There is one question I dread more than any other. It might be from a new mom I meet on the playground or an old acquaintance I haven’t seen in years. It might be from a father standing next to me on a field trip, a grandmother at church, or a nursery worker getting to know me. Here it is:
What do you do?
Sometimes the question takes on another form:
Are you a stay at home mom?
Both questions essentially get at the same thing. My answer will determine what kind of mom I am…not necessarily a positive versus negative thing…just a sincere attempt at being able to put me in the right category. Once in the right category the other person knows how to relate to me…how to communicate with me about a variety of subjects including my role as a mother.
In the past this question has unnerved me. I find myself getting tense. I fumble over my words. I don’t think I have an easy answer to this question. I am trying, in a matter of seconds, to determine what information this person really wants. Do they want a short, concise answer (which can never be the whole truth) or do they want the longer version with all of the confusing details?
I usually go for the shorter version.
“I am a marriage and family therapist and I teach.”
Or, to the second question…
“No, I am not.”
This is when I have grown to enjoy the exchange…when I start to see the humor in the situation. I love the look on people’s faces in response to the second question right about the time I say “No”.
I can see the questions in their eyes and sometimes they voice them.
Now it is their turn to fumble over their words.
“I just thought…because I see you with your kids a lot…”
I’ve even heard on several occasions…
“I was sure you homeschooled!”
I usually smile and admit that my schedule is flexible and that although I do work a lot I am able to arrange the hours in a way that works best for my needs and my family’s needs.
That explanation seems to satisfy the issue at hand and the dialogue takes a turn in a different direction.
Maybe in as a transitional topic we even acknowledge that most people’s lives do not fit into a label, don’t meet certain expectations, don’t slide easily into…a box.
I have struggled with these issues of labels and cultural expectations and boxes for a while…both personally and with the clients who come in to work with me…who are also greatly impacted by the boxes they try to fit in.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on why these frequent exchanges unnerve me…because like most of us I think if I figure it out I will be able to master those feelings.
There is a part of me that wants to fit into the boxes. I want to look like everyone else. I want to do what is expected…because I want to be accepted. I don’t like causing questions or issues. Whether I am talking to a “working mother” or a “stay at home” mother I want you to be able to relate to me…I want you to like me.
I want to fit in.
I don’t want to bust it. I don’t want to break it open and make a mess. I don’t want to cause a scene. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I want us all to be happy and keep everything nice and predictable and easy.
Last week someone asked the question again and that night I described the conversation to my husband. He has heard these stories many times as I have wrestled with my identity as a mother, as a wife…as a woman…as I have learned how to answer such a simple question with more confidence as I have become more comfortable in my own skin.
He has heard these same stories again and again. This time the situation was the same as all the others…but Jon’s response wasn’t.
He simply said: “Emily, we shatter boxes. That is what we do. We don’t fit any of the normal expectations people might have for us based on what we do or how we seem.”
We shatter boxes.
I knew he was speaking from his own journey, too. He had just returned from Princeton where he was asked to be a pastoral voice addressing homosexuality in the Pentecostal church.
We shatter boxes.
Jon’s words have lingered in my mind, written out on scroll spread out over my thoughts: “We SHATTER Boxes”.
I have seen it all week.
And, as I read those words spread out over my mind’s eye I see another scene. A woman…who shattered a box.
And being in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table,
there came a woman having an alabaster BOX of ointment of spikenard, very precious;
and she broke the box,
and poured it on his head.
And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. Mark 14: 3-6 Webster’s Bible Translation
And she broke the box.
And they murmured.
And HE rebuked THEM and said: she has done a good work.
She shattered a box.
Boxes make us feel safe. They outline boundaries and expectations. Labels, expectations, boxes…these things can serve purpose. They can be a guide. They can protect us.
Sometimes they smother us…sometimes they are built out of fear rather than love.
And, sometimes we are called to shatter them.
Not just Jon and me. Jon wasn’t just talking about us as a couple. I believe he was speaking out on our calling as Christians.
We shatter boxes.
So this week I am thinking about the woman with her alabaster box. I am thinking about the woman in Mark 14 who shattered a box.
I wonder if there was a part of her that didn’t want to bust it….didn’t want to break it open and make a mess. I wonder if she was worried about causing a scene…making everyone uncomfortable. I wonder if a part of her wanted everyone to be happy…to keep everything nice and predictable and easy.
I am guessing that she, being human, struggled with at least some of these concerns…even if for a moment. However, her love for Him…her desire for HIS approval…outweighed the murmuring around her.
She was called to shatter a box.
And, when she did can you imagine with me what happened? I am sure you have heard of this idea before…the ointment, the perfume…as it dripped down her Savior’s head…also dripped down her own hands. It got under her fingernails and soaked into the hairs on her arm. It probably trickled onto her garment. As she brushed her hair back out of her face, strands were likely saturated. For days she would smell, see, maybe even taste the evidence of the shattered box.
The anointing would stay with her.
…because she shattered a box…for her Savior.
I am compelled…overwhelmed, really…with the urgency of God’s call to me…to us.
We are called to shatter boxes.
We are not called to fit into any cultural label…or to label anyone else.
Dare I say it? Not even any Western Christian cultural label.
It isn’t about being a stay at home mom versus a working mother. Good grief. I know “stay at home mothers” who are home LESS than their working friends!
Those labels are so often more about the social status they bring than anything else.
For some being a “stay at home mother” tells the world that their husband makes enough money so they have that option. It is a status thing.
Or maybe it is about showing how much they trust God for provision…still a status thing…just a Christian status thing.
For others being a “working mother” is about proving what can be done…how strong they are or how intelligent.
This isn’t about that. It is about being ok living without a box…a box to hide in…a box to put others in.
And, when you shatter that box…that box you THINK others have created for you…that you have created for yourself or for others…think of the woman with her alabaster box. Think of shattering your box over your Savior’s head…as a sacrifice to him. As an act of honor and submission. Think of the anointing that will inevitably run down on you.
The theologian Soren Kierkegaarde said: “Once you label me…you negate my existence.”
I think we prefer boxes because it helps us know how to deal with people.
Oh, ok, you are “THIS” so I can put you “HERE” and now I know how I deal with your existence.
People are going to keep asking me what I do. I wonder…without being snarky…if I could just tell them who I am. Of course that would take a real relationship and time to get that across.
I’ll likely keep giving the abridged version. It really isn’t about my answer. It is about my discomfort with labels.
So, I’m sorry, but I refuse to refer to you as a SAHM or a working mom.
For that matter…I refuse to refer to you as “gay” or “straight” or “bi”.
I refuse to refer to you as “alcoholic” or “anorexic” or “depressed”.
I refuse to refer to you as “widow” or “orphan” or “child of divorced parents”.
I want to know your name.
I want to know your story.
I want to sit with you like Jesus sat with another woman…the woman at the well…and understand where you come from.
He shatters boxes.
I want to shatter them, too.
Happy mother’s day.