I was glad to get your letter. You needn’t apologize for feeling bewildered about what has been happening in Jan’s life and in your marriage since she became involved in the women’s movement. I think I can understand something of what you’re feeling. And having talked to other Christian husbands, I can assure you you’re not alone.
Many men share that sense of uneasiness (“What’s happening to us? What does it all mean? What changes will have to take place?”), hurt (“I tried my best to make her happy. Isn’t what I have to offer her enough?”), resentment (“Why can’t life go on as it always has? My wife used to seem perfectly content.”), even fear (“Maybe she’ll get so independent she won’t need me any more! Maybe she’ll even get ideas about leaving! Or maybe women will take over things, and we men will lose our masculinity.”).
On that last one, I’m reminded of a sentence in Gene Marine’s A Male Guide to Women’s Liberation (which I recommend, by the way; it’s an effort by a man to help other men understand what large numbers of women are concerned about today). Marine writes: “If the idea of free women makes us feel ‘unmanned,’ it is the fear, not the women, that unmans us.” He makes a good point. For the Christian, the idea of human freedom shouldn’t be threatening. Jesus described his mission in terms of freedom, saying he was sent “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). True, we can spiritualize that, or at least limit it, and say he came to free us from sin, guilt, the fear of death, and the bondage of the law—and simply let it go at that. But mind-boggling as such great theological truths are, I’m convinced there’s even more to the freedom Christ grants. He said he came that we might experience life in all its abundance, and I think an important part of abundant life is living up to one’s potential—being able to fulfill the Creator’s design for oneself. If gender-role stereotypes keep a person from using his or her God-given gifts when they don’t happen to fit into some preconceived notion of what is “proper” for one’s sex, we ought to work to remove them.
When you ask me what women want today, the answer is simple: we want to be free to live up to our full human potential. You want to be free to live up to your potential, and Jan is asking the same for herself. It’s what she meant in saying that she is only now beginning to see herself as a complete person in her own right and not simply as an extension of you—as “Jan” rather than as “Mrs. Doug.”
I think you can understand that. Think how you would feel if you were told that you could experience life outside the home only in a vicarious, second-hand way, that the big world was something in which you didn’t really have a part except as you experienced it and influenced it through the activities of someone very close to you. Chances are you’d wonder why you couldn’t participate directly instead of living a kind of life-once-removed. It’s not a new feeling. If you watched The Adams Chronicleson TV, you may recall the scene in which Abigail Adams tells her husband she wishes that she too could attend that first Continental Congress and participate in the travel and challenges that made up her husband’s life. John Adams was tender and reassuring but could offer her only the consolation that he would be her representative and experience these things in her place, faithfully reporting on his adventures so that it would seem as if she were experiencing them herself.
It’s the “as if” that women are rejecting these days. Abigail Adams once said, “Had nature formed me of the other sex, I should certainly have been a rover.” And to Isaac Smith, a family friend, she wrote: “To your Sex we are most of us indebted for all the knowledge we acquire of Distant Lands.” What is different today is that we women know we’re capable of making—and should have the opportunity of making—the kinds of contributions to the world that men have always been encouraged and expected to make. In other words, we’re no longer willing to see the world through men’s eyes; we want to visit those formerly “distant lands” of achievement and opportunity for ourselves. We feel it unnecessary to say, “Had nature formed me of the other sex, I could have done or been such-and-such.” Rather we are bold to say: “God created me a woman, and I rejoice in that. I know that God made both male and female in his image and charged both sexes with the responsibility of having dominion over the earth. That means I’m responsible for using the abilities and talents God gave me, and there’s no reason to limit the kind of service I can give to the world simply because I was born female.”
Why have I gone into all this? Because you said you sincerely want to understand what your wife has been going through as she rethinks who she is and what she should do with her life. This matter of choice or life options (rather than having a certain role imposed from the outside for no other reason than that one was born of a certain race or sex) is at the heart of the questioning large numbers of people are doing today. And right along with that questioning is an awakening to a sense of responsibility (we might call it stewardship in the case of the Christian) for developing and using talents to the full. As women join other social groupings in raising these basic questions of human liberation (choice, self-actualization in order to benefit others as well, and the use of talents), we must keep in mind individual differences and the tremendous variety of human beings.
For some women, full-time homemaking is career enough—at least at certain stages of life. And they should never be made to feel guilty for wanting to spend those years in child-rearing and making the home happy and comfortable for the whole family. (It used to be that women who worked outside the home had to defend their life-style; increasingly, it seems to be that full-time homemakers are the ones who feel on the defensive!)
However, for other women, full-time homemaking doesn’t use their particular talents to the full. Why should they be made to feel guilty about that? Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to put their talents to work where they can best be used? All of us would be better off—the Church, the society, the women themselves, and yes, their husbands and children. Wanting to develop oneself fully and use talents shouldn’t be equated with selfishness. The person who feels fulfilled as a human being—man or woman—is going to have much more to offer others than he or she would have if blocked from that fulfillment.
