My Brothers and My Mother

When my brothers were about ten or twelve, my parents began to say that they were “chafing at being under the authority of a woman.” By this they meant that my brothers didn’t like having to obey my mom, because, of course, they were becoming men. And, well, men don’t like being under female authority. Or at least, that’s what they said. And to this day, if you asked my mother, she would tell you that all of her boys have “chafed under her authority” while none of her girls have done so. She sees this as supporting her essentialist and patriarchal ideas about gender. But what my parents didn’t notice is how their ideas about gender differences in this area both shaped how they perceived the information they received from us and how we behaved.

First of all, it’s simply untrue that none of us girls ever “chafed” at having to obey my mother. We did, and some more than others. It’s just that when the boys did so, my mother filed it away as confirming the stereotype, and when we did so, that was seen as just an individual aberration and the stereotype was not invoked. My mother was creating a pattern in her own mind based on her own preconceptions.

Second is the fact that the boys knew they were supposed to be chafing under female authority. How did they know this? Because my parents told them they were supposed to be. Really. In fact, any time one of my brothers pushed back against one of my mom’s rules, whether in a big way or in a small way, the fact that they were becoming men and that it was natural for them to chafe under my mom’s authority was brought up by my parents once again. It was actually talked about rather frequently beginning when my brothers were only ten or twelve.

Third, my brothers used the fact that my parents were expecting them to chafe under my mother’s authority to their advantage. They knew that they could get away with a lot more than we girls did, and justify it as their male parts not liking to obey mom’s rules. And indeed, when they were particularly obstinate, they were affirmed for it. And in fact, they were given accommodations, because their obstinance was only natural! They were becoming men, after all. We girls were given no such accommodations.

It occurs to me that this happens all the time out in what we used to call “the real world” too. Girls are expected, for instance, to be more nurturing and boys to be more aggressive. Well guess what? First, when girls are nurturing that gets filed away as a confirmation of the stereotype, and when boys are nurturing that’s seen as just an individual aberration.  Second, boys and girls know that boys are supposed to be more aggressive and girls are supposed to be more nurturing. And third and finally, boys and girls learn to use these stereotypes to their advantages. And this whole process is applied to a million different gender roles and magnified again and again and again.

It really can’t be emphasized enough that the expectation that my brothers would chafe against my mother’s authority while my sisters wouldn’t helped to create the very gender differences my parents argued were natural. When one of us girls disobeyed my mom, we got in trouble. When one of the boys disobeyed my mom, he was praised and affirmed for showing evidence that he was becoming a man. Beyond that actual experience was the sheer weight of palpable expectations. The boys knew they were supposed to be physically active, to not listen to women, and to be preparing to protect and provide for a family. We girls knew that we were to be kind and compassionate, to be quite spirited with gentle tongues, and to be preparing to cook, keep house, and raise children. I’m having trouble figuring out how to articulate the extent to which this mattered. It mattered. We felt it. These expectations pervaded our daily lives and even how we viewed ourselves.

It’s really not surprising that it took years for me to even start shaking off the pure weight of these messages. And I suppose, after the sheer amount of gender programming I received as a child, it’s only natural that I become immediately skeptical whenever someone suggests that a given gender difference may be biological.

What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
Why Does Lily Work Two Jobs while Carl is Unemployed?
Why the Pope’s Recent Comments on Limiting Family Size Were Not Actually “Compassionate”
HSLDA on those “Radically Atheistic” Public Schools
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • J-Rex

    You’d think an authoritarian family would understand very well that if you let a child get away with something over and over again, they’ll keep doing it. To me, that seems like one of the saddest things about patriarchy; that the mother is not enough of a person to control a ten year old boy.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yeah, I find that very odd. Considering all the emphasis on obedience, why can’t people not see that telling a 10-year-old that he’s not really expected to to listen to his mother is a fantastic way to make sure he won’t? I mean, if you really believe that boys “chafe under the authority of a woman” when they reach prepubuscence or so, I can see two parents talking about that privately between themselves, but openly voicing approval of your son’s oh-so-manly disgregard of you TO HIM and in front of your other sons? Just how hard are you trying to make your own life here!

