Parrot Wives: A Church-Leader Photo Phenomenon

“Parrot, parrot, parrot wives.  Parrot, parrot, parrot wives” (sung to the tune of Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’.) 

It is a strange and peculiar phenomenon that Nick and I have noted…..’The Parrot Wife’.  Go onto a church website; normally a charismatic, reformed, new stylee congregation – you know the ones with cool fonts (the type-sets rather than the christening kind) , the super-duper programme and the relevant worship; and there you may behold the parrot wife.  She may be found on the ‘who’s who’ or the ‘about us’ page under the ‘leadership’ section.  The spiel will probably outline her husband’s leadership role, his favoured football team and his choice of ‘hot wife’.  She will most likely be named as his ‘better half’ and linked, bound, tethered to their ‘beautiful children’.  She is his and her place is with his children.  The photo of parrot wife shows her perched awkwardly on his shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot.  A mate who repeats what it’s told, flaps at points but remains loyal throughout.

Behold the awkward side hug.  Almost conjoined in a lovely side hug – smiles all round – adoring looks galore!

I guess it’s difficult to take a good photo for a church website – I think maybe I have watched too much America’s Top Model and expect Nigel Barker to conjure up some magic thing of beauty – but these photos strike me as indicative of an underlying issue.  Parrot wife and awkward-side-hug are an extension of their husband.  They are not their own person.  They very often don’t get their own write-up on the website beyond their role at home and with children.  They are an appendage. like another tool on a swiss army knife, at their husbands disposal at any given point; preaching, funny one-liner, wife – tools of the trade.   A ‘hot wife’ is part and package of the role of church leader.  In a recent book written about marriage, aimed at Christians, I noted that wives were told their own calling and gifting as people is sacrificed for the furthering of their husband’s calling.  I struggle with this idea – I thought we are personally accountable as well as community responsible.  I don’t believe that marriage requires me to become a parrot, or an awkward-side-hug, but more fully me and my husband more fully him.

I think I’m tired of all this.  Church, for me, is about encouraging people to grow and become more of who God intended them to be.  The Bible seems brimmed full of talk about freedom and liberation from the constraints and ties of sometimes warped human ideals.  I thought faith was about seeing each other as beautiful and limitless because God is beautiful and limitless.  Instead again and again I feel discouraged by the way women are objectified – whether it be through being plastered on the front of ‘FHM’ or being paraded as the pastor’s wife, an accessory rather than a person.  I will not be a parrot wife.


Playground Rules…

I have tried to suppress my memories of awkward school playground moments wondering who to play with.  I do remember however praying night after night for a good friend who I could be with at break and lunch times – it all worked out in the end and I had some brilliant childhood friends.  More and more recently though I have found myself revisiting these memories.  When I go to pick up my daughter, who’s in reception, from school, I find myself in that awkward playground moment once again.  It’s like I have de-ja-vu.  It’s like groundhog day.  I stand awkwardly looking at my phone or being particularly attentive to my small son.  I pretend not to notice the clusters of others – laughing, with their ‘in-jokes’ and their posh buggies.   I don’t know how to make friends – how to break into the cliques and I don’t know that I have the emotional energy to do so.  Don’t get me wrong I know a couple of people and I do try to strike up conversations with others but the pervasive culture is one of ‘the it crowd’ and I feel so different.  I feel absolutely exposed and vulnerable.

A couple of weeks ago I chatted to one Mum who spent our entire conversation assuming I wouldn’t be working.  Many of the mums don’t work and that is fine with me, but I can’t be the same as them.  I haven’t got time to hang around the playground from 2 just to ‘catch-up’ with other mums.  Nick and I work 6 out of 7 nights a week between us at the moment so I can’t go for a ‘girl’s night out’ with the reception mums.  I work during the day so I can’t do lunch.

Now I have great friends outside of the school playground scenario and I’m not necessarily looking for life-long bosom buddies, but I worry that not being part of the gang will affect my girl.  We don’t get the posh hand-made party invites.  I stand looking on as the token ‘thank you’ cards are passed out from the child’s birthday party on the previous weekend.  I worry my girl will miss out because I am the awkward one in the playground.

