A Meditation for Homemakers

St. Francis de Sales tells us about St. Catherine of Siena:

Her manner of meditating was as follows. While she was dressing meat for her father, she imagined she was preparing it for our Saviour, like another Saint Martha, and that her mother held the place of Our Blessed Lady, and her brothers that of the apostles, rousing herself in this manner to serve the whole court of heaven in spirit, while she employed herself with great delight in these low services because she knew such was the will of God. (174)



Mothers Secretly Want to Stay Home

The 1980s: a time in which women donned shoulder pads that made them resemble linebackers and stormed the gates of the corporate world. A time in which major feminist texts were published (Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin, Backlash by Susan Faludi), but, more importantly, the feminist message seemed to work its way into the popular consciousness, through movies like 9 to 5 and through college activism like Take Back the Night marches.

And, perhaps not coincidentally, it was also a time in which the term “attachment parenting” was coined. Attachment parenting refers to the idea that the natural bond between mother and child should be preserved. The baby should ride in a carrier, snuggled against mom’s heart, instead of sitting in a stroller a foot away from her; the baby should sleep in the parental bed rather than the nursery; baby should gain all its nutrition from the mother’s warm breast instead of a bottle.

The great secret of attachment parenting is that it’s not exactly compatible with second-wave feminism. After all, breastfeeding ensures that the mother is the baby’s only food source and thus makes it significantly harder for, say, a father, grandparent, or daycare worker to step in. Co-sleeping and babywearing diminish the boundaries of her bodily autonomy. Taken as a whole, the demands of attachment parenting mean that less time is available for work or for hobbies apart from the family.

Despite the fact that attachment parenting bears a rather uneasy relationship to feminism, women themselves–not just male parenting gurus like Dr. Sears–have eagerly seized upon it as the best way to raise a child. Breastfeeding advocates, nearly all of whom are female, have crossed the line into bullying and name-calling the formula-feeding mothers. Mothers who opt to sleep-train instead of co-sleep suffer an even worse reception than those who formula-feed.

In addition to attachment parenting, a number of the other womanly arts have gained popularity in recent years. Canning, knitting, cloth diapering, baby-food-making, and cooking from scratch have all become chic.

Why have women adopted the kinds of pursuits once seen as oppressive?

One argument might be that concern for the environment is driving the trend. After all, breastfeeding is better for the environment (no bottles to wash, or formula canisters to dispose of!), and so is making your own clothing instead of shipping it from sweatshops in Cambodia, or eating canned fruit from your own backyard. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are plenty of lifestyle choices that are bad for the environment, yet never come under scrutiny. Living alone, for instance, consumes more resources than communal living–yet the post-college years are widely viewed as a time to leave family and old friends and migrate to a studio apartment in a big city. Likewise, air travel is disastrous for the environment, but backpacking around Europe or Asia is practically viewed as a rite of passage in certain social circles. In other words, the rhetoric of environmentalism is only deployed to attack choices that educated, urban-dwelling liberals don’t like, such as having lots of kids or driving a minivan–and is never deployed to criticize the things they do like, like traveling, living alone during their early 20s, smoking pot, using computers and iPhones incessantly, or driving vintage Vespas.

So if college-educated women are suddenly obsessed with browsing the farmers’ markets for organic kabocha squash to mash into baby food, it’s because they want to do so, not because they’ve reluctantly decided to give up their own preferences for “the environment.” So why do they want to?

Many third-wave feminists would shrug at this question, responding that as long as women are really choosing this parenting style outside of a context of coercion, then who cares? But I’m interested in why women are choosing it, especially when most men seem so indifferent. (I’ve never heard of a man accosting a bottle-feeding mother in public and informing her that “breast is best!,” nor have I ever heard a man agonizing over whether to use a stroller or an organic Ergo carrier to take the baby to the grocery store).

And my own theory is that, after second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan argued that housework was silly and unimportant, educated women felt pressured to leave their children and work outside the home–which many found unfulfilling. (After all, people who work outside the home don’t all march off to fun, exciting, socially significant jobs like politician or journalist.) So they wanted to justify their desires to spend more time with their children, or perhaps even quit their jobs entirely. Enter the concept of “attachment parenting,” with its scientific-sounding name, and suddenly they had discovered the solution. Homemakers were no longer just sitting around eating bonbons and waiting to fix their husbands a martini (which had become the stereotype of homemaking)–no, they were boosting their children’s IQ, preventing childhood obesity, and even saving the environment to boot.

