In the midst of ever more depressing presidential candidate news for Christians who care about living out their confessions, a snarky post and link by an old friend on Facebook caught my eye. “Pence in 1997: Working mothers stunt emotional growth of children” crowed a CNN report that quotes from a letter to the editor Donald Trump’s running mate wrote to The Indianapolis Star.
In that letter, Pence made the following, apparently horrible assertion: “day-care does not equal at-home care.” Pence also said he was not criticizing parents who place their children in daycare. Rather, he was “criticizing a culture that has sold the big lie that ‘Mom doesn’t matter.’” Pence asserted “[these] statistics should ignite a national debate about the family and precisely who should be raising the next generation of Americans.” Rather than address the question, my friend, a working mom, sarcastically commented that she must be ruining her daughter’s life.
I don’t think she is, but Pence’s point deserves attention. I’ve worked outside and inside the home I share with my husband and family. As a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) for some years, I’ve encountered plenty of stereotypes (you can read about some common ones here). I’ve also had plenty of time to think about what I could be doing other than caring for our kids. Some options would be awesome, and others awful, but I keep coming back to this: If I am my children’s mother, then shouldn’t I be their primary, full-time caregiver?
Get Away from Your Kids, Moms
Surprisingly, most modern commenters would say no. President Obama famously weighed in on SAHMhood in 2014, saying “That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.” Even other Christians—including many of my friends—parrot this line, using theological justification to bolster working motherhood.
In this recent article, Katelyn Beaty, a managing editor at Christianity Today, reiterates this belief as she discusses her forthcoming book, “A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.” Beaty posits that God calls women to “cultural influence outside of the private sphere of the home.” A single woman with no children, Beaty claims “a woman who is staying at home with [her] children isn’t going to have as much influence on the direction of culture.”
Sadly, if somewhat naively, Beaty’s thoughts betray her capitulation to a common and highly secular understanding of motherhood in American culture: that a mom should pursue outside-the-home work because it’s better for her, her children, and even for society. This view is a radical departure from the biblical view of the vocation of motherhood, and misses the treasures that children and mothers are.
First, let’s consider the terms “cultural influence.” A landmark study of social influence demonstrated two needs people have in regards to others: to be right and to be liked. Another further posited that people conform—meaning react, show the influence of, or internalize—to social and cultural influence in both public and private ways. In our science-obsessed society, such understandings of how we shape each other are valued like little else, not least because they lend themselves to quantifiable measures of what methods are most effective at influencing others. In America, the land of eternal advertising, quantifiable marketing trends dominate our culture and its influences.
Unfortunately, instead of showing skepticism or suspicion to this, American Christians have tended to buy into and advance the belief that far-reaching, visible, and measurable influence (i.e., what’s marketable) is best. Paradoxically, our quest for spiritual transcendence has cemented material influences as our central cultural influences (the late nineteenth-century rise of pop-driven praise and worship music is just one example). Our desire for otherworldly salvation has all too often resulted, as cultural historian Jackson Lears writes, in a “drift toward earthly rapture.”
How Mothers Imitate God
Instead of the siren song of market culture, Christians should hear (again) how the Bible portrays mothers and their efforts (something Beaty didn’t discuss in the Atlantic article). Like how from the beginning a woman would bear the savior, even when she didn’t deserve either a savior or to be the means by which God saved the world. How God actually designed both child- and motherhood in their earliest stages to be irrevocably intimate. How mothers provide peace and comfort similar to God’s to their children.
In fact, mothers are key players in the biblical narrative of sin and redemption. Every single woman in the Bible who demonstrated fidelity to God also showed great love and sacrifice to her family, from barren women like Sarah and Hannah to steadfast, humble women like Ruth and Mary. And humility is key. The highest compliments of and directives to women, like in Proverbs 31 and Titus 2, show women serving their families first, and that service in turn positively affecting the entire community.
“Maternity leave” is a biblical oxymoron, for a woman’s God-given family, particularly if she has a husband and children, is primary. Any other neighbors, work, or service should be secondary. This is hugely important, because this is how God loves us and wants us to love each other: by laying down our lives for others. This, its own incredible and unchanging cultural influence, is true love. Through God’s son Jesus, he makes us his family first, withholding nothing of himself for our sakes, giving us everything we need.
This is so easy for even Christian moms to forget. For all the lip service we give about loving our families, we don’t often act in ways that truly prioritize our husbands and our children. Anna Mussman thoughtfully notes this in “Making Peace with the Vocations We Don’t Have.” “Our vocations are defined by the responsibilities that God has given us. We forget this lesson not only when we call for sparkly passions, but also when we look for feelings of success as reassurance that we are on the right path.”