      And it’s funny because that’s a level of disrespect to parents that most mainstream parents wouldn’t accept. It’s weird to me that parents who place such a high premium on instant obedience from their children would just shrug off something that far more relaxed, lenient parents would see as a problem. But I guess it makes sense.

  • Nathaniel

    This kind of stuff makes me so angry. Its such an insult. “You’re destined to be a jerk because you have a penis. No, you’re not contradicting your mother because you’re trying figure out right and wrong different from the views of your parents, but because your penis makes you a misogynist.”

    Gender existentialists, stop demeaning me.

  • Kodie

    And they’re not chafing under the authority of their fathers? This is why nobody has “daddy” issues, hm? Seriously, everyone chafes under the authority of anyone, it’s not just part of growing up, it has nothing to do with being a boy. Debi Perl even chafes under the authority of Mike and has some pretty drastic coping mechanisms about that. Just about any Christian I’ve ever heard talk “chafes” under god’s authority, they talk about “how hard it is” to always try to do the right thing and how much easier atheists have it because we can just do whatever we want. As if! We chafe under people telling us what to do, and we don’t chafe so much when we’re cooperating with someone who is an equal. Don’t parents chafe under the “authority” of their children too? I’m not talking about little baby dictators, but they’re all dictators to some extent. You have to pick them up at a certain time, you have to feed them, you have to do a lot of work as a parent that you wouldn’t otherwise have to do simply because they’re there and need you to pay attention to them and care for them, and sometimes that’s hard to do because they have moods, or you wish you could just watch TV all afternoon instead of take them places. Am I wrong?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      Life is suffering :D

  • ako

    And I suppose, after the sheer amount of gender programming I received as a child, it’s only natural that I become immediately skeptical whenever someone suggests that a given gender difference may be biological.

    See, skepticism on this front is good and healthy and important, but it rarely gets recognized as honest skepticism. I’ve noticed that, in conversation, people who argue for purportedly scientific reasons to justify their “Men and women are Just Different, in a way that happens to be convenient for men!” beliefs rarely directly address honest skeptical critiques about their evidence. Instead, they jump straight to an Appeal to Motive, as if “Many women don’t want to believe this” somehow erased all concerns about weak or even contradictory evidence, and proved the truth of their claims.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yeah, people are generally very unwilling to believe that skepticism about gender differences etc. could actually come from observation. I find that, when I criticize gender essentialism, people often assume that I have “an agenda” and that I went a read a bunch of feminist claptrap and now I go around trying to fit what I see around me into those views. (And this is a widespread attitude towards feminist critique of gender essentialism.)

      Thing is, it was actually the other way around. From childhood, I started noticing that a lot of the beliefs about boys and girls I’d received from my society just didn’t stand up to my own actual experience of people in my life. And I also started to notice that these same beliefs seemed to function more to maintain inequality between boys and girls than anything else. I didn’t read the “feminist claptrap” until I was in my mid-to-late teens and mostly I read it after going to college. And my response was not “Oh, this sounds good, I’m going to do my best to warp my reality to fit these ideas because they serve me.” It was “Oh, I’m not crazy! Other people notice all this bullshit and how it’s used to control people, especially women, too!” I didn’t and don’t mangle my lived experience so that it will fit with feminist theory. It’s just that feminist theory actually fit my experience! It spoke to the world I actually lived in.

      • ki sarita

        my experience exactly!

  • Lana


    • Libby Anne

      Love you, Lana!

  • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    I’m always interested in mother-son relationships under this way of life, because it seems like they have the potential to be really fraught. This doesn’t sound like an example of “honoring” your parents. It sounds like sons are being taught to disregard women, starting with their own mothers.

    • ki sarita

      this is unusual, because even in some extremely patriarchal societies, age still trumps gender.