In other words, lots of mothers really want to stay home and support their families, and so they feel compelled to defend the continued importance of this role. I think it’s sad that we’re now forced to rationalize and defend nurturing just because it’s not a masculine trait (and is therefore seen as worthless).


Homosexuality Is Not the Issue. Feminism Is.

Same-sex marriage seems to be the issue du jour for many Catholic blogs and message boards–the one conversation topic, other than abortion, that will get Catholics frothing at the mouth and even capitulating to uncharitable remarks that I won’t repeat here. Yet at the same time, feminism seems to have receded as a point of contention. Even my favorite Catholic blogger–the lovely and orthodox Simcha Fischer–has no problem with wondering whether to call herself a Catholic feminist.

However, I think feminism poses a far greater challenge to Church teaching than same-sex marriage. Acceptance of gay and lesbian behavior is contingent on the triumph of feminism. After all, if men and women are inherently different and serve different functions in the natural order, then it logically follows that both sexes would be needed to make a true marital union, to procreate and raise children, and, ultimately, to create a complete society.

If feminism is correct that there are no essential differences between the sexes–that a woman is basically just a man, albeit one who must be “liberated” from her pesky ability to carry and bear a child–then Church teaching on homosexuality makes less sense, and the distinctions between a man/woman union and a man/man union begin to blur.

This is why I find the concept of Catholic feminism to be a contradiction in terms. Biblical teaching on sex and marriage compels a complentarian framework.


A rant about women’s fashion

I recently became interested in clothes and accessories, after a lifetime of wearing nothing but neutral trousers and oversized, solid-color shirts. This sudden interest happened to coincide with the birth of my first child, although I’m not sure why. Hormones? A newfound love of my body after experiencing the miracle of birth? Envy of the fact that my daughter has more clothes than I do? (And for the record, we ourselves didn’t buy her any clothes. When you’re having a baby girl, even people you barely know, like your mail carrier or the guy who begs for change outside of Starbucks, will present you with pink frilly dresses and onesies with “Princess” printed on the butt).

Well, I don’t know where they came from, but my desires were legion. I wanted a button-down floral blouse:

I wanted a shirtwaist dress in a nice color:

I wanted Mary Janes that could double as walking shoes, so I could get rid of my sneakers with the falling-apart soles that flapped like tongues:

But I couldn’t really afford these things. I had a baby to provide for, and a graduate student budget to work with. So I googled “The Look for Less” –but the results did not tell me how to find the things I wanted. Instead, they told me how to dress like this:

Thanks for the advice, but I’m pretty sure I could recreate this look using the clothes in the poor box at church. Movie stars can manage to look beautiful and womanly in such an ensemble, but I can’t. Many women can’t.

I suppose it’s no secret that fashion designers worship androgyny. After all, there’s a famous male model who models women’s clothing. But when androgyny in fashion is discussed, the debate is usually framed in terms of whether it pressures women to be too thin–to emulate the body proportions of an adolescent boy. And I don’t think that’s the real problem with androgynous fashion. After all, many women are naturally very thin, so pressure to be thin and pressure to be androgynous are two entirely separate issues. Rather, I think the real problem with androgynous fashion is hatred of femininity.

In my recent (and admittedly limited) forays into fashion blogs, I’ve often seen a quote from Marc Jacobs, who, when asked how women ought to wear skirts, said, “Like a boy.” (The story may be aprocryphal, as I haven’t seen a citation for it, but since Jacobs himself wears skirts, I think it’s plausible.) Like Jacobs, many fashion designers seem to believe that anything too sweet, too sentimental, too feminine, is dowdy. Fashion, whether it’s for men or for women, mus have an “edge” to it. A modest floral skirt must be paired with clunky boots in order to be interesting. A cute sundress must be jazzed up with an assymetrical, unfinished hemline or an exposed zipper.

As a result, millions of women are being told that their desires for something pretty, something their husbands will actually like, are wrong. We can’t glory in our femininity–not if we want to fit in.

