By Abby Rogers
As a little girl, I often wished I was born a boy. I sometimes longed to share in the deep fraternity of my two brothers. In many ways, the typical portrayal of manhood (adventure, bravery, strength) has always appealed more to me than the portrayal of womanhood (housework, emotional, weak). But I never once thought, “Well, because I feel like being a boy, that must mean I am one or should be one.”
I never thought of sexuality as an identity, let alone that sexual identity is determined by feelings rather than biological make-up. But since giving birth to my first child Joan last year, I have become soberly aware of the unimagined conundrums knocking on the door of her future. A couple recently interviewed on NPR glowed with pride as they explained plans to raise their newborn child as “gender neutral.” An article in Time magazine featured a story about a “man” giving birth.
Parenting in the 21st century is going to involve some unprecedented challenges.
In her book, Eve in Exile: A Restoration of Femininity (2016), Rebekah Merkle tackles this cultural challenge and presents it as an opportunity, in the absence of definitions, to redefine — biblically.
While the current “war on boundaries” may shock and dismay us, we should realize this toppling of gender stereotypes annihilates bad definitions, too. Our culture has handed down unbiblical standards of manhood and womanhood for generations. Instead of simply looking back to the days when there were standards and more clearly defined roles — e.g. the Victorian balls, the Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie, the mid-century suburbia — we Christians should look at the open field of demolition before us and set about redrawing boundaries more closely aligned to scripture.
In response to the flawed stereotypes of the past, our current culture conditions women to think they are throwing away their talents and education if they choose to be wives and mothers instead of doctors and business executives. These women aren’t successful; they aren’t “working.” They are, rather, an embarrassment to women everywhere. Merkle artfully strikes a balance between calling women home and freeing them to spill their lives and efforts over into the world beyond as exemplified in Proverbs 31. Whatever is done outside of the home should be in service of the home— not the other way around. But “keeper at home” does not mean a woman’s domain is bound by the threshold of her door.
Still, boundaries are, as Merkle says, “essential to freedom.” The feminists lacked a working definition of Woman. Not recognizing these boundaries had a damning, rather than freeing effect, on a movement that accomplished much good. Women needed liberating, but from unbiblical standards and limitations — not boundaries altogether. But the Women’s Liberation movement should have come about through Christian obedience, not feminism. It would not have looked as exciting or sexy, says Merkle, but the outcome would have been a Women’s Lib accompanied by a much healthier culture.
Merkle discusses the history of feminism and its effects on our culture, which lead us to the question women face today: what is true, biblical femininity? She goes back to the beginning, back to Adam and Eve, and reorients us to how God designed Woman. For what did He explicitly create her? She takes the Genesis calling to “subdue and fill” and beautifully unpacks it to show what Woman was intended to look like in action.
Since the Industrial Revolution, homemaking has become progressively easier. Merkle calls mothers and wives predominantly at home to do a better job of challenging themselves rather than complain about how bored they are. It no longer takes as much creativity and physical labor to run a house. We have bought into the idea that modern convenience has turned homemaking into a dead end, but Merkle likens this behavior to that of the Israelites complaining about the manna God rained down on them from heaven. She argues that modern convenience is a blessing and makes room for more to be accomplished in the home than ever before. We can showcase our talents and intelligence while the dishwasher and dryer whir in the background instead of thinking that “out there” is the only platform for great work.
The way in which men and women interact with their jobs outside the home must be fundamentally different, Merkle says. Men are called to provide for the home in a way that requires an outside job. However, I would have liked Merkle to clarify that this doesn’t mean a man’s priority is his job and a woman’s priority is the home — because I don’t think that’s what she’s saying. Home should be a priority for both, though they are called to serve it in different ways. Men are called to provide for their own, but their provision goes beyond finances to emphasize scriptural priorities.
I appreciate clarifications like this because the church has gone a long way to combat the secular attack on women’s role in the home but hasn’t equally defended or discussed men’s role in the home. And there is one. I would like to see the same balanced discussion of manhood that Merkle brought to the discussion of womanhood. Maybe Merkle decided to wait until Adam in Exile: A Restoration of Masculinity to open that wormy can.
