A male friend, married to a lovely women, comes up to me beaming and says, "We're pregnant!"

"Wow!" I reply, with inappropriate sarcasm. "When I was a young man, only women could get pregnant."

I've heard this phrase—"We're pregnant"—too much recently, but it's time to move beyond sarcasm. The intent is as understandable as the execution is absurd. It arises out of the noble desire of men (and future fathers) to participate fully in the childrearing. And I understand that for many men, it simply means, "My wife and I are expecting a baby."

But the first dictionary meaning of pregnant remains, "Carrying developing offspring within the body." Whenever a word is misused, it means the speaker is unaware of the word's meaning, or that the cultural meaning of a word is shifting, or that some ideology is demanding obeisance. Probably all three are in play, but it's the last reality that we should pay attention to. It is not an accident that this phrase, "We're pregnant," has arisen in a culture that in many quarters is ponderously egalitarian and tries to deny the fundamental differences of men and women.

This phrase is most unfortunate after conception because it is an inadvertent co-opting of women by men—men using language to suggest that they share equally in the burdens and joys of pregnancy. Instead, pregnancy is one time women should flaunt their womanhood, and one time men should acknowledge the superiority of women. Men may be able to run the mile in less than four minutes and open stuck pickle jars with a twist of the wrist, but for all our physical prowess, we cannot carry new life within us and bring it into the world. To suggest that we do is a slap in the face of women.

It is also a slap in the face of our Creator, who made us male and female. We were not created with interchangable parts or traits, nor is it our purpose to duplicate or replace one another.

That's not a happy thought to many, because egalitarian culture resents differences. We believe (wrongly) that differences by their very nature are unequal. History would seem to support this assumption. The sad history of most cultures has assumed that male traits (authority and leadership) are superior to female traits (meekness and service). But that is more a product of human pride than of the created order. In the end, we have no objective standard by which to judge the intrinsic value of differing gifts and abilities.

For the Christian, any attempt to exalt male traits is utter nonsense. If one must traffic in in notions of superiority, then we'd have to grant superiority to women. For the teaching of Scripture and the example of Jesus make clear that meekness and service are the traits to glory in. But the very paradox of that sentence suggests the fruitlessness of such an approach.

Article continues below

Though social scientists try to deny the "superiority" of humility as well as differences in gender, they keep on bumping into hard facts. Professor W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia summarized some such findings a couple of years ago in an article in Touchstone, "Reconciling Differences: What Social Sciences Show About the Complementarity of the Sexes and Parenting."

He says that studies show what common sense could have predicted. Mothers have a distinctive advantage over fathers in at least three areas.

  1. Breastfeeding. Along with pregnancy, this is another biological difference that can hardly be gainsaid. Breast milk offers infants sugars, nutrients, and antibodies that can't be recreated in infant formula. It also protects infants from at least eleven serious maladies, from ear infections to sudden infant death syndrome.

  2. Mothers—probably partly due to the physical bond they have with infants during pregnancy and breastfeeding—are more sensitive to the distinctive cries of infants. For instance, they are better than fathers at detecting the difference between a cry of hunger and cry of pain.

  3. Whether it's hormones or instinct, mothers are better at overall nurturing behavior, including hugging, praising, and cuddling.

In short, women are better at these behaviors, and it shouldn't surprise us that they enjoy nurturing children. We all like to do things we do well and that come naturally.

Studies also show that fathers bring their own gifts to the parenting table. Carrying babies to term and breastfeeding are not, alas, two of them. But it isn't as if God has left them high and dry.

  1. Fathers tend to excel at discipline. Because of their physical size and strength, and the deeper pitch of their voice, they tend to instill more respect in children. They tend to be more assertive with children and tend to enforce family rules more consistently.

  2. Fathers excel at play, or at least a certain type of play. Fathers are much more likely to engage in vigorous and physical play, including wrestling, kicking a soccer ball, and so forth. As children play these more physically demanding games with their fathers, they learn how to manage pain and regulate strong feelings that arise in physically aggressive situations.

Article continues below
  1. Fathers play a central role in helping children confront the challenges and opportunities in the world. Fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage children to risk, to try new things, to be independent. They are more likely to introduce them to the worlds of work and sport and civil society.

One cannot make such distinctions nowadays without the usual caveat: Not all women excel at nurturing, not all men excel discipline, and so on. What a boring world this would be if we all fell into predetermined slots just as social science tells us to! But the fact that something isn't always true doesn't mean it isn't generally true. God has not made us robots, but he loves this planet enough to forestall chaos. In nearly all cultures up to this point in history, the above noted strengths of men and women have played out in daily life. That men have often used their natural strength and authority to abuse and subjugate women is not an argument against differences, only against the hubris of men.

My point is simply this. I continue to look for ways to encourage us all to relax a little about gender. I'm hoping that after the tumult of the last 30 years—during which time women have rightly learned a great deal about things like leadership and men have rightly learned a great deal about things like nurturing—we can once again affirm what culture after culture in human history seems to confirm: We are created male and female, both fully loved in God's eyes, but created with unbridgeable differences.

Better than the language of equality, I believe, is the language of fulfillment. "God created man in his image, male and female he created them." That is, we do not reflect the divine image when we try to duplicate or co-opt or replace each other. It's only when we participate with each other, with all our differences as male and female—as married couples, as friends, as co-workers—that we begin to fill out the image of the Triune God who created us.

Whenever that happens, I believe God once again says, "It is very good."

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker 2006). You are invited to comment below or on his blog.

Related Elsewhere:

Recent articles on family, parenthood, and gender include:

Disorderly Disciplines | When I entered motherhood, my traditional spiritual life became impossible. (May 21, 2007)
Article continues below
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
What Married Women Want | Sociologist Brad Wilcox says one type of marriage makes most women happier. (November 13, 2006)
What (Not All) Women Want | The finicky femininity of 'Captivating' by John and Stasi Eldredge. (August 1, 2006)

Previous SoulWork columns include:

Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
I Love, Therefore You Are | Why the modern search for self ends in despair. (June 28, 2007)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: