Freedom From Patriarchy

by Erika

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Here in the US, we celebrated our nation’s independence and freedom this past Saturday, the 4th of July. This particular holiday always makes me think of my own Independence Day.

We had a BBQ with family and friends this past Saturday and while we were sitting inside to stay out of the rain, I was telling my friends about the jumper that my sister had made for herself back when she was 18. I had recently posted the picture of our family on my Facebook account and one of my friends asked, “Does your sister really have a cow on her jumper?”

Yes, she did.

In fact, she had the whole farm SCENE. The field, the red barn, the fruit trees, the cows, etc. My mom, sisters and I all worked together in our custom sewing business. We made modest apparel for other ultra-conservative families. The farm fabric was bought in a huge bolt so that we could make little dresses, pinafores and aprons for young girls, but at 18 years old, my sister made herself a jumper out of the fabric. By choice. Her white head covering and hair in a bun completed the look. I took the album out so that I could prove to my friends that we really DID wear the frumpy “modest” clothing, along with the horrible head coverings.

Taking that one album out resulted in taking more albums out and we spent the rest of the evening looking at pictures from days gone by and pouring over my kids’ scrapbook albums. I remember my friend, Nancy, asking if I’d be making my daughter dress like that as she got older. I looked at her and laughed, then asked what in the world would make her think that I would make my daughter dress like that. There’s no chance in hell or heaven that I would put my child through something like that. I told my friend, “If there’s one thing I learned in how my parents raised me through those years, it’s that I will NOT raise my children how they raised me through those years.”

While there are certain aspects of the way my parents raised me that I’m grateful for, the years between 14 and 20 don’t include many, if any at all, that I’m grateful for. The thing I AM grateful for is for actually making it through those years alive and with my sanity and faith intact.

Like Vyckie and Laura, there is so much of my story to tell, but it’s hard to do that in just one post, so I’ve chosen to share my Independence Day with you, seeing that it was very timely with the recent holiday. I’ll be doing some more guest posts here, so I’ll share other glimpses of my life in the world of patriarchy as time goes on.

I was 20 years old when I got married. Getting to that point was not only fast, but it was one of the most difficult and courageous things I’ve ever done. I have never felt as free as I did the day I got married.

You see, when I was 14, my parents pulled myself and my 3 siblings out of public school to homeschool us. Granted, the school system we were in at the time really wasn’t top notch. High school drop-outs were sometimes used as substitute teachers, the work wasn’t challenging and it seemed as though their motto was, “We don’t go any faster than the slowest child in class.” I really did get a better education at home, but there were a lot of forced sacrifices because of it.

When my parents decided to homeschool us, we were going to a mainstream non-denominational Christian church. My parents owned a wholesale bakery in the small town we lived in. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and had been the class president. I was involved in FHA, yearbook, band and going into my sophomore year, I was going to be on the varsity basketball team. That was something that I had been working toward since 4th grade. My mother informed the school that we would not be coming back about 2 weeks before my freshman year ended.

It was 1991 and I was heading off for 2 months to Uganda, Africa on a missions trip. When I left, I was assured that I could still take part in the extra-cirricular activities at the school. During those 2 months away, a lot had started changing in my family and it wasn’t something I was happy to discover when I got home.

My parents had started visiting a church an hour and a half away in southern Vermont (we were living in northern New Hampshire at the time). The families at this church all homeschooled, all the girls wore dresses and skirts ALL the time, many of the families had a lot of children, but the thing that stood out the most was that the husbands/fathers were considered the lord of the family. The head. The authority. What he said went. No asking questions, no questioning authority.

The church claimed they had a “plurality of leadership,” but even at 14 years old, I could tell that one guy was in charge. It sounded nice in concept, but everyone was afraid of him and in awe of him at the same time. Not me, though. I would sit in my chair every Sunday with my middle fingers (yes, both hands) flipped at him in my pockets. In many ways, I hold this man accountable for brain-washing my parents and effectively stealing 6 years of my life and soul during those horrible patriarchy-soaked years.

