Mennonite in a (not-so-little) black (maternity) dress

About three years ago, the book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, by Rhoda Janzen made a surprising rise up the non-fiction book charts (all the way to #1). My guess is that part of this book’s popularity was due to the fact that, for most mainstream United States citizens, the idea of a Mennonite woman wearing a little black dress feels like something of an oxymoron. It’s not that the book wasn’t well-written: Janzen is funny and has a knack for stringing together honest vignettes that paint a compelling picture of rebuilding a life, and the book was lucky enough to follow on the heels of the über-popular travelogue Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

When this book came out, I found myself equal parts amused and annoyed by it. First, I was amused because, like I said, Janzen is funny. And part of writing a good, humorous memoir (and probably a blog, too, for that matter) is embellishment and hyperbole. And, frankly, there were parts of her story, especially those about the ways cultural traditions become intertwined with church, that totally resonated with my own experience. But I was also annoyed, because every time I encountered someone new who had read this book, they assumed that my Mennonite heritage automatically equaled a certain type of conservatism that could never affirm women in leadership, wasn’t kind to divorcees, and would find it inappropriate or, at the very least, shocking for a woman to be cavorting around in a little black dress.

For some reason, since I found out I was pregnant five months ago, this book has been popping up in my mind’s eye again. As I’ve thought about it why this has been happening, I’m guessing that part of it is knowing that people wouldn’t find the same shock value in a memoir entitled “Mennonite in a Maternity Dress.” A cynical part of me wonders if there isn’t something about this image that makes sense to mainstream Christianity, who, if they know anything about Mennonite women, likely picture us as rural, barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen somewhere (and, frankly, the barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen thing hasn’t been that far off over the past few months: pregnancy cravings have led to many baking sprees). This is probably extreme, but pregnancy definitely has made me think about what it means to be a woman, and as Baby H grows, it becomes more obvious to the world around me that I am preparing for motherhood, too. I’d like to think that any faith tradition I would adhere to, Mennonites included, should have a picture of what it means to be a woman that is broad enough to include little black dresses and maternity dresses, too.

And, ever since last Monday, when I found out that Baby H is a girl, I’ve also been wondering what it means to raise a new little Femonite (although she will definitely have to choose her own labels and names for herself when that time comes). I don’t exactly know what or how I will be able to convey to her adequately my hopes and dreams for her, both as a potential new little Mennonite and as a young woman. In fact, you should pray for this child: she has two parents studying theology, and she might be doomed to overthink the church and its trappings from her very beginnings.

I do know that, even now, when I have my little nightly chat with her (yes, I speak with my belly often), I’m dreaming big dreams for her. Dreams that are bigger perhaps than I can even fathom for myself. Her future seems limitless.

But, someday, somewhere, she will certainly rub up against limits: either her own or those imposed on her by others. And it’s my hope that, when this happens, she will have a faith community to help her sort through these pieces and to love her back to wholeness.

Last week, I went to hear Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, speak. As she was talking about the ways that she teaches Sunday school to children, she said, “I teach each of these kids that they are loved. That they are chosen. And then we have a snack.” A simple message, but oh so profound. If I can teach these things to my daughter, I would count that as success. And maybe, as a bonus, she’ll even be able to wear a (hopefully-not-too-) little black dress and be a member of a faith community, Mennonite or not, without feeling like a walking contradiction, too.

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When parenting your children, how did you talk about faith? About womanhood? About Mennonites? What advice do you have for us new parents-to-be?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Mennonite in a (not-so-little) black (maternity) dress

  1. Hannah: Funny I took a break from writing my maternity proposal to check facebook and ended up here.

    You hit it on the head for me. While I haven’t thought directly about Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, I have been thinking a lot about being now “just like every other woman and got married and had a baby.” And that doesn’t seem like me at all. Pregnant and barefoot sort of mentality. Which is so interesting because I know lots of women in ministry and other powerful feminists who are also mothers, but many thoughts of just following the stereotype of being a wife and mother are creeping into my head.

    On the other hand, I have a husband who is actively trying to figure out how to get his hours changed at work so as he said this morning “be a good dad”, reading everything he can find on being pregnant, and worries (in the cutest way possible) about what I am consuming including after reading the dangers of bacon stopping me from ordering it at breakfast a couple weeks ago.

