We’re Talking About Motherhood Wrong. It’s A Vocation, Not A Job

We’re Talking About Motherhood Wrong. It’s A Vocation, Not A Job

With parenting, there are no copouts, no sick days, no vacation or leave. That means describing it like a career is both reductive and misleading.
Gracy Olmstead
By

Nyquil recently released a television ad pointing out the most basic of facts: moms don’t get sick days.

The commercial is funny, in part, because we increasingly do treat motherhood like a job: there’s a plethora of articles and books that attempt to help us craft the perfect “work-life balance,” divide up time between our parenting “job” and our job job, and help us navigate the intricacies of maternity leave and child care, stay-at-home work, and after-school responsibilities. We can have it all, we’re told. We can balance all the things.

But the Nyquil commercial reminds us of how little we actually control, especially in parenting. In an age of career-centric living, it’s funny for us to remember that in fact, if parenting is a job, it’s the least job-ish thing we do regularly. There are no copouts, no sick days, no vacation or leave. Parenting is 24/7 work.

That makes the popular phrase “Being a parent is the toughest job you’ll ever have” true, at least on the tough part—while also making it rather misleading.

Parenting Is More Than A Job

This is a fact Jonathan Malesic thoughtfully pointed out over at The New Republic a few days ago. “Americans struggle to describe worthwhile, long-term activities without turning them into jobs,” he writes. “We can’t imagine a good life that’s free from workplace logic. This narrow moral vocabulary makes our lives worse: more stressful, more guilt-ridden, and less able to appreciate anything that’s not work.”

But how else ought we to describe the difficulties and duties of motherhood? Earlier this month, Karen Rinaldi suggested that we call motherhood a “privilege,” not a job. That claim may cause immediate skepticism, but there’s also a great deal of truth to it. Parenting is hard, but it’s also glorious. And we do choose sex and procreation via our own choices and autonomy. We bring babies into this world fully knowing that they’ll be a screaming, poopy mess for the first couple years of their lives. We have children then name them our favorite names, teach them our favorite songs, look on with wonder as they walk, talk, learn to write, graduate, and get married. Parenting is a self-fulfilling act, even as it’s a self-emptying one.

But what Rinaldi is pushing against is not motherhood-as-work language. She’s pushing against motherhood-as-sacrifice language, as she makes clear in this passage:

The assertion of motherhood as sacrifice comes with a perceived glorification. A woman is expected to sacrifice her time, ambition and sense of self to a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity. This leaves a vacuum in the place of her value, one that others rush to fill.

… By reframing motherhood as a privilege, we redirect agency back to the mother, empowering her, celebrating her autonomy instead of her sacrifice. Granted, some of us have more autonomy than others. There are many mothers who would not have chosen motherhood, for financial or personal reasons. Still, by owning our roles as mothers and refusing the false accolades of martyrdom, we do more to empower all women.

Rinaldi is pushing against what she sees as a patriarchal message: that mothering a child is large enough of a responsibility to require the sacrifice of one’s entire life, time, and ambition.

The Best Things In Life Require Sacrifice

But what Rinaldi is also missing is that the best things in life are necessarily sacrificial, to at least some degree: empowerment only comes after and through sacrifice. The best things in life involve an emptying, a letting go of self, a hollowing out of selfishness. Marriage, community, faith: there are many, many things besides parenting that require us to give up and let go. Work itself—the careers we aspire to or hold—often require a staggering amount of sacrifice.

But Rinaldi, and many other women today, protest that motherhood (especially when it is not married to a career) is too humble. It requires too much, and takes too much. There’s not enough recognition and rapport, societal applause and financial independence, wrapped up in motherhood. Motherhood is problematic: it doesn’t fit today’s mantras surrounding happiness and fulfillment. Thus, Rinaldi tries to reframe motherhood without the sacrifice: making it about “fulfillment,” “empowerment,” and “privilege.”

But to do that, you’d have to destroy the very nature of what motherhood is. In a physical sense, before birth ever happens, motherhood is the physical hollowing out of one’s very being to make room for another. Pregnancy equals the diversion of nutrients, hydration, and immunity to a being that is not oneself. It is months of heartburn, constipation, nausea, food aversions, sore ankles, swollen feet, and excruciating labor in order to give life to another human being. It means brokenness, emptying, and sacrifice. That’s just what it is. And we neither can nor should discount that.

