Weakness and Motherhood

As I was getting my kids out of the car to drop my 5 year-old off at preschool he was pushing, as 5 year-olds do, to get out of the car ahead of his 3 year-old and 1 year-old sisters.  I said, ‘Ladies first’ and he paused to let his sisters by.  He said, “I know why we let ladies go first”, and I noticed peripherally a mother and her daughter who attend the preschool pass me on the sidewalk.  I gave a wave and a smile as I hoisted my 1 year-old on my hip, “We let them go first,” he went on loudly, “because they are weaker.” The woman who was walking hand in hand with her daughter snapped up her head at the word, looked at my son, looked at me and went inside.  And I knew what word grabbed her attention: Weaker.

I didn’t even know my 5 year-old son was paying attention as I was teaching my 7 year-old through 1 Peter.  Verse 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”

My inclination at the time was to glaze over this passage as it makes me uncomfortable.  But my son stopped me and asked, “Mom, are women really weaker?” I inhaled sharply, I stalled for time, and out of genuine curiosity turned the question back onto him, “What do you think? Are women weaker?” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Ha. Yeah. I guess. You could never pick up dad.”  So in his childlike mind, he sees.  Women and men are not the same.  One is stronger, one is weaker.  No matter how many female superheroes are in their cartoons, no matter how strong the feminist rhetoric in our culture, children can still see with their own eyes what is true.

So I bristled, like most women would.  I thought about explaining how women are emotionally stronger, or how God choose women to birth children.  I thought about how when I get the flu I still have to soldier on and when the same virus passes to Drew he lies moaning on the couch as if the plague has overtaken him. But I couldn’t think of the right way to help him understand our differences and our equality without sounding defensive or afraid. 

It is these verses, these hot button topics within the Church like submission, weakness, respect, and authority that the Church has started to shy away from- to everyone’s detriment.  There was such an abuse of these words for such a long time that now we err on the side of disregarding them entirely.  I too, would have preferred to glaze over them and get back to the passages about loving our neighbors and then go bake them some cookies. But these words are the word of God, and it is on these Words that I have built my life.

I started with the second part of the verse, “Heirs with you in the gracious gift of life.” That’s a good place to start, I thought, with our equality.  I explained that men and women have an equal inheritance into God’s kingdom.  Men and women are equally created, equally valuable, equally worthy of respect and submission.  Women are co-heirs in the gift of life. Jesus died for men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, and every color of skin He could think up in His vast creativity.  

Jesus also had a real thing for the marginalized, which when he came, (and is still true globally) was women and children.  The way He interacted with and revealed Himself to women was nothing short of revolutionary. Mary was the first to know of His Coming when the Angel visited her. The Samaritan woman at the well was so shamed by her wayward life that she only went to the well during the hottest part of the day when there would be no other women to face.  Jesus met her there, and He revealed to her that He was the Messiah, before He told even His disciples. When Jesus rose from the grave, the epitome of the Christian calendar, and epicenter of the faith, whom did He give the privilege of the first glimpse? Mary, the former prostitute.    

Jesus set this example for us in that He went after the leper, the outcast, the adulteress, the dirty street children, the widow. He emphasized that His disciples should care specifically for the marginalized; the least of these. That’s when I noticed the key to this verse belongs in the exhortation.  These words are not for the wives to imply inferiority.  They are for the husbands to imply action. 

In this passage husbands are told that they are to be three things: considerate, respectful, prayerful.  They are told not to abandon their wives or their responsibilities (as you live with your wife, v. 7).  They are reminded again of woman’s equality that they are co-heirs and equally as important in God’s kingdom as men.  This was radical teaching to first century husbands.

Yes, women are weaker. But what if being weaker means to be more valued, more treasured, to balance out what the world has done? What if ‘weaker’ means the good china that you don’t put in the dishwasher? Sure, it technically is weaker than the beat up melamine plates my kids eat off of, that survive being thrown on the floor 15 times a meal.  But my nicest china pieces I wash by hand.  I take special care to dry them and not chip the edges.  I place them high on a shelf where my 3 year old cannot reach them.  What if God wants husbands to treat their wives as if they are special and treasured? What if it meant that men are to acknowledge that in this life they are not afforded the same opportunities? What if Jesus spent so much time and energy on women to emphasize that the weak need more from us?

What would happen if the men who claim to love Jesus, led the way for their families to live like He did? What if our husbands, our men, were the ones on the frontlines fighting for the oppressed? What if they led the way to a radical, simplified life? One that recognizes that materialism and discipleship are natural enemies? What if men took up the plight of the millions of women who are mistreated, abused, bought and sold as if they could belong to anyone but their Maker? What if their weakness drove men into action like it did for Jesus?

So, I’m ok with being weak. I feel it acutely this early morning.  The sleep deprivation weighs heavy on my eyes; the schlepping of backpacks and strollers weighs heavy on my limbs.  I am a butt wiper, a tear kisser, and a wound binder. I am a middle-of-the-night stumbling comforter, a dinner burner, and a Lego builder.  My job as a mother is dirty, demanding and relentless.  It exposes my weakness for what it is.  And this weakness exposes my true self: my impatience, my selfishness, my insufficiency.  

When I am physically exhausted and weak it is tempting to be mentally disengaged.  I conjure up ways to ‘outsource’ the more physically demanding parts of my day.  But women like men, don’t have the luxury of disengagement. The physical and emotional aspects of parenting have been and always will be connected.  We cannot unweave the tapestry of child rearing. It is the person who gently washes their filthy toes in the tub that they trust enough to open their little hearts to.  Their trust in me, their desire to know my theological answers is because I have earned it with the butt wiping, the fulfilled pinky promises, the late night back tickles.  They want to know my answers to why the sky is blue, how whales sleep and what color God’s eyes are.  It is in these tiny seemingly insignificant moments of a day that character is crafted, opinions created- that men and women are made.

So when my son waited patiently for his sister to get out of her car seat, slow as she was, then was about to jump out of the van himself, I stopped him, so that we could be eye to eye.  I looked at his precious chubby cheeks, thinner now than a year ago, mourning anew his baby fat melting away.  I gazed into his eyes, the color of the strongest freshest coffee.  So dark that his pupil is nearly the same color as his iris.  I studied the smattering of freckles across the bridge of his perfect nose, and I noticed a few new ones from our time yesterday in the pool.

I looked at this sweet, innocent boy, Tomorrow’s Man, and I thought about how often I mess up, how many times I miss opportunities to teach, how often I get this whole thing wrong. What a deep and special calling we mothers have.  Tomorrow’s generation is hinging on how we answer these questions today. What a task to determine tomorrow’s society by how we teach, how we handle interruptions, how we speak, how we love, how much or little attention we give. I heaved a sigh at the Mother’s Plight: The weight of forming a soul. It is us mothers, us weak ones that influence the whole world. 

And I looked into those eyes, those precious, perfectly formed coffee-colored eyes and I asked him, “What does that mean Finn? That girls are weaker?” And he paused for a moment, bending to pick up his lunchbox and casually shrugged his shoulders.  “You know, just that we have to take special care of them.”  And I smiled; my shoulders relaxed.  I re-hoisted the baby on my hip.  I took his small hand in mine and led him into school.