Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Tomboy in Christian Patriarchy

I was not the type of daughter that my mother wanted.  I was a tomboy.

My hair was very short and I preferred blue clothes.  I wanted to run faster and climb higher than anyone.  I wasn't afraid of slimy frogs and worms, and I could kill a spider without batting an eye.  I looked with confusion and disdain at the passive little girls with their hair-bows, sitting and talking about clothes and boys.  If I had known the term "badass" back then, I would have applied it to myself with pride.

When I was young, my mom was more tolerant of this.  After all, in the early days, there were mostly boys in my age group in our small homeschooling community.  So I was free to run wild with the boys and join their sports games during our weekly park days.

However, puberty was looming, and it signaled the end of my adventurous life.  It was time for me to learn to act like a "lady", and the means of teaching was through one sentence: "That's not very ladylike".

I was a difficult student; after all, the rules seemed very arbitrary and I couldn't see any advantages that compensated for the extra restrictions.  The heart of the message seemed to be that I had to become extremely aware of my body in order to keep other people from being aware of it.  A lady did not run.  A lady did not sit with her knees apart.  A lady did not lie down in public.  A lady did not make random bodily noises or find them amusing.  A lady did not use crude language like the word "crap" or "fart." A lady did not wear tight or revealing clothing--for awhile, that meant no shorts or sleeveless shirts.  A lady never pointed to or discussed her own body in public.  And most of all, a lady never called boys or invited them into her bedroom (not even when I was 23, in a group, with my family home and my door open! WHAT did my mom think I was going to do, have a blatant daytime orgy before my first kiss??).

And besides the extra restrictions, there were also extra responsibilities.  I had to learn to sew and cook, things that my brother was exempt from.  I tried and tried, but I was never able to enjoy these womanly skills.  Eventually my mom gave up on me and moved on to teaching these skills to other more grateful homeschool girls, leaving me feeling jealous and rejected.

It didn't help my situation that my sister took naturally to wearing cute dresses, having tea parties, and making crafts.  She didn't even need coaching, while I was unsatisfactory even with coaching.  As I watched my brother leave for his many outdoor adventures with other boys, I felt cheated and limited, having been born a girl.

In some ways, I was lucky compared to many other girls in the Christian Patriarchy culture that attended Hope Chapel with us.  I was never required to wear only dresses or have long hair.  I didn't have to take care of innumerable younger siblings. But most importantly, I was actively encouraged to go to college.

For many conservative Christians, higher education is seen as suspect because of the so-called "secular liberal bias" of universities and professors.  That was the case for my family as well.  However, my parents were unusual in our church and homeschooling community because they believed that even a daughter should be educated enough to support herself if necessary.  So they encouraged me to attend a very conservative Christian college such as Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, or Moody Bible Institute. They advised me to choose an area of study that would allow me to supplement my future husband’s income by working from home after I had children.   

So, why didn't I head off to college right away?  After all, I was completely miserable at home due to the extremely authoritarian parenting style that my church promoted.  There were really two reasons: first, my severe social anxiety made the thought of college overwhelming and terrifying.  Second, my parents' pro-college message was drowned out by the sexist anti-college message of my church.

A couple more years of worsening family relationships, of increasing depression, of a sense of purposelessness, of no prospects of a church-approved way out of that mess--that was exactly what I needed to reach my breaking point.  My exact thought process at the time was this: "I've been praying for guidance about my future for years, and I haven't heard anything.  I can't go on like this.  I'm going to just start moving and hope that God will steer me if I go the wrong direction."

As I left home for the first time at age 23, I felt small, weak, timid, and vulnerable, heading out into the great wide world all alone.  There was no trace of my former badass self from childhood.  So is the Christian Patriarchy right about women after all?

People tend to live up to the expectations of those around them, what others believe they are capable of.  The sexist beliefs then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The women in the church were told over and over that they were easily deceived and easily swayed by their emotions and needed a man's protection/guidance.  But denying women education and experience is what made them that way.  

College was a time of transformation for me; I was overcoming my severe social anxiety, discovering my true identity, learning to be comfortable with sexuality, and learning to set boundaries and take responsibility for myself.   Marriage has only continued that process, as my husband and I work to maintain an equal partnership--something truly beautiful that I didn't know existed 7 years ago.

Now I am a feminist stay-at-home mom.  I stay at home because I want to, because I love the bond I have with my little one and the adventures we have together as I introduce him to the world.  I can understand his excitement as he discovers what he's capable of....because I'm finally feeling it too.


  1. thank goodness, even though they cowed you but didn't break you! I was a tomboy too, and grew up with a lot of that stuff, but in a much more liberal atmosphere.
    It is good to see you growing.

    Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors

  2. It's so fabulous to read about your progress :) Patriarchy terrifies me. I never want my daughter to feel the way you felt - though I do know what it's like to be a disappointment to one's mother, unfortunately...

  3. What a beautiful post. I am so happy that you had that growing/transforming experience with college, and that your life is in such a happy place now. I only hope the same for other girls who are being suffocated in Patriarchal Christian households.

    Bless you!

  4. Wow, that sounds so much like me growing up. I have four brothers between me and my first sister, and I felt like my life was snatched away from me when I turned 12 and my mom found out I was growing breasts. Oh, how I wished I'd never said a word... I was so jealous of the time my brothers spent with Dad while I had to stay inside at the stove or sewing machine.

  5. Thanks everyone for the encouraging comments! ...although it's unfortunate that some of you can relate too well to the feeling of not being good enough for your parents.

    It is unacceptable for the main message of your church and/or your family to be that something is wrong with you when you don't fit into the tiny box they assign you. I've been wondering why this is so common in Christian circles despite the emphasis on love, and I think that a lot of the problems are connected to the doctrine of total depravity. I think I'll be doing a post about this sometime soon, and I'd welcome anyone's thoughts about that.

  6. Hi, I just found your blog. I've been on a rabbit trail of sorts reading about patriarchal upbringings tonight. Mindblowing. And sad. I had no idea. Thank you for your blog, it is a real eye-opener.
    But in regards to your connection to total depravity, I think I may disagree. I was not raised in a Christian home, rather accepted Christ as an adult, and have since evolved into reformed theology.We are at a point in our lives where we recognize how much LESS it has to do with us and how much MORE it has to do with God. We feel like there is no pressure to be perfect any more (or at least what we perceived as pressure)knowing we all fall short and God has made the way for us- and this is all in light of total depravity :)
    This patriarchal stuff just reminds me of cultist behavior. It sounds like man-centered Christianity, which is not Christianity at all. Just a counterfeit version much like LDS or Jehovah Witness cults.
    I'm curious about your connection, as we are coming from opposite backgrounds. My husband and I were both saved while we were dating and have spent the past several years in wacky charismatic churches. We have noticed, now that we are reformed, that there is a trend in reformed folks to embrace the mysticism (totally unbiblical) that is often on the charismatic side of things. My guess is that for the people who have grown up in these rigid reformed backgrounds, they are searching for something they think is missing...where we are coming from, we realize it wasn't real all along.
    We've spent the last couple of years just freaked out by all of the weird stuff going on in Arminian/Emergent churches, when we had no idea there is just as much going on with the reformed side. I guess the pendulum swings both ways.
    By the way, when my husband and I were dating, he was all signed up and weeks away from going to Pensacola State when he just happened to google the school and found a site with tons of reviews from former students warning people to stay away, lol. Divine intervention, I suppose.