Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Mother's Fundamentalism

A girl may learn femininity from her father but she learns what it means to be a woman from her mother.  My mother taught me that a woman’s sacred responsibility is to sacrifice herself in service to family.

Among other things, my mother firmly believed in the evangelical/fundamentalist concept of headship: that women are to be wives and mothers and as such are to be subject to their husbands in all things.  The husband has the authority before God to command his family and the wife has the responsibility of making sure his commands are followed.  I used to think that her belief in this concept was a more or less a result of her generation (by the time of Woodstock and the height of the Hippie Movement, she was already a minister’s wife and mother of two children).  Later I realized that she came from a long line of practical if not politically active feminists—career women, single mothers, and none of them particularly subservient when I knew them.  They were all strong church-going women so I suppose she could simply have taken her religious education more to heart than her forebears.  I knew my mother’s mother, aunt and grandmother as devout women but none of them had much respect for preachers and religious teachers.

My mother, however, rarely expressed an opinion in contradiction of my father’s. She insisted that I be a “little mother” to my siblings.  She “wrung dimes dry” according to her mother-in-law in order to sustain the lifestyle expected but not supported by my father’s ministry jobs. She only worked for pay when she couldn’t stretch the family budget any further and was quick to quit the minute my father was fired from yet another ministry position.  She did all of the household’s cooking, cleaning, laundering, and childcare until I was old enough to help but I shirked constantly and she was usually too tired to fight with me.  I don’t remember my father ever changing a diaper although he was the one to insist on child-rearing practices that included “crying it out” for infants even if that meant he had to hold her down while I cried in my crib.  By the time my sister came along ten years later, I was the often the one who got up in the middle of the night to fix bottles.  As a minister’s family, we were quite explicitly expected to behave like model children—no running, no fidgeting in church, no talking if there were adults present.  Our job was to stand quietly beside my father and smile through parishioners’ gushing praises for our lovely family, our wise and godly father.

When I reached adolescence, Mom was quick to point out every man who noticed my precocious development.  She suggested loose shirts, lots of sweaters, and slouching.  When I garnered the inevitable notice, it was my fault for what I wore or for flaunting myself (for example, wearing a bathing suit at a hotel swimming pool without covering myself). I was terrified to accept rides home from youth group meetings at church with a boy in case he “got ideas” from being alone in the vehicle with me.  It is telling that my first date was to a church function that I accepted and attended on the sly while my parents were both out of town at a deathbed.

How did my mother teach me that a freethinking woman was anathema to God?  Or that a woman’s only role is quiet subservience? From her example, of course, the same way I learned that there’s always a holier, more natural way to cook: from buying grain at the mill, to koshering her own meat before grinding hamburger and sausage, to the whole wheat/carob/honey “chocolate chip cookies” she made for our snacks.  She wanted to raise our own produce and hated anything Big City—I don’t know that she thought of those things in religious terms but it seems all of a piece as I look back.  American Christianity took a sharp turn to the Right in the years since I was in high school and everything that I’ve found to have developed in extreme Christianity was something my mother espoused:  agrarianism, patriarchy, the “biblical family”, the holiness of making one’s own bread and sewing one’s own clothes. 

While I spent my early adulthood in pursuit of the feminist dream—a career with good promotion prospects and an excellent compensation package, and a guy who respects women—it is interesting that within eighteen months of my mother’s untimely death, I was married, had moved across the country for my husband’s job and had found employment in daycare.  Within five years, I was preparing to move again for his job, had one baby and expected another, and made all my own food and cleaning products, including baby food and formula. I haven’t had a professional status since her death but I’ve made myself very ill trying to live up to all the highest standards of attachment parenting; fresh, whole, local homemade foods; alternative medicine and homeschooling.  I failed miserably at growing food, pinching pennies, or keeping a clean house.  I disagree frequently with my husband.  I am consumed with guilt over all those things. 

Walking away from organized religion and losing faith in the evangelical God (soul wrenching as those steps were) were a nothing compared to admitting that my mother’s ideals are a death sentence.  Mom never approved of my life, my value system, or my goals, before her death.  I’ve spent the 18 years since then trying to win her approval post-mortem.  Can I finally admit that neither is her approval possible nor are her ideals admirable?  My mother worked herself into an early grave and I’ve been so close to it as to have fervently prayed for death.  It is inconceivable that the founder of my mother’s religion had such conditions in mind when he claimed to “have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”.


  1. Hmmm.... Was that a little bitter? There was more pain and rage hidden in my closet that I thought. I guess I have some more work to do!

  2. Only you will know if it is bitter or not, but I do know that once we put things down in black and white and can see things as they *truly* are, we are susceptible for a flurry or emotions that may catch us by surprise. I think it's important to sit with those feelings without rushing to label them "bad" or "good". If we allow these emotions room to move around, to respect them and listen to what they tell us rather than brushing them aside as ones we "shouldn't" have, then often we find that we have the opportunity to re-train ourselves in truth. Some emotions, like grief, are like an onion. They come in layers and it is important to patiently go through each layer and heal before going to the next. If we don't think of it this way, then we worry that we "really didn't heal the last time" when actually we are just going deeper and deeper, heading to the root, bringing light and truth all the way to the core. Praying for you!
    PS. I had those same chocolate chip cookies! ;-)

  3. Thanks for your observations.

    Yesterday I struggled all day (mom's actual birthday) with feeling as though I "ought" to write another "more respectful" post to highlight mom's good points. But writing because I "should" is a lousy idea.

    Letting my experience simply BE my experience. Be Still. Funny how I posted THAT just days ago....

  4. Thank you for writing and putting your experience out there! You have no idea how affirming it is to other people to come across. It will surely help people in ways you never dreamed possible.

    It sounds like my husband had a carbon copy of your mom for a mom, at least in mental state. And he is just now picking up the pieces. Interesting psychological phenom, the sadomasochism that goes on in these marriages.

    After years of being told that being on the suffering end of these relationships somehow pleases God, I am finally getting free.

    Have you read Greg Boyd's God of the Possible? (Since you already labeled yourself a heretic, you might enjoying reading someone else so labeled by the fundamentalists and Calvinistas.) Just finished it myself and it was so liberating. It is not God's will that I suffer, but man's will.

    And screw dat, I ain't cooperating in that no mo'. =)

    Anyway, since you like books, and this one made me very happy, you might want to review it too.

    Peace and good will, SS

  5. Thanks for the props. I have not heard of Greg Boyd but I will look him up. Having grown up without any understanding of Christianity outside of the evangelical/fundamentalist paradigm, I am loving reading interpretations of Jesus, God, spirituality from within Christianity but definitely outside fundagelicalism. Most of my faves are definitely wear the heretic label.


    Just the titles of his books tick of fundies!

    I must admit that even when I saw "The Myth of the Christian Religion" at the bookstore, I stuck my nose up in the air! LOL Now I can't wait to buy it on my next visit!

    I am glad you are recovering from the spiritual/emotional abuse of your fundamentalist family of origin. It really, really sucks so many of the false doctrines and unrighteous permutations of scripture that get passed around these places without question. I'm ashamed of the times I simply cooperated.

    My husband and his two brothers are so, so angry and wounded from being sent off to boarding school at the tender ages of 5 and 6. I think my husband is the only one who is trying to heal.

    Abandoning your young children, who need you so helplessly, to "go serve the Lord"? Who came up with that one!?!

    Sign me out angry but dealing with it, SS