It wasn’t long before my parents made us go to this church every Sunday. 3 hours round trip every week for a year and a half…until our car finally couldn’t take any more (after that, my parents found other ultra-conservative families in the area to segregate themselves with and home church until we moved to PA in 1993). And it wasn’t long before I was no longer allowed to participate in the extra-cirricular activities at school. My friends, books, music, letters, phone calls…all were censored. When the school year started, I would walk to school with the neighbor girls and hang out in the school yard with them until the first bell rang and then I would walk home. That had to stop, too. Eventually, the church convinced my parents that we just weren’t living according to the Bible if we were wearing pants. We were made to give up our pants and shorts.

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I remember when one of the families that we home churched with started wearing head coverings. My parents thought they had gone too far (not realizing that all the things they were making our family do at the time was also too far). Less than a year later, we had moved to PA and my father made us start wearing them, too. The clothes we had to wear got frumpier and more insanely “modest.” I found it bizarre that even the Mennonites in the area thought we were weird and they were the ones dressing in cape dresses and mesh head coverings.

We spent 2 3/4 years in PA and my parents took our family out of the frying pan and into the fire. My father was so heavily steeped in the world of patriarchy and my mom followed right behind. I have to say, though, that after talking with my mom over the past years, I realized that her heart just wasn’t in it, but she also didn’t have the will to fight it either.

By the time early 1996 came, we were getting ready to leave PA and move to Vermont. We missed the clean air (don’t let people fool you when they tell you Amish country is clean living….there’s a ton of pollution there) and most of all, we missed the mountains. Looking back, I laugh at my parents feeling like there was too much religious oppression in Lancaster County, PA. The Amish and especially the Mennonites, had such a legalistic way of life and my parents found that stifling, as it was every where we turned. Ironic, considering that my parents just had a different brand of legalism. It was just as bad, but of a different flavor. I suppose they felt their legalism was better than the other kind of legalism….but isn’t that how those groups usually work? They all take pride in their “humility” and their righteousness is better than everyone else’s.

Right before we moved, my mom and I stopped wearing our headcoverings here and there. We would leave them home when we went out into town. We would leave them off longer in the mornings. At first, my dad would get upset about it and ask why we didn’t have them on. Eventually, I think he got tired of pressing the issue with my mom and I. Maybe he felt like we were too strong together.

I was 19 years old when we were getting packed up to move. I wasn’t in the market for a husband, partially because I didn’t want to end up with some jackass that would treat me like a sub-par human being and would put me in another set of spiritual and emotional set of shackles. I didn’t want to be traded from one owner to the next.

My family had an in home bakery and we dealt with a lot of commercial accounts and my father also did a delivery day to all the professional offices. Kind of like the old-fashioned milk man, but with breads, pies, cakes, pastries, etc. He would go to the work places of women since they were no longer home-keepers and had professional careers. That always puzzled me, as well. My father told us that women weren’t meant to work outside the home, but were meant to get married, raise babies (as many as God would give them), homeschool them and completely sacrifice themselves to their husband and children. Yet….my family depended on these professional women to purchase our goods so our family could be provided for. It always seemed like a double standard to me, but God forbid that I question any of this.

My father met my future brother-in-law at one of the places he delivered to weekly. He would buy pastries and bread and then bring them home. My future mother-in-law loved our baked goods and called my parents to place an order for some upcoming company they had coming. My mom informed her that we’d soon be moving and that if she wanted to order extra, everything would freeze well.

So, that’s what my MIL did. When she came to pick up her order at our house, I answered the door and my future husband was standing there with my future MIL. I thought he was good looking, but didn’t think much else since I was busy packing and had other things to do. My mom and my future MIL got talking and found that our families had a lot in common. She invited our family over the next week for dinner. It was 8 days before we moved and we all showed up on their doorstep only to go for dessert since we really didn’t have time for much else.

