My mom didn’t work at an office, but she wasn’t a “stay-at-home” mom. After my brothers and I started school, she was rarely “at home.” Instead, she was volunteering in our classrooms, visiting sick neighbors at hospitals, taking meals to new parents, and organizing logistics for the funerals of loved ones.
Her unpaid work wasn’t just a gift to our family – which, of course, it was. It was also a gift to our community. She didn’t see our home as the end of her work, but as the means by which she could serve our neighbors. It was her base of operations, where she strategized how to love others in practical ways.
My life looks far different from hers. At 40, she was married; I am single. She had three kids; I have none. Her primary work was based out of her home; mine is based out of my office. Her flexible hours were during the day, and her evenings packed with family activities; my schedule is the opposite – my daytime hours are set by work, and my evening hours are flexible.
Unlike me, but like my mom in the years before my brothers and I started school, many of my friends have young children and work from home. Their work rarely stops. Mouths need to be fed, diapers need to be changed, naps need to be enforced, books need to be read, and toys need to be played with (and picked up). Young children can’t work on their own; they require their parents’ help.
Mothers who work outside the home usually have incredibly strict schedules. Not only do they have to be at work during their company’s set hours, they also have to rush home after work to pick up their children from daycare or relieve their nanny. Their evenings are set, too – their kids are on schedules and, once they go to bed, my friends stay home since they can’t afford to hire frequent babysitters.
There is also, of course, the housework that all of us do no matter where we work – managing finances, paying bills, doing laundry, taking out the trash, washing dishes, cooking meals, sweeping floors, and more. And there’s even more work that tends to fall on women – caring for working spouses and aging parents. This household and care-giving work, though unpaid and rarely acknowledged, takes time and must be done.
Even if the scope and shape of our individual lives can look different, each of us works for the flourishing of our neighbors. But why can it be so hard to see that sometimes?
Whenever people start talking about where women work – whether at home or at an office – judgment and comparison are close at hand. The so-called Mommy Wars pit women against women – stay-at-home moms against working moms, conservatives against liberals, women with means and choices against women with neither. Many feel judged for their decisions and exhausted from trying to justify them – even to themselves.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that, at its most bedrock level, the human heart is driven by a desire to live a good and admirable life. We need to know that our choices, especially how we spend our days, are right and true. This, he says, is our “heroic self-image,” and we protect it from attacks – whether from within our own hearts or from others around us – by creating “character armor” to shore up the idea that our lives are worthwhile.
But, Becker argues, this need to know we’re heroic and morally good inflicts the greatest pain and suffering in the world. In the foreword to Becker’s book, Samuel Keen writes:
The root of humanly caused evil is . . . our need to gain self-esteem . . . and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire to achieve the best is the cause of the worst. . . . Becker’s radical conclusion that it is our altruistic motives that turn the world into a [funeral home] . . . poses a disturbing and revolutionary question to every individual and nation: At what cost do we purchase the assurance that we are heroic? . . . [Becker] shames us with the knowledge of how easily we will shed blood to purchase the assurance of our own righteousness.
The Mommy Wars, then, are driven not by our desire to hurt one another, but by our longing to know we’ve made good and right choices. One woman, for example, may believe the only way to be a godly wife and mom is to work from home; to her, working mothers forsake their calling to the family (Titus 2:5). Another woman may work outside the home because she feels her work contributes to her community and God’s redemptive purposes in the world; to her, stay-at-home moms aren’t being fully obedient to their calling as co-creators (Gen. 1:28).
Neither woman sees the other choice as merely different, but as morally wrong. Even engaging in a discussion that legitimizes the other choice is to threaten one’s own. Entrenched in our sense of moral goodness and self-righteousness, we spar with one another to protect our heroic self-image.
Bethany Jenkins is vice president of forums at The Veritas Forum, a contributor at The Gospel Coalition, and a senior fellow at The King’s College. She has also worked in Congress, at the State Department, on Wall Street and in Big Law. She received her BA from Baylor and JD from Columbia. She collaborated with David Kim on the Faith & Work Bible, published by Zondervan.