“I feel like I can’t do this. I am an ‘A’ student who is only getting a ‘C’ in life. I should not have had kids. I can’t have it all. It is not fun for me, maybe it will be fun for you.” Kara to Mary Jane on “Being Mary Jane”
I’ve had a lot of conversations about marriage recently; whether it was about Kara’s breakdown on “Being Mary Jane” or about somebody named Toya giving her husband an infidelity get out of jail free card or Halle Berry’s third divorce; women have a lot to say about the subject of marriage. And why wouldn’t we? For Black Christian women, marriage is often presented as though it were the Holy Grail. Marrying a believing Black man is the stuff dreams are made of. You probably wouldn’t be sitting in church too long before you hear the prayers of unmarried women petitioning God to send a sacred spouse, or putting their coins together to attend conferences and workshops that teach ‘how to be a good, godly wife.’
There is no problem with wanting a godly marriage, or the desire to find a spouse who believes as you do. However, the reality of marriage is a bit different than the biblical models so many Christian women try to emulate. Proverbs 31 seems to be one blueprint women aspire to, without taking into account that the woman in Proverbs 31 was doing it all with NO HELP. Having it all and doing it all seem like two cars parked in the same driveway, and many women are having a difficult time balancing the two. Even though the character of Kara (as played by Lisa Vidal) is divorced, she is still working full-time, parenting a nine-year-old who may have a learning challenge, dealing with a teenager who is dating, bearing the financial weight of being the primary earner in the family, and coping with the stress of the job of producing Mary Jane’s show. Kara also has to navigate a hungry, up and coming anchor (Marisol) that smells blood in the water. Add to that, we saw that she is on some type of medication, probably for high blood pressure. That is a whole lot. And married, divorced, or single, many women are in Kara’s boat.
Navigating Christian ideals of the modern family is difficult. We now live in an economy where the “Leave it to Beaver” model of the family where the husband works and the wife stays home with the kids wearing pearls and high heels is just not feasible anymore. Add to this dilemma the intersection between media presentations of the nuclear family and biblical notions of family that can even lend an air of ‘sacredness’ to the character of June Cleaver. This is problematic on many fronts, but primarily because this model has not been an option for Black families; a good majority of Black American wives have always had to work outside the home. Even today, few women have the option not to work full-time because bills need to be paid. Still, many women hold to the notion that household duties are gender based, and that cooking, cleaning and child rearing are so-called ‘wifely’ duties.
Many churches uphold messages that the husband is the “head” of the household, and as such, many Christian wives feel obliged to slap an “S” on their chests and like Kara, struggle to manage everything by themselves like the woman in Proverbs 31. The blueprint for biblical marriage has not made many allowances for the modern world as other biblical mandates have, such as has how we dress, or how we eat. Biblical marriage is tricky because it is so far removed from modern notions of marriage. And we should keep in mind that there are several different types of marriage in the Bible that modern Christianity has not held to, such as the practice of a rapist being bound to marry his victim, or a widow marrying her dead spouse’s brother to ensure a male heir for that family, or the patriarchal privilege of men to have many wives but women had just one husband at a time.
Let’s look at the book of Ephesians for a second because so much of the blueprint for Christian marriage comes from Ephesians 5:21-33. At this point in time, the household consisted of husbands, wives, parents, children and slaves. Many have chosen to interpret the meaning of these verses as a call for the wife to be subordinate to the husband, period. But the submission mentioned in these verses is mutual, one to the other. Some bible scholars contend the meaning of being the “head” of the wife involves cherishing and protecting her. The theme that runs throughout the book of Ephesians speaks of a new unified community in Christ; in fact, you could sum up Paul’s theology by saying the focus is more in the context of a redeemed community, that salvation through Christ is an “us” and a “we” thang. We can also read Paul as saying that the marital relationships of old emphasized the duties of the husband, and the wife makes the sacrifices, but now it is the husband who should sacrifice, and in his marriage should be like Christ, who loved the church and gave himself up for it.
The truth is that there is no official marital playbook on what constitutes wifely duties; it is something that has to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Many of my friends who are happily married both with and without children seem to have that in common, in addition to having support systems in place made up of people that are invested in their success. In marriage, even something as seemingly menial as eating becomes real work: who is doing the cooking, who is getting the groceries, who is planning the meals? Even that has to be worked out.
So can the Black Christian woman have it all? Of course she can. Once she reminds herself that her marital status does not define her worth, and that she is not bound to have the same marriage her momma had, and that there is more than one way to interpret biblical passages about marriage. Marriage, when it works, is wonderful. But staying married is work. May God give us all strength for the journey, and the presence of mind to both seek and receive help when we need it.