We only meant to stay a couple of hours, but ended up being there for 7 hours and left at 1 am. Everyone hit it off really well, but there was still no romantic interest, as we didn’t think we’d ever see these people again, considering that we were moving in just 8 days.

Over the next few months, our moms talked on the phone and us older kids had 4-way phone conversations (my sister and I and the two older brothers in the other family). By May of 1996 (just 5 months after we’d met), the two older boys had approached my father to pursue my sister and I.

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My father gave his blessing but put down very specific rules. No hand holding, no touching, no hugging, no kissing, no words of affection, no physical contact WHATSOEVER, no “I love yous” (as that was reserved for engagement). Everything was to go through the approval of my father. We were allowed one letter a week from each other (we lived 450 miles apart) and many of those earlier letters were read by my father, whether coming in or going out. We didn’t have email back then. We were allowed two phone calls a week, 30 min. each. At the beginning, my father would sit in on the phone calls. He even kept a timer handy and when the 30 min. were up, the phone call was deemed OVER. No more talking. Hang it up.

Over that year, we found that the church my future husband and his family went to was a cult. Not that the legalism and ultra-conservative way of life my parents were following wasn’t too far off from that. My father decided, after 9 months of “courtship” (oh, how I loathe that word and anything associated with it), that the guys “weren’t marriage material” and we were told to break off any and all contact with them.

I was 20 and my sister was 21. Old enough, mature enough and adult enough to make that decision on our own, but not the way my father saw it. In the world of patriarchy, a woman’s thoughts, emotions, body and life are not her own. They are owned by a husband or a father. Forever. Never to be held in her own hands or heart. After all, Old Testament scripture (twisted out of context) and ancient tradition proved that a girl was not in ownership of her life and that she had no say in who she married.

Through the back-up of the man who headed up the cult-like church that my parents first got involved in when they went down the path of patriarchy, my father fully believed that he, and he alone, chose who my sister and I were to marry. For a while, even after my sister and I were married, my father refused to acknowledge our marriages, stating that since he didn’t approve of them or choose our husbands and didn’t give his blessing, in the eyes of God, we were living in fornication and demanded that we come home. It boggled my mind that while we were considered old and mature enough to actually BE married, we were not mature enough to actually be trusted with the choice of WHO we would marry. And the way my father believed at the time, we NEVER would be. It was his right and his alone. We had no say and we had to accept it….or so my parents said.

My sister obeyed my father and broke things off with Jonathan. I, on the other hand, had worked too hard to get where I was and was determined to find a way to be with the one I loved. David and I found a way to keep in touch with each other, through payphones and writing our letters in code (yes, David created a code out of symbols to write in and we still have copies of those) and making sure to be the one to pick up the mail at the post office rather than my parents. My sister was sent away to North Carolina to nanny for a family as her “ministry.” While she was there, she got back together with Jonathan over the phone.

5 weeks after my sister left for NC, we all realized that we were tired of being played like pawns in my father’s game. David and I knew we wanted to be together but we also knew that my father would never allow it. We knew that we would have to take matters into our own hands. Like adults. We knew, though, that we wouldn’t be seen as adults, but as just a couple of rebellious kids who were living outside of God’s will. We were willing to take that chance, as we knew we were in the right.

5 days before David came up to propose to me, we talked on the phone and he told me that he would be coming up to get me, to pack my bags and that he had something important to ask me. I asked him if he was going to propose. He told me that he couldn’t tell me. It was a surprise. I told him, “Okay then, I wear a size 5 ring.”

In the meantime, Jonathan told my sister to get her stuff together because he would be showing up around the same time that David would be coming up here to Vermont (my sister was still in NC). We all knew that if one of us girls were to go, we both had to go. If one of us were left behind, we knew we’d be under lock and key….literally. I’d been there before when I tried to leave home earlier in the year (that’s for another story) and I certainly didn’t want to be there again.

