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”.