Lead On: Thoughts on Women, Leadership, and Motherhood

When my husband and I were first married, we fought. It wasn't too much at first. (That came later.) In the early years, we fought about simple things like whether we’d watch TV on vacation or whether he should make a sandwich on the counter. One fight, I remember, was about menus.

A few months into marriage, I'd developed the irritating habit of asking him what he wanted to eat for every meal. I simply wanted to please him and to “follow his leadership,”  but one night, he’d had enough. “I don’t care,” he said. “Just make something. I don’t want to have to decide.”

Then he followed it up with this gem:

"Why are you even asking me? You’re so dependent now. It’s like you’re not even the same person you were back in college. Back then, you knew what you wanted and just did it. Now you ask me about everything.”

It was true. I so wanted my husband to be the leader of our home, and I so wanted to be a proper wife that I’d stopped making decisions without checking with him first. Even about what we were going to eat for dinner. 

The question of gender and leadership is a sticky one for Christians. Recently, in response to Propel—an initiative designed to"help women internalize a leadership identity & fulfill their purpose, passion, and potential"--someone asked where conservatives fall on the question of developing women as leaders. But I’m not entirely convinced that this is a conservative or liberal question. Our applications of how and where women lead may divide us along certain fault lines, but the fact that women are made to lead isn’t up for debate. Made in God’s image, we were not made to be passive any more than He is.

We are actors. We are agents. We are makers. We are leaders.

During those first years of marriage, I also taught ESL and American Culture in the corporate ex-pat community. Even in my early twenties, I excelled in this environment—as long as I was teaching one-on-one and could leverage my natural ability to form relationships. But the minute I stepped in front of a group, I failed miserably. I simply couldn’t convince them to do what needed to be done.

Fast forward a few years when I became a mother. Like in teaching, I found that the relationship of mothering came naturally—breastfeeding, nurturing, and learning to quiet fussy infants were not difficult for me. What I struggled with was directing them as they grew older, the very same thing that had made me ineffective in a classroom. I simply didn’t know how to lead my children so I ended up parenting them by response.

I’m convinced that part of my problem was that I had never learned the power of my own influence. After all, men initiate and women respond, right?  The husband sets vision and direction and the wife implements it, right? "Men are leaders; and women are followers."

Unfortunately, this paradigm left me always in a position of waiting for a command or stimulus before I could act, even in motherhood. When my children cried, I jumped. When they wanted a toy, I ran to retrieve it. When they didn’t want to eat, I gave in. It took me years to fully understand that I was the one in charge of them. It took me years to learn that I was the leader.

But once I realized it, I finally began to grow up. Once I realized it, I transformed from a girl to a woman.

So often the question of leadership is framed in terms of the differences between men and women. But what if leadership isn’t primarily about the differences between men and women but about the differences between girls and women? What if leadership means taking responsibility for those around you and utilizing your God-given gifts to help them flourish? What if leadership is something that all of us do in various places and seasons of life?

What if leadership is simply about reflecting God’s own rule?

When I began to understand the implications of imago Dei leadership, it transformed my mothering. Not only was I made in God’s image, destined to reign over His creation, but I realized that my children were destined to reign over it as well. And it was my job to prepare them for their destinies. It was my job to lead them to their destinies.

Suddenly, I was empowered. Suddenly, I had the gravitas necessary to lead. Not because of my own sense of self-importance, but because of the magnitude of the task and the certainty that I had been called to that task. I had been called to “subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it” right in my own home. I was not the one being domesticated; I was the domesticator.

Today, I still struggle to manage my home and my children—not because my heart isn’t there, but because managing a home means leading and I’m still learning how to do that. But there has been a profound shift in the way I relate to my children. I set the agenda now. I make their bedtimes; I tell them what they need to eat; I control their screen time; and through it all, I'm teaching them how to navigate the world.

Because I am a mother, I am also a leader.