  • emily

    All I could think about reading your post was the constant “chafing” conversation in our house when my brother was an adolescent. His summertime skin issue was addressed with goldbond powder. Please tell me that your brothers ever described their reactions to your mom’s authority with “I’m chafing like a chimp!”

    • A Reader

      Ah, band camp…

  • Noelle

    But if a mother derives her authority over her children from her husband, and her husband gets his authority from God, is not a boy who defies his mother also defying God?

    • Kate

      Isn’t that one of the Ten Commandments also?”Honor your father AND your mother”?

  • krwordgazer

    I’m reminded of what Jesus told the Pharisees about setting aside the commandment “honor your father and mother” in order to maintain a commandment they had added instead. “Honor your mother” is set aside by “boys’ disregard of their mother’s authority is natural and good.”
    Pharisaical. That’s all I can say.

    • Uly

      What did Jesus say? Some of us aren’t that well read.

  • Kit

    I’m very curious how men who grow up in this culture react to, well, reality? Consider, for example, the courts: There are women judges. There are every bit as insightful and cutting as male lawyers. There are women lawyers. They’re just as cutthroat and vicious in cross-examination as male lawyers. There are security guards who are female. The police officers who testify are often female. They jump in fights as easily as the men do to break it up. Alternatively, consider medicine. There are women doctors as well as nurses. There are women surgeons, teachers, etc.

    I just don’t understand how you can believe in male superiority/headship and still exist in the western world. I’m really very bewildered by this.

    • Rosa

      some of them don’t cope very well. If you follow some of the more patriarchal family blogs, you see that many of these men stay self-employed even when their businesses or ministries don’t thrive – they don’t seem to cope well with a regular job where they are not at the top of the hierarchy.

  • Kit

    *as the male judges.

  • Lucy

    Libby Anne, as someone who grew up with a few messed up gender expectations, but nothing out of the ordinary, what you describe is a strange (and scary) world indeed. I would find it really interesting to hear a perspective on this sort of thing from one of your brothers who has left CP. I imagine that it would be very difficult to learn to interract in the real world, with ordinary women, after an upbringing like that, and I am curious as to how they managed, either from conversations you’ve had with them in recent years, or as a guest post from one of them.

    • Red

      Yes, please, this. I was asking the same question in my mind.

      You know what’s funny? The most authoritarian dad I know ended up in kind of an awkward situation…he, too, kept harping on the fact that his now-teenaged son didn’t want to be under the authority of a woman anymore. The problem is, the dad was a real jerk, and so the son lost all respect for HIM too! It ended up that the kid wouldn’t listen to either of them, and started making his own (very unwise) decisions at a young age, and pretty much living his own life, because neither of his parents commanded any respect anymore.

  • Carys Birch

    In a similar vein, I’m the eldest of three children. Both my younger siblings are boys. None of us are married. We age 30, 28, and 24 respectively. We have all been boomerangs to a certain extent, but are all reasonably self-reliant now.

    My parents consider my brothers adults, because they are self-sufficient. They have said they will consider me an adult when I’m married.

    • Rilian

      I think marriage must factor into my grandma’s understanding of adulthood, because she supposedly only gives xmas gifts to the children, but my brother and I still keep getting gifts, despite being over 18. But at least she doesn’t seem to just be having that rule for women.

      • Rosa

        my partner got moved up to the grownup table when we had a baby. His brother had been bumped up 5 years earlier, when he got married. I think those are both pretty common standards, though nonsensical.

        His younger cousins are not getting married & procreating as young (I think partly because the economy is so much worse), and the dividing line seems to be switching to what their parents consider a “real” job – the professional nurse got bumped up this year I think, but the one not working in her degree field didn’t, and they’re very close in age.

      • ki sarita

        me also. My father and my grandfather sent me 20 dollars each.
        It’s a token gift of course- 20 dollars in the scheme of adult expenses is near meaningless and in fact they are in no way able to assist me financially in the way that I really need now- nor is that their responsibility.
        Still, On the one hand I know it is a gesture of love, but on the other hand is it a form of infantilization? Your comment leaves me wondering if they gave the same thing to their married adult children, but I’m too embarrassed to ask.

