Although I explained I am in no hurry to take on a new label of any sort and don’t think of myself as an Atheist at all, the editor of Impius, the new magazine of Sydney Atheists, kindly asked me to contribute an article for the inaugural edition. He wanted to include it in a section entitled Lifting the Veil which he plans will feature reader’s exit stories in future. I can’t paste the whole article here for copyright reasons but here’s a smidge. You can find the rest here. (It’s on page 28 of the August – October, 2011 edition.)
The way out
Although not so long ago it pained me greatly to own it, I can now admit without too much blushing that I am a Recovering Fundamentalist. As unlikely as it seems to me now, I spent 20 years inside patriarchal Fundamentalist Christianity. I was converted as a very mixed up 19-year-old in a leapy, clappy megachurch, spent several years as a Pentecostal minister’s wife, and gradually transformed into a modest-dressing, homeschooling mother of a large tribe of children. We were ostensibly a happy, functional Christian family, indeed my friends tell me I was something of a hero in the circles in which we moved. People admired me and wanted what I had – a seemingly happy marriage, a beautiful bunch of smart, happy, respectful children and a lovely, organised home. It was invisible to me at the time, but there was all manner of misery lurking just beneath the surface. Eventually our family imploded and I staggered out of ruins, bringing my children with me.
A quiver full of sorrow
My Christianity evolved over the years I was a believer, but one characteristic which began to develop quite early was sympathy toward a set of ideas now referred to as ‘Quiverfull’ Christianity. The name comes from a bible verse from Psalm 127 which states:
Children are an inheritance from the Lord,
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them…
There is no one Quiverfull denomination and no one guru, although its beginnings can be traced to a handful of influential American Fundamentalist authors of the 80s and 90s. It is best understood as a particularly powerful sort of cult-like thinking that pervades the mind of many believing couples and makes, as my friend, well-known Quiverfull walkaway Vyckie Garrison has said, ‘every family their own little cult’, striving to please God by emulating a prescribed ideal: the ‘biblical Christian family’…. continued here
”]”]For those who have missed it, this article by Frank Shaeffer on Alternet is definitely worth a read.
When we were Quiverfull, our family wasn’t nearly so extreme as some regarding dress standards, but we did insist on longish dresses and hair for the girls for several years. This wasn’t all religious nonsense: those Osh Kosh pinnies were tough as hell and could be passed on through all the girls in the family and still look as though they’d hardly been worn. And, despite how my girls remember it, they were actually in fashion at the time. I wasn’t just sewing our own stuff (although I did that too), Osh Kosh pinnies were bought off the rack in Myer and Target by regular folk as well as fundies like us. However, I’ll admit that we kept it up for longer than was appropriate. And we did choose clothing on the basis of a biblical notion of feminine modesty.
One day, some months after we’d come out, my then-17-year-old daughter K reminded me how damaged she had felt by this over-emphasis. She told me that in her view it had three significant effects – none of which I had intended to convey. For one, she grew to have an abiding disrespect for men and boys who apparently couldn’t keep their minds away from her private parts. K says she felt disgusted at male weakness and their apparent obsession with all things sexual. For years she struggled even to imagine enjoying a healthy partnership with a man.
In addition to helping us spot like-minded families in a crowd, dressing as we did had served, conveniently, to keep a distance between us and ‘the world’. K tells me that, even though she ended up going to school for grades 11 and 12, and is now happily managing university, for a long time she felt 16 years behind the eight ball when with her peers. Dress and other conservative choices we made kept my kids from engaging with their own culture. In an effort to follow the advice of patriarchal teachers such as Jonathan Lindvall we ‘dared to shelter’ our kids from many things that would help them function in a 21st world.
Finally, and perhaps most disturbing is that K says she grew up believing that there was something very wrong with her body. Having to hide herself away under a veritable mountain of denim, and promptly being admonished when any bits weren’t properly covered left her confused and, she says, appalled at her own foulness. She tells me that, before she even came to the dreadful realisation that God planned a very limited range of life choices for her, she knew she hated it that he had made her a girl. It’s impossible not to connect the dots and see this as a factor in K’s subsequent fight with Anorexia Nervosa.
How incredibly sad is that? I am heartbroken that I participated in crushing the self-worth of such a beautiful, intelligent and energetic young woman. And I feel very lucky indeed that she loves me still and allows me to walk beside her to build her up and help her realise her full potential.
It has been many years since I stopped enforcing the dress code in our home – long before we even came out of Christianity. Really, as soon as our girls reached their teen years the foolishness of such a position became clear to me. The fact that my two oldest girls came to me threatening mutiny helped a lot. 🙂 I dropped over-the-top modesty like a hot potato when I realised it was hurting my girls – and probably my boys – and damaging my relationship with them. Thankfully my desire to keep the love and respect of my children overruled my foolish legalism.