“Sparkly passions” can include self-indulgences masquerading as harmless or even noble outlets, and the roars of approval from our culture for women with paychecks can sure feed our “feelings of success.” As Mussman wryly notes, “[Looking beyond our God-given vocations] may be very American and very modern, but it is hardly Biblical.”
Maybe the Kids’ Needs and Desires Should Matter More
Interestingly, even secular experts see how our work-focused outlook causes problems, particularly in parent and child relationships. Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, acknowledges this in her forthcoming book “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.”
“Today, most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before they have children,” Gopnik notes in this this article. “It’s not surprising, then, that going to school and working are modern parents’ models for taking care of children.” And “[in] work, expertise leads to success.” We end up trying to shape our children the way we produce widgets. Like factory-approved widgets, children are measured primarily by adult-defined results—school success, college acceptance, sparkly career.
In her 2004 book, “Home Alone America, “Mary Eberstadt noted that too often, our measures for what’s best for children—like debates over daycare—focus exclusively on nebulous, far-away results instead of kids’ actual day-to-day life (and, hey, Pence, it’s still not popular to point out daycare’s drawbacks). What we know about how babies and children experience institutional child care prompts this squirm-worthy question: “[Does] that knowledge”—about the illness, stress, or simply separation from mom—“deserve any moral weight at all?”
Unless we’re completely heartless, of course it does. We just don’t like to think that perhaps our habits of outsourcing motherhood require repentance, which explains much of the brouhaha over Pence’s nearly 20-year-old letter. It elicits discomfort with our self-absorbed treatment and view of children.
Christians should know that God sees children as precious individuals deserving of everything he has to give. Children are a priceless heritage, a literal testament to the outside world. They are models of how Christians are to receive salvation. We should nourish them with the best of ourselves—our time, talents, and treasures—precisely because they are so valuable.
A Mother’s Place in the World
Christian mothers who pursue outside work when their growing children need them are often looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sympathetic to mothers who must work away from their children due to broken circumstances, of which there are many. My own grandmother, for example, had to work after the untimely death of my grandfather left her with five young children.
God will judge whether financial circumstances, or any others for that matter, are legitimate reasons to leave our children’s care to others on a regular basis. He also grants us the freedom to use our hands and minds for tasks that can help support our families. With modern technology, we can sometimes swing part- or even full-time careers from home while placing our families first. For instance, I wrote most of this at night while my husband and children slept. (I didn’t say it was easy, but it’s doable.)
I’m also sympathetic to mothers who acquiesce to the hard sell our culture trumpets of self-actualization through careers; after all, I bought into it for a long time myself. I’m likewise understanding of Christians’ genuine desire to serve others outside their families. It can be understood as a variant of the Great Commission, or Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to teach and preach the gospel to the world. But the question isn’t whether God uses mothers to advance the gospel, but how.
Beauty in a Mother’s Sacrifice
“Courage in the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren grapples with this question. After years of education that emphasized Christian service outside of family vocations, Warren realized she “never learned how to be an average person living an average life in a beautiful way.” Warren’s earlier days of “edgy, sizzling spirituality” working in slums and with the poor contrasted sharply with the “unnoticed, unimpressive, unmarketable, unrevolutionary ways” most Christians live.
As Warren poignantly noted, though, the mundane, repetitive tasks of SAHM child-rearing, specifically, require far greater soul-changing sacrifices than the ones she had made as a radical missionary. “And so this is what I need now: the courage to face an ordinary day… the bravery it takes to believe that a small life is still a meaningful life, and the grace to know that even when I’ve done nothing that is powerful or bold or even interesting that the Lord notices me and is fond of me and that that is enough.”
God uses mothers as the first example to children that they are loved. This is our greatest cultural influence and why we matter. He intentionally gives mothers a special child or children to sacrificially love, so we might dimly echo the great love and compassion he has already shown and continues to show to us.
Even Gopnik endorses this perspective: “Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose.” Love, huh? And for a purpose? Who would have thought. God not only notices tired and lonely moms and feels fondness toward us; he knows every man, woman, and child in our failures and suffering, and he comforts us and saves us.
It’s taken me my short lifetime to realize that my best work has been given into my hands. I am more thankful than I can say that God has given me the time and wisdom to learn contentment and joy in motherhood, and I pray all mothers can embrace their vocation fully, without guilt that God demands their hearts and efforts be focused elsewhere, and with trust that he will provide for all of their needs.