  • ki sarita

    Rosa, good point about careers. Careers often become a substitute barometer of “making it” as an adult instead of marriage, which is also unfortunate.
    In my case it put undue pressure on me as a single to advance in an unfitting career, to prove to myself as well as the world, that I was a real person.

    • Rosa

      there’s a lot to be said for having arbitrary boundaries (bat/bar mitzvah, confirmation, age of majority, quinceanera) instead of standards that have to be negotiated, to be treated as an adult. But we’re a diverse enough society that we don’t really have widely shared ones – and of course what we mean by “treated as an adult” varies, too. My grandmother married and had a baby at 16, but was treated by her mother-in-law as a minor daughter (and at least in retrospect, quite enjoyed that) for many years after that – long after they moved out and established their own home. My mom considered adulthood as the point where I didn’t need help anymore, which was much later than 16 for me but still hasn’t happened for some of my siblings, and tha’ts a problem on all sides too.

  • Tracey

    It guess it shouldn’t surprise me that there are Christians who think atheists are somehow off the hook in terms of morality. I’m sure I was always aware they have to follow laws (like don’t drive drunk) and politeness rules (like sharing). I do think it can be hard to do what’s right. I’d rather keep all the candy for myself. If rather not offer lunch to the guy who smells like b.o. But this type of internal self argument can be had by anyone right? Not just Christians. In this case it would be less chafing at authority and more like our own self struggle. For at least some people this is what’s meant by the idea that its hard to do the right thing.

    • Karen

      It can be hard to do the right thing, but that’s what a conscience is for. I think that unless a person is raised atheist, there’s a period of reflection and learning involved in figuring out what really is right. I’ve rejected so much of the bible — ethnic cleansing, rejection of LGBT people, the notion that a healthy marriage can be anything other than the partnership of equals, etc. etc. — but it took time to do that. OTOH, there’s a lot of good guidance for right living in that same book, most of which boils down to the Golden Rule; there’s also thinking through the consequences of what you do and trying to do as little harm as possible. (This covers laws like not driving drunk or blasting past everyone on the freeway at 90 mph.) But having got my sense of right and wrong fairly well settled, my conscience will take over with a vengeance if I violate my sense of right.

      • Kodie

        I think that unless a person is raised atheist, there’s a period of reflection and learning involved in figuring out what really is right.


  • A Reader

    This seems so backwards so me…”well you’re a boy, of course you should disrespect women!” But then a lot of things from that realm of thought confuse me.

  • Red

    I agree with this post! I hear so much gender essentialism, reinforced so often. And, as one earlier comment said, my real-life experience violates the gender essentialism so often that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    I remember being out to lunch with a friend who was having marital problems. Her guy was being a jerk, I mean really, a jerk. She looked at me and rolled her eyes and said “But, you know, there’s nothing I can do about it, because guys are always going to be guys, right?” And then looked at me for some kind of affirmation. I didn’t know what to say. My own marriage was doing okay, and it was because both of us lived like equals, and I didn’t give him excuses for bad behavior, and he didn’t give me excuses for bad behavior. And I wanted to say that to her, but I really thought it would be so COMPLETELY against her paradigm that she wouldn’t even know how to react to it.

  • Malitia

    Such stories make me glad for my gender blind upbringing. And gender blind: At the age of 7 or 9 I got a stove as a gift… a real but non-operational one (A reject of the local factory. My mom managed the scrapyard.) which I used to play domestic stuff until I got bored and took it apart to see how it would work. Nobody batted an eye.

  • Mostlylurking

    How you didn’t choke on the injustice is beyond me. And I can’t say your parents are doing your brothers any favours either. Dealing with real life could get ugly when you are constantly taught to disregard women, and expecting special treatment because penis.

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