How odd that everyone loves to see baby girls in pink frilly outfits, but adult women are expected to wear faded jeans and black t-shirts.  I guess growing up means learning to shed our feminine natures.


What are your favorite prayers?

Obviously, no Catholic can be without the Our Father or Hail Mary. But Catholicism has a rich treasury of other prayers as well.

One of the most useful, I think, is the Jesus Prayer, which is adapted from Luke 18:13: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” While the prayer is mainly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, it also has a long tradition of use in the Catholic Church, and is even praised by the Catechism. Practitioners of this prayer repeat it as often as possible throughout the day, until it becomes an automatic action of the heart. I like this prayer because it’s so simple–it’s easy to remember even when you’ve had only a few hours of sleep and have been fruitlessly trying to entertain a screaming baby all morning. It makes unceasing prayer attainable for the layperson.

I also like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s prayer, from the “Contemplation to Gain Love” in the Spiritual Exercises: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will—all that I have and possess. Thou gavest it to me: to Thee, Lord, I return it! All is Thine, dispose of it according to all Thy will. Give me Thy love and grace, for this is enough for me.” I pray it as a morning offering prayer, to remind myself that all my capabilities come from God, and everything I perform with them must therefore be done for the glory of God. In giving Him everything, I am not being magnanimous; I am only giving Him what is His.

My favorite prayer preceding Mass is a long one. It’s written by St. Thomas Aquinas–who, though he’s often stereotyped as a dry, methodical scholastic, was also capable of grasping the most profound Eucharistic mysteries. He wrote the beautiful Corpus Christi hymn “Pange lingua,” and his prayer here is on the same subject:

Almighty and eternal God, behold, I approach the Sacrament of Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I approach as one who is sick to the physician of life, as one unclean to the fountain of mercy, as one blind to the light of eternal brightness, as one poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore I beseech Thee, of Thine infinite goodness, to heal my sickness, to wash away my filth, to enlighten my blindness, to enrich my poverty, and to clothe my nakedness, that I may receive the Bread of Angels, King of kings, and the Lord of lords with such reverence and humility, with such contrition and devotion, with such purity and faith, as may conduce to the salvation of my soul.

Grant, I beseech Thee, that I may receive not only the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, but also the fruit and virtue of this Sacrament. O must indulgent God, grant me so to receive the Body of Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, which He took of the Virgin Mary, that I may be found worthy to be incorporated with His mystical body and numbered among His members.

O most loving Father, grant that I may one day contemplate forever, face to face, Thy beloved Son, Whom now on my pilgrimage I am about to receive under the sacramental veils; Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

The prayer expresses such a keen sense of his own unworthiness before the sacrament, such a desire for Christ to dwell within him spiritually as well as physically, and such faith in the veiled and mysterious presence of Christ. All of us should internalize these sentiments, even if we don’t all memorize the prayer itself.

Do you have any favorite prayers, or do you prefer to pray spontaneously?

How big is feminism’s tent?

Feminists often quote the dictionary definition of feminism in order to prove how noncontroversial their goals really are: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” And yet, there’s far more to feminism than can be captured in such a succinct definition. There are two aspects of feminism which I find particularly objectionable–aspects which might not be immediately obvious from the basic definition, and and which prevent me from counting myself among its adherents.

1. There is no significant complementarian movement within feminism.

For the most part, contemporary feminism falls into two camps. The first denies that there are any essential differences between men and women. Even feminists who at first appear to acknowledge difference usually deny that these differences are associated with biological sex. Carol Gilligan, for instance, is famed for her research demonstrating that women tend to reason through moral issues using an “ethic of care” as opposed to a masculine “ethic of justice.” But Gilligan argues that these differences are inscribed on the sexes by patriarchy, and that the very concept of gender differences is oppressive: “in dividing human qualities into masculine and feminine, sexism separates everyone from parts of themselves, creating rifts or splits in the psyche . . . both men and women are pressured to render themselves half-human” (Carol Gilligan on Gender and Human Nature). Moreoever, she certainly doesn’t accord respect to women’s traditional housewife role, for she describes the “Angel in the House” role, “the woman who acts and speaks only for others,” as “a kind of immorality: an abdication of voice” (In A Different Voice, x).

