My wife is a pastor. Specifically, she’s the senior pastor of a prominent church in downtown Portland, Ore. I’m on staff too, but only part-time, and she enjoys telling people she’s my boss. Technically, I answer to the church board, but people get a laugh about the reversal of “typical roles.”
I get my share of “preacher’s wife” jokes, to which I have a handful of rote responses. No, I don’t knit or make casseroles. No, I don’t play in the bell choir. Generally, the jokes are pretty gentle, but they all point to the reality that few of us will actually talk about: We see the traditional roles of women as less important than those of their male counterparts. And so, to see a man who works from home most of the time and takes the kids to school while his wife has the “high power” job brings everything from the man’s masculinity to his ambition into question.
But regardless of the teasing I get, Amy has it a lot worse. One time, when she was guest preaching at a church in Colorado, a tall man who appeared to be in his 60s came up to her after worship. “That was pretty good,” he said, smiling but not extending his hand, “for a girl.”
Amy and I planted a church in southern Colorado 10 years ago, and we actually kind of enjoyed watching people’s expectations get turned on end when they met us. A newcomer would walk in the doors of the church and almost always walk up to me and start asking questions about our congregation.
“Oh, you’re looking for the person in charge,” I’d say. “She’s over there.” Then would come the dropped jaws and the wordless stammers as they reconfigure everything they assumed walking through the door. Amy’s even had people stand up and walk out in the middle of worship when they realize she’s about to preach.
Sex, faith and power have been long-time, if not always productive, bedfellows within organized religion. And from what I’ve seen as a “preacher’s wife,” Christianity is at least a generation behind the rest of the United States in figuring out our respective roles and limitations. Some churches would sooner shutter their doors forever than allow a woman to preach, and soon enough they’ll probably get that chance, given that the vast majority of people in seminary today are women.
In fact, there are more women in higher education altogether than there are men. In many respects, the continuing tide of gender parity is inevitable across social and economic systems, if they’re to have a hope of remaining relevant at all. But that doesn’t mean everyone is entirely comfortable with the changes.
It’s important for all of us to recognize the challenges that come along with such a profound sea change. Amy has told me that, although she has found her place in the professional world, she experiences an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around her to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom. So in a way, hers has been a process of addition rather than adjustment or reallocation.
Overall, as women have entered the full-time workplace in growing numbers, they’ve experienced more of the same side effects that men “enjoy” from overwork and related stress, including increased hypertension, heart disease, and other risk factors related to eating on the run and missing out on exercise. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but research is finding that, as women gain opportunities once enjoyed predominantly by men, they’re also suffering from the effects those opportunities can have.
While progress toward equality is obviously a good thing, it’s not always clear whether the secondary effects are ideal. Theologian and author Phyllis Tickle talks about turning points that have affected family dynamics and, secondarily, church communities, such as access to birth control and workplace parity. Her point—or at least one of them—seems to be that when children don’t come home to a parent after school or take the time to gather intentionally around a table for a meal, the family identity suffers. Others, such as author and blogger Julie Clawson, push back on this notion, suggesting that unfair blame is being cast in women’s direction, and that such claims draw a false correlation.
Some suggest that such trends mean we’re headed down a dangerous path, and they use this as their basis for calling for what they call a return to “traditional family values.” Others place the blame on unrealistic expectations for working mothers to be superhuman, a social burden that is not equally shared by men in a similar position. Others point a finger at our economic system, blaming the need for families to depend on two full-time incomes in many cases to subsist in the American middle class. Still others argue that these trends are largely a confabulation, manufactured by a society wrestling with gender roles, norms, and a sense of ground shifting beneath their feet.
Zoe, our 4 year old, had a dads’ night at her preschool recently, at which they presented us with the requisite finger paintings and other artifacts of her classroom time. But my favorite thing was a letter that she dictated to her teacher for me. The very first sentence in her letter was: “My dad loves taking me to school every morning.” She’s right; I do. And I know sometimes Amy gets jealous when she has to kiss the kids on the head and dash out the door for an early meeting. Again, this is not a day-in, day-out thing, but it seems that when it happens, she struggles with it more than I did when I used to do it.
For the first 10 years or so of our marriage, I was the office job guy, affording my wife the opportunity to go to graduate school, stay home with our newborns, and, eventually, start a new church in our home. But I do think that, because in our culture it’s still often “expected” that men will be the primary providers, there was less of a cultural bias for me to overcome in leaving the kids. I was expected to be gone, working to provide for my family, just like my dad had been. I get some teasing about being more domestic than the archetypal Don Draper character from Mad Men, but generally, society tends to look favorably now on men who choose to spend more time at home with their children.
And even if others don’t explicitly tell Amy that she’s expected to be both the perfect mother and the ideal leader, she certainly wrestles with the voices in her own head that tell her she’s always falling short at one job or the other.
We’re in a liminal space as a family and as a larger culture. We’re suspended uncomfortably in the space between what was and what will be. We’re improvising in the moment to define familial and professional roles as the moment demands, and sometimes we completely screw it up.
But we’re a family. We may not look or act like your family, or like some imaginary cultural construct of what “family” is supposed to be, but we’re family, nonetheless. We’re not perfect parents, but hey, that’s what therapy is for, right? We’ve been married for 13 years and, although it certainly hasn’t always been easy, it’s always been worth it.
The day may come when Amy stays home with the kids again. Maybe I’ll find myself back in the business world, either by choice or out of necessity. But for now, this works for us.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a casserole to take out of the oven ...
Christian Piatt (christianpiatt.com) is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About the Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. He has a new memoir on faith, family, and parenting called PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude, and a Due Date. The opinions in this commentary are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Courtesy Sojourners www.sojourners.com.