Confessions of a Feminist Mother
by Hannele Ottschofski | 11 January 2022 |
I attended a seminar at church once where the pastor was speaking about parenting. He quoted something that reminded me of what I had learned as a young girl:
The king upon his throne has no higher work than has the mother. The mother is queen of her household. … Let her realize the worth of her work …. Her work is for time and for eternity (Ellen G. White, Adventist Home, p. 231).
My mind went back through the years, thinking about my life.
While at university I had read many books by Ellen White. As one of the founders of my church, her writings were influential. I tried to put into practice what I was reading, but even then I realized that she had lived in a different age. As a born feminist, I struggled to reconcile my values with Ellen’s counsel such as I understood it. She was very supportive of women, but still saw women’s first responsibility to the family.
My mother had been a homemaker all her life, but I did not want to follow in her footsteps. There had been a time when she wanted to build a career of her own, but back then wives of church employees were not allowed to work outside the home. So she had given up her dream of building a small business. Later she gave up her dream of a diploma as a handicraft teacher. That was the one regret of her life.
When I fell in love with a theology student, the pieces of my puzzle seemed to automatically come together. I completed my teaching degree but I didn’t work as a school teacher. I had always wanted to do something for God, and since I was going to marry a pastor, I thought I could serve God as his companion and support him in his ministry. We could work together as a team. The church still preferred to get two for the price of one. At the time I was convinced that this was the right thing for me. If being a mother was such a high calling, I thought I could even be content as a stay-at-home mum. After all, my mother had been a good role model. I was convinced that the vocation of being a mother was something honorable, so I focused on helping my husband and taking care of our home and our four children. I saw this as part of our common mission as a pastoral family.
When we received a call to work in Africa, I was delighted. At last, I was going to be a missionary in the truest sense of the word! We had the privilege of working as missionaries in Africa for six years. We loved being in the ministry, and I did not feel that I was missing out on anything in my life. Life was interesting and good. I had been a useful member of a team.
When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, I realized that I was missing something. I had been giving so much for so long, and somehow I had lost myself in the process. I had been happy as a pastor’s wife, and had always put God’s work at the top of my priority list. There was so much to do, but I felt I never had the time to do what I really wanted to do for myself. I felt housebound because I still had a preschooler while our oldest was about to fly out of the nest. I was getting restless.
Now I wasn’t so sure anymore that I had made the right decision. More and more women had careers of their own and I was “just” a housewife. When I visited my friends in Scandinavia, I noticed that they all worked outside the home. When people would ask me, “And what do you do?” I had to sheepishly admit that I was “just” a housewife and mother. They didn’t mean to hurt me; their question was a sign of interest. But it hurt.
I began to realize that this was a mid-life crisis. I had always been an optimistic and happy person. I no longer recognized myself. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I took a day off to meet my sister, who had a few hours in transit at the airport. We spent the day together, and I could barely hold back my tears. It helped to talk to someone.
One day I decided to do something for myself. I asked the municipal music school if they were looking for teachers for their pre-school classes. A few weeks later I had a job. After two years we moved again and I had to give up that job. But it had been good to have a paid job.
I sat there in the church seminar thinking all of this. Somewhere along the way I had gotten the feeling that Ellen White had let me down. Of course, she hadn’t. She had only said that the mother’s task was more important than the king’s. She had not promised that we would be rewarded and recognized for this work!
Our problem is that we think our work is of no value if it cannot be measured in money. Women have so long lived with this disparagement.
In her writings Ellen White, though she lived in Victorian times, always raised and encouraged women, some of whom lived in very difficult conditions. Although she encouraged women to fulfill their traditional roles as mothers, I would call her a Christian egalitarian. She wrote, “Woman should fill the position which God originally designed for her, as her husband’s equal.” She then continued,
The world needs mothers who are mothers not merely in name but in every sense of the word. We may safely say that the distinctive duties of woman are more sacred, more holy, than those of man. Let woman realize the sacredness of her work and in the strength and fear of God take up her life mission. Let her educate her children for usefulness in this world and for a home in the better world (Ellen G. White, Adventist Home, p. 231).
Although she always held high the responsibility of a mother, with age her support of women’s roles outside the home increased, particularly about ministry. Ellen White was a working mother herself, while at the same time a prolific author and speaker.
My mother had not officially worked for the church, but she was always active in the church throughout her life. There was nothing she didn’t do when it was needed. She directed the choir, sang the solos, led craft classes, organized women’s meetings and children’s clubs, and played the piano and the organ. Whatever came up, she did it. I have followed in her footsteps and done many of the things she did and more.
My children were my greatest joy, but my involvement in many projects outside of my home made me just as much a working mother as others with paid work. The reward I have found is the joy of service even without remuneration. When I look back at my life I realize that much of what I have done and experienced was because God opened doors, inviting me to serve in ways I had never thought possible, encouraging me to use the gifts He had given me.
An outdated pattern
Now that my daughters have grown up to be strong and independent women with careers, women who are passionate about equality, I look back with some satisfaction. I must have done something right. I have realized that what I have done and do is valuable. I don’t have to compete and compare myself with my Nordic friends.
In our world today, however, I would not recommend that a woman should follow in my footsteps. There is no longer a guarantee that women can depend on the income of a husband for their subsistence. So many things can happen. Women need to be financially independent. Many women have given their lives to serve the Lord and the church, and now don’t have sufficient financial means for a comfortable retirement.
Conservatism looks back at the past and tries to conserve elements and values that were regarded as the norm in past times. Some of that was certainly good. The apostle Paul calls Christians to “Put everything to the test. Hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NIV). We are no longer living in a past century. Times have changed. We have to test our faith and adapt it to vibrant Christian living in our time.
The pattern of my life is out of date, particularly in the context of my origins in one of the most feminist countries in the world and surrounded by examples of strong, independent feminists. Others may have found their self-worth in their careers but I have needed to find my self-worth in just being a woman, a beloved daughter of God, created in His image.
Maybe it is due to my life experience that I am such a staunch proponent of gender equality. I have needed a strong faith in the equality of men and women to be able to survive and even thrive in my career as a homemaker and mother.
That is why I am so adamant about gender equality. I may not be able to start my life over again but I can fight for equality and justice for others.
My daughters are all feminists. One would rather be identified as an intersectionalist. My youngest daughter has special antennae for detecting any kind of misogyny and discrimination. She has a whole bookcase full of feminist literature. She is what I would have liked to have been when I was young.
I never thought of what it would take to raise my daughters to be feminists. I had no “Feminist Manifesto” to go by. However, my daughters absorbed my egalitarian attitudes in spite of the dichotomy of my life in a home with traditional role allocations. I am proud of how they managed to find their way with all the mixed messages I must have been sending.
My life is a patchwork of experiences, put together by my God, who showed me the way and opened up possibilities. He invited me to serve and minister in many ways, with one experience leading to the next, and He placed the right challenges and people in my life just at the right time. The squares in my life’s patchwork are a colorful testimony to what God can do with us if we allow Him to use us. Knowing that God is there, taking care of me, is like wrapping myself up in the patchwork quilt of God’s loving leading, secure in the knowledge that each experience will make my life richer and happier, even if some of the patches are dark.
God has opened many doors, saying to me, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21 NIV).
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions ↑
Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.