The second feminist camp acknowledges difference, but valorizes femininity as superior. French feminists (except Simone de Beauvoir) also tend to fall into this view. Witness Helene Cixous: “What does he want in return, this traditional man? . . . [M]ore masculinity: plus-value of virility, authority, power, money, or pleasure, all of which reinforce his phallocentric narcissim at the same time . . . An unenviable fate they’ve made for themselves. A man is always proving something; he has to ‘show off,’ show up the others” (The Logic of the Gift, 159).

There’s no major feminist school of thought that holds men and women to be different, yet equal in dignity. Hence feminism tends towards the weakening of the traditional family (and, some would say, towards society itself), since the traditional family requires a complementarian framework to justify its existence. That last point would require its own post in order to be fully elaborated, but suffice to say that feminism offers little accomodation for a complementarian.

2. Feminism is pro-choice.

There are isolated examples of people who describe themselves as feminists while maintaining pro-life views. But other feminists ostracize them. For instance , Katha Pollitt wrote of pro-life feminists that “they aren’t really feminists–a feminist could not force another woman to bear a child” (“Feminists for (Fetal) Life,” The Nation, August 29 2005). Gloria Steinem said in an interview that “yes, you can be a feminist who doesn’t agree with abortion, who would never have an abortion. But you can’t be a feminist who says that other women can’t and criminalizes abortion.” So if you believe that human life begins at conception–at the moment the organism acquires a unique human DNA code–then you’re automatically anti-feminist. (And let’s drop this pretense that it’s possible to be personally opposed to abortion while tolerating its legalization. Would you ever say, “I’m personally opposed to murder but I think it’s fine if others do it”?)

For these two reasons, I refuse to call myself a feminist now. Feminism is a specific ideology that promotes abortion, denies sexual difference, and attacks masculinity, not just a general support for women. I’m not interested in “reclaiming the language” and appropriating the term “feminist” for the Catholics–I think I show feminists more respect if I let them define their own movement.


Evangelization for the tragically flawed

I’m sure we all know people who embody the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Peaceful, patient, and kind–and all seemingly without effort, as these virtues naturally flow from the great love and grace which they have received from Christ.

Well, I’m not one of those people. I haven’t put nearly enough effort into my relationship with God to draw on all of those graces. So, for now at least, I remain decidedly un-saintly. I love to talk about the common good and serving others, but in reality, my house is a mess, I get mad at my husband if he eats my granola bars, and I constantly walk around with a slightly worried expression, like I can’t remember whether we’re out of milk. And that’s just the surface: there plenty of less noticeable but far graver sins lurking deeper in my soul.

For this reason, I used to equivocate about the fact that I was Catholic. I was afraid my own imperfections would turn people away from the faith. I used to lie to my roommate about where I was going as I headed off to RCIA (oh, the irony of committing venial sins in order to enter the Catholic Church). I’d stay silent when my fellow students snickered about those crazy fundamentalist pro-lifers.

Lately, though, I’ve tried to be more forthcoming about my religious commitments. And it’s not because I’ve become any nicer or less sinful or better-smelling. Rather, it’s because of an idea I read in Humanae vitae: that most people believe that Church teaching can only be lived through “heroic effort” (3).

That’s something that I myself used to believe. Back in my days as an atheist, if I thought about Catholic teaching on issues such as sexuality and marriage at all, it was only to dismiss them as impossible. Or, if I did consider them possible, they could be possible only for exceptionally self-controlled and saintly people–or perhaps for the boring, repressed, and judgmental. So why bother to learn more about Catholicism if it demanded the impossible?

But now, after a very long story, I’m on the other side, living those teachings that I once considered inhumanly difficult. And I want to let others know that, yes, you can live Church teaching. You can forego contraception and become open to life even if you’re newly married, chronically impoverished (i.e., if you’re in graduate school), and not very good with small children. You can go to confession even if you’re normally proud and don’t like to admit when you’re wrong. You can be chaste even if, like most human beings, you struggle with lust and selfishness.

As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31). Catholic Christianity exists precisely for the imperfect. It is the imperfect who have been called to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). And I want to be an honest example to others of an imperfect person who, through growing in the grace of Jesus, is slowly learning to keep His commandments.

So I’m trying to do more–to pray in public more, to mention my faith more–precisely because I am such a sinful person, and therefore I can show others that the Church is for everybody.