Becoming a mother for the first time was more than jarring. I was knocked off my ass and felt like I was looking for lost pieces of myself for a couple of months. I stopped showered regularly (without even noticing too much), never seemed to smell pleasant, wore dark circles under my eyes like they were sunglasses, and became bitingly acerbic toward others due to a lack of sleep and uncertainty in what day of the week it was. Surprisingly to me, my experiences were not unlike those of any other mother in the history of time. “It all comes so naturally!” said no mother anywhere, though I always assumed the contrary.
After having my baby, I chose to become a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) without having done much research on the front end. I assumed I would figure it out, which is what it seemed, everyone else before me had done. Only, I didn’t know that becoming a SAHM meant shedding my formed self. In a futile attempt to regain my footing on the life I once had, I set to work, building a social network and rotating schedule of events for me and my little one (LO). I foolishly thought of the baby as a new accessory I could tote around to the kinds of things I had always done before: lunches, book clubs, writer’s workshops, and coffees with friends.
After living my new life, I quickly learned that my new schedule would be slightly altered. I scratched book club for story times at the library, joined a mother’s group within my child’s designated age group, and then looked for something to stimulate my mind. Finding intellectual stimuli that welcomed my new accessory companion was difficult.
Then I found a bible study at a local church. In spite of having received all of my Catholic sacraments throughout the years, I admitted to myself that I am ill versed in the actual bible. I couldn’t tell you how many books there are or who authored them. I’m not sure where Moses fit into things, except for the fact that he had some kind of affinity for arson and shrubbery. And someone got eaten by a whale but was still conscious enough to talk to himself whilst inside the thing.
I honestly thought it would be just like English class—analyzing an old text, teasing out meaning from ambiguity, and learning to expand my mind all the while. The nerd that I am, this would be perfect.
“Becoming a mother is the perfect time to grow to know Jesus,” I told my husband. “You’ll see a charge on the credit card for my membership fee.”
“I thought you already knew Jesus,” he said. “Isn’t that why we got married in a church?”
“No, I mean, I can really learn about the bible now. You know, intimately.”
I signed up for a women’s bible study with other women who were also SAHMs. On the first day of study, my heart swelled a little at the sight of the church filled with them, and I found myself surrounded by others who were, I assumed, finding themselves, just like me.
“Oh, being a new mom is tough,” they said.
“Oh, you look great! You’re getting the hang of things already!”
“Having your network of moms is key!”
“We’re so glad you’re joining us!”
My chest swelled over the compliments and well wishes. This was what I had been searching for. I told myself that becoming a mom would be easier now, with supporters and story swappers like these women. Before the presentations started, we exchanged tales of our pediatrician visits, our teething toys, and trials with different diaper brands. I felt so much less alone already and realized that becoming a mother was going to teach me so many wonderful things. But most importantly, I was not alone. I had these women, and I had God.
After the general welcoming and bullshit chit chat stuff was done (which, admittedly, I kind of loved and missed from my days working in an office) the actual bible study began. A woman arrived at the front of the room, opened her arms wide as if to embrace each one of us in one grand gesture, and told us that she had a message about how to help our marriages. This would be life changing, she said. I didn’t know my marriage needed help, but I was open to suggestions. Let’s grow my mind, I thought.
I couldn’t wait! I was going to get great advice about how to help out my patient, loving, gentle husband, whom I’d known had really been through the ringer since having this baby. He’d been stalwart and strong, waking with me for night feedings some of the time, and always happy to change a diaper or care for my needs. Now I would learn of something, anything, I could do for him to show a little love and gratitude. Perfect.
What followed our opening prayer was what the presenter described as a list of duties and expectations for women, as dictated to us from the bible. If we could learn to follow these directly, she said, our marriages would blossom and thrive. Some of these duties included:
“Women must submit to and serve their husbands.”
“Women must default to their husband’s decisions when caught in an argument.”
“Women must never show disrespect to her husband, even at times that he has not earned respect.”
“Women must never decline the physical act of love when it is desired by her husband.”
“Women must put the needs of her husband (his work, his passions, his hobbies, his friends) ahead of her own.”
I was careful not to let my jaw hit the floor as these bullet points of wisdom were bestowed upon us, and then explained in greater detail. Regardless, hearing all of this information was difficult for me, but not nearly as difficult as it was to note the nodding heads and eager smiles lapping up “the truth from the Lord.”
I had read and learned all about the Women’s Movement in high school, college, and graduate school. It was one of my favorite things to study. The waves of feminism that permeated the US had granted women more rights, finally acknowledging that even if we were not yet fully seen or acknowledged as equal to men, we were well on our way. We have a say. We are capable, intelligent, independent, and strong. We have a right to make decisions, to have a voice, and to claim hold over our lives.
