A few weeks ago, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a day. I stopped for about twelve hours between night buses to see the sights, including a beautiful, vibrant mosque near the center of town. I did some online research on dress protocol beforehand: cover your skin, wear something on your head, take your shoes off. Nothing unexpected. I had a scarf and a maxi skirt in my backpack for this purpose. I was happy to be respectful, and excited for a new experience. I arrived at the mosque, circled around to the front, and . . . walked away. I felt nervous, suddenly, and upset.
With vivid emotional clarity, I can remember standing helplessly before the chalkboard, crying in front the entire fourth grade class as I struggled to overcome the enigma of a long division problem. Any student would've been humiliated, but one reason I found it so hurtful as a boy was because a woman was making me cry. As a boy who was just learning the chauvinistic norms of my school, somewhere deep inside I knew it was especially embarrassing when a woman made you cry.
We spent many years of our marriage and raised our sons in a church that sought to form men into manly Christian leaders and women into submissive followers. Thankfully, we realized that model didn’t make sense for our marriage or for our sons.
Words are my gift to my son, a gift many men do not grow up with. Instead, they are taught that emotions are silly or effeminate and should therefore be ignored (or at least restrained). These men now struggle with anger and health issues that don’t seem to have any clear causes.
No one ever warned us that we might have a child whose response to every disappointment would be perpetually set to Defcon One. We had one laid-back, happy son, and we thought we understood what little boys needed and how they behaved. Boys, we were always told, are resilient. They don’t express themselves verbally. Not only did Jon seem to feel every slight and stumble at a magnification of ten, he had absolutely no problem letting the world know about it. It was embarrassing.
Countering prevalent views on masculinity requires intentional action. While there are many ways to foster connection and emotional health, there’s one tool that has worked especially for us: storytelling.
What good, I feared, would it do my daughter to know that she was equal, but only in theory? How could she envision herself preaching if there were no women to spark her imagination? How could she be what she could not see?
As I watch my daughter mature and develop a rather alarming perceptiveness, I wonder when she will start to notice the vocational gender disparity around her, particularly in the church. Her wide-eyed five-year-old self knows nothing of a world in which her gender has something to say about how she can embody the gifts and graces given to her by God.