I find myself thinking again and again maybe I should just try to be like them.  Maybe I should prepare a little longer before heading out to the school gate – maybe I should show my hair more than just a glance at a hair-brush.  Maybe I should invest in some real Uggs, an enormous ‘Kidston’ and a snazzy ‘Quinny’.  Maybe I should be at home preparing tea for the entire day, or dusting the house (to be honest it needs it!) or meeting others for lunch.  Maybe my ideals about bringing up my children, working and sharing things with Nick are just that – ideals.  Maybe I should put all that on-hold in order to further my girl’s chances of being popular.  Maybe then, just maybe, I might get an affirming look or my girl that allusive birthday party invite.

So I have this dilemma do I pretend to be something I am not – a ‘yummy mummy’ who seeks to make friends with people who’s only commonality is being a parent?  Or do I struggle through being me – happily letting my daughter dress up as a dragon for ‘world book day’ rather than being another Princess – but risking her being without social invites and perhaps friends?  I know, I know I am probably over-reacting about this all.  The playground scenarios from my childhood have cast a shadow that has blurred my perception of all this.  I think I am going back to the praying for a good friend thing!


I am a strong advocate of women being able to speak publicly about life, faith, politics, hell anything that isn’t just ‘I don’t know much about the gold standard, but I do know about fluffy kittens’!  So I find it interesting that there still seems to be a lack of women speaking publicly when we are decades past votes for women and the notion that women can have a voice…..well maybe we are still journeying on from votes for women to a place of having a voice.  Still it’s puzzling that women still fail to be much more than tokenly represented in government, as CEOs of businesses and in position of leadership and voice within the Church.  What is the hold-up?  I guess the structural machines of discrimination and prejudice take a while to get their creaky joints working.  And misogyny is still very much at large.  But I wonder what it is that stops women themselves seizing opportunities and running with them.  Sprinting off with them at such a speed that there’s no stopping them?!

I love to talk, I really do.  When I was about 8 I wanted to speak at the Christmas service at church.  I diligently wrote my talk.  I practiced it out-loud to myself underneath my covers before bed (I was a sad child!) ironing out mistakes, carving it with care.  I never did deliver that talk, and have never since.  I still have that burning desire to speak publicly, but I have very few places or contexts to practice.  I’m not sure a dozen drunk young people on a double-decker bus on a Saturday night would appreciate me pontificating on ’empowerment’ or ‘activism’!  So instead I keep my talks to myself in the car as I drive to work, or in my head as a i drift off to sleep.  I wonder whether I am the only one doing this?  Maybe I am odd!  But i think the underlying principle is ‘I want to do this more but I’m not sure how’.  So why am I not sprinting off with opportunities to make my voice heard – well I don’t know how?  How do you go about doing that?  Where are the ‘routes in’ for women to be heard in different forums in life?  I know some must exist, they have to, but how can we ensure these routes are accessible? 

I find it hard to write this because it sounds like I am just shouting ‘I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING’ – which I do – but I also want to hear from others.  I want to enriched by a diversity of sounds, stories, thoughts, ideas – things I agree with, things I don’t.  I feel scared of writing this because it is exposing – I desperately want to play a part in what’s going on around me, and I do in so many ways, but I’m not content.  I want to be heard and I want to hear others.

I think one of the issues is that in the ‘Christian world’ at least, we have a set ‘formula’ for a ‘successful’ talk.  It should be smattered with jokes, funny on-liners, lots of little anecdotes which lead to a crescendo of heart-warming / heart-wrenching (depending on the topic and the event) climax.  I am being particularly facetious today (blame the strawberry laces I’m consuming!), but I wonder if you have some experience of Christian talks whether that description brought a knowing wry smile to your face?  I am not saying having a pattern is bad – heck we have a history of liturgy – but I wonder whether this is a hard formula to just pick-up as a woman.  Not because we are not capable but because we may not have had the contexts in which to practice and hone that formula.  I see some parallels with women comedians who, I think, are sometimes judged more harshly than their male counterparts.  Are women speakers critiqued more harshly than men?  It often seems to me that men are judged individually on merit, and how they sit with regards to this tried and tested pattern – “Oh such and such (insert male Christian speaker’s name) was great today” or “I didn’t enjoy him quite as a much”, where as with women I tend to hear “See women speakers are great just listen to (insert women Christian speaker’s name)” or “See that’s why women shouldn’t speak”.  I guess I am blabbing a bit now and falling very soundly into the anecdotal category – still I wonder if there is any truth to be had here?  How can we ensure there are places for women to practice speaking publicly?

