My son is registering this week for his sophomore classes in high school. He is having to think more about what he might want to do when he graduates — a big ask for a fourteen-year-old. I know high school and college seniors are getting this question on permanent repeat right now as well. It got me thinking about what would happen if my son told me that he really just wanted to raise a family one day. How would his peers or teachers react? How would I react? No one thought twice in the 90s when I, as a woman, said that I would like to go to college, start a career, and then maybe take some time off to raise a family. What would the reaction be if my own son made a similar comment? In our emphasis over the last four decades to tell our girls that they could be anything they want to be (except a preacher in a Southern Baptist church — an article for another day), we missed a critical step: we forgot to liberate the boys as well.
It is like society told us, “Fine… you can be whatever you want to be girls… as long as you keep doing all the things you have done before.” I see so many women of my generation pursuing their career goals while still juggling all the plates at home as if they were full-time homemakers. Yes, they may delegate tasks sometimes, but the mental load is the part that weighs the heaviest on them. They spend hours researching online parenting strategies, wading through conflicting narratives on child raising, and seeking ethically and environmentally friendly products. They are the devoted keepers of the “calendar” — a beast that must be tamed on a weekly basis. Women were told that we could be whatever we wanted to be, but we did not realize they meant we would also have to be all the things at once.
Every day, I hear and read about women who are working in fulfilling full-time careers while still working “second shift” to carry the primary load as caretaker, housekeeper, carpool driver, nurse, and the keeper of the ever-demanding calendar. Here’s the thing, though–I really do not think that it is all the guys’ fault. Many of them were raised where they saw their fathers work the 40-hour week and then maybe run the lawnmower on the weekends (I think my father probably changed more diapers of his grandkids than kids). Likely, they saw their own mothers juggle all the inner workings of meals, groceries, cleaning, carpooling, and schedules. They might not have been trained in all the things that it takes to run a home. Plus, there is still a stigma that exists for men if they request to leave early to go to carpool, take paternity leave, or stay home with a sick child. By putting their family in front of their career, men are chided for not being “team players.” These tasks often default to women for whom it seems more palatable (and is even pointed to when the pay gap is mentioned). Even worse are men that choose to “decelerate” their careers to spend more time with their families. The home and children are still seen as predominately the mother’s work to this day, regardless of her employment status.
I have been blessed to know some incredible stay-at-home dads. I can imagine how lonely and isolating it must be with so many of the weekday activities geared toward women. I have also heard references to men who stay home as being more of “freeloaders” from their successful wives in a way that I have never heard a stay-at-home mom referenced. In addition, we have not freed our boys to pursue certain careers that have long lived in the realm of women such as nursing, dance instruction, library science, early childhood development, or elementary school teaching. As long as we continue as a society to “gender” jobs, neither side will be able to flourish.
So how does all of this impact the church? In 2021, 86% of female ministers in the “State of Women in Baptist Life” report said they faced some sort of obstacle due to their gender. Even in churches that affirm women as senior pastors, the report noted that there actually has been a net loss over the last decade in the number of female lead or co-pastors. With this much pushback, it is understandable why more women in denominations that affirm female leadership are not senior pastors of churches. Many of the talented women I know simply feel they cannot take on both the running of the day-to-day operations of a church and maintain that at home as well. Many who do it well have the support of a partner who is also trained in ministry and understands their supportive role as ministry as well. It is a mental load that is hard to explain but very real to feel.
To liberate the women and help them flourish in these roles, we must free two groups of men. First, we must support and affirm male counterparts to these women as they take on more of the home responsibilities as part of their ministry. Second, we must free all our pastors, male and female, from unrealistic expectations of always putting their own family second behind the members of the congregation. We need to provide better time off and spread the work of the church such as hospital visits, budget management, and leading Bible studies to the larger congregation. The pastor should be seen as one training others to do the ministry of the church, like a teacher in the classroom, rather than as the one that must do the homework for all of us. We need to set boundaries that will help both women and men thrive in church leadership.
Now is the time to act to impact the next generation. I remember when my brother was three, he got a Dustbuster for Christmas so that he could follow the cleaning lady around when she came. My parents never discouraged his cleaning spirit and to this day, he continues to do this work in his own home as a married adult. Allowing our children to explore a wide range of roles is key to opening the future for all. I want my own sons to know how to cook, do laundry, and clean a toilet. I want them to enroll in chorus, dance, and babysit if they want. We must stop making assumptions. Sometimes a mother is the best person to be home with her children, but there are a lot of dads out there that I know would be terrific if given this opportunity. By removing gender from certain jobs one way or the other, we can all flourish and use our God-given talents to their full extent. When my son turns in that course request card, I want him to see all the classes as opportunities for him, just as I would if I had a daughter. I want his future plans to be as wide open as mine were. It’s time to finish that missed step.
Sarah Blackwell is a contributing writer for Word&Way and a 2020 Graduate of the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. She currently teaches in the religion department at Wingate University in Wingate, NC. She is the author of God is Here, an illustrated spiritual formation book for children based on encountering God in nature, available through online bookstores. For ordering information and to follow her writings go to proximitytolove.org