Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reflections of a Flawed Egalitarian

Rachel Held Evans has devoted this week to a discussion of what it means to be egalitarian. If you haven't checked out her posts so far, I strongly encourage you to do so. You won't be disappointed. Rachel conducts her conversations with passion blended with humility and openness, so that all can join in whether they agree with her point of view or not.

As she has invited others to join in this conversation through their own blogs and tweets, I want to take today to share some reflections on this topic from my own 20+ years of marriage. My wife and I both come from traditional patriarchal families. Neither of our fathers ruled as tyrants, but in both of our families it was clear that dad was ultimately in charge. Our mothers could make decisions within certain parameters, but in the end, dad had the final say. This was also true within our church backgrounds, where male headship within the home and church was assumed as much as it was actively proclaimed.

Yet from the time we married, we have sought to live differently, more in keeping with an egalitarian model. This has, naturally, expressed itself in very practical ways, such as the division of household tasks. Despite my upbringing I did not enter marriage assuming that all housework involving cooking, cleaning, care of the kids and such would naturally be my wife's work. I never saw that as fair or appropriate. Although I won't say I've been perfect in this area, I think we have had a good balance overall throughout our years together. However, we have also never considered equality in these areas to be a question of dividing the work 50/50. We have tried for a healthy balance, and certain tasks generally fall to one or the other of us, but we have also sought to serve one another, stepping in to do whatever is necessary at the given moment. For example, my wife normally does the cooking as she is a better cook than I. But I don't see this as only her role, and some evenings I will cook if I see that she is tired, or she has something else that she needs to do. I like to think that this arrangement wouldn't look all that different if we were a traditional patriarchal family, because I hope that most men of my generation or younger would recognize by now that when it comes to the home, you can't say that certain tasks are “women's work” and others are “men's work.” I am probably too optimistic in this regard, but I don't view the division of household labor as the defining element of being egalitarian.

We have also sought to make key decisions together. When we chose to move to Arizona so I could attend graduate school, we made the decision together, even though my education was the motivating factor. I would not have forced her to go had she been opposed. Later, when we felt led to join an international ministry and move overseas, we made the decision together and as we moved to various locations and took on various roles, we did so in concert. At one point my wife agreed to not make a major move because I did not feel peace about it. A couple years later I felt peace about it and God ended up redirecting both of us to a third option that we had not previously considered. Had I forced my way upon her at any point in this journey it would have been detrimental to our relationship, our ministry and our family. 

Despite these positive egalitarian traits in our relationship, I'm growing in my awareness of areas in which I have operated from my background paradigm of male leadership rather than from a conscious effort to practice equality. I have often made decisions based on my own goals and plans, rather than seeking consensus with my wife. I have pursued my own development while not supporting hers as I ought. I have not invited and included her in decision-making within our family as much as I could have. I see that I have often clung to my limited power and control, fearful of sharing it because that might mean that I have to do things I don't prefer to do. It might (does!) mean that I have to acknowledge that I don't always know what's best. I don't always have the right answer. I'm not superman. 

I am learning, as I let go and invite my wife into greater equality, that it is immensely liberating. I don't have to always have the answer. I don't have to always be right. Together we can benefit from the wisdom, insight and talents we both bring to the relationship. Together we can accept responsibility for our mutual decisions, not feeling the need to defend ourselves or judge the other if a decision does not turn out as we had hoped. 

To borrow the words Rachel's husband Dan wrote yesterday: My relationship with my wife is not a hierarchy, it's a partnership. I don't want a weak partner who defers to me for the final word. I want a strong, confident, stable partner who will walk side-by-side with me mutually supporting one another as our roles change continually throughout our marriage. I'm thankful that I have such a partner and that she has patiently walked with me even when I have not fully lived up to the equality I so strongly profess.

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