My mom exhaled deeply, disappointed. She sat down on our overstuffed leather sofa, with her shoulders slumped. She turned her knees towards mine and looked straight into my eyes.
“I think the sexism around you is starting to affect you.”
I remember silence in that bright living room. She dropped her gaze, stood up, and left the room.
I felt her words in my 18-year-old gut.
It was May, and my senior class was deciding who should be our commencement speaker—we chose my dad. My mom, an overly qualified alumnus of the school with a master’s degree and a doctorate, had wanted to know, Had it occurred to me that she might be considered for the gig?
When she asked, I was quiet for a brief moment before I squeaked out some jumble—I didn’t know, I couldn’t remember, I wasn’t sure. The truth was, I had not thought of her and she knew it. Her disappointment was not that my dad would give the commencement speech. I believe that what cut her the deepest was that it had not occurred to her son to consider her.
Both of my parents are pastors. My dad went to seminary and became an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America—and, in a world where women and men are equals, so did my mom. Even in this world, my mom received a Masters of Religious Education and a Doctorate of Ministry, but she was known mainly as a pastor’s wife. My dad served at a handful of small-town churches across the Midwest during my childhood. In each place, I watched as my mom tried to work out her calling in churches that privileged and prioritized my dad’s.
Usually, a minister receives a “call” from a church to be their pastor. This call is derivative of a grander call from God to be ministers of good news to a broken world. My mom shares the calling from God to bring good news to the broken world, but she has never experienced the call from a church to be their pastor.
When we were dating, Sonja was worried that marriage meant compromising her ambition. We had only recently found the courage to use the “m” word when she said to me one night, “I’m afraid that marriage means my career will suffer.”
Sonja saw her career as an endless road onward and upward. She had the drive and intelligence to go places. I had not considered whether my commitment to Sonja would require anything of my own career plans. Looking back, it is inconceivable that I did not have the same questions about my career that she had about hers. The vocational default in most marriages bends toward the husband. I made a commitment for that not to be the case in our marriage. Entirely biased but resolute, I remember responding to her, “You will have a better career by us being together. I promise.”
That promise put me in therapy in 2015. Well, a lot of things put me in therapy, not the least of which was the fact that my promise to be an unwavering fan, not only my wife, but of my wife’s career, had finally cost me. Sonja got into the University of Chicago’s business school, and moving to Chicago was clearly the best path forward for her. Yet, I had grand ambitions of building my own resume in Washington, DC. The tension between our two desires broke me in ways I did not understand.
Could I champion Sonja’s career when it would have costs on mine, without producing some sort of resentment or anxiety? Could either of us pray honestly about these decisions? Did my own career goals conflict with being a husband who is a feminist?
In a move that felt sacrificial to me, we chose Chicago. I felt like a martyr, mainly because I am a man and men are usually not asked to make sacrifices like this. Yet, that was hardly the case. In the end, Chicago proved to be the right move for both of us: vocationally, emotionally, spiritually. God honored the tension, the anxiety of the decision, maybe even the therapy sessions, so that it quickly became obvious that Chicago was the right decision.
Now, Sonja is 9 months pregnant (due yesterday, at the time of writing this). Like many couples venturing into parenthood, we have a shelf of books we’re supposed to read. One of the books that we are reading in preparation for being new parents is by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book, only a finger’s width, is titled Dear Ijeawele, and it is a letter written to a friend about how to raise their child as a feminist.
That sounds so political, doesn’t it? I don’t think it should. I want to raise a feminist, which is simply to say that I do not want the sex of my baby to determine what job opportunities they will have or how much they will get paid or how they will be treated by other human beings. That seems reasonable, right? As Adiche says in her book: “Because you are a girl is never a reason for anything… ever. What are the things that my daughter cannot do because she is a woman? I think that is a very small list of things.”
We still don’t know the sex of our baby, though we’ve had friends and relatives swear they can tell. But, should our baby’s chances of being a chef or a stay-at-home parent or a banker or an entrepreneur or a farmer or a teacher change once we know what body parts they have? Should his or her future potential earnings drop dramatically if we have a girl? Of course not!
Adiche points out many of the ways that gendered stereotypes shape our children and define their success. But, she argues, the metric for success should not be gendered. There is not a singular femininity to which my daughter should aspire. Nor is there an ideal masculine person that my son must become. Heavens, look at Christ! If the goal of life is for a boy to become a “man”—the weeping, never married, non-violent Christ was a miserable failure. God has created my child to be someone in particular, and God delights in their particularity. My goal as a parent is to help them live into becoming that person. Their bodies will play an important role, but the metric for their success is not to be determined by gendered stereotypes.
If they want to be a doctor, great. If they want to write novels or sing songs or paint or sculpt, great. And if my child is called to preach good news to a broken world, I hope he or she will follow in their grandma’s and grandpa’s footsteps and find a people open to the possibility of their calling.
I left the brown leather sofa convicted about my unconscious participation in a subconscious sexism that had shaped my mom’s entire life in unjust ways. Nothing changed in that moment. My mom and I both went about our days. Years later, I even had to remind my mom that the conversation had ever happened. In some mysterious way, though, that moment imprinted something lasting in me.
Still, perhaps nothing more needs to be said about this issue. Her life has been full of meaning and importance in enough ways that I am tempted to sweep under the rug the fact that being a woman has dictated much of her vocation. Water under the bridge, right? She’s still had a good life, and many people have called her “pastor” along the way. Were it not for that conversation years ago, I could leave it at that. That conversation made me aware of the myriad ways she had never been considered.
My mom’s list of accomplishments is long. On that list, though, there is a blank line that ought to read, “called by a church to be their pastor.”
But below that empty space, there is this line: “Raised a feminist.”