The limitation you may sense is not your femininity. It is the limitation of time.
“Mom, why are the artists in these books always men?” you ask. You and your younger sister are sitting on my lap, and it is you, age five with the question, perching on my leg and leaning forward. I hold a child’s biography of Edgar Degas in my hand, one of a series we’ve read with the same brightly splotched border on the covers.
I explain that it used to be that after women had children, they focused only on their kids. Nowadays there are things like preschool that give women more time. You nod and wait for me to grab another book from the end table.
I could have blamed the men of previous generations for their expectations of women, but I didn’t. Much of feminine and masculine identities is desire. Someday, you could be on a gratifying career track, have a baby, and be snuck up from behind by motherly yearning. It will hang you by your heels, shake out your heart, and make you rethink your vocational goals.
Are all women designed one way and men another? Masculinity and femininity are more complex than that. If I make generalizations based on the physiological wiring of the sexes, I want to hold them loosely. I’ve got mom friends who thrive at the office or classroom while their husbands are contented stay-at-home dads. Their marriages and families are happy and working.
What I am saying is that you may be called a woman who’s feminine (and right now in dollar-aisle necklaces and torn-tulle Disney costumes you are). You may have a relational, nurturing personality (how quick your three-year-old sister is to ask her daddy how he feels after his recent knee surgery). But I pray that both of you never think of your femininity as a limitation.
You’ll be standing at a podium computer, setting up the media before your students walk in, when you steal a peek at the photos on your Facebook page and your heart gives a quick squeeze of hunger for the brush of your baby’s soft arms and round cheeks. You might even feel the warm tingle of expressed milk in your nursing bra, tucked with a liner just in case.
Maybe you won’t have children, but you’ll be one member surrounding a conference table of mostly men, and someone will mention a devastating piece of world news before the meeting starts, and you’ll try not to blink so that the moisture that rushes to your tear ducts will dry up in your lashes.
It’s all good. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you decide to cut your work hours or remove yourself from leadership to be more available to your children, don’t wish you had been born a man who seems able to compartmentalize his emotions better. This feminine heart of yours, so quick to say, “Don’t I look beautiful?” after you’ve yanked on a pink dress and leggings is dear to behold. The limitation you may sense is not your femininity. It is the same as for your male friends and perhaps a future husband. It is the limitation of time.
Like your guy colleagues, time will limit the fulfillment of all your desires, whether the number of degrees you achieve, the number of outside interests you hold, the number of close friendships you can maintain. You may find some dreams come in seasons—a season of a full-time career, a season of staying at home, or a season of working full-time but recognizing you’re not accomplishing excellence in order to retain emotional energy for your family in the evening.
The limitation of time is God’s gift to us humans. You can be a strong woman, feisty and as salty-mouthed as the author Mary Karr, but time makes us like her, discerning our need, as she does in her memoir Lit, for Someone greater than any human, a dependence that keeps our hearts open and vulnerable, realizing that boot straps wear thin and snap in the end.
Enjoy the power of your femininity. If you like to look pretty, do so. The female colleagues and friends I’ve admired draw a little attention to their face, framing it with a colorful scarf or costume jewelry, and then they look you straight in the eyes and speak the truth calmly and directly. When tension rises in a meeting, they laugh and defuse it.
Be wary of churches that emphasize the generalized differences between men and women. They can be as harmful as acquaintances who will dismiss the exquisiteness of sexual restraint. If you’re like me, your mind will brood that you’re not a multitasker as supposedly all women are or that you’re repelled when at a women’s tea someone boasts to you that the tables took five hours to decorate.
Soon enough you may look askance at pink and roll your eyes when I suggest something other than jeans for Sunday morning. I’ll get misty-eyed, but I’ll observe your changes with delight. There’s no formula for femininity but living as God’s Beloved, trusting him to shape your desires.
Love you forever.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.