“Is she a girly-girl or a tomboy?”
I recall staring at the woman who had just posed the question to me, and hesitating. Neither? Both? I don’t know because she’s only two years old? Are there options C and D? HAVE I RAISED MY CHILD WRONG BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE AN ANSWER?
Pigeonholing, I’ve discovered as a parent, is a super-easy ‘out’. When in doubt, purchase something from the ‘blue’ toy section of the store for a boy and ‘pink’ for a girl. Does the girl have fancy braids in her hair and wear dresses? She must love dancing and dolls. Does the girl have shorts on and a dinosaur t-shirt? Then she must love t-ball and sports. Is the child a boy, full stop? Get a stomp rocket.
We see these fabricated dichotomies in interest and personality as our children grow up—who doesn’t recall the ‘class clown’, ‘star athlete’, ‘theatre geek’, ‘the smart one’ superlatives we offered each other in high school? We took that one bit of personality, that one interest, and superimposed it as a title on a human body and soul.
I’ve always felt a little badly for Mary and Martha, who have been labeled from the beginning as ‘contemplative’ and ‘activist’, ‘be-er’ and ‘do-er’, one more concerned with clean floors and one who couldn’t care less about them.
The first time we truly meet them, Martha is cleaning the house and preparing to welcome Jesus and his entourage for dinner. Once they arrive, Martha scolds Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet (and listening to the Lord! or, Not lifting a finger to help! You can choose which). After a sibling spat, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.
Later on we meet the sisters again, at the devastating illness of their brother Lazarus. Martha goes and seeks out Jesus, as Mary again stays at home with her brother and tends to him there. Jesus returns with Martha, but Lazarus has succumbed in the meantime and died. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, returning him to his family. The one who goes out to call Jesus to come to their aid, Martha, is the ‘winner’ in this round.
Martha vs. Mary, the literature proclaims. You can be one or the other, activist or contemplative. I know that I’ve even read the scripture and played them off each other in my head, claiming as the better disciple the one whom I most closely resemble at the time. But why do we have to choose? Why are we pigeonholing these two women (I mean, no one is comparing James and John, the sons of Zebedee!), and pitting them against each other?
Is it possible that it’s our easy way out? Our biblically-condoned shortcut to modeling the good life? Is it possible that we don’t need to be one or the other—that, heaven forbid, we can be both? Or go back and forth between the two?
It has always struck me that the two kinds of approaches to discipleship, contemplative and active, are modeled by sisters. Not by friends, or strangers, but siblings. They are intricately and intimately connected to one another. One can be a contemplative (Mary), but you are still related to an activist (Martha), and bear the same family resemblances.
There have been seasons in my life when my prayer life has been deep and my space for contemplation of the divine, intense. And there have also been seasons in my life when my prayer is with my feet, hands,and body, putting myself in the way of others for Jesus. There have been days when I go back and for the between the two.
The same goes for my daughter who loves singing and dancing to songs about dinosaurs. Who doesn’t particularly care about pink or her hair, and couldn’t care less about dolls, but finds her best self when wearing butterfly wings strapped to her back and playing in the dirt. She is neither girly-girl nor tomboy. She is simply herself, a child of God, who will have seasons upon seasons of identity and extension of the fruits of her Spirit with others.
And as she is neither blue nor pink, I can remind myself from day to day in the spirit of Mary and Martha, that I am not either parent OR professional. Not either funny OR earnest. Not either sporty OR posh. We can be both and more. God has created us in God’s own image, which is intentionally as un-pigeonholey as can be—wide and deep and broad and filled with creative love.
Girly girl or Tomboy? Mary or Martha? Yes. All. More.
[Image Credit: Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha by Erasmus Quellinus II, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Melissa Parkhurst says
Thank you, Kit, for acknowledging real humans in all their complexity!
The pigeonholing is relentless. Let’s be aware of when we’re engaging in this.
Evelyn Rowe says
I once heard a Roman Catholic sister who was addressing a lay visiting group say that the authors of the Gospels, AFAIK all men, left out a lot, as the author of John admits at the end. It is helpful to imagine how that story might have ended: Martha bursts into tears and is made to sit down and listen for a few minutes, then returns to the kitchen much refreshed, or Jesus asks another disciple to help her get dinner on.