Sitting in that large gray room of smiling women (though I’m sure some must have been in my camp, questioning, or at least heavily considering these “facts”) I wondered what my favorite feminists and social advocates would have said. Would Betty Friedan, Hilary Clinton, Caitlin Moran, or Sonia Ghandi stand for this kind of talk? Then, thanks to my mother’s infatuation and clear influence, I wondered, too, what Oprah would say. “Whew! Girl, these ladies got another thing comin’!” I heard her booming voice in my mind.
The presenter then walked us through sections of the bible, all of which seemed to emphasize the message that men are in control, they always were, and they always should be. They were created that way. “Just look at what happens when a woman is put in charge. Did not Adam bite the apple Eve gave to him? Did she not ignite the power of original sin for the rest of us?”
“This is why childbirth hurts so badly,” she explained. “We are still paying for our original sin.”
I’d read that story and knew Eve had given Adam the apple, though I’d always wondered if he’d been hungry, and whining, “I am so hungry! I need something to eat or I’ll perish! Help me out!” There are three sides to every story, right?
Then there were passages from Corinthians, Ephesians, Luke, Matthew and Peter. They all seemed to support what the presenter was saying. God wanted us to submit. After the talk, the women sitting in small tables of six or seven women were encouraged to discuss their thoughts. I sat quietly and listened to women who admitted they were grateful God had bestowed the responsibility as “the head” of his wife and family. “It’s too much pressure, and I’m too emotional,” one woman said. “If things were up to me, I’d have made a zillion terrible, impulsive, over-emotional decisions by now. I’d have drained our finances and we’d have purchased six homes!” another said.
When I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the presentation. For weeks. I kept repeating certain sections of the talk, considering how I felt and how these things could possibly be right. I talked with my husband and my mother. I talked with my sister, my mother-in-law and trusting friends. I needed to make sense of this because who are we without our beliefs? I thought I was a Christian. I wanted to know myself and this wasn’t settling itself into my mind easily.
I felt completely stupid. I had been cheated. Somehow, I’d managed to fall in love, get married, and have a baby without knowing what God’s intentions for me were all along. How did I miss this? How did I avoid actually reading the bible and understanding its word for this long? Where was the benevolent God the nuns had told me about at Maria Regina Church on Long Island? This God seemed strict and unkindly toward women. I didn’t know this God. He kind of sounded like a dick.
So I spent the weeks that followed the presentation reading the bible a bit more on my own. I went back to those passages referenced and scoured the internet a little. I came to notice that the word “submit” is not translated as such in all versions of the bible. This got me thinking about translation and words in general. Words can mean different things to different people, especially when we are dealing with translations from different languages. I started to question whether or not submission was meant to have anything to do with obeying or servile behavior at all. What if submission is more like “self-sacrifice?” I can do that. I put my husband ahead of myself every now and again, and he does the same for me. We love each other and try to do what is best in each scenario life presents. But that doesn’t mean we submit to each other all the time, does it? We allow room to follow our dreams. Maybe there is such a thing as moderate submission versus over-submission, one of which is more palpable and understandable in today’s modern world.
Then I considered the idea of defaulting to men when it comes to decision making.
“My husband and I don’t scream at each other anymore,” the presenter told us. “We are in a better place, and we’ve learned to be civil. We’re more mature now.”
I couldn’t understand how letting a husband win every argument transformed a marriage for the better. Maybe this woman and her husband didn’t fight anymore, but it seemed that she had silenced herself in the process. They don’t fight if there’s nothing left to fight about. Instead, the fights might live inside her heart, where they eat away at her soul over time until one day she’ll explode and end up cutting off her husband’s penis, Lorena Bobbitt style. I’m pretty sure Lorena was not very “mature.” She’d just become demure until she couldn’t take it anymore. You know what they say about women: we are tea bags, packed with punch when you drop us in hot water.
On to the next point: I agreed that respecting my husband was important, but when he’s acting like a real mess-a-somethin-horrible, I let him know. I’m honest and real with him. How could our marriage benefit from my showing him respect if he didn’t deserve it? What’s worse is that I would be setting an example for my children if they saw me cower to my husband’s disrespect and assume it was ok for a woman (or anyone else at all, gender aside) to take it than to speak up for yourself. I must have missed something from the talk to fully understand that point.
Then I got to thinking about some of the other stories in the bible. I’d always thought of them as just that: stories. They teach us lessons, but they are not meant to be interpreted literally all of the time.
“I am not ready to follow the bible literally,” I told my husband.
“Were you trying to get ready?” he said.
