We talked last time about a minister’s wife who is convinced she knows exactly how to nail this motherhood thing. I wanted to talk a little more about something in it that we only briefly touched on last time: this idea that we often see in Christians that what works for them will work for anybody else and that whatever they like or dislike, everybody else would like or dislike.
From the comments both around the internet and here, I can see that most folks are happy for her. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, and she is a stay-at-home mother. Her family might suffer a bit for her not working–which is quite debatable; I know many families who break even or even come out ahead financially with a stay-at-home parent once childcare, the extra car and wardrobe, etc. get figured into the budget–but at least she’s in a position where she can carry out the role she envisions for herself. Whatever her husband does, clearly he can (kind of?) afford a very nice, roomy roost with leather couches and other nice tchotchkes, which of course she keeps pristinely clean. Her baby looks healthy and in good shape, as does she, so neither of them have the worries of special needs. In short, this is clearly the life she wanted, the life she signed up for, and the life she is living. Good for her.
The problem comes in when she generalizes her own experiences and considers them the universal yardstick by which to judge other women. She’s decided that because this arrangement works so amazingly well for her, it must work amazingly well for all other women, too. She’s happy doing things this way, so of course every other woman should be happy doing things the same way. What works for her is by definition the default.
Worse, she’s signed on her giant invisible friend to help her bully other women into making the same choice she has. It’s not good enough for her to present her findings and say “this is what worked for me and maybe you’d like it too.” No, she has to bring in her deity–whose existence she takes for granted, of course, and doesn’t even try to credibly demonstrate–to beat other women over the head with how sinful they are if they don’t handle their home life exactly as she has.
Because she’s self-obsessed enough and lacks empathy enough to recognize that other people have their own unique situations, she sees whatever sacrifices she perceives herself as having made (which, to reiterate, are debatable) as being the biggest sacrifices anybody could ever make. She can’t even imagine what could keep someone from her baby (and yes, it is her baby; she is talking here only about stay-at-home mothers, even going so far as to denigrate men who are too “domestic,” so I’ll be using the female pronoun in discussing her views–it is not my view and I am well aware of and support men who make that choice!). What’s funny is that she does kind of understand, dimly at least, that some women literally can’t do things any other way but to work outside the home, but her bar of acceptance for this necessity is ridiculously rigorous. She “grieves” for women who simply must work outside the home, but she’s solidly convinced that most women just work because they want luxuries–like nice houses with leather couches, I guess:
I also understand that there are lots of Christian moms out there who simply were not raised by stay-at-home moms and may not have thought about the importance of it. You may never have sat down and evaluated which material things you might have to sacrifice in order to make this work. You may have even told yourself that you “have to work” because you “can’t live on one income” while, in reality, you could be living in a smaller house, sharing a car, or making other small sacrifices (small in the grand eternal scheme of things, anyway) that could make this idea a reality for your family. This post is for you.
Yes, she actually thinks that there are fundagelical women out there who have never once in their lives heard of the new emphasis on women being baby-breeding factories who stay home with the children and homeschool them. I wonder who these mythical women might be? Because I haven’t been fundagelical in 20+ years and I seem to hear it every time I turn around. Is anybody else reminded of that newlywed man I covered some time back who was convinced that not all married Christian couples understand just how important marriage is in fundagelical Christianity?
What Hannah Giselbach is really claiming here is the right to judge other women’s lives and decide if they should be allowed the free pass of working, or if they’re fair game for her little heart to bleed peanut butter all over. She’s willing to make the supreme sacrifice of not thinking poorly of how total strangers handle their lives, but she’s going to need to see the humiliation and pain on these women’s faces, and she will need to know that they are living in abject poverty before she’ll let them off the hook before volunteering them to live a particular way to make her happy.
You know, we’ve seen this thinking before. When married middle-class white women (like her) first began venturing out into the workforce or staying in it after World War II, studies got done of what people thought of this alarming new social development. People were far more likely to approve of such women working outside the home if they knew the family desperately needed the money; they were far less likely to approve if they thought the woman in question was just needing something to do or wanted fripperies (like a nice home with leather couches). But in order to know just how to interact with a working woman, people had to know one way or the other why she was making this choice. Her motivations mattered as much as what she was actually doing. If her motivations were okay, then her position as a working wife was to some extent grudgingly accepted. If her motivations were suspect, then she was disapproved at and possibly ostracized.*
And let’s just get this out on the table now: the life Hannah Giselbach is describing is, very specifically, a recent invention that is almost exclusive to white, middle-class married women. Women of color and poor women have always worked outside the home–and often they have had to do so for women just like Ms. Giselbach. Even as recently as the 1910s and 1920s, even lower-middle-class families employed “a girl” to help with the most menial labor. Such “girls” were very cheap to employ. Increasing opportunities for women in factories and offices, which paid much better than working in other women’s homes, led to a serious labor shortage that middle- and upper-class American households never recovered from; after that, the lack of hired help was much lamented, with the fleeing “girls” maligned for their unkindness (I mean really! How dare they want jobs that paid much better and treated them with comparatively more dignity and respect! The hussies!), and wives suddenly found themselves handling tasks they’d never handled before losing their “girls.” One cookbook of 1920s even called such housewives “modern Mrs. Three-in-One”**–“by which is meant she must be cook, and waitress and gracious wife or hostess”–if not every day, then at least temporarily hired for special occasions. I don’t think most of these women even gave a thought to the families of their “girls” or wondered if they had children who maybe missed their mothers, or would have cared had they known either way. And all that separates those past housewives from today’s fundagelically-indoctrinated women is a few sparse decades.
