Rebecca is one month old. It does not seem possible.
Rebecca is strong. When people meet her they first coo over how sweet and tiny and delicate and feminine she is, and she is all those things. Then she decides that she wants something and her expression of want inevitably produces surprise. She is strong. I was made uncomfortably aware of her strength starting about two months before she was born. She reiterated for a larger audience immediately at birth.
"I just want to hear her cry," Dad said. (After Sarah, that does not sound crazy.) Obliging her father's only request, she introduced herself to the world loudly. For about an hour.
My extended family keeps in touch via an email listserve, where we can argue and discuss and post baby pictures or amusing anecdotes. In a recent (relatively, it has been a few months) family discussion someone asked about a book about Mary. I cannot remember the title and had not read the book, but it yielded and interesting discussion. The book was an attempt to tell the narrative of the gospels from Mary's perspective. Apparently the author thought that traditional depictions of Our Lady are weak and watery and wrote a character that few would recognize. So there was a discussion of Mary's humanity and various perceptions.
Prior to that conversation, it had never occurred to me to wonder whether Mary was a ninny. I was a little surprised to learn that it is not an uncommon view, at least in art if not in reality. Perhaps she is
mistreated by art and history.
I began to wonder what shaped my own ideas about Mary. I use the same words. Mild. Gentle. Sweet. Beautiful. Obedient. Loving. Feminine.
Mary is a mother. She is not just any mother, of course. She is the mother of God. Theotokos. And He gave His mother to us. She is my mother. That is a role I could begin wrap my mind around as a child when my perceptions were forming. I have a mother; I know what that role looks like.
Mother is someone who gives everything all day and all night if I need her. Mother is someone who listens carefully and patiently. Mother is someone who says that she cannot fix every problem, but somehow manages to fix most of them. She teaches courage and love by example. She is soft and gentle and impossibly strong. She is quietly protective. In any event, that is what I saw.
Mary is feminine. She is not just a woman, but the woman chosen above the rest. "Blessed are you among women." A feminine ideal.
The women I knew were diverse.
From my mother and my aunts I learned about generosity. You give because there is a need, no because you want to or because you have extra. Generosity does not have to be difficult, but it is sometimes. It is not generosity if the recipient feels guilty for taking the gift. Give freely.
From my grandmother I learned that everything has a time and place. You may not have time to read and live what the Church fathers had to say about contemplative prayer when you are a half dozen kids. That is OK. Learn what God wants from you today, and trust that He will make you able.
I learned that it is possible, preferable even, to do difficult things cheerfully.
I learned that love is difficult. I learned that love is a decision, not a feeling.
They were feminists and anti-feminism traditionalists, which to my young eyes, looked very similar since both were insisting that women be allowed to be feminine and that femininity is not a weakness but a strength.
Some of the women who inspired me stayed home with their children, some were career women. Most, but not all, shared my faith. They had different priorities, sensibilities and personalities. Some of the women who inspired me followed their beliefs right to jail.
They were women who loved, and because they loved, they challenged and supported those they loved.
The women I watched were advocates. They were activists. They seemed fearless, though in fact they were not. They faced their fears. They were tough, seemingly unbreakable.
They were fun. To a kid, that is everything. Humor. Joy. Life.
It never occurred to me that a woman being womanly could be a mere supporting character. I am not suggesting that the women were better than the men. But if I am going to imagine not just a woman, but a woman who is the ideal of femininity, I cannot imagine her passive or feeble. I can give her all the adjectives Mary usually gets. That does not confuse my idea of woman. Mild. Gentle. Sweet. Beautiful. Obedient. Loving. Feminine. These adjectives are not easy to accomplish unless they are passive. If you do not have opinions, emotions, or a temper you may look mild, temperate or gentle. But it isn't real, is it? It takes real strength to display these qualities when they are tested, doesn't it? When a child is disobedient, it may be easy to ignore it- but it is wrong! It may be easy to lose your temper- but it is wrong! Can you correct firmly, lovingly, effectively, repeatedly and gently?
I guess I don't know how I would define feminine. But in my mind, in my experience, it has a lot to do with strength. I hope I can surround my daughters with the kind of women I grew up with. I am proud of my beautiful, strong, tough, resilient, feminine daughters.