At the time, I felt horribly guilty for leaving home. I knew it was something I was going to do, but all the drilling into us of our rightful place at home was playing mind games with me. Our family was very close, even though it was a bit cracked in the head when it came to crazy cult-ideas of patriarchy. The heart strings were being tugged and I knew that it would crush my parents and that was something I knew would haunt me for a while, but it was something that I was willing to do to claim my freedom. It was something I HAD to do to claim my freedom. I knew I couldn’t stay to make everyone else happy.

For once, I had to put my own freedom and happiness ahead of what other people wanted me to do. It wasn’t about being selfish, as many people eventually condemned me of, but about taking back what was rightfully mine and claiming it.

For a long time, people claimed that I ran away from home. I strongly disagree. A 20 year old doesn’t “run away from home.” They claim their freedom and take it back from the people that stole it from them. Minors run away from home. 20 year olds claim their freedom. Of course, in the eyes of partiarchy, a 20 year old girl is not her own and doesn’t have any rights or freedom, so to them, I did run away from home. What a twisted and miserable way to live and think.

I had always known, deep inside, that the way I was being treated, as property, was NOT the way God had intended women to live. In my heart and soul, I had led a silent rebellion (and sometimes not so silent during those years). A revolution of sorts.

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Feminism was always alive and well inside but I had been looking for the right time to let it out, to let it free. (Yes, I still profess my Christianity, but I consider myself more of a liberal Christian and definitely a biblical feminist and egalitarian.)

I quietly packed what I could without anyone noticing that there was much missing. I couldn’t bring more than a few bags of clothes, my notebook, a couple CDs and the collection of letters that David had sent to me during the 10 months that we were “courting.” I had arranged to work at a farm that I had helped at off and on and stored my bags there.

David came to Vermont and we met up with some friends at the hardware store parking lot. They went into the store and let David and I sit in the car alone for a little while. He’d told me earlier that he couldn’t afford a ring, so I wasn’t expecting one. I told him that I didn’t need a ring to get married, just him. He got out of the car, went to trunk and came back to the driver’s seat. He pulled out a small brown velvet box and proposed to me, in the middle of a blizzard on March 21, 1997. I was shocked that he had a ring and asked him about being able to afford it. He told me that he couldn’t afford it when he’d talked to me those few days before since he had just bought it and had very little money left. Technically he couldn’t afford a ring at that point. Because of our situation, he wanted something left to surprise me with. Of course I said yes.

The next two days were full of nerves and stress. I couldn’t eat and even threw up a few times. We both needed so badly for all of this to work without a hitch. Two days after he proposed, we met up at the farm that I was working at. The night before, I spent over an hour writing a letter to my parents, explaining why I was leaving, why I was taking my freedom back, that I loved them and that I hoped they understood. I put the letter under my pillow the morning I left. I got up very early so that I could get to the farm by milking time. The sun was just peeping up over the horizon and I walked to the edge of the room that my 2 younger brothers shared. I blew kisses to each of them while they slept. I walked into my parents’ room and placed a kiss on each of their cheeks. It was just like any normal morning to them. They had no idea what was going to hit them later in the day. Not only would they find that one daughter had left, but that the other had also left NC and was on her way to PA….both with rings on their fingers and freedom held tightly in their fists.

I put in a morning’s work and he helped alongside me. We were waiting for word from my sister that she had been picked up by Jonathan and were on their way to PA to meet us there. As soon as we got word, we left Vermont for PA.

I called 2 hours down the highway to tell my parents that I had left the car in the parking lot at the nearby orchard with the keys under the mat. My mother answered the phone and thought I was joking at first. She was livid, told me I was a disappointment to her and made me put David on the phone. She demanded that he bring me home and scolded him for stealing me. I took back the phone and told her that I was going to PA, that I was engaged, that I loved her but there was also nothing they could do about it at that point, that I was an adult.