I also wonder whether that formula way of speaking is great for some, in some places, but not for all.  Is there a chance that maybe having more women feeling free and confident to share their voice may bring a point of difference into the melting pot of ideas and theology?  There are so many brilliant women who are raising their voices – let’s have more!

Lastly, I think women stop themselves.  I know there are times when people are looking around saying ‘where can we find a women to talk about this?’ and there is no response.  Why is that?  I think that the image of confident woman is blighted by words like ‘bossy’, ‘up herself”, ‘arrogant’.  I am certainly aware that putting myself forward for anything is risky and again exposing.  It is so much a part of who I am, wrapped up in my own identity, the core of me, that to parade what I believe to be something I can do allows others to knock me down, and I won’t want to get back again.  I am frightened that if I say I want to speak people will say ‘what have you got to say?’, or ‘what could you actually bring?’, or ‘who are you anyway’ or worse, nothing at all.  I am my own worst enemy at times.  I want to stay just behind the starting blocks, watching others, visualising my own race – practicing my talk under the bedcovers at night.

Starbucks and therapy: why women work with girls.

Lately, I have been thinking about some of the work I do with young women and thought I’d share a few things!  This post looks at some of my thoughts with regard to ‘why women choose to work with young women’ and I plan to do a follow-up looking at ‘how we go about work with young women’.  These are my own reflections from practice, they have no empirical evidence and come as the result of sleep deprivation and currently, as I type, red wine!

Anecdotally it appears to me that a growing trend in Christian youth work is single-sex work.  Particularly I have noted the increase in woman who go into youthwork looking to work with young women.  The draw of days on end in Starbucks, solving issues to do with ‘self-esteem’ is massive it seems.  I am not averse to this particular way of working.  I love cafes as much as the next person and see the value in working one-to-one and in small groups looking at issues.  I am concerned however that this trend is indicative of a deficit in the training and development of those going into work with young people (especially women), rather than a deep-seated, planned, needs-led approach to informal education. 

Being involved in delivering youthwork training for a variety of people and groups I’ve noted that very often work with young people attracts those who a)are looking to work out an ongoing issue for themselves vicariously through their work with others b) are looking for a safe place to continue on being an adolescent themselves c) are looking for an excuse to delay meeting the real world.  There are obviously lots of others who are going into youth work to see young people supported to become more, and all that.  And it would be naive to think that nobody goes into working with people to fulfil something in themselves – in fact that can be appropriate if acknowledged and handled in a transparent way.  But my concern is that if those working with young women are looking to solve something in their own lives they could project their own issues onto unsuspecting others. 

It seems to be a thread in conversations I have that many Christian women feel they lack a wealth of female role-models.  Who are the apostolic leaders?  Who are the pioneers?  Who are the really good reflective practitioners?  My concern is that rather than seeing this as a provocation to be those people to succeeding generations, many women going into youth work are looking to fill the need for affirmation, security and worth through some pseudo-therapy in starbucks.  Their meetings with young women are more to do with themselves and their issues than the development of those they meet.  I guess I’m treading a thin line here!  I am not alleging this is what happens in all mentoring sessions.  I am not alleging this is what happens in any one-to-one work, but I guess it could be.  You see sometimes I think we are very quick to ‘buy into’ stuff in Christendom.  We want to be doing the ‘latest’ kind of thing.  We want that funky youth cafe, or that edgy worship event, without necessarily reflecting on the fundamental issue of ‘need’ and the appropriateness of each approach to help facilitate a meeting of that said need.  The ‘coffee shop’ thing is really valuable, but I worry that it may just become the ‘thing to do’ without a reflection on why and how?  Or worse it is something that those going into work with young people need and because they have not had that need met – the need for real relationship; the need for challenge; the need for reflective space – they are seeking to quench that with a saturation of lattes and ‘how do you feel?’ chats. 