“But why can’t all women be fulfilled simply by being wives and mothers?” you ask. Let’s try a variation of that question. “Why can’t all men be fulfilled simply by being husbands and fathers?” I think you’d say those are fine, exciting roles, but that there are other areas of life where a man wants to make contributions as well—not “instead of” but “in addition to.”
Now, some men will parry that by saying, “But women are different. They don’t have the same work and achievement needs that men do.” That hurts. To dismiss what many women are asking today by that kind of argument grieves me because it reminds me too much of dehumanizing arguments used in other contexts throughout history. There were slave proponents who justified breaking up families with the incredible excuse that “black people are different” and “don’t have the same feelings” as whites. During the Viet Nam war, some high-ranking American military officials showed little concern about civilian casualties, claiming that “the Vietnamese don’t value life as we do in the Western world.” It’s all too easy to try to defend discrimination, injustice, and many other evils by trying to persuade ourselves that “other” people (that is, those in some social category other than our own) aren’t “like” us.
I remember once reading a nineteenth-century sermon on behalf of slavery in which even the Golden Rule was given a new twist to maintain the status quo. Theology professor James Henley Thornwell argued: “If I am bound to emancipate my slave because if the tables were turned and our situations reversed, I should covet this boon from him, I should be bound, upon the same principle, to promote my indigent neighbors around me, to an absolute equality with myself.” Therefore, he asserted, “Our Saviour directs us to do unto others what, in their situations, it would be right and reasonable in us to expect from them.… The rule then simply requires, in the case of slavery, that we should treat our slaves as we should feel that we had a right to be treated if we were slaves ourselves.” I think that kind of reasoning is a gross distortion of what Jesus meant in telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Perhaps I seem to have wandered too far afield, Doug, but we hear a lot these days about “incarnational theology.” In Christ’s incarnation, God became like us and with us. He understands what it’s like to be human and therefore “can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” I guess what I’m trying to do in this letter is to try to help you feel with Jan and really understand what she’s going through.
But while I say that, I think it’s equally important that she understand what you are going through. Perhaps you could let her read this letter and then you could talk about it together. Be specific with her about areas where you think she needs to understand your feelings, just as you want to understand hers. That kind of reciprocity is so important in marriage; it’s the “iron sharpening iron” of Proverbs 27:17, the mutual encouragement of each other’s faith of Romans 1:12, the correcting and bearing each other’s burdens of Galatians 6:1–5, and the forbearing and forgiving each other’s complaints of Colossians 3:13. These general New Testament principles apply to Christian marriage just as the more frequently quoted passages do.
You asked about what you can do to help Jan, saying you’re well aware that Christian husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. That’s the best place to start! As you think about how Christ loved his Bride, you’re likely to find some real parallels in how you can relate to Jan as she struggles with these new matters of personal development.
First, there’s the matter of identifying with her as Christ has identified with us. We’ve already talked about that a bit—Hebrews 2:14–18 and 4:15 sum it up well. But I’m thinking now of that portion of Ephesians 5 where husbands are told to love their wives as their own bodies, to nurture and cherish them as their own flesh. One meaning seems to be that a husband should want the very best for his wife just as he would want the best for his very own being. No man intentionally hurts his body; he wants rather to rid it of pain and keep it in robust health. Similarly, the Christian husband will want to relieve any pain his wife feels (it doesn’t have to be physical; it can be psychic pain) and help her be the strongest, happiest person possible. That means true empathy—entering into both her anxieties and her ambitions and feeling what she’s feeling. It means nurturing her gifts just as you would nurture your own (and would want her to help nurture them, too). By putting into action passages such as Proverbs 12:25; Proverbs 25:20, and Romans 12:15, you can share both her discouragements and her triumphs—particularly now as she is considering a return to college and plans for a new career. She needs encouragement and confidence, and you’re the one she needs it from the most. Show her that you really care, that you’re backing her all the way, that you’re proud of her accomplishments.
Second, there’s the matter of sacrificing yourself for her as Christ sacrificed himself for the Church. That’s another key thought from Ephesians 5. Sacrificing means giving up something—privileges, rights, even one’s very life. Christ did all of that for us. (John 15:13 and Philippians 2:1–11 come to mind at this point.) In one sense, it’s easy to say you’d be willing to die for Jan, but are you willing to lay down your life in other ways? Life is made up of time and energy; and when we give up our time and use our energy on behalf of others we’re giving up our life for them in a very real sense.
To be specific, the question is this: How willing are you as a Christian husband to give up time and energy by sharing in household tasks and child-care so that Jan won’t be forced to carry a double load when she starts her college courses? By the way, there’s a little trick some husbands use. They say they want to share the housework but then act so incompetent that their wives take over again in desperation! “It’s easier to do it myself!” cries the wife after the umpteenth repetition of a question about how many tablespoons of coffee go in the percolator, or which clothes require the gentle cycle in the washer, or what the recipe book means by “sauté” or “marinate,” or “How can I tell Billy’s socks from Danny’s?” I don’t mean that it’s always a trick to get out of work. Sometimes men really feel overwhelmed by the domestic world because it seems so unfamiliar and complex. Social patterns in the past have kept boys from learning such skills as cooking and sewing; the assumption was that men would always have women (either mothers or wives) around to do such things for them. But of course that’s really a handicap, just as women are handicapped by old societal assumptions that women shouldn’t learn mechanical skills or how to handle finances.