The thing I remember most about that phone call was that my mother was worried about the testimony I had marred for our family by doing this. It was then that I realized, in a whole new way, that so many of the things that my family had been doing over those 6 long years was about appearances. My parents were more concerned about how it made them look. They were concerned about how others would think of them. It was eye-opening and infuriating at the same time. That put a resolve in me that what I was doing was the right thing. I didn’t mention a word about my sister leaving. They found that out later on when they tried to call her to tell her to pray for me and found out that she, too, had left. (I’ll tell the story about our engagement and wedding in another guest post.)

Leaving home (not “running away from home”) was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Birthing my 2 kids naturally was easier than that. I felt exhilaration, sadness, freedom, anger, joy, guilt, hope, love, resolve …..all these emotions all at once. I was so happy to be engaged and on my way to being married. I was hopeful for a new life with the one I loved. I was exhilarated to be free. I was sad and angry that I had allowed someone to have control over me the way my parents did for so long. I was angry that they were disappointed in me, rather than being proud of me for making positive choices and for following my heart and what I believed to be God’s will for my life. I was angry that they wanted me to follow THEIR will, while putting it under the guise of being God’s will. I felt guilty for leaving behind my two brothers (who were 18 and 12 at the time), who I knew would be turned against me and would be taught to look down on me through twisted scripture and legalistic rules drilled into their minds. But I was resolved to stand firm in my decision and to make my marriage work.

I remember a time before David and I became a “couple.” It was early 1996 and I had gotten my license (yes, at 19 years old – that’s another subject for a future post) and a job. I adored going to work. It was the one place I could completely be me. Where I didn’t have to worry about people lecturing me. I didn’t have to be on eggshells, thinking that any moment, no matter what I did, it would incur parental wrath and I would have to be subjected to a long winded sermon tailored for an audience of one – me. I was 19 at the time.

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This picture was taken right around that time. The picture makes it look like I’m happy, but inside I was dying a slow and painful death. I felt suffocated. I became obsessed with what I ate….practically starving myself. I roller-bladed 3 miles a day and biked 3 miles a day. 6 miles total. I was a skeleton but hid it well with baggy clothes. I had been suffering a silent depression. I knew that if I told my parents about it, they would tell me I had sin in my life that needed to be dealt with. I knew they would tell me that true Christians don’t get depressed. I knew that I would be locked down even more than I already was. No, I had to keep it silent.

I might have looked happy here, but it was right around this time that I would drive home from work every day and the awful feeling of repression hitting would set in, knowing that I would have to go home to a patriarchal setting, to one where I was devalued, to one where I was angry at God for giving me a vagina instead of a penis (because that’s all it seemed the patriarchal pigs thought you needed to be better than the other gender), to one where spiritual abuse was the “soup de jour,” where depression greeted me like a hungry wolf every time I walked in the door – just waiting to tear me apart and steal my soul.

It was during this time that I would try to work up the courage every time I drove home…..the courage to drive my car into a tree and just get rid of the pain I felt eating me from the inside out. The thought of going back home every day was that painful. I knew my parents loved me, but the way they showed it was just so unbiblical and hurtful. It hurt to be loved….and not in a good way. I wanted to die.

Years later, I realize it took more courage to go home every day and find a way out.And that’s exactly what I did when I walked out of the prison I called home and into freedom.

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Many people said that I was getting married for all the wrong reasons. That I was just looking for a way out. I disagree. In many ways, David was (and still is) my hero. My knight in rusty, old, beat-up armor. He gave me the courage to reclaim my freedom, my independence. I honestly think that I would have been buried long ago if he hadn’t come along at just the right time. We were married on June 14, 1997 and my father (and many others that thought just like my parents) warned us that it would never last. 12 years later, we’re still here to prove them wrong. Sure, it hasn’t been easy, but what marriage is? I’m just glad I married someone that didn’t have his head up his tush and that he didn’t have a god-complex.

