Our adult roles can feel like uncomfortable masks
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
FEB. 8, 2015
“Are you looking forward to the conference?” my sister asked.
“I guess so,” I said. “Except that nobody intimidates me like a Mennonite minister’s wife.”
“But!” she sputtered, “You’re a Mennonite minister’s wife!”
“Not really,” I said, and then whispered, “I’m actually just pretending.”
She looked confused.
Maybe this happens to everyone when they grow up and take on a title or maybe only to those short on confidence. The adults of our childhood knew what they were doing. Their roles defined their identity — this is who they were. Officer, Teacher, Doctor, Missionary, Principal, Mayor, Librarian. They were reliable people, large, a bit distant, just a little scary. We saw them working and in uniform, never in tears or brushing their teeth or eating marshmallow crème straight from the jar with a butter knife.
Then we find ourselves suddenly adults, taking on similar titles, and we compare our shortcomings with the people in the past who carried these roles with such confidence, such unquestioned competence. We compare ourselves with our peers, stepping into adulthood and authority like they know what they’re doing.
Especially when the role is not something we chose and planned for, we can spend years getting accustomed to it, feeling like we’re only pretending and reaching an uneasy peace.
As Margaret Atwood said, “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”
When we were young and “Beachy Amish,” which was like Old Order, only with cars and zippers, a minister’s wife was someone who sat behind you in church and stretched the high notes of “We’ll Work Till Jesus Comes” with earnest determination. She cooked Sunday dinners for guests, tied her white cap-strings without complaining and was unfailingly good. Friendly, plain, proper. A minister’s wife, unlike a teenager in the front rows, had no need to squirm when the church rules were reviewed at members’ meetings.
Your mom and your aunts could be silly in private. They could have faults — a temper, a grudge, a messy kitchen, a weakness for ice cream.
Minister’s wives had no such flaws. In my experience, they had few emotions and no sins.
One summer day when I was about 16, after we had been snapping green beans for hours, our conversation descended into the bizarre silliness that only comes when you snap beans or husk corn with siblings for a long time on a hot day. We imagined ourselves in the future and tossed out crazy what-if’s. “Wouldn’t it be funny if Dorcas ended up being a minister’s wife?” my sister said. Everyone else nearly dumped the green beans off their laps, they laughed so hard. Such an absurd idea.
I laughed, but not much, because I had a cold feeling of dread.
Amish and conservative Mennonite churches choose ordinary laymen from within a congregation to serve as ministers. Eleven years after we were married, my husband, Paul, was ordained to the ministry.
I knew he was right for his job. I knew I was entirely wrong for mine.
Paul insisted that he wasn’t putting expectations on me, and neither was anyone else. I could keep doing what I had always done. So what if I didn’t like to cook and couldn’t sing, much less host a crowd for Sunday dinner and hit the high notes of “We’ll Work Till Jesus Comes.” I would be fine.
So I tried to fill a role with varying expectations and no formal job description.
My children had their own ideas of what a pastor’s wife ought to be. At a garage sale one summer, I found a small bright pink tin just the right size for holding the business cards I had just purchased. My youngest daughter, Jenny, saw the picture of Teenage Barbie on the lid and shrieked, “MOM! The minister’s wife?”
I kept the tin, stubbornly, and used it.
Some time later, Jenny found the little black manual Paul was given at his ordination. She leafed through it and found the section in the back entitled, “The Minister’s Wife.” Then she found me and read choice passages aloud, laughing harder and louder until she was staggering around the office, howling, barely able to breathe or stand up.
“The faithful wife is clothed with meekness and quietness. ... Her life will enhance his acceptability and usefulness. ... Her house is in such order so as to enable the family to accommodate visitors and guests at any time.”
“Oh Mom, this is so not you! Ha ha ha ha haaaah!”
Paul, as I recall, asked her what was so funny. She read him a few sentences. He didn’t get it. “What, you don’t think your mom is an example for other women?”
I just sighed.
Last week, 20 years after Paul’s ordination, I stood in my sister’s kitchen in Virginia all dressed up, with a proper black purse in hand, ready to go to the pastors’ conference a mile down the road.
The next day, I attended a tea with a hundred other Mennonite ministers’ wives, most of them strangers to me; all of them looking calm and capable.
The woman to my right told me about grieving an adult daughter lost five years ago, and the one across the table told us how her Amish grandma had inspired her. Gradually, we got to know each other more; we found things in common; we laughed. I relaxed.
I thought of a woman named Marilyn, who was my landlady long ago. She listened to me late at night, over and over. She had a few faults, such as needing to clean out her refrigerator more often and losing patience with stubborn people. Sometimes she passed me funny notes in church. She had the radical idea that if you were loved and forgiven by God, you had nothing to hide.
Mostly, she loved and mentored me until her untimely death.
Marilyn was also a minister’s wife, although I seldom remember her in that way, because more than anything else I think of her as a friend.
I want to be like her.
Whatever our fears may be about the adult responsibility we carry, we cannot go wrong with honesty and love, with flaws and laughter, with genuine joy or sadness. We wish we could distribute perfect solutions at arm’s length, but what people really need is for us to walk beside them until they figure life out.
We will make a difference not with distant perfection but with authenticity. “Just so you know, I’m not sure how to do this either. Let’s find some answers together, let’s laugh at ourselves, and if we’re going to pretend, then let’s pretend together.”