I have to declare that all these thoughts are a challenge to me as much as a challenge to others.  I know that I am still a work-in-progress and my own motives and approach need to be reflected upon.  I guess I am just asking whether we need to be doing more as community to try to help people work through things in appropriate spaces, so as to avoid them seeking means that may be inappropriate and damaging.  A 15-year-old can not solve my deep-seated issues about my body –  only I can do that – with the support of God and others around me.  I worry that we are setting up those going into youthwork to fail.  We have been short-changed and now we are seeking to deal with that deficit through our work with vulnerable and impressionable others – treating them almost as vessels to be used to our own means.  I hope I am way off mark with this.  I hope I have just reached the sleep-deprived insanity thing.  I hope the short-changing of generations of women can begin to be addressed in our work with young women.  I hope….


Mr Bossy?

Today I met with an amazing woman who is doing some brilliant work with young people locally.  She is great, inspirational and focused, so I was surprised today to find her perplexed and down.  We chatted, she told me about some feedback she had received from someone at the college at which she is studying.  One of the comments that had upset her, was one stating she was ‘bossy’. Bossy?!  Bossy?!  Where to start!  She is certainly assertive, she is certainly able to articulate her own view-point, she is certainly able to delegate responsibility to others in an appropriate manner, but I really take issue with the idea that she is bossy.

It got me thinking ‘how many men have I heard referred to as ‘bossy”? Silence for a moment…..sigh….uh none!  The word ‘bossy’ is so ugly and speaks to me of ugly things.  It is also a label I only see attached to women.  A man is ‘assertive’ or ‘directive’ – positive attributes- a woman ‘bossy’.  To me the label speaks volumes of a societal idea of how women should behave.  Women should be demure, passive and unsure.  Women should be indecisive, a little ignorant and placid.  Men should be decisive and assertive.

It’s troubling when I work with young women who are practicing being grown-ups and role-playing what they think that means by doing that passive, ‘I couldn’t possibly make a decision’, ‘I just couldn’t say no to him’ thing.  Heaven forbid they make a choice, say what they think or say ‘no thanks’ to giving a boy a blow-job in the public toilets!  They don’t want to be weird – they want to fit in, and fitting in means aligning themselves to these stereotypes of what they think it means to be a woman.  Key attributes celebrated in women seem to increasingly be returning to passivity and naivety.

With Tinie Tempah spewing lyrics which include ‘I just want to have…I’m on a mission, I don’t even want to kiss her, I mean I won’t even miss ya, When I’m done with ya’ (Frisky) is it any wonder that young women are seen as objects to be used, abused and discarded.  And the voice of the woman? Silent.  And the role of the woman? Compliant.  It is so difficult to try to enable young women to make more informed life choices,to  flourish and reach potential, when the messages bombarding them are squeezing them into ill-fitting, abusive moulds.  Even the voices coming out of some of the church are, in my opinion, in this same vein of stifling stereotypes and inappropriate expectations.  Women are to fulfil some 50s housewife image in order to succeed in what it means to be a ‘biblical women’ and to honour God. 

With the seeming revival of all things princess, one who tends to be a damsel-in-distress wanting desperately to be liberated by an assertive, directive man, I hold my head in my hands (metaphorically you understand – I tried to type in this position but it proved clumsy!).  I know bossy is one word.  I know I probably think a little too hard.  I know a messy quickie in the toilets is a bit of a leap from someone being called bossy, but I can see the links – views of women, roles of women, expectations of women.  It is not until people become more at ease with women being able to be decisive, offer direction and be assertive, that we will be able to see young women practicing being grown-up in a healthy and free way.  So I’m advocating the expulsion of ‘Little Miss Bossy’  and she can take that placid pappy princess with her!.

Working Dad….