A new world opened up to me on March 23, 1997. I truly felt, even with the pain that I went through in leaving and being treated like a rebellious and selfish little child, like I had been relieved of a huge weight. I felt like I had chains taken off me. I felt like I had been given a new lease on life, as cliche as that sounds. I felt like I found my soul again. March 23, 1997 will always be my own personal “Independence Day.”

Since then, I have found a passion for seeing other girls and women break free from the awful chains of patriarchy. To find freedom from guilt for desiring to be themselves, for wanting their freedom in the first place, and moreso, to reach out and grab it back from those that stole it from them. As much as I hated having to go through all of that, I do know that made me a stronger person, it has given me something to leave my daughter as a legacy and has given me the courage to pursue things that I might never have had the courage to do so before.

Even still, I would rather have not gone through all of that (and there’s more to this story than just what you’re reading here – this was the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version,” as my dad calls it), but there are things that we sometimes can’t control from happening…but we CAN control how we let it affect us and what we do with the situations that are dealt us.

I’m sure many of you are wondering where my parents are in all of this these days. I’m happy to say that my parents are no longer living this lifestyle. They, too, found spiritual freedom. It took about a year for us to come to reconciliation. Looking back, I am not sorry for leaving, I’m not sorry for standing my ground, I’m not sorry for doing what I had to do. I am sad that we were left no choice to do what we had to do, as much of it wasn’t ideal, but then, neither were the situations we were put in at the time. None of it was ideal and none of it should have happened. But….it did and if I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t think twice. I would do it in a heartbeat.

My parents are part of a wonderful church in RI and living their dream of living on a sailboat full time. They’ve come away from the legalistic brain-washing and have asked forgiveness for all that they put us through. I would never withhold that from them. They are two of my closest friends these days. I can have spiritual discussions with my father and actually enjoy them. He’s no longer in his “a-hole phase,” as I like to call it. He was surprised when he found out I had a name for it. I had to admit that, yes, he was indeed an a-hole back then, even though I did love him.

They freely admit that they were influenced by men and movements that wrapped up a shiny package of perfect families and godly living, while twisting scriptures out of context and adding man-made rules to the equation. I always found it ironic that these groups and movements talk about grace, but live by the law and only have grace for themselves.

I have found, over the years, that creative therapy has helped me come to terms with much of the pain I felt through those years. To face the hurt that I still feel sometimes at having the years that should have been the best years of my life (the teen years) actually turn out to be the worst. Sure, I have good memories tucked in there, but they were overshadowed for a long time by depression. I’ve also realized that in order to fully face the lingering emotions, I have to talk about it and share it. I have to put those emotions into art.

I’ve also found that by sharing my own creative therapy with others, women have learned to share their own souls in scrapbooks about themselves. I now run weekend retreats with women from all walks of life and backgrounds and encourage them to leave a lasting legacy and story of their lives. It gives them something to hand on to younger generations, but I find that it also gives them a release as they finally do something for themselves. I also run this course as an online course and the sharing, compassion and encouragement I find happening between these women is astounding. We all find a common ground as women and realize that we’re stronger than people think us to be….and even more than we think ourselves to be when we first start digging around inside ourselves. Seeing women, whether it’s in an online forum, or in a more intimate weekend retreat setting, find their voice is truly astounding.

I find a release through being creative and I’ve also realized that through this art, I can create a story for my children…the true story. I want them to know where I’ve been, what I’ve done, how I’ve become who I am today and I’m not pulling any punches.

Some day, my kids will understand how their mom claimed her freedom, as they will never know what it’s like to live in chains like I did – in a place that should have been safe and freeing for me. I vowed years ago that my children would never know spiritual abuse from their father or I. They would never have to go through what I did to gain my independence. But I DO want them to know, through my own courage, that they CAN reach for the things that are truly good and right and not be afraid to do so.

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