What Woman Problem?

By Cathy Norman Peterson

For a long time, I swore I wasn’t going to have children.

The oldest in a large family, I was expert at changing diapers, soothing crying babies, and entertaining my siblings before I was in high school. That meant I was the neighborhood’s ace babysitter and that I spent more weekend nights taking care of other people’s children than going out with friends.

By college I was done. While my friends put themselves through school taking babysitting jobs, I found other work. Not once did I pinch-hit for my roommates, certain that those days were behind me but secretly ashamed that I wasn’t more nurturing.

It wasn’t until graduation approached that I began to wonder about the woman problem. I didn’t know that term—it was the mid-1980s and I’d never even heard of Betty Friedan. My wondering was solitary, disconnected from any kind of cultural context. But I suddenly began to ask myself, what the heck was I training to do and how could that possibly fit with a family—because even if I was retired from babysitting surely I’d eventually have my own kids. That’s what women did.

I was deeply embedded in evangelicalism, in traditional understandings of women, of childrearing, of gender roles. When I tentatively asked friends how they pictured juggling these pieces, all we could do was shrug helplessly. Surely we’d figure something out.

About to graduate from an expensive liberal arts college with a degree in English, I knew I needed a job but I’d made no plans for a career. The ambitious, talented women in my classes seemed to inhabit a different stratosphere from me. While they found their place in business and politics and teaching and graduate school, I tepidly sent out resumes with little conviction and less aspiration.

My mother had earned a graduate degree, but she quit teaching when I was born and never went back to work. In my middle-class 1970s suburb, some of my friends’ moms worked outside their families, but they seemed intimidating and no-nonsense in ways I couldn’t quite understand.

I knew I wanted to resist gendered typing, but the biggest rebellion I could think of was to claim after a particularly bad breakup that I wouldn’t ever get married. It felt thrilling and edgy to make that pronouncement, even if I wasn’t sure I meant it. The only female role models I saw around me were college pastors’ wives who led Bible studies for my friends, yet I’d never been especially submissive or nice in a churchy kind of way. I didn’t think to seek out any of the women on faculty. The kind of student who stayed in the background and wrote what I thought they wanted to hear, I didn’t exactly stand out. The gap between their ivory tower world and mine was far too vast to bridge.

In the end, I found a job, moved into an apartment, and focused on the daily challenges of “the real world.” Philosophical wrestlings were relegated to the back burner.

Five years later, I was married. Meeting Kurt meant I was willing to reconsider my resistance to the institution, and five years after that, I was reconsidering my resistance to parenting.

After a terribly painful season of infertility, we had a baby. Six months into my parenting life, I was running a freshman girls’ dorm and teaching writing at a small Christian college. One evening Kurt came home from work and asked what I’d done that day.

I was horrified when all I could think to say was, “I folded laundry.” Was this what my life had become? I was deeply humbled and grateful for the gift of our child, but suddenly all my fears about getting lost in parenting came flooding to the surface.

I thought we’d built a pretty egalitarian marriage, but having a child meant Kurt and I both regressed to default modes that looked anything but. We argued a lot. I felt like half a person. And I didn’t know anyone in my immediate circles who was navigating those conversations in ways that were helpful to me. I felt lost, sleep-deprived, and alone.

We were attending church twenty minutes away, barely involved in the life of the congregation. The best thing they had going was the Sunday school class that functioned as a book group. Each week thoughtful people gathered around a table in the church library to discuss authors from Philip Yancey to then-Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes, from C.S. Lewis to N.T. Wright. One of the people at that table week after week was Mary Anne Weld. After serving several years as a Covenant missionary in Ecuador, she was teaching in a high school nearby.

I can’t remember what instigated our first meeting. But for a couple years we met at the mall for soup or coffee every month or two and talked for hours. We discussed faith and books and the church and our families. When I decided to try some writing—an age-old dream that had long been buried—she kindly read my efforts. I brought her badly written pages that she graciously passed on to an editor friend, who told her (rightly) that the meanderings need a point. Somehow Mary Anne conveyed that message in a way that wasn’t even a little dismissive or patronizing.

What I remember most about that season is that she listened to me as I rambled about stress and parenting and my various doubts and wonderings. Her adult kids wondered what I wanted from her, and if anyone had asked me that question, I wouldn’t have had an answer. But she had a good one: “I think she needs someone to talk to who isn’t family.” How I needed that without even knowing it.

We each moved away and went our separate ways, and I now look back on those afternoons with awe. She gave me so much time. And space that was mine—where she received me without judgment or impatience, with incredible grace. At the same time she shared herself with me. I got to know a thoughtful, inquisitive, professional woman with her own doubts and weaknesses, who also happened to be a mother.

As an American evangelical (and introvert to boot), I struggle to let my guard down enough to seek guidance, to admit need. For much of my life it was all too easy to take those cues from men—pastors, boyfriends, teachers, colleagues—even when I didn’t realize I was doing so. Mary Anne was God’s whisper for me—a voice I could hear, a calm, wise presence that didn’t scare me off. She didn’t solve my questions of identity, but she was a companion in a season when I needed that more than I knew. How grateful I remain now.


3 thoughts on “What Woman Problem?

Add yours

  1. Cathy, I love your narrative style! This entry is endowed with so many gifts…not the least of which the necessity for others to see us and, over time, give us back to our selves through careful listening and encouragement. This was a great way to start my week. Thanks! -Dan Collison

  2. Cathy, Thanks for reflecting on your journey and for honoring an amazing woman. Mary Anne is still providing the same space to breathe and process, even in a busy ‘retirement’. I’m so thankful to know her!

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