For my birthday I have been given the book ‘I don’t know how she does it’.  A few people have recommended it to me so I am really pleased that, should I be able to keep my eyes open to read for more than 5 minutes, I soon will be able to immerse myself in the story.  Merely reading the book sleeve though has prompted me to think about my current situation of returning to work following a short, yet sweet, maternity leave.  Since my return I have been inundated with the constant question ‘How are you finding having a new baby and working?’.  I know the question often comes from a place of genuine concern, for which I am grateful, but it has made me consider how Nick, my husband, has been treated since Eden’s birth.  Has he too been bombarded with this concern?  Not knowing I asked him “How many times have you been asked ‘how are you coping being at work and having your new baby?’ since Eden’s been born?”  The answer….you, guessed it – none.  Why is the assumption that Eden is my baby alone?  Why is the assumption that I am the only one doing the ‘juggling’?  Nick is a dad who works as a much as I am a mum who works. 

The terms ‘working mum’, ‘stay-at-home mum’ and ‘stay-at-home dad’ are commonplace, but I never hear of a ‘working dad’.  A dad, certainly, but the assumption is then that he works.  When I explain to people that I work there is often a look of pity that crosses their face; ‘Isn’t it a shame that you have to work?’  Why?  Why is it not a shame that my husband has to work?  The assumption that because I am a woman I must be hard-wired to be the ‘primary care-giver’ and because my husband is a man he is hard-wired to be the ‘breadwinner’, I believe can be crippling.  That is not who we are or who we wish to be.  Why am I made to feel that working is somehow abnormal?  Why is a working dad seen as a provider but a working mum as, at best, a focus for concern or pity, and at worst, a cold-hearted bitch who neglects her children?  Why is the sly judgemental remark aimed at me and not Nick?  Why are the children mine not ours?  Surprisingly enough we were both involved in the baby-making process!

 Nick is the most brilliant Dad.  He is much more ‘natural’ as a parent.  He is incredibly patient, tolerant and laid-back; attributes I have seen are absolutely vital in being a parent.  I would feel as if I am robbing him of the opportunity to be the best Dad he could be if he was not able to spend the time with our children as he does.  This ideal of mum at home would not only sacrifice my sanity, it would rob him of this time and deny him the chance to be that amazing Dad.  I hate that society seems to hold men in such low regard and limit them.  There is a bias towards women, it seems, when looking at childcare – maybe this is part of the reason fathers are much less likely to obtain custody of their children in divorce settlements (I know it is more complex than this, but there is perhaps a deep-seated mistrust of a man’s ability to bring up children that surrounds this issue).  As a feminist and a Christian I value equality and long to see this outworked in society to bring about justice in areas where currently there is injustice, oppression and discrimination.  I long to see men treated as capable human beings, able, gifted and suited to being parents as equally as women are.  I long to see men who choose careers related to children being treated with the respect they deserve instead of being eyed with suspicion, questioned over their sexuality (which is not relevant) , or sniggered at for not being a real man.  ‘Real men’ (a ludicrous term!) don’t feel the need to have to have to prove something to others. 

My husband and I are partners in parenting and are also people, who work- to support our family and to find the joy and challenge that work can bring.  We are collaborative and cooperative.  We are by no means perfect – we don’t always get things right – but we do both hope to support each other to bring up our children, but to also try and live out what it means to be us.  I want to celebrate working dads as well as working mums.  I want to see more fathers being able to spend time with their children rather than being tied to the cultural constraints that being a ‘real man’ can sometimes bring.  I want to see more mothers feeling able to explore their own aspirations and not feel the guilt or judgement that is sometimes associated with that.  So I am going to make a point of asking working dads how they are coping juggling being at work and looking after children, Nick is going to be the named ‘parent/teacher association’ contact person not me (not sure how the yummies will react!) and I am going to stop beating myself up because of other people’s expectations….at least I’ll try!

‘Yummy Mummy’ – a new kind of corset?

Esme has just started school and now I have a new ‘game to play’ – it’s the ‘who’s, who’s’ in the playground game.  It truly is some kind of sociological study – I feel about 5 again and like its me starting school, with all the social awkwardness that, that means for me.  There is a high proportion of Cath Kidson (not that I object – I like Cath Kidston a lot – but this seems to be a symbol to some of identity), a whole lot of super-duper buggies and more subliminal competitiveness than exists before an Olympic line-up.  I am as much part of this as everyone else, its hard not to be.  The pressure to be ‘yummy mummy’ is subtle but tangible. 

