When first married, I resolved to be the best wife in the history of wifedom.
(I once moved a stranger’s full-size oak desk from their trash pile into my efficiency apartment using my own two arms and a Chevy Malibu, so I know something about the power of resolution.)
My pursuit of marital bliss imitated a model of Christian marriage that I read about in a book.
(Not the Bible.)
This book guaranteed its strategy could turn the worst of any marriage to gold through extreme selflessness.
(Nevermind that the selflessness was mandatory for wives in every circumstance, while an optional, but welcomed, surprise from husbands.)
So I was a newlywed on a mission, armed with the alchemy secret for perfect marriage, perfect family, and perfect salvation.
(And my new husband was the unfortunate victim.)
We tried so hard to fit the mold -- me, biting my tongue and feeling like a failed Christian mother as I worked my full-time office job with family health insurance. And my husband, filling out hundreds of job applications while holding down three part-time jobs on evenings and weekends, and watching our baby during the day.
I couldn’t speak that I was unhappy.
(The book said to always be happy.)
I couldn’t say that I actually liked my job and my coworkers.
(The book said I should be a stay-at-home mom.)
I couldn’t ask my husband why he had been home all day but not started the laundry.
(The book said keeping the house was my responsibility. The book said not to challenge my husband.)
Even as I criticize this book, I recognize I wasn’t just following a fringe book club. Based on my upbringing within American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic -- a subculture filled with beautiful marriages and families -- I was convinced that the will of God for my family depended on our ability to achieve middle-class financial stability with a working father and a stay-at-home mother.
I was convinced that the will of God for my family depended on our ability to achieve middle-class financial stability with a working father and a stay-at-home mother.
This model might work for some families, but it sure wasn’t working for ours.
I became silently angry and bitter, blaming myself and postpartum depression as the cause of our family’s unhappiness, instead of a symptom of something bigger than all of us. I kept persevering in what I thought was the solution: more selflessness, more generosity, more prayer that God would make us like all those other families.
Oh, how we struggled to contort our non-traditional work schedules, skills, children’s needs, and finances into what we believed was a proper Christian family model.
I began to wonder if the burden of successful marriage really depended on our ability to fit into the prefab molds of white-collar working father, stay-at-home mom, and all the expectations therein.
In my searching, I found increasing common ground with the values of a movement that to this point, I’d viewed as unnecessarily loud, and frankly, unnecessary altogether. Feminism was for angry women in pointless marches and women who hated babies so much they wanted to legalize killing them.
And yet, I began to find kindred spirits among them, especially with pro-life feminists, who pursue solidarity among any who are marginalized or forgotten -- those who are sick, social minorities, disabled, poor, refugees, immigrants, unborn… In a country that values diversity, in a faith that values the dignity of every person, I saw strong people amplifying the voices of those who are weak in pro-life feminism.
Up to this point, I thought diversions from the American Christian cultural norm meant diversions from the Lord's will for us.
But as we embraced the more complicated reality of life, based on our family’s giftings, personalities, and needs, a peace that had evaded me for some time settled into our home. It confirmed that God is at work in unique ways.
In Salt of the Earth, Pope Benedict is asked by a reporter how many ways there are to God. “As many as there are people,” the pope responds.
As many as there are people.
When I read Pope Benedict's response in light of the new feminism referenced by Pope John Paul II, I heard: my salvation is not dependent on how well I can force myself into the mold of another woman's success story as wife or mother.
I need to pause, to give voice to the idea that this isn’t an exclusively feminist idea. Much of feminist thought is just common sense. Plenty of people who would never identify as “feminist” still experience the freedom and joy of living as their true selves in unique callings within a marriage relationship.
For some, this could look like a working father with banker’s hours and a stay-at-home mom who takes full charge of house and children.
For others, like St. Gianna, a mother might work outside the home.
For others, like Sts. Louis and Zelie, a married couple might run a family business together, balancing home and family into that work.
Some people’s choices might be limited by circumstance, like St. Helen, whose husband divorced her for a younger woman, or St. Gemma’s father, a failed businessman and widower forced to raise his children in poverty, alone, or St. Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who was pressured by the politics of her day to choose between the death of her child, or allowing her child to be raised completely outside the sacred culture of her people by the Pharaoh's daughter.