Moreover, with divorce rates being what they are–even for fundagelical women and maybe even moreso for them–Hannah Giselbach is not assured that even her own marriage is going to last for her lifetime. Her husband might not continue to have whatever job it is that pays their bills, forcing her into the dreaded possible sin of working outside the home, or else one of the two of them might decide to end the marriage despite what the Bible says about divorce, which may well plunge her into abject poverty as it does for many women. She’s counting on being able to stay home with her child forever, but that’s counting a lot of chickens before they’re hatched. There’s a reason why women of my mother’s generation made sure their daughters at least knew how to type: they knew that nothing was assured anymore, and having Jesus in her back pocket doesn’t make Ms. Giselbach’s position any less precarious. What precautions is her husband taking to ensure that she’ll always be cared for? From what I remember, preachers don’t make a lot of money, and don’t tend to save much for the future or buy life or disability insurance. Thank goodness for them both that the Affordable Care Act is around now to help them purchase some peace of mind.
On that note, I might also wonder just what social policies Ms. Giselbach supports to ensure that the women she’s chirpily threatening with eternal damnation can have more choices about how they raise their families. Does she support universal daycare? Good sex education and access to birth control so women can plan their futures and ensure they have babies only when they can handle that catastrophic workload and financial hit? Does she support a social safety net for women who find themselves suddenly adrift? For the women lucky enough to be married, a condition she seems to consider essential for parenthood, does she support a working wage for their husbands so they can support families on one income? Does she support expansions to welfare and an easing of the burden of student loans, so both parents can get the educations they need to access better-paying jobs?
I ask because not a single one of those policies is supported by the American political party that claims to speak for her god. In fact, the political party that claims to speak for her god actively opposes every one of the positions I’ve named. She “grieves” for women who must work outside the home, but is she actually doing anything about it besides crying crocodile tears and blubbering about how saaaaaaaaad it makes her?
Oh, but it gets worse. If you let fundagelicals talk for long, it never takes much for the real monstrosity of their religion to come through in ways they don’t even realize they’re asserting. I mean, she’s implying that working outside the home could well lead women to Hell–that’s what “blaspheming the Word” means, after all. She’s flat-out saying that her bully of a god won’t understand or condone women working outside the home unless it’s absolutely necessary–but wouldn’t that mean that these women are in this situation because her god allowed them to be? Does her god deliberately put his precious children into situations where they either have to risk “blaspheming the Word” or else not feed their kids?
The bad part about judging other people’s lives is that once you’ve decided on a black-and-white
false dilemma position like “women should always stay home with their children,” you then have to adjudicate everybody’s lives and decide on all the get-out-of-it-free cards that go along with being a compassionate, empathetic person.
And sometimes those positions are necessary. As a society, we’ve decided–for good or ill–that sometimes we have to create those cards for things like criminal actions. When someone’s actions impinge upon other people’s lives in a negative way, we have to get involved at that point for the good of our society and the safety of our citizenry. But Ms. Giselbach is trying to impinge on other people’s lives in a negative way over stuff that is categorically not affecting her in any way at all and which is really none of her business. Nobody is going to take one for the team, so to speak, and stay home to care for children if there’s not a) a desire to do so (because this would blow her little mind, but not all women even want to be stay at home mothers or have the patience to do it), and b) a financial way to make it work (because it isn’t up to her to decide how much poverty is acceptable to force on another human being).
Her position isn’t even aligned with reality. Studies have never supported the contention that children of working women do worse than children of stay-at-home mothers. In fact, much the opposite; often these children do better than those who get raised by a dedicated mother. But you would never know that to look at what fundagelical Christian leaders teach their naive female parishioners. The idea is so ingrained into church culture by now that to oppose it would be as unthinkable as openly supporting abortion rights. Homeschooling, too, is fast becoming a huge trend for fundagelical parents, and it’s not easy to homeschool if a woman works outside the home, obviously.
I’m including this chapter in our Handbook because I know that after I left Christianity, I didn’t magically grow empathy or stop judging other people’s lives or even automatically learn to distinguish what was my business from what wasn’t. I bet a lot of other newly-deconverted ex-Christians have the same problem. It takes time to learn those things and to let our human sense of compassion and empathy blossom from where they withered.
What I’m describing here–this earnest meddling and judgment of others about stuff that is nobody else’s business–is not just a Christian trait but one that belongs to everybody who lacks empathy and doesn’t know how to mind their own business. Seriously, is there anybody more tedious than someone who’s lost a shitload of weight or gotten super-healthy on an extreme diet? Think about the zealotry of such people. As far as they’re concerned, it worked for them so it should work for absolutely anybody. They’ll talk the ear off of anybody who can’t find a good enough excuse to flee. I ought to know, because I did in fact lose a shitload of weight on one such eating plan (and I’ve kept it off for almost 15 years now, thankyouverymuch) and I was probably a total pain in the ass for a while before I realized that no, actually, a lot of these diets seem to work great for some people but not for a lot of other people, and it sure isn’t up to me to decide who was a good candidate for my plan and who wasn’t. Figuring out what a PITA I was was probably a big part of learning where I’d gone so wrong in Christianity. What I was doing to the people around me probably wasn’t a whole lot different from what I did to people when I was a Christian–and what the well-meaning busybody Hannah Giselbachs of the world are doing to people around themselves.
The funny thing is, I don’t seriously think she wrote that idiotic blog post to convince anybody of anything or to convict any working women of sin. She seems to have written it to lord herself over others and get validation for her life choices, a way of saying “Look at me and what I did!” It’s hard to imagine something this bungled and nasty as persuasive in the least. Half her audience hated it, it looks like–at least the half she let through the comments. The other half, however, adored it and lavished her with praise. Like Ross Douthat, that awful conservative mouthpiece opinion writer, she’s writing for a specific audience–and the audience who had ears to hear her definitely heard her. Like him, she has absolutely no constructive advice for the women she “grieves” over so much, nor does she likely support a single social policy that’d work to bring about the change she wants to see, just lots of fearmongering, pandering, and blown smoke up women’s skirts. She’s much more interested in lecturing women about how their souls are at risk for “partaking in this sad and sinful scenario” and puts working outside the home on the exact same shelf as infidelity and disobedience to her
slave-master Dommy McDommy Dom husband. That’s very strong language, not to point out the obvious. It’s hard to see pejorative language like that and think it’s actually meant to persuade anybody or accomplish anything besides making her look like a whizkid favored by the Lord on High or something–and to make working women, many of whom would really rather be home, feel even worse–and working women who love their jobs feel like Christianity’s suddenly become even more constrictive and rules-based, with no room for anybody who doesn’t toe the party line and love it like Ms. Giselbach does.
That’s why she could write something like the following quote with a perfectly straight face:
I’m not writing this to be harsh or judgmental in any way. I’m writing it to give you a little food for thought and to encourage you moms to reject the stigmas, as I have done.
And quite a few of us reading this are right now thinking what fucking stigma is she talking about? And likely as well we’re thinking who exactly is she fooling–besides herself–by trying to shield herself from all criticism by saying that she’s not “writing this to be harsh or judgmental in any way”? Because telling working Christian women–who have decided after much consideration and in the teeth of their society’s fervent, often-repeated, lavishly-taught expectations that they stay home or face divine wrath and their kids turning out to be axe murderers or worse–that they just have to pick up the stick here and just stay home or else they’re “blaspheming the Word” and “partaking in this sad and sinful scenario” is about as harsh and judgmental as can be, and it doesn’t matter how perky she tries to make it sound or how many baby photos she includes in it. (PS: “As I have done”–oh man, that’s not pompous at all.)
We need to be seeing this blog post and not just condemning it–because oh yes, it does require our condemnation for being not only a shoddy piece of shit writing but also as hateful and judgmental as anything we’ve seen out of Christendom in the last few days–but to remind ourselves that what she’s done here is a human thing, not so much a Christian thing, and leaving Christianity doesn’t mean we’ll leave behind that Christian-indoctrinated tendency to judge others and try to control their lives for their own good.
Before we tell someone to be exactly like us, we need to stop and question ourselves:
1. Is this advice requested?
2. Is this advice welcome?
3. Is this advice likely to be something the target has already thought about?
4. Am I doing everything I can politically and culturally to help this person do what I’m asking?
5. Am I chirpily volun-telling people to do something that is going to put them through substantial hardship or make their lives significantly more difficult?
6. Does my suggestion feature the word “just” anywhere in it?
If the answers don’t look good, then we need to pull ourselves back from the brink however we can to avoid being pests. Especially that last one. Egad, that last one. If anything you’ve got to suggest to another person has the word “just” anywhere in it, then you can pretty much expect that person to have already thought about whatever it is and rejected it, probably for a very good reason, and you’re going to look like a Grade-A asshole for saying it.
One of the hardest lessons we’ll learn in our post-Christian journey is how to let other people do their thing.
A lot of Christian culture features this sort of meddling disguised as concern and love. But we have to move past it if we’re going to learn what love really is and how to show real concern.
Please join me next time as we take on narcissism in Christianity and how to start growing past that tendency to self-obsess.
* Something from the Oven. Tons of surveys about working women from the 1930s-1970s and examinations of women of color and poor women’s situations, especially on p. 135 regarding a survey done in 1957 that found that for working wives to get approval from their peers, they had to have a good excuse to do it.
** Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, p. 2. It’s also got some genuinely good older recipes for forgotten foods, many of which deserve to see the light of day again.