The playground scene made me think about an incident in the summer – the ‘yummy mummy picnic’.  I took my two children to a farm with a friend and her two children during the summer.  We both brought a picnic with us, complete with chocolate cakes (of which the girls merely ate the icing) and crisps.  We were joined on the picnic bench by two other mums each with a baby about weaning age.  Whilst our children devoured home-made sandwiches (which looked it) and smeared blackberries all over their faces, the other mums’ children sat pristinely in buggies savouring the taste of mum’s home-made salmon fishcakes (sculpted into perfect circles – restuarnt style).  The paradox was evident.  We, our children and ourselves, were met with raised eyebrows and looks of utter disbelief.  White bread!  Peanut Butter!  Crisps!  Chocolate cakes!  Dirty faces!  We were certainly not the strongest advocates for the perfect yummy mummies that day.  I felt rebellious in my normality – I hadn’t made enough effort with my farm picnic.   

The advent of ‘Yummy Mummy’ is to some, I am sure, a really liberating, endearing and complimentary way of life.  To me it is only oppressive and constrictive.  Not only am I expected to love all aspects of being a mum, I should be befixed with constant smile, done out in latest fashion, domestically capable, no –  domestically excellent, hands full of plates bulging with home-made cupcakes, serene, never flustered, intrinsically and instantly bonded with baby, home-maker, love-maker, never tired, never-failing, never begrudging.  Yummy Mummy is a label to be bashed with – as if I don’t already have enough guilt!  Yummy Mummy is a corset to keep me in – a new form of oppression.  ‘Let’s get the women back to the children, back to the kitchen, back to the home by making these things appear devastatingly easy, gorgeously attractive, and instinctively natural’.  The trouble comes when this story, woven through the media and perpetuated through various avenues – mum’s groups, churches, school gates…….- does not ring true, when it fails to resonate with reality.  What happens then?  When I fail to bring a home-made cake to a child’s party?  When I put my daughter in front of the TV again because I can’t tidy the house and entertain two children?  When I am pretty much still in my pyjamas during the school run?  When I am angry that my life always takes second place to others?  I am more ‘scummy mummy’ than ‘yummy’.  And I don’t want to be shackled to that ideal.  I want to be able to enjoy family life in partnership with Nick.  I want to have time when I am not domestically tied.  I want to be able to pursue being me – trying to live in the fullness of that-as well enabling those around them to become fully them.

When someone becomes a mum for the first time I think the pressure is obscene.  There are so many messages about what you should do, how you should be and very little about just relaxing and trying to find glimmers of hope and enjoyment in those hectic, hormonal, sleep deprived, surreal first few months.  I am personally a bit past ‘post-baby celeb photos’ showing unrealistic ideals and congratulatory comments of tiny women who have ‘got their figure back straight away’.  That is great for them but signalling it as triumph is debilitating to so many others and could take their focus off trying to learn to be mum, to trying to be thin.  I am also pretty tired of this celeb ‘parent of the year’ deal.  Parenting is hard work and to start with quite scarce on reward.  Parading beautiful people, who are surely human too but we don’t get to see that bit of them, again seems crudely unhelpful.  Very cynically I am not that worried to hear about what kind of parent you can be when you have the resources to buy in a personal trainer, child-minder and dietitian! 

So what’s the harm of  the ‘yummy mummy’ message?  Isn’t it just another marketing ploy?  Isn’t it just helping people be better mum’s – more capable of feeding and looking after their family, and more dedicated to doing things well at home?  Possibly – but for many people it may be a stifling corset that hems them into a belief that unless they parent this way, unless they are perfect their children will suffer, their relationships will break down and they will be branded a failure.  For someone like me, prone to perfectionism to a potentially crippling extent, the label ‘yummy mummy’ is tantamount to the label ‘failure’.  I am choosing to ignore it lately and finding freedom in that – but my concern is that if it has effected me, it may well have had similar effects on others.  The shackles of being a women come in a variety of forms and guises, some dressed  in Zara, carrying cupcakes and accessorised with Kidston!