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?
Justifying Our Decisions
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.
But the Mommy Wars should find no stronghold in the hearts of Christian women, since we know that our righteousness comes from Christ, not us. When we face judgment about our decisions, the grace of God enables us to listen without fearing condemnation. Knowing we’re far more sinful than others think and far more loved than we can imagine, our defensive walls come down, and our character armor comes off. For we know that Christ alone is our hero.
The more we embrace our most fundamental identity as Christians, the more we’re able to see one another as co-workers, not competitors. For no matter where we work – whether at home or at an office – we co-labor together on a shared project. Although we live out our individual callings in our various vocations, all of us are working together to make Christ known and beautiful in our communities. On Sundays, we do this together as the gathered church, but during the week, we do it as the scattered church in our different spheres.
This makes women working full-time thankful for women with flexible daytime hours, since they can volunteer at places where we can’t. In the evenings, though, when they need to be with their families, we can take up the reins of our shared mission by meeting with people for dinner, serving our neighbors in need, or leading and hosting community groups.
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And stay-at-home parents can be thankful for those of us working full-time. We’re able to be in offices and in meetings where they can’t. We can testify to the grace of God in places that can be hostile to the gospel. We can work toward creating more redemptive products and programs. Our work is no less of a service to the community because it’s paid.
When we see that Jesus is our identity, we have new eyes to appreciate others’ contributions rather than fearfully guarding our own choices. When our goal is to advance his kingdom, not our own, we can rejoice in all sorts of work being done since we’re on a shared mission. Women making different choices are co-laborers, not competitors. It’s a team effort, so it’s a team sense of joy.
Interested in exploring the topic of women and ambition in greater depth? Join Denver Institute for “Ambition: Living with Drive & Devotion”, a half-day conference on March 10th.
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This post was published March 1, 2017
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.