How Male Theologians Ruined Parenting

A pastor and a rabbi talk about kids, poop, and tearing down the patriarchy in institutional religion.

Neil Hall / Reuters

The Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men, for men, and about men. The people who then interpreted the text have also been predominately male.

No wonder there’s not much theology preoccupied with weird-colored poop and the best way to weather tantrums. Throughout history, childcare has largely been considered women’s work—and, by extension, not theologically serious.

Danya Ruttenberg—a Conservative rabbi whose book about parenting came out in April—disagrees. So does Bromleigh McCleneghan, a Chicago-area pastor and the author of a 2012 book about parenting and a forthcoming book about Christians and sex. Both women have made their careers in writing and ministry. But they’re also both moms, and they believe the work they do as parents doesn’t have to remain separate from the work they do as theologians.

I spoke with them about kids, non-traditional families, and theological mansplaining. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Green: Do you think certain theological topics are considered “soft”? Which ones, and why?

Bromleigh McCleneghan: Definitely parenting and the work of children. We have our texts that guide our thinking, and we have the rabbis and the teachers throughout the ages who have commented on the primary texts, and we have logical reasoning and philosophy. The tradition hasn’t always known what to do with experience that isn’t mediated through those things, like being in a relationship or having children.

Danya Ruttenberg: The first step for me is always: What in theology is traditionally associated with women? There’s this whole realm of human experience to which our texts are oblivious—they’re not considered important because they’re not on the radar screen of the people who are traditionally writing theology.

McCleneghan: Women’s work with bodies and fluids is not just “not holy,” but profane. Not just “soft,” but really not a part of spiritual life.

Ruttenberg: I went looking for a certain prayer in the Jewish liturgy that you’re supposed to say staying silent and standing. It’s not supposed to be interrupted even if a snake is crawling up your leg.

Not long after my first kid was born, I went trying to find out what Jewish law says about what you do if your kid’s interrupting. And it’s silent. We talk about so many details of so many different arcane things, and nobody, practically, was addressing what to do if your kid is making a fuss or needs you.

I finally found one text that says you should indicate to your child without speaking that they should stop, and if that does not work, you just walk away from the crying child. Clearly there is someone else in the picture who is attending to this child.

“I went trying to find out what Jewish law says about what you do if your kid is interrupting. It’s silent.”

Green: The primary sources that both of your traditions draw on are written by and for men. How did you get over this fact—that the traditions both of you have given your lives to ultimately were not created for you?

McCleneghan: I’m a preacher’s kid. I regularly attended and participated in a religious community pretty actively my whole life. I grew up with the sense that this story was my story, just as much as anybody else’s. I don’t necessarily think there is a women’s knowledge that is wholly separate from men, or that there is a male understanding of God that is wholly separate from women.

I relate to the articulations of who God is and the theology that have been done by men in the tradition. I don’t necessarily need to feel goodwill toward these guys who feel like women don’t belong in the story. But I might as well, because they say some really useful things that have shaped who I know God to be.

Ruttenberg: I didn’t grow up religious, and when I became observant in my 20s, I was very much one of these feminists who was like, “I’m going to do all the boys’ stuff twice as good as the boys do.” I’m going to lay my tefillin and wear my tallis. My orientation was very much assuming that the room with all the good stuff was over here, so I wanted to be there.

After I had my first kid, I walked into another room where all of these massive, powerful, transformational things were happening. I figured out that my tradition actually had a lot to teach me about love and the holy and navigating hard feelings, and finding more patience when your patience is used up, and engaging with the “uckiness” of the body. But I had to build a bridge between the things that Martin Buber was saying and the things the Talmud was saying and the lived experience on the ground with small children.

The tradition has a lot to teach parents in the thick of these young years. And parents have a lot to teach the tradition, and we can take their wisdom seriously.

Green: What’s the right way to give credence to the difference of a woman’s experience?

Ruttenberg: When I was younger, I really assumed all the good stuff was on the boys’ side. As I went along, I started to understand that there is a lot of wisdom all over the place.

I think people of all genders can find spiritual gratification in making challah, and I think people of all genders can find spiritual gratification in wearing a prayer shawl. And there are times when a critique is necessary, like with mikvah. There are some traditionally misogynistic undertones in the way it’s been framed and deployed throughout history. Yet, to throw out the baby with the bathwater didn’t feel right either, because it is actually probably the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever experienced. I think we can do feminist work to grapple with and reclaim, on our own terms, some of the more problematic aspects of Judaism for women.

McCleneghan: I guess I think of women’s work in the history of the church being this sort of supportive, serving role—which is good and important, but one that can and should be done by people of all genders.

I never thought that my first book would be on parenthood and children. When I became a parent, I just had this newish way of being in the world. I had this real, clear sense that this was a part of the work I was here to do just as much as the formal requirements of my calling to ministry.