I can imagine a flood of ‘if anyone loves father, mother….more than me’ tut-tutting from some former churchmates as I write. I realise that many will believe my opting to side with my kids will send me to hell, but I have chosen to love them regardless. I’m so glad I realised I loved my children too much to stand on silly, man-made principle – no matter what the punishment for rebellion. Whatever happens and whoever my kids decide to be, the only mother they’ve got in the world is going to stand beside them cheering them on. No matter what it costs me.
When I told K about this post, this is what she said:
“Now I love being a woman. I feel powerful, strong and capable of doing anything I want to do.”
A little joybird just nested in my heart.
Remember the Sunday Night program where Nancy Campbell talked about ‘womb-men’ being ‘educated beyond their intelligence’? For those of you who got a little hot under the collar with that one, here’s some light relief.
Note: This post is part one of a series that originally appeared at my now defunct blog A Dragonfly Diary sometime in 2010. It has been updated slightly for publishing here but mostly left as it was. Because of this, this post reflects my attitude at the time of writing when I still felt a strong connection to Christianity. I’d also like to note that I’m not suggesting it is necessary to leave one’s husband or one’s faith in order to find happiness. That’s just my story.
Work, work, work!
Recently I caught the tail-end of the US-made Wife Swap program. The father in one home was a real stick-in-the-mud and a big believer in strictly ‘training’ his children. How I cringed to watch a work ethic so like my ex-husband’s standing pasty-white, flabby and naked on reality TV.
This guy and his wife owned a restaurant and they – and their children – worked 7 days/week so that they could ‘have the freedom of lifestyle’ they wanted. Those poor kids had no free time and lived weighed down by inappropriate burdens their parents inadvertently laid on them. Of course the new mom was a ‘servant’ who didn’t allow her kids to do anything for themselves at all. Juicy conflict ensued as she insisted Dad sell the inn and give his kids their lives back. The new mom encouraged the kids to string worry beads on a thread to symbolically give back the adult worries they were carrying. The poor little mites listed things like ‘I don’t want to worry that the inn will go broke and we’ll all have to live on the streets’. It was all uncomfortably familiar. I’ve seen it in so many QF patriarchal homes.
Some years ago I was invited to take a session at a homeschool mothers’ group. The leader had asked me to speak about home organisation as, apparently someone thought I had got that together. I’m guessing the entirety of my self-congratulatory little speech was pretty cringeworthy but I blush particularly as recall myself quoting from some book I had read on the subject which smirked, ‘Don’t ever do anything for yourself that your kids can do for you.’ I actually read it aloud twice telling them I agreed with it so strongly. And I really did.
Although with just seven children, our family is not so large as many I know, having the first six kids in relatively quick succession does make for a pretty busy household. At various times I inflicted new and proven-to-succeed home management systems on my family in an effort to impart a smidgen of orderliness. I’ve been known to impose Managers of their Homes, the happy face system, Fly Lady and numerous other mercifully short-lived, chart-ticking nightmares on my long-suffering offspring. While those programs are not all bad, in our home they were mostly educational in just two respects: They taught me that (1) nobody likes me when I’m in Household Hitler Mode and (2) I can only tolerate making my kids miserable for a short time.
But even though I failed to stick with a consistant program, my kids used to do a huge amount of housework. That’s not entirely unfair as they did create a lot of mess. And it wasn’t all bad. They learned some useful skills and developed – as promised by the program publishers – the seeds of character. But looking back, they did way more than was appropriate. It’s cute (hmmm, maybe) that a 10-year-old is capable of cooking dinner now and then for a family of nine, but hardly fair.
I don’t think I loaded the kids up was because I was lazy – I’m not. But I do think that I was rather too proud of my little army of worker ants. Obedient, productive kids are a bit of a status symbol in QF. And it’s not like giving up homeschooling so I’d have time to hang my own washing was an option. Having a husband whose only interest outside religion was work – his and ours – did not help. But if I think about it, I suspect my easing up on the kids work-wise coincided with my loosening ties with QF families and what I believed was their ever-present judgement.
And now that the kids are in school, I take a totally different view of housework. I feel that getting an education and having a childhood are the primary responsibilities of children. I do nine-tenths of the housework and this is how I think it should be. I have lowered my standards a lot. If I’m hung up about something needing to be spotless all the time, I clean it.
As well as releasing us from the children’s father’s high expectations (at least, for the majority of their time – when they visit their dad it’s back to the old days), freedom from that marriage has gifted me the joy of enjoying my children with a whole heart.The kids are happier and I have a lot more energy now that I’m not wasting it on badgering them to work, work, work. Hey…..that sounds like the beginnings of an ad for a great new program….NOT!