Merkle’s target audience is obviously women, but her book also highlights the opportunity to biblically re-evaluate manhood in the cultural vacuum from the redefinition of gender as fluid personal preference. Men face the same challenge to align their priorities according to scripture rather than past or present cultural expectations.
Husbands, fathers and ministers exercise great influence over the women in their lives. Merkle invites men, by implication, to rethink their culturally-based assumptions about our approach to gender stereotypes, with wide-reaching consequences for our homes and culture. What Merkle suggests requires a team effort.
Upon finishing the book, I was enthusiastic about applying what I read; I wanted to take up Merkle’s challenge and turn my home into a thriving, creative domain. But what I found in the course of my daily routine was that I sometimes barely have time or energy to get all the dishes done before bed, let alone find ways to put a creative, more challenging spin on domestic life.
Merkle does a lovely job of encouraging women to look at chores as opportunities for creativity instead of rushing through them in order to kick back and relax. She also encourages women to think of homemaking as a concept that encompasses more than just housework. But she emphasizes boredom as a result of having too much extra time. I’ve not been a wife or mother for long, so I certainly cannot speak with as much experience as others. But being bored because I have too much time on my hands has not been my problem so far. Even with modern conveniences, I could spend most of my day repeating the same routine — fix meals, clean dishes, put away dishes, do laundry, fold laundry, put away laundry, feed Joan, clean Joan, read Joan the same book five times in a row, complete one or two housecleaning chores.
While moments with my daughter and husband are the bright spots of my day, they often feel overshadowed by the looming pile of housework accumulating in the background. And while homemaking includes more than just a bunch of chores, running a home efficiently still requires highly repetitive tasks. In theory, I enjoy housework. I enjoy the immediate results, the physical labor. But the reality of housework is that it isn’t particularly intellectually stimulating or emotionally and socially rewarding. I have days where I feel like if I have to fold one more basket of laundry, I’m going to hide under the bed, curl up in a fetal position, and cry to the dust bunnies. And, let me add, this is with a husband who does a lot to help me with all of the above.
Merkle reminds us that our culture has hero-ized selfishness, making it a noble thing to put one’s self before others, which is fundamentally anti-Christian. When, in truth, sacrifice is true nobleness. I take Merkle’s challenge to heart and appreciate the spirit of it. I also realize that homemaking with an itty-bitty one is probably different from homemaking with older, more self-sufficient kiddos. So right now, for me, remembering the nobleness of sacrifice is part of how I get through days that are mirror images of the days before. For someone who doesn’t have time to figure out ways to make housework more rewarding (like becoming a home-taught gourmet chef, as Merkle suggests), I have to find contentment within my season and remember that sacrifice is noble. It’s very hard to see magically reappearing dirty dishes as great work. But if I can think of all those repetitious chores as stones that build upon each other, creating an altar to God, offering up the sacrifice of my life to Him and my people, then I can elevate my perspective and see the bigger monument being built — one of a triumphant home.
Merkle’s spunky style of writing is enjoyable and rallying. As a new mother, I found her book empowering and encouraging. As a woman, it made me hold my head high. It glorified my view of womanhood as something that requires toughness and great strength. In short, this book made me glad to be a woman. There is something God wants me to do that couldn’t be done if I had been born a man. Being Joan’s mother is one of those things. It’s given me a fresh, adventurous perspective on homemaking.
Just because home doesn’t offer the same kind of immediate or public gratification as a career, it is still a place where intelligence and creativity are desperately needed. And if women continue to abandon it, thinking the business world is the only suitable platform for their strengths and talents, home will continue to suffer and our culture along with it. This is our opportunity to see what new adventures God has in store for womanhood, manhood, the home and our culture.
“Do not call to mind the former things,
Or ponder things of the past.
Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.”
Isaiah 43:18-19 (NASB)
Abby Rogers is a wife and mother in Alabama.