For most, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton -- who ran a society for the poor, while raising five kids and adopting six more, ran a boarding house to support her children after her husband died, went bankrupt with a failed school, and eventually joined a religious order, once her children were older -- roles and responsibilities will be as variable as the variable seasons of life.
For me, it took months of eavesdropping online to Catholic feminist conversations to realize family roles are flexible, and furthermore, the Lord has not mandated, through scripture or any official Church teaching, one way for all families.
The Lord has not mandated, through scripture or any official Church teaching, one way for all families.
This realization gave my husband and I peace in making choices that are best for each other and best for our family, no longer living under the pressure to achieve somebody else’s story.
I no longer felt the need to follow a wife formula that worked for a well-intentioned author and her family. I could just be me.
And with that, I stopped expecting my husband to act the part of a formulaic husband following a mold that worked for other husbands. I just saw him for him. And oh, how I loved him.
To his credit, my husband made space for this newfound activism. He held a celebratory lunch date when I was invited to become a regular contributor for FemCatholic.
As I found my voice again, emerging from my attempted role as quiet wife, my husband responded to concerns I was finally willing to speak.
I felt overwhelmed by the needs of children 24/7. We carved out alone time for me each week. It turned out, he felt overwhelmed by family life too. We also carved out alone time for him each week.
My husband has always been present and involved with our kids. But I often tried to shelter him from the astounding load of all of them -- five kids, ages eight and younger -- at once. I was operating from the misconception that a father’s role is to enjoy his children, not experience them in totality at their worst. As I let my husband share more of the load, not only did caring for the kids become easier, it became more enjoyable. I liked my kids more.
I realize I’m blessed in having a husband who is committed as an active, daily presence in his kids’ lives. For some reason, our society -- Christian and other -- has assumed that children are women’s work, and it’s a shame, for our children, for our fathers, for our communities, and even for our mothers, among whom it’s commonly shared that months or years pass by without a break. That will burn out anyone, feminist or not.
Time with dads shouldn’t be “special.” It should be everyday and boring, from doctor’s appointments to meal preparation to wiping butts to helping with homework to taking out the trash together.
Thanks to our family’s non-traditional work schedules, and my husband’s present heart and mind, our kids have a dad who truly knows them and is an integral part of their daily development.
Realizing that “working mother” isn’t an oxymoron, I’ve picked up outside-the-home work again that gives me a mental outlet from diapers and laundry, and also gives our family a little more financial stability. (I recognize it is a privilege, impossible for many, that my work outside the home is optional.)
Our most recent Valentine’s Day was celebrated with a build-your-own-taco dinner, set up at our kitchen table, after the kids went to bed. Talk somehow turned to politics, and I poured myself a second glass of wine. I feared that getting tangled in the hopelessness of our current political stalemate -- and all the voiceless victims affected -- would ruin our romantic evening.
I know that feminism has opened my heart to see more people who are hurting around me. And I know it can be a real downer to be around someone who’s constantly thinking about those who are marginalized, easily overlooked or forgotten, born into less privilege and opportunity, those who never even make it to birth, for fear of the imperceivably difficult life that would follow.
Feminism has opened my heart to see more people who are hurting around me.
I know I’m not always a fun person to be around since becoming a Catholic feminist.
And yet, this past Valentine’s Day, my husband wrote me the most sincere, meaningful note. He set it on my desk, so it’d be the first thing I read when I set up for work the next morning.
The note referenced how he loved my heart for “what’s best for all people.” And it meant the world to me that he interpreted the sadness, activism, anger, and hope that have grown in my life, since becoming a feminist, as motivated by a desire for the good of all people.
My husband definitely wouldn’t call himself a “feminist.” The truth is, he doesn’t need to. His openness to our family caring, praying, and working toward the good for every person, regardless of gender, health, age, citizenship, religion, desirability, skill level, or income, and his involvement in raising our children to see and care also, means more than any label.
For me, I’m a committed Catholic feminist. It has changed me irreversibly. It has changed my marriage. It has changed our family.
And we’re going to change the world.