The Professor strode confidently in front of the classroom. The topic was gender roles. “Some people still subscribe to the old model,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The wife stays home with the children. The man works. Unfortunately the traditional model exploits women and enforces patriarchal dominance. Today we favor a fully integrated approach where every task, including childrearing, is divided equally between husband and wife…”
As she continued I shrunk in my desk. Though I disagreed with her dismissal of tradition, what could I say? I imagined raising my hand to object. The other students would probably see me as a deluded champion of an obsolete ideal — an ideological dinosaur. The Prof might unleash a diatribe or, worse yet, smile condescendingly as she tried to patiently free me from the bonds of tradition.
I had actually signed up for the class with some traditional goals in mind. As newlyweds my husband and I were in the process of planning our future. Since I intended to be our future children’s primary caregiver, I thought a course entitled “Human Development” would be a great way to prepare for raising kids. Wrong. I guess I should have known better. You can’t judge a book by its cover. And, in university, you can’t trust that the title of a course has much to do with its content. We skimmed through the different stages of development, but more time was spent advancing the Professor’s personal views on marriage and childrearing.
The next term I enrolled in a course called “Family Studies.” Finally, I thought. I’ll get some solid instruction to aide me as I build a family. Wrong again.
The first day the entire class lined up against the wall. “If you think you come from a traditional family stand over here,” the professor barked. Quickly about three quarters of the class walked to the “traditional” corner. But we were in for a surprise. The professor had a point to make: there was no such thing as a “traditional family.” One by one she proceeded to eliminate us from the traditional group, citing a host of disqualifying factors. You were not from a traditional family if…
Your mother worked even one day during your childhood.
You worked at all before you were 18.
You had any extended or adopted family members living in the home.
At the end of the list, only one student remained in the “traditional” group. I was consigned to the nontraditional group for working summers in high school and having a mom who worked part-time as a realtor for one year during my teens. Beside me stood a confused young Muslim man, disqualified because his grandparents had lived with his immediate family.
Over the following months the purpose of the professor’s narrow definition became abundantly clear. Since nearly no one had a “Leave it to Beaver” experience, the professor informed us, the traditional family was nothing more than a well-nurtured myth. We read books like The Way We Never Were to pound the point home. With the myth of the traditional family exposed, a family could be anything, from a group like the one featured on the hit sitcom Friends, to a gay marriage. Of course gender roles were dismissed along with the traditional family. They were as silly as the fairy tale upon which they were based. In the new model everyone shared responsibilities equally — domestic and financial burdens included.
This time I could not keep silent. I pointed out the disingenuous definitions and confronted the agenda. Instead of viewing me as a dinosaur, many of the students were grateful and began to voice their own objections. They too disagreed with the professor. And they didn’t see gender roles as arbitrary and restrictive.
Those experiences made me start thinking carefully about the roles of men and women. To some, the alternative model presented in class sounded good. Why shouldn’t men and women share every task equally? It sounded fair. But regardless of how egalitarian it seems, it hardly reflects reality. Men and women are not psychologically identical and therefore the roles they play should not be identical either. But something else disturbed me about the assertion that gender roles should be abandoned; it showed an assumption that the duties women have historically performed are somehow less valuable. Raising kids and homemaking are treated like the dirty work — obligations that weigh a woman down. It’s implied that work alone — outside the home — is the only thing that validates a woman. Her worth is measured in dollars and cents. Playing a greater role in the life of the home is a sign of her oppression.
This sentiment echoes beyond academia. When my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, we were grocery shopping together when we struck up a conversation with someone in line. Not realizing I was her daughter, the man asked my mom if the baby she was carrying was her first. “This will be my fourth,” she answered proudly. The man was less enthusiastic. “Some people never learn,” he replied without smiling.
I believe this kind of antipathy toward the family lies at the root of the attack on gender roles. Though proponents of the new equality may claim to defend women, they often carry a deep disdain for childrearing and the traditional family. Attacking the traditional home involves an assault on its historical centerpiece, the housewife.
It’s assumed that to be fulfilled, a woman must pursue a full time career in addition to her domestic duties. This belief has changed the shape of our society — in many destructive ways. Many double income homes spend nearly the entire second income to replace the mother. Daycare is expensive. Nannies (who most often leave their own children to care for the children of the wealthy) are often hired to pick up the slack. Cleaners are contracted to maintain the house. Not only does replacing mom cost economically; family cohesion suffers. The absence of gender roles creates a strange world indeed, one in which the most intimate responsibilities of family life are outsourced to strangers. Yet this is the unavoidable predicament in a culture that enforces uniformity to ensure equality.
Fortunately recent years have witnessed a backlash against this trend. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of stay-at-home moms is growing. From 2002 to 2003 the number climbed approximately 1.6 million. Overall, the number of children reared by full time, stay-at-home moms has jumped 13 percent in less than 10 years. It seems people are beginning to question conventional feminist wisdom that equality equals homogeny. Men and women can play different roles and maintain equal value. Perhaps people are discovering that gender roles aren’t so bad after all.
Of course this is not to suggest that women should never work. Often a woman must seek employment, especially while single or in the early years of marriage. Even the Bible describes the ideal woman as industrious — buying and selling land and conducting business (Proverbs 31). Yet the same passage also makes clear that the role designated for the woman is clearly different from that of the man. The realm of the home is her domain, “She watches over the ways of her household” (Proverbs 31:27) and she possesses a primary influence in the lives of her children who “rise up and call her blessed” (Proverbs 31:28). Ultimately the best prescription for our roles comes from the One who made us. And He made both male and female in His image, endowing each with unique ways to reflect His glory.
Two months ago I graduated from college. Already the courses and classrooms are beginning to fade in my memory and the distance has provided some clarity. My No. 1 regret is that I didn’t speak up more often to defend the truth. And I’m most grateful for the few times that I did.
I’m also grateful for another woman who stood fast against the prevailing thoughts of her day, choosing to stay home with her children — my mother. During the early years of my parents’ marriage money was tight. I know they made many financial sacrifices to have her stay at home. But looking back I’m glad she was there to make my lunches, discipline me, comfort me when I was hurt, or just listen. I know she doesn’t regret the decision.
If God blesses me with children — the opportunity to follow in her footsteps — I know I won’t either.
Copyright 2005 Grace Dyck. All rights reserved.