    We can all applaud Jim, I suppose. But, frankly he is tired of hearing what a great dad he is to our foster kids and to our grape in the future because he is doing the only thing he knows how….loving them. I bring this all up because while Jim and I have been turning gender roles around since we got married, as foster parents and soon to be biological parents people comment on it like its their job. He is applauded and showered with good comments for taking a 2 and 3 year old on the train by himself, while if their mom or I take them – we may be asked to keep them quiet. In the same way, I have felt guilty that I really can’t read more than a couple of pages of the how to be pregnant manuals without being completely overwhelmed, while Jim who reads them and feeds me the material when needed is lauded (even and maybe especially by me) for taking an interest in the whole being pregnant phase. He is the one that talks to the baby, not me.

    I say all this to say “Me too, Hannah” Being pregnant and married to a feminist who is a guy – is making me question what feminism is and if I am one after all. Do you know any womanist writings on being pregnant? That would be great for me to read right now, I bet.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Krista! So glad to have your comments and to hear your reflections on this as well. It is nice to know there is another pregnant person out there thinking some of the same thoughts. As we plan for next year, it is likely that Justin will be the parent who is at home most often with our daughter, because of his flexible schedule, and I have noticed that whenever I share this with people they ooh and aahh over how great a husband he is (which, of course, he is! but taking on this role is also part of him being an equal parent with the arrangement and jobs that we have right now), and the question that I usually get asked is 1) if I’m going to work so much and 2) if it will really be ok for me to travel a lot when the baby arrives. Good questions, but I can’t help but notice the difference in how people respond to us.

      And yes, try as I might, I can’t ever get too much more than 3-4 pages of pregnancy reading in per night. I keep hoping that will be revolutionized once grad school is done…. I see that Carol (in a comment below suggested some books), and I have been returning every now and again to Karen Baker-Fletcher’s “Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit.” Not really a book about parenting or pregnancy per se, but it’s about creation, and somehow that seems to fit right now!

  2. Lisa Heinz

    I really enjoyed your blog today Hannah. While I read “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” and shared almost all of your thoughts, I mainly enjoyed getting a glimpse of the mother you are going to be. As a grandmother I am so pleased with your comments about Baby H. She is going to be a fortunate little girl to have you as her mom. I loved hearing about your hopes and dreams for her and your nightly chats. And I liked the quote from Anne LaMott. It reminded me of of “The Help” when Aibileen tells Mae Mobley– “You is smart. You is kind. You is important”. Thanks for loving my granddaughter so well.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Wow, thanks. This made me cry a little bit (which frankly is not a hugely irregular occurance right now). I cannot say how excited I am that Baby H will be surrounded by such a huge, loving community of women,men, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends when she arrives. She is a lucky little baby already!

  3. Carol Eby-Good

    I found your blog through The Social Mennonite. I remember those days of pregnancy and early parenthood when I got tired of reading and needed to just experience and learn by doing what it meant (means) to be a mother and feminist. My sons are now 11 and 15 and the time since they were little went so fast, though some days seemed to last forever. My husband and I chose nontraditional roles. My husband worked full-time and I worked part-time for the first 3 years after our first son was born and now I have been working full-time outside of our home for the past 13 years while my husband has been the primary care-giver and has also been working part-time for the past 5 years. Of course we’ve both been full-time parents this whole time!

    The key for me in communicating values has been to communicate through how we live our lives, in the small moments that present themselves, in the stories we tell and the books we read. Every now and then one of our sons will say something and it’s rewarding to see that they’re catching on to what we’re trying to teach.

    I recommend Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions” about motherhood and Sue Monk Kidd’s “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and “Traveling with Pomegranates.”

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hi Carol – Thanks for the book recommendations (I love Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” AND for introducing me to the Social Mennonite. I hadn’t heard of it before, but will definitely have to subscribe. It is helpful to remember that what we communicate to Baby H will be as much about how we act and respond to daily events as it will be about what we say: it seems basic, but it makes a lot of sense.

  4. I just finished Operating Instructions this weekend – really good read! Not overwhelming either – just a good read.

  5. Jennifer Gorman

    As a Mennonite mom to a almost twenty year old girl, who is definitely her own woman in this world, my advice is to be kind to yourself and forgive yourself ahead of time the mistakes you will make. As life went along I had two mantras for my oh so serious I’m going to change the world daughter, “Girls can do anything” and “Don’t forget to giggle.” The rest her and I learned together. Mothering is a grand adventure. Tonight I am going to her Dean’s List Convocation for her sophomore year as a fashion design student at an art college. She works hard. I was sick with an autoimmune disease when she was young and couldn’t be the mother I dreamed of being. She thrives. Prayer and love work.

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