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.
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?