“This woman at bible study seemed to think we should. But I don’t think I can.”
“Good for you,” he said. “I’m cool with that. What sent you over the edge?”
A researcher at heart, I had started reading more and more from the bible. Beyond the servile woman passages. Beyond the wifely duty passages. This led me to learn about levirate law, which is described in Deuteronomy. This is when a childless widow marries and procreates with her dead husband’s eldest brother. In other words, if you were a woman and your husband snuffed off before giving you a kid, his brother would have to step up to the plate and give you a child, so you would have right to land and continue to hold a place in society. I don’t know about you, but I never want my brothers-in-law getting to know me that well. In fact, don’t even tell them I have a vagina.
“I don’t want you bumping uglies with any of my brothers,” my husband agreed.
“So glad you agree,” I told him. “I really needed that.”
If I didn’t intend to follow this rule of the bible, why would I follow the servile instruction of women toward their husbands?
Then I reconsidered the idea that women should never say no to sex with their husbands. This was one of the hardest things for me to understand. All I could imagine was having sex when I didn’t want to be having it. I would be lying there in silence, (or sitting, standing, kneeling, sideways, you get the picture) wishing this thing weren’t happening to me. I would start harboring negative feelings against sex itself, as well as against my husband for violating our bond as husband and wife and morphing it from something special into something hurtful and ugly. Sex is then transformed to a duty committed sometimes out of servile obligation. I decided that my body is my own and no one else’s. I am in charge of it at all times. Silencing myself and giving up my body shuts down and rejects my rights in a way that is more than harmful. It is destructive.
We learned in school, through specials and presentations, which I’m sure were well-constructed and mindfully created, that rape is when a person has sex against his or her own will. This does not mean a person has to say “no” outright, because under some situations, a person is unable to physically say no, be it caused by emotional distress, physical impairment, or something like a religious qualifier that has reared its ugly head. I imagined a woman thinking to herself, “I don’t really want to, but I know this is God’s will. I must submit.” Here’s my problem with that one: I don’t think anyone should do something that doesn’t ring true in his or her heart just “because God said so.” We have hearts and thoughts and gut feelings. We have free will, and it’s what makes us human. It’s what makes us imperfect and beautiful.
People are out there killing other people “because it is God’s will.” Wars are fought, lives lost, humanity slaughters, because of someone’s interpretation of God’s will. Somehow, I can’t condone killing for God, and I can’t condone giving up the right to your body, whether it’s for your husband or not, just because God said so. I don’t think this is what love is. And I certainly don’t think it’s what marriage is. At least, not a good marriage.
Finally, I keep coming back to the idea of putting my husband’s needs before my own. It took a few weeks, but here’s what came to me:
“I’m like the lady with the hair combs!” I told my mom.
“What are you talking about?”
I recounted the childhood story I’d been read about the wife with the beautiful hair, which she cut off and sold to pay for a beautiful gold chain for her husband’s pocket watch for Christmas. Of course, the husband sold his watch to buy his wife exquisite hair combs. Their gifts became useless, and their shared sacrifices showed how much they love each other, blah blah blah. It’s a cute story that resonated with me as a kid and taught me the importance, beauty, and irony of being self-sacrificing for loved ones. Sometimes, it would seem, it’s completely unnecessary.
By the end of a good four week period, I found that I had become enraged. How was this happening? How were there people out there, sending this message of love and obedience to young girls and women attending a bible study in modern day suburbia? Where had women’s rights gone? Did becoming a SAHM mean giving up my identity completely, and learning to serve husband, home, and family?
I finally decided a couple of things: (1) I wasn’t sure about interpretations and translations of the bible, (2) I can’t live the bible literally, which may or may not make me a bad Christian, but regardless of that fact, I can’t do it, (3) I refuse to completely silence my voice or my needs for a man, and (4) I can’t go back to that bible study.
I felt terrible. I wanted to make new friends. I wanted to become a better person. What better place to do this than a church? But it wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t become that kind of Christian. In my attempt to become a better person, I’d lost faith. Going to those meetings meant accepting and supporting their beliefs. At the end of the day, I realized that I went out looking for something to believe in, and found it.
Becoming a new mom means testing out new things and looking to see what fits and what doesn’t. If a bible study doesn’t fit, that’s ok. It wasn’t meant to, and I’m sure I will find other things to help craft this new mommy identity. On the upside, I got a handy little bible study book where I can take notes and ponder the bible on my own. The way I see it, some things are meant to be done alone. And that won’t make me a bad SAHM.
Kimberly Emilia has been previously published by Defenestration Moderator, Clever Magazine, Blue Lake Review, and Weave Magazine. She presently teaches for Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University.