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Published Date: September 5, 2003

Published Date: September 5, 2003

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Parenting as Partners

Kathy Nesper invites us into a discussion with people who feel that biblical equality has enhanced their parenting.

It is the “virtual” equivalent of a pleasant post-dinner conversation. Not as satisfying by e-mail as in real life over coffee and dessert, but my question has intrigued them: how has your belief in biblical equality affected your parenting?

“We’ve never really thought about it that way,” begins Keith, a thirty-year pastor now in Southern California, with two children and three grandchildren. “In fact, equality never showed up as a ‘choice’ in our marriage either; it’s who we are, the way God made us to function at our best in society, in marriage, and as parents.”

“We never intended to create an egalitarian marriage either,” says Allison, an Australian physiotherapist and childbirth educator whose four children range from four to thirteen. “It just felt like the right thing for us. I never used to like the politically correct term of ‘partner,’ but then I realized that the term is actually very appropriate for us. Years ago we were told by the youth group we worked with that they never saw us as two people; we went together. We thought that was such a compliment about our marriage!”

Parenting a Team

Karen, another Californian, is mom to three grown sons and grandmother of two. She makes the link to parenting: “That kind of partnership in marriage naturally extends to parenting. And it’s important for each parent to build his or her unique relationships with the children.”

 “Both of us are committed to keeping strong bonds with our kids,” says Deb, who hopes to begin attending seminary this fall. She has two girls, ten and fifteen, and lives in Maryland. “We have wanted our kids to see what an engaged father and mother are like, and that being tender and caring is not bound by gender. Even as our kids grow into teenagers, we have kept a strong emotional bond, while allowing them to ‘grow away’ from us towards independent adulthood.

“We have also worked to show them that it is not just one parent or the other running the home, but a team effort. One of us may contribute more in income and the other in the organizational details, but we do it together, not as separate entities.”

That way, she goes on, both parents are prepared to participate fully, even in the “everyday stuff.” “Neither one of us is the final decision-maker on the kids. For example, before and after pediatrician appointments, I would get my husband’s opinion and report what the doctor had said. When we’ve had ministry responsibilities on Sunday mornings, we would not necessarily have me stay home with sick kids. And we filter our daughter’s teenage apparel through ‘male’ eyes.”

Keith adds, “Marti and I have always listened to one another’s viewpoints when we discussed issues and made decisions. We shared family tasks equally and collegially, cleaned up our own messes, and renegotiated our duties as time and individual needs changed.”

Time significantly changed duties in Allison’s family. “I chose a profession where it is easy to work part time. After about a six-month unpaid maternity leave when our first child was born, I returned to my job half days, and David voluntarily reduced his job to part time so he could care for our daughter when I was at work.” She adds, “We make sure people understand that this was our choice; neither of us forced the other into it.”

She notes a side benefit many moms would appreciate. “One thing about sharing our work and parenting roles is that my husband appreciates the time that goes into being a stay-at-home parent. I can arrive home from work to, ‘Sorry, I haven’t got much done. It’s been one of those days!’”

“The only thing a baby must get from a mother is breastfeeding.” Deb says. “Everything else—love, close contact, diaper changing, holding and teaching about living for God in daily life—can come from both parents. When I had been maxed out by a day with a colicky newborn, Ken would wrap them in his arms or tuck them in a carrier or sling and rock them against his heart.”

Allison sees it the same way. “In terms of caring for the kids, we both change nappies [diapers], bathe the kids, dress the kids, etc. But I’m the only one equipped to breastfeed! That was a high value for us, and David supported me in whatever I needed to ensure that it was successful.”

Are they suggesting that moms and dads are mostly interchangeable? No, they reply, it is important to understand that individuals bring their own temperaments to their parenting. Allison says, “My kids love me as Mum, and whenever they are sick or need comforting, it’s Mum they turn to. But it’s Dad who knows everything, can fix everything, can solve anything. The kids don’t see us as equal, but they see that each of us is of equal importance. We both have our own roles to play, and they won’t be the same. And once you know that, it’s much easier.”

Who Does What?

How do they decide who does which tasks? Their response is unanimous: it’s about setting aside ideas of what roles each one should fill and instead doing what each is good at.

“I am in charge of the checkbook because I am better at numbers and ‘big picture’ financial issues,” says Deb. “Ken handles the philosophical questions that deal with life and growing up to live for God, because he’s better at them.