Related to the sacrifice of time and energy to help shoulder the household work load is the sacrifice of privileges—those old male prerogatives of having things done for you that you know you could do for yourself but don’t want to bother with. It’s so easy to say, “Honey, will you please sew this button on my shirt?” or “Dear, did you remember to buy a birthday gift for my mother?” or “I think I’m about due for a dental checkup. Will you make an appointment for me?” Now that Jan is heading into a very full schedule, you may want to do some negotiating about things like that. This doesn’t mean that you won’t continue to do things for each other out of love; what it means is a rethinking of taken-for-granted patterns, especially those ideas about what a “good” wife is “supposed” to do.
You’ll both find it helpful if you can learn to be more relaxed and casual about housekeeping. Many two-career couples find it crucial to lower their expectations of what constitutes a neat house. Aren’t fulfilled human beings and their lasting contributions to the world far more important than floors kept polished to TV-commercial perfection? Isn’t stifled achievement a more serious problem than dust on the chair rungs?
But remember, thinking this way is difficult for some women. We’ve been told all our lives that it’s our duty to keep the house clean. People criticize the wife, not the husband, if the house seems a little disorderly or the children go off to school with unmended clothes. You may be tempted to think that way, too, taking advantage of Jan’s feeling of guilt over late meals or laundry not done. Don’t, Doug. It isn’t Christian love to use guilt to manipulate another person in order to save yourself some inconvenience or extra work. Do all you can to show her you feel it’s your responsibility as much as hers to care for the kids and house. You’re sharing a life, both in the home and in what you each bring to the home from outside, whether in the form of money you’ve earned, or ideas you’ve learned, or new friends, contacts, books, and magazines you bring in based on your interests. You’re not “helping her” with “her” work—you’re sharing together.
All this brings me to my third point: that of loving her as Christ loved the Church. In other words, we’re back where we started. Think of the love depicted in First Corinthians 13. Patience. Kindness. Putting away irritability and resentment (even in the midst of the adjustments and increased flexibility required of the family). Dealing with jealousy (some men feel threatened because their wives find meaning and identity in activities outside the home, and some male egos seem too fragile to bear competence on the part of women). Not insisting on one’s own way (even if one has been used to having it as an assumed male right in the past). These are some messages from First Corinthians 13 that seem on target for husbands who want to show love in the midst of the changes many wives are asking.
That passage ends significantly by showing the connection between love and trust. (“Love … believes all things, hopes all things.”) Trust your wife, Doug. Believe in her. She doesn’t want to hurt you or the children in any way. I know that from talking with her. She has taken great pains to arrange her course schedule to coincide as much as possible with the children’s hours in school. And in asking you to take a greater part in child-care, she isn’t simply trying to ease her own work load; she knows you’re likely to find that getting really involved in your children’s lives will be rewarding to both you and them.
I think you have every reason to take the view of the husband in Proverbs 31 whose “heart trusted in” his industrious wife. Why? Because she cared about the family and cared about her outside interests (including a business career) as well. Her husband knew that, and both he and the children praised her as a wonderful person who greatly enriched their lives. I think you’re going to react the same way to Jan and her accomplishments in this new venture.
Actually, you have a marvelous adventure ahead of you as you and Jan work out this new life together. Studies have shown that the more gender-segregated the roles of husband and wife are, the more a couple’s world is divided into “men’s work and interests” and “women’s work and interests,” the less satisfactory is the marital relationship in the areas of companionship, leisure interests, and physical affection. As women and men have more educational and career interests in common, they’re likely to have an enhanced sense of loving partnership, and every area of marriage can be enriched because two fulfilled persons are bringing much more to their relationship.
Jan has a lot to offer the world, Doug. Yet her steps toward using her God-given talents are likely to be hesitant without your wholehearted support. I know how much my husband’s support has meant in my life. Twenty years ago, during our engagement, I wrote John of my fears that marrying him would mean an end to my ambitions for a musical career. He replied that he was praying God would give me an abundant ministry in music. “I cannot believe that our Lord would grant you these gifts and then not direct you to use them,” he wrote, “especially since you seek his glory through it all. You wait and see if he doesn’t give back many times over that which you fear you’ll lose by marrying me in the will of God. This is true of your writing also.”
Whan I read that letter recently after all these years, I was really surprised. Twenty years ago I hadn’t the remotest thought of being a writer. However, it was this Career, not music, toward which God later directed me. John looked for, encouraged, and “stirred up” gifts in me that I didn’t even know were there!
You can do that for your wife, too. As you do, her love for you will grow, and so will yours for her, as you see her develop her potential and know you’ve been an important part of that development. May you and Jan know the tremendous joy, sense of partnership, spirit of ad venture, and gratitude to God that John and I have known in such a life together. Believe me, this kind of marriage never gets boring because both partners are always learning and growing and have so much to exchange with each other. God bless you both.
YOUR SISTER IN CHRIST,
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