When My Parents Followed Gender Roles

In the three months since my mother passed, my dad and I have been spending a lot of time together. Growing up, I was always a daddy’s girl – my mom was the disciplinarian and I could always count on Dad to say yes to something well before Mom would agree. When I decided to apply to do a semester abroad in England, for example, it took six months of wheedling to get my mother to agree to it. Dad was okay with it from the start, and even flew over to hang out with me when term ended.

My parents were married for nearly 42 years – my mom passed away from amyloidosis three days before their 42nd anniversary. Dad was there with her for nearly every moment of her last month. He would sleep out on the couch in the living room when Mom could no longer move from one room to the other. During the last week she was in the hospital, Dad would wake up at 5:45 and come in early to be by her side. He was with her when she took her last breath.

I’m very lucky, and very glad to have grown up with these two as my parents. Mom and Dad met when they were 17, and dated off and on for the next few years. Dad moved away for college, but came back after a semester, and would drive an hour each way on the weekends to visit my mom at her college. They got married at 21, and stayed together through financial trouble, three rambunctious children, job loss and changes, and family struggles. In the end, my parents’ marriage was the story of a beautiful, lifelong love, in which caring and selflessness play a major role.

And, I firmly believe, being made to conform to a complementarian idea of masculinity and femininity would have torn them apart.

My mother was not a model of traditional femininity – which isn’t a knock on her. She rarely wore make-up, had short hair, and wore pants 95% of the time. When she was having us kids in the 1980s, there was zero question that she would go back to work – to hear Dad tell it, she loved being a mom, but she couldn’t be the mom she wanted to be without also being a teacher to her students. Her work outside the home made it possible for her to be a good mother to us as her kids.

In high school, my mother was the one who sat down with me when I was having trouble in classes and coached me through things my teachers weren’t covering in class. I was in an Advanced Placement Literature course my junior year, and I learned more from discussing the literature with my mom than I ever did in actual class session (sorry, Mrs. G).

My dad, on the other hand, was an elementary school principal who adored working with the kids at his school. He was constantly working on improving himself professionally, taking on responsibility as a reading recovery instructor, and encouraging his faculty at the school to push themselves into further leadership and community engagement. He grew up in a world where showing emotion as a man was considered shameful, and he struggled with that as a sensitive, caring principal and father. He bucked the stereotypical masculine ideal in both his work and in his involvement in our lives as our father.

When I was around 12 years old, my dad and mom decided, for some reason, to move toward a slightly more complementarian model for their marriage. Dad wanted to be a provider, and Mom was getting tired of working with the bureaucracy that is the Sioux Falls school district. They both retired, and Dad decided to start investing so he could be provide money for our college funds. Mom began to be more involved in work at home and worked on her writing career – a dream she never quite reached.

By the time I was 15, our family had lost nearly everything. Dad and Mom both decided to return to the workforce, to stop trying to make money through investing, and to go back to their more egalitarian way of life. The three-year experiment failed miserably – Mom and Dad were going deeply against who they knew themselves to be, convinced by churches and ideas of man-as-provider to make some very poor decisions that haunted my family for years.

We lost the house I’d grown up in. We moved a five-person family into a three-bedroom apartment. We couldn’t take trips we had planned, and there was little money for our college funds. My brother and I had to work harder in school to get scholarships for local colleges and even then we had loans.

There were a number of converging factors that had this result for my family. But my father has told me directly that it was pressure to be the “provider” for his family that made him decide to go into investing – specifically to make money for his kids. He felt it was his fatherly duty. It was also during this time that my father was attending Promise Keeper rallies regularly, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

My family is just one story. The two personalities of my parents – two people deeply in love, even though they are now parted by death – would not have worked in a complementarian model. The beauty of the submission of the woman and the strength of the masculine leader would have been like a match and gasoline for my parents’ marriage.

Dictated, normative roles based on gender fail to take into account the varied human experience, and the variation in personalities and development. A prescriptive role for both men and women – one that requires heteronormativity, submission, and violent masculinity – is one that is destructive for many people. It prevents people from being the person they need to be, from living the life they are called to live, and from seeing God as anything but a despotic ruler who forces them to do things they aren’t built to achieve.

We need to care for the people in our midst – and that means treating them as individual people, created by God with a purpose. My mother was never happier than when she was out in the working world, teaching and helping students to discover the beauty of literature. My dad was never happier than when he could be caring and sensitive to a student’s needs, to help them achieve their best.

People need to be given room to be who God created them to be. This is what makes the Church the Church. This is what makes us God’s children. Standing in the way of those gifts is standing in the way of the Gospel, and my parents’ love story proves that beyond a doubt.