 “We have learned a lot about the parenting process by understanding that our own spiritual nurture needs manifest themselves differently. Ken is fed through more introspective means like contemplative prayer, and I grow through interpersonal means like a prayer partner or small group. We learned very early on in our parenting journey that we complemented each other not only emotionally, but spiritually and psychologically too when it came to the needs of our children. I have a blast with ‘creative messiness,’ and he relishes not only answering the kids’ questions but bringing them understanding.”

Allison concurs: “By nature David is more the disciplinarian, while I’m the nurturer. So we will react differently to the same thing and usually provide some balance to each other.”

Karen looks toward that balance as children grow: “The old saying is that the mother brings the world to the child, while the father takes the child to the world. That’s been true for us. Since Derrick had supported my unique contributions in nursing them as babies and nurturing them as they grew, I was better able to trust his wisdom as our sons got older and needed to be released from Mom’s protectiveness.” She laughs, “Well, maybe he had to pry me away just a little.”

Deb observes, “There are stages in a child’s life where they will more naturally ‘fit’ with one parent or the other. A tired infant needs nursing by Mom. A rambunctious toddler will benefit from a romp on the lawn with Daddy. A pre-teen needs to feel beautiful and loved as a princess by her daddy. A teenage son needs to know his mom thinks he is smart and successful in her eyes. Kids of all ages need to hear and see that they are valued and cherished by their parents.”

The Importance of Uniqueness

As they have been able to honor one another as unique individuals, these parents emphasize the importance of the same thing in parenting: seeing each child as a unique individual, with his/her own personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach to parenting,” Karen says. “It’s important to know each child so well that the parents can tailor parenting to him or her, as God parents each of us uniquely as his children.”

Deb agrees. “We believe that through knowing our children at the deepest level possible, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, their emotional, physical, and spiritual ‘wiring,’ we are better able to meet them in God-ordained, personal, and respectful ways.”

Who’s in Charge Here?

I shift the focus: what about some of the concerns people express about egalitarian marriage? Probably the most common complaint, I say, is that someone must be the final decision maker or there will be stalemates, especially with children.

Deb jumps in. “That is more an interpretation of how a husband and wife work together in their marriage, not who is ‘in charge.’ Because my husband and I talk and work through issues about our children, we do occasionally change our minds, or change a decision the other one has made. But we make sure we tell each other what happened and why. We can’t stress enough the need for time to talk about things. It takes commitment. And not just ‘family schedule’ issues, but larger, philosophical and spiritual issues.”

Rebecca, a California mother of six, hasn’t said much yet and doesn’t call her marriage egalitarian. But she has an opinion about this. “People who haven’t experienced joint decision making—or don’t think they have—cannot fathom how it could possibly work. The funny thing is that friends make joint decisions all the time, without much bother, and without deciding which one of them gets ‘the final say.’”

Allison suggests that for couples who do operate as a team, this is a problem only in other people’s minds: “One youth leader really struggled with how we worked together. He expected David to be someone he wasn’t, wouldn’t acknowledge my ministry, and always seemed to make us feel uncomfortable. David has always totally supported me and my ministry gifts and insisted that I was the upfront leader whereas he was more the behind-the-scenes type. We were both happy with that and were simply operating within our giftings.”

Well, I ask on behalf of critics, does this approach leave the children confused about who’s “in charge”? No, they all say; the children learn to respect both parents. “If we find out a child has tried to do an ‘end run’ around one parent by asking the other,” Deb says, “the child suddenly discovers a very unified parental line. That’s just good communication and an attempt at good parenting.”

Allison agrees, “We will always be united, and the kids see that and know that.”

Men and Women

We move on to the harsher complaints. Some people protest, I say, that an egalitarian relationship emasculates men, and “defeminizes” women. How do they feel about that in their homes?

 “Masculinity is not a matter of who does which jobs in the home,” says Deb. She turns poetic for a moment, “Masculinity is expressed through a set of seemingly impossibly paired traits: power and gentleness, aggressiveness and compassion, focused direction and humility. I would consider my husband a very masculine guy!” She pauses to chuckle, “OK, the beard helps. But seriously, even though we work together and submit to each other, there is no sense that one or the other of us is lacking in their gender identity.”

“Our children do not seem to have suffered from our shared roles,” Allison says. “Our girls are typical girls, and our boys are typical boys. I think our kids would consider simply that we are a team.”

