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Betty DraperI just finished a research paper about the tension that exists between evangelical stay-at-home moms’ expectations of motherhood vs. their actual experience of motherhood. What I learned was too good to keep to myself, so I’ll be sharing it over the next few weeks in bite-sized pieces. I hope you’ll find it affirming, challenging, and empowering.

Consider this statement from journalist Carla Barnhill, former editor of Christian Parenting Today. “For many evangelicals, the 1950s are the epitome of all that is good and holy in family life—Dad at work, Mom at home, the three-bedroom house with a yard, a dog, a station wagon, and two happy, smiling children. This is the family we are trying to live up to.”[1]

Evangelical scholar Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen says:

…the kind of family many Christians regard as normative is actually historically quite recent…the present, idealized role-structure of the nuclear family—father as commuting bread-winner, mother as full-time homemaker and childrearer, children seen as tender plants in need of special shelter and carefully-paced education—is largely a product of the nineteenth-century urban middle class.[2]

NixonWhat evangelicals today consider the model of the Christian family has little to do with scripture and more to do with the agendas of past politicians like Richard Nixon.[3]

Barnhill observes, “In an effort to make the American way of life appear superior to Communism, mid-century American political leaders promoted the idea that in America, every family could own its own home, that jobs were so plentiful and lucrative women had the luxury of staying home, that capitalism allowed every family to own a car and a washing machine.[4]

Historian Elaine Tyler May explains:

For Nixon, American superiority rested on the ideal of the suburban home, complete with modern appliances and distinct gender roles for family members. He proclaimed that the ‘model’ home, with a male breadwinner and a full-time female homemaker, adorned with a wide array of consumer goods, represented the essence of American freedom.[5]

Leave it to Beaver wordsIgnorant of the political history behind this model of the family, most evangelicals have mistakenly assumed that the model is rooted in scripture and therefore have adopted it as God’s blueprint for the family.[6]

In this model, the prescribed support role of the mother revolves around helping her husband and children reach their full potential and discover their unique gifts and contributions to the world. Her own gifts, potential, and contributions to the world outside of her family, however, are not encouraged or affirmed.

Spiritual director and author Ruth Haley Barton observes:

I know women who have spent a lifetime adapting to their husband’s life and calling—enduring financial hardship so he can go to school, holding down the fort at home while he travels, managing the household while he spends long hours working, studying or ministering, being tolerant of the stress all of this places on the marriage and family—never thinking of asking for the same opportunities for themselves. Somehow they feel that the privilege of having that kind of support in life goes with being male, not female.[7]

We need to move away from husband-centered and child-centered theologies of family and, instead, embrace a more Trinitarian theology of family that values and supports each member of the family equally. We must also correct the misconception that the 1950s breadwinning male and homemaking female model is the ideal, most ‘biblical,’ or most ‘Christian’ model of the family.

Leave it to Beaver familyI believe it is crucial that evangelical churches stop imposing a one-size-fits-all 1950s political model onto families.

Churches have a unique opportunity to promote a powerful message of freedom: Every couple is free to discern, between themselves and God, what arrangement is best for their family—based on their unique needs, temperaments, gifts, and opportunities in a particular season of life.

Couples should also be encouraged to re-evaluate their arrangement regularly to make sure that no one’s mental or physical health is suffering, and if so, to make some minor or major changes.

Van Leeuwen summarizes this need for freedom well:

There is nothing unbiblical about traditional family roles, provided the family is healthy in other ways. But neither is the traditional family the only (or always the best) way to organize such roles for marital health, adequate parenting and kingdom service. So let us, in this vocation as in others, be prepared to exercise responsible Christian freedom and allow others to do likewise.[8]

Let me state clearly that I’m not against being a full-time at-home mom. I’ve been one for eight years. I believe, however, that it’s important to understand the political roots of the “traditional” family model so that we don’t mistakenly embrace it as “God’s model” and, therefore, force ourselves into it, or force ourselves to stay in it longer than is beneficial or healthy for us or our families.

For further reading on how wealth and privilege play into the prescribed model of the Christian housewife, check out How Much Money Does it Take to Be A Good Christian Woman? by Jenny Rae Armstrong.

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[1] Carla Barnhill, The Myth of the Perfect Mother:: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004) 17.

[2] Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 169-170.

[3] Barnhill, The Myth, 18.

[4] Barnhill, The Myth, 18.

[5] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xv-xvii.

[6] Barnhill, The Myth, 18.

[7] Ruth Haley Barton, Longing for More: A Woman’s Path to Transformation in Christ. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 34.

[8] Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace, 185.

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