though they must be significant.

6:19 PM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

Two comments come to mind here. A short news blip on the radio one day about a month ago: " College faculty raisng eyebrows about how today's freshmen can't seem to do anything for themselves. Many could not get themselves enrolled or anything done without Mom or Dad doing it all for them." Yes, I nodded, no doubt........they've had every need imaginable not only met but orchestrated for them since they graduated from Gymboree in their matching outfits. Second, home-schooling all children when only 50% (male for you conservatives) are going to go on in the workplace? Why home school your daughters? Exactly what are you teaching them? Basic reading for recipe reading, making sure they can tell Clorox from Tide? On a personal note, I noticed this "trend" when I was raising my children in the 80's and 90's. I made a resolution to myself.........independence by 18..bottom worked. Both in school and working with the ability to handle life. Peace.

3:04 PM  
Blogger limco said...

I too am mixed on the issues raised here. I do think we are in a generation where educated parents are guilty of over parenting their children. On the other hand I think if parents had the option to have one stay at home with the kids or send the kids to daycare for 9 or 10 hours a day, I would encourage the parent to stay home. It is really difficult to work full time and raise your kids. It produces stress on everyone when parenting and verything esle that happens at home is condensed into the evening hours after a long day at work. In terms of super enriching our kids and orchestrating their every move we are guilty. I've thought about it a lot and wondered what started the trend. From a very young age kids are taking classes and lessons and attending preschools that call themselves names like "Toddler University". The kid's schedules require a planner to keep up with. Why are we doing this? Is it a guilt reaction because so many women did go into the work force and let others raise their kids. Is it because the parents of today have a heightened competitive streak from their own childhoods that requires their kid to be better than every other kid. I wonder if we are all victims of a massive advertising campaign that has us all convinced that our kids need all of these enriching and expensive activities. I really don't know and since I'm in the middle of raising child number 2 I will continue to think about it. Any insights readers have would be welcome.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I worked in the university setting for many years and I've still got lots of friends there, and they tell me the same thing, 3.

Lots of folks have commented on the increasingly extended adolescence of American young people these days, but not many have pointed out how little independence many of them seem to have. I think that independence can only develop when kids have some space and aren't seen as a continual "project" for their parents.

So part of a solution is to challenge the current "overparenting" trend.

I'm still concerned that many women now are bearing the brunt of the increased workload of parenting. So another issue, for me, is helping young moms--particularly in the Christian community--to re-examine how they think about themselves and their roles.

And finally, we've got to get men to think about their roles in raising kids too. I agree with Jon that the issue of "post-feminist men" gets little air time. I'll try to pick that up in a coming post.

4:14 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...

so... i wanted to get in on this conversation when you left wordcat, but time slipped away from me.

thought i'd put in my perspective (a single, twentysomething woman that is looking toward a future of raising kids while concurrently following God's call on my life.) i have so many thoughts and questions and fears about parenting, but let's just start with the aforementioned issues.

it seems that this discussion centers around middle to upper-class families, as the choice for one parent to stay home, and to give their children luxuries such as private lessons in such and such instrument or sport doesn't exist in a lot of working class families. i agree that there are some serious problems with this kind of lifestyle. i think the roots of this kind of parenting can be found in our society's idea of what security and provision is... often times i think the kind of lifestyles we value and uphold are full of physical wealth and privilege, but leave us as a society in spiritual, emotional and often even intellectual poverty.

having said that, i would issue a warning against critiqing attentive parenting (at least without an alternative)too harshly. being a latch-key kid of divorced parents, that's not the life i'd wish on any kid.

my critique on raising kids in america is that we do it too individually, placing an almost unhealthy, and definitely unholy emphasis on "my kids first". i would love to see more parents being at home, but opening their homes and their lives to other kids, other families, other individuals that need it. not just in a peripheral way, but inviting them into their homes, supporting them in financial, emotional, spiritual ways, actually sacrificing for others, and teaching this value to their family. i think this would solve some of the problems that occur when the entire household is focused solely on the children and their wellbeing. i think it would also instill selflessness that would benefit the children throughout their life.

one thing that i'm looking for is a model in which my husband and i can raise our kids together, in the fullest sense of the word. i don't really understand why we continue to hold to this pattern of the woman holding down the fort and raising the kids while the men provide for the family monetarily. is this biblical?

one idea i have about raising kids, especially if one or more of the parents is in ministry, is having both parents work part time, and raising the kids/working equally, thus allowing both parents to use their gifts in ministry, but also allowing both parents to fully parent... which i think is really needed. it would also possibly allow more flexibility for dads to be with their kids more than just a few hours on the weekdays, and moms not to lose their dreams of careers/ministry with the onset of kids.

i think this could work well overseas in a ministry context as well.

in reality, i'm actually really scared to have kids. (i relate to the movie erin brockovich, when complimented on her kids she says something like "thanks, but i'm sure i'll fuck them up eventually" a lot.) but i'm hopeful that with a little imagination, we can find ways to raise kids outside the tired model that dominates our families today.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great thoughts Sarah. And as far as being scared you'll mess 'em up, Jan and I have been parents for 20 years and we're still scared :^)

But seriously, I don't worry much about parents who have been involved in serious relational ministry and have mentored folks like you have--the same attitudes and skills are at the heart of both parenting and ministry. In fact, when I look back on my years of campus work, the thing I'm most pleased with is the quality of the marriages and the parenting that came out of that. I can't think of a single example of divorce or what I would consider poor parenting in the community of many thousands of people who came out of all that. That's really a miracle when you think about cultural trends over the past 25 years.

9:50 AM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

Great post. Thats why I love this blog. I have many friends who have made different choices about raising children. I would say most couples share the responsibilities equally although sometimes each partner does not realize it. The whole Venus Mars thing. If I had any advise at all, it would be to live with your spouse in the same house that you will raise kids in, before you have kids. See how that goes first. Lots of couples have that first apartment, then off to the big house where there is not a groundskeeper etc. Get through the home ownership first, kind of a test for DH :) Then think about adding X # of kids......and if its right.........have a house full, there is nothing better than being a mom :)

4:13 PM  

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