There is a belief among some, I say, that as part of their fallen nature women seek power and control. Rebecca has observed that this view itself can create problems. “There is a contrast between men who trust and respect women and those who are afraid that a strong woman will diminish them and grab their power. If a husband has been taught that a wife will constantly be trying to usurp power, he will be constantly on guard against anything that he views to be a power grab. If a wife has been convinced that her wickedly deceitful heart will compel her to control her husband, she will be frightened of anything that smacks of joint decision-making.”

Allison offers the contrast. “Our kids see that Mum and Dad are very much in love and that we admire one another. We don’t put each other down, and we won’t allow the kids to do that to each other either. We respect one another and each one of our children for their strengths, gifts, and abilities. We are also aware of each other’s weaknesses and will do what we can to protect those.”

Sacrifices Come With the Territory

Another common objection, I point out, is that a woman might sacrifice the needs of her family to seek her own desires. Karen objects: “Why isn’t that same question asked about men? Is it any less important for them to fulfill their vital roles as husband and father?”

Allison insists that in order to be parents, sacrifices will be made. The only question is which ones. “Equality means that both parents make the sacrifices,” she says. “We both made the decision to share the roles of parenting and working. Thirteen years later we are still both working part time and at home part time, with our youngest child starting school next year. Our family has not been sacrificed by our sharing of parenting duties and the fact that we both work, but we have chosen to make some career sacrifices.

“We also have sacrificed personal time to put our family first. Between working, spending time with the kids, and housework, there is little time left for socializing with friends or with hobbies—housework is the hobby. And if I bring work home, then I aim to do that when the kids are in bed, not when they want my attention. But I also have a huge sense of personal satisfaction that in this one life I get to live, I am making a difference. Our children have benefited from both Mum and Dad being involved in all aspects of their lives.”

They also point out that sometimes choices need not be sacrificed, but must be “sequenced.” Allison says, “There may be times when our calling as women is simply to be mothers; I call that the ‘pondering stage.’ The Bible says, ‘Mary pondered all these things in her heart.’ I felt that I was ‘pondering’ for a period of time. I had all these passions and ideas welling up, but the timing was not right to move forward yet. I needed to be Mum and minister to my children. Now that they are a little older, it seems right to move forward and act upon some of the things I have been pondering for some time.”

She goes on about the challenge of balance, “Probably the hardest thing is for women with leadership qualities and ambitions and dreams to know what they should be doing in a ministry capacity and what they should be giving up. There are very few good role models.

“Equality can’t mean the kids never see Mum and Dad because they’re both too busy. And that includes ‘ministry.’ We can get so busy with church stuff that the family suffers.”

Gifts from God…and to Others

Karen muses, “In the end, living faithfully as a Christian means to have a dual attunement, doesn’t it? We listen for God’s call, which includes meeting our own personal and spiritual needs, but we also seek opportunities to serve others. And that begins with our spouses and children, whether we’re male or female.”

“We treat each other at least as equal—or at best, better and more important than ourselves,” Keith says. “That seems to be the biblical ideal.”

Allison comments, “We don’t consider it to be equality, because we can’t be equals. We each have different strengths and weaknesses, different giftings and abilities, different passions and interests. God has called us to work together, to support one another in the ministries he has called us to do—whatever that may be and irrespective of our gender.

“In the same way that David and I are different people with different skills and abilities, different gifts and callings, so too are our children. God has put them on the earth for different reasons. We need to nurture them and allow them to grow and be all that God has planned for them. Only God knows their full destinies. We just need to train them the right way and allow them to follow where God leads them.”

Keith echoes that sentiment: “We always tried to encourage both our son and our daughter to participate in anything and everything without gender restrictions. We taught them to honor and respect both male and female as full image-bearers of God without imposing particular roles tied to gender.”

 “We believe that part of our call as parents who follow Christ is to show our children that they are not only gifts from God; they are also gifts to others,” Deb says. We have tried to teach them that their presence in this world is not just to be consumers and recipients of our care, but to learn how to provide for the needs of others, and to show God’s love through their gifts and abilities.”

What More Could We Want?

It has been a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion. Every marriage brings unique challenges, and parenting multiplies them. These couples have been served well by an approach that emphasizes individual giftedness, teamwork, and service—both within the family and beyond it.

Some of them are still raising their children, while others are now enjoying the fruit of those labors. From his perspective as an “empty nester” and grandfather, Keith sums up well: “Approaching the struggles of life equally yoked and pulling together as a team has helped us handle life’s challenges and struggles with wisdom, strength, grace, and efficiency. Our children both have great healthy marriages and are great parents for our grandchildren. What more could we want?!”