But we all kind of worry: Once you start writing about or working with these issues, you’re never going to get [to stop]. Now that you’ve admitted you like children, you may have to work with them forever.

“Now that you’ve admitted you like children, you may have to work with them forever.”

Green: Let’s talk about that—were you all nervous getting into these areas? Were you worried you’d be branded as the “parenthood rabbi” or the “parenthood minister”?

Ruttenberg: No. My book actually started when one day the question popped into my head, “I wonder how many theologians throughout history have been mothers?” The answer is, of course, almost none.

What I have experienced since I started working on this project, though, is no small amount of mansplaining—typically from older, male colleagues who think it’s so cute that I want to do a “mommy thing.” They’ll say, “Oh, you should use this one lines from Proverbs about educating the child!”

And I sort of smile and say, “Actually, the book is more about how you know the self when mothers have traditionally not been allowed to have a self in the first place.”

McCleneghan: In one of the first writing workshops I went to for clergy, the leader was an established clergyman who had written lots and lots of books. When we asked about how you balance all the responsibilities of church and family and writing, he was sort of like, “Well, I have a wife.” For the young women writers who were in the room, we were all sort of like, “Oh. Thanks. I guess we need to get a wife.”

Ruttenberg: Which, some female theologians do have wives, but those wives probably have jobs, too.

McCleneghan: Right. We have partners, and they are wonderful partners, regardless of their gender. The problem is the assumption that their work should support ours.

Green: How do you think the rise of non-traditional families has challenged religious institutions in their teachings about sexuality and parenting and kids?

McCleneghan: Too often, our religious institutions have been draggingly slow in figuring out how to work through this. It really provides this opportunity to think about what is really true in our tradition.

My first job with kids in ministry felt like this wonderful test of my theology. I’ve never been big on what you call atonement theology: An angry God demands a bloody sacrifice of his beloved child. But the fact that if I said that to a kid it would give them nightmares and make them hate and fear God—that gives good reason to think of another understanding about what Jesus is all about. If our understanding of what it means to be family leaves out lots of people, that’s something we should be thinking about.

Ruttenberg: It’s important that we’re modeling what this can look like. I have more than once led services with one kid in a sling and one kid pulling on my prayer shawl while I’m trying to do my thing. And people are like, “Wow, this is so crazy,” but you know, it’s what we do. It doesn’t have to be this thing where the children are in another room when the holy is happening.

Green: What do you think is the right role for men in conversations about these topics that have traditionally been considered feminine and “non-substantive”?

McCleneghan: I don’t think we’re crying out for more people without experience speaking as experts. There’s certainly a place in the tradition for folks who have vowed to be celibate to speak about intimacy and love and childbearing. If there are men who are doing the good work of parenting while doing other things, then I think, certainly, they could be bridge-builders, too. But you’d really want folks who know what they are talking about.

Ruttenberg: I’m sort of cynically waiting for the first guy who’s going to say, “I’ve figured out that parenting is a thing!” They’re going to get all the press and all the attention and everybody’s going to say, “Wow, this is this brand new thing which nobody has ever said!” That always happens.

On the one hand, we need more men’s voices on this stuff—let’s have all of us start to envision a world in which these things are considered significant. On the other hand, context really does count for a lot.

“I don’t think we’re crying out for more people without experience speaking as experts.”

Green: What have both of you found to be the most spiritually profound thing in your experience as parents?

Ruttenberg: The fact of them is pretty spiritually profound. I look at them and think, “Wow, you exist, and I’m not really sure how”—technically, yes, but not really. When I go down deep enough into my love for them, I feel like that can take me everywhere. That’s as much a portal to the holy as it was in those moments when I was in my 20s and blissing out in prayer by myself and having deep powerful meditations at three in the morning and crazy mystical experiences and all of that. I think God is at least, if not more, present in all of my interactions with them.

McCleneghan: I feel significantly more aware of my own limitations. And I’m more scared of the brokenness of the world than I was.

But I also have a real appreciation for incarnation and holy embodiment. Each of my children is built a little differently, and I just like seeing that and knowing that. They’re each who they are.

Ruttenberg: I feel, on a really visceral level, what I only understood theoretically before: that the whole point of our existence down here is that we’re supposed to figure out how to love each other and take care of each other. Loving God is practice for loving each other, not the other way around.

McCleneghan: There’s sometimes been a sense that evangelical Christians were more concerned about your marriage and your kids and your family, and the more liberal, mainline Protestants were more concerned with civil rights and social justice, and those were sort of separate entities. What’s been so wonderful is [learning] that those are not separate experiences, at all. The way we wrestle with these questions about how to love each other—these are related things.

And that, I think, is good theological work.