But at the same time, Rinaldi is right. Motherhood is a choice and a privilege. It’s empowering. How, one might ask, can it be both?

“A woman is expected to sacrifice her time, ambition and sense of self to a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity,” Rinaldi writes. “This leaves a vacuum in the place of her value, one that others rush to fill.” This is a key claim Rinaldi makes, the crux of her entire argument: that in order to find fulfillment, we must live individualistic lives, oriented toward our own empowerment and “sense of self.” The minute we sacrifice that for “a higher purpose,” she seems to argue, we lose our chance at empowerment.

But I would turn to another passage, one that gives a dramatically different vision of what sacrifice and empowerment mean:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The story of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection is the ultimate sacrifice-empowerment narrative. Jesus chose to be “emptied” of his rights and privileges, in order to bring life everlasting to the needy, broken, helpless children of God. But through that act of ultimate sacrifice, he then achieved the ultimate empowerment and glorification.

Motherhood is thus one of the most Christologically patterned acts a human can participate in. That is crazy exciting, humbling, and honoring. It also means that the world is always going to look upon motherhood skeptically. Why in the world would you give up so much of your self and your desires in order to give life, health, and happiness to someone else?

We’re Talking About Motherhood Wrong

That’s why I want to turn back to Malesic’s TNR article, and what he points out as a sadly “narrow moral vocabulary” at our disposal for parenting. When we talk about motherhood or fatherhood as a “job,” we give it a self-fulfilling end. After all, in this day and age, a “career” is ultimately about our own comfort. When we talk about our jobs, we rarely describe them as a means to feed and clothe our families. We invest in our jobs a much more selfish passion. In a world without religion, the career has become the chief end of man.

Jobs are also, importantly, task-oriented preoccupations. At work, we have to-do lists and spreadsheets. We’re rewarded for the diligence and persistence of our work.

But the course of parenting rarely runs so smooth. We don’t work at parenting for a given amount of time, then “call it a day.” We don’t run out of items on our to-do lists: there’s always going to be another poopy diaper, another temper tantrum to work through. And when our kids graduate past the ages of diapers and tantrums, there will be new challenges to confront. We don’t get a “raise” in compensation for our parenting efforts (though some would consider grandparenthood a sort of “bonus”). And we never retire from parenting. No matter where our children go or what they do, we will be their parents.

Thus, parenting and motherhood cannot rightly be called a job. Rather, it’s a vocation.

Why Motherhood Is A Vocation, Not A Job

Vocation is a word we’ve lost. That is, in part, because it’s a rather deistic word: it implies, at least historically, a sense of calling. We’ve tried to replace its more theological definition with more secularized terms, deeming it “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action [emphasis added].” But what is a “summons,” if not from God? The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, “to call,” or vox—voice.

Vocations are not about tasks accomplished, boxes ticked off, money made. They’re not quantitative; they’re qualitative. They’re not just career-oriented; they’re life-oriented. A person can have multiple vocations or callings: she can be called to the accounting profession, to active involvement in church, to faithful parenting, and to spousal devotion. She can be called to all of these things at once, and no one vocation discounts or demeans the others.

As a stay-at-home mom with a part-time journalism career, my motherhood vocation doesn’t stop while I work at my journalism vocation. I don’t switch one hat for another. All vocations are inextricably part of each other: a web of involvement and calling that is meant to be holistic and integral.

If motherhood-as-job divides our lives into a pie chart—allocating labor here and there according to time and resources, with those who “have it all” achieving the perfect circle—motherhood-as-vocation is a pyramid, in which our foundational vocations give life and meaning to the lesser ones. My primary vocation, as a Christian, informs my vocations as wife and mother. Those vocations, in turn, inform my vocations as journalist and steward of place (a fancy term for domestic, gardener, pet owner, and neighbor). Everything works within the rubric of vocation—nothing is without a place or purpose.

In the language of vocation, none of the “jobs” we have in life are ultimately about self-fulfillment. We’re pieces in a puzzle, reflecting a pattern of grace and glory. Our vocations are about relationships—with God, with each other, and with the world he created. Our work is meant to be creative and redemptive, glorifying and good, bringing life back into a crushed and broken world. That is indeed a great privilege. But it also requires sacrifice.

Moms don’t get sick days. But that’s because motherhood isn’t the hardest job in the world—it’s one of the best vocations we can receive.

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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