Last week I wrote an encouraging note to my stay at home mom friends. I have a bunch and I could not be more impressed with them. I got a surprising number of notes or emails. from women I know personally thanking them. I think there is something really amazing about someone not in your shoes, saying your shoes look great on you. Which is why I was so touched by this piece sent to me by a stay at home mom.
It’s still not in vogue to be a working mother in today’s contemporary church. Take this situation: in a womens’ bible study in Chicago we were studying a series on motherhood. One women in the night group left the class crying, and as far as I know, never came back. It was hard to stomach the not-so subtle implications in our series that a womans’ place was at home ‘supporting her family.’
As a young 25-year old woman myself, I have internalized the culture war that haunts young mothers on a daily basis. On one hand, 41% of women are working full-time outside of the home (according to Gallup Daily tracking data from August 2012) many times out of necessity.
On the other hand there is an entire counter-culture, yet distinctly “christian culture”, that favors the stay at home mom. While you might not hear it preached from the pulpit, there is a tone that pervades the church. It rears its head when motherhood becomes a subject. A search for “working christian moms” on Google yields many observations of the “risks” of outside-the-home employment. This Focus on the Family article warns:
“The issue, then, is not whether a woman should choose a career and be a mother, too. Of course she has that right, and it is nobody’s business but hers and her husband’s. I would simply plead that you not allow your family to get sucked into that black hole of exhaustion. However you choose to divide the responsibilities of working and family management, reserve some time and energy for yourselves–and for each other. Your children deserve the best that you can give them, too.” (http://drjamesdobson.org/Solid-Answers/Answers?a=dc453deb-cab4-43f3-81ab-c3e0b9965987)
The language in this article not only adds to the guilt that all moms already experience on a daily basis, but “Of course she has that right” is a bold statement, considering that many Christians equate the word “right” with the secular connotation of opting for a “selfish choice” over “personal sacrifice”. “Your children deserve the best that you can give them, too.” The tone in this sentence conveys womens’ culpability in choosing the best for their children. After all, “the best” could certainly not be working full-time outside of the home—which should be seen as a kind of “last resort”.
The Christian working mothers I know are giving their children the very best in terms of both securing financial resources like clothing , as well as washing that same laundry at 10 o’clock at night when their family is asleep. There seems to be a pervasive sentiment in the Christian culture that working is the lesser choice—an option that might result in you “not giving your kids what they deserve.”
Such a harsh sentiment certainly isn’t lost on single mothers in the church and others who don’t have the resources to hold up to this “ideal.” Not only is it ostracizing, but this catering to stay-at-home-mothers results in a diarama of church activities and a social scene that propels a working mom into the role of “outsider”.
Even more subtle, but equally debilitating, is the message that women of my age hear from the generations who assume that a marriage should hold strict roles, particularly post-babies. After all, it is very easy to find references in the Bible to womens’ service at home—as well as terminology like the “sacrifice of staying at home” that is epitomized as a Christian woman’s means of spiritual fulfillment. Upon mentioning to one older woman I know that I was worried about our finances and questioning a return to the workforce, she immediately replied: “that’s your husbands job to worry about the money. You let him do that.”
While partially reassured by this answer, it also felt a little surreal. After all, my husband and I had always worked as a team. As soon as we had gotten married, we organized our lives in close tandem with one another. Our finances? We pooled our money and made decisions on the spur of the moment. I had felt equally responsible for our finances until I was suddenly thrown into a weird, strange new world where I became the beneficiary, and my husband the sole provider.
As a post-college married millenial, I never questioned that my job would hold equal value to my husbands. Until the advent of a surprise pregnancy, I had grown up feeling quite entitled, as a woman, to any profession or job held by a man. And then my world flipped 180 degrees. Suddenly I was attending womens’ bible studies, receiving boxes of baby clothes , and soon in-charge of my new baby 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. In the church, no one even mentioned going back to work. Outside of the church, the first question I would receive upon meeting someone was: where do you work? The stark contrast between my little evangelical world and the secular one was bizarre, at best.
And that’s not to say that a working mother doesn’t encounter certain “challenges” like the rest of the Focus on the Family article addresses. I have a lot of respect for Focus on the Family and how they strive to help families navigate the secular world. However, the idea that these challenges are the sole responsibility of the woman to battle against—as if she is the arbiter of work-life balance, strikes me as disingenuous. My husband and I work out these challenges together, again, as I work part-time doing contract work while my two kids under two nap—and then again, if I work at night. I can never shake the pervasive feeling though, that, like the Focus on the Family article implies, it is my responsibility within the church to make sure that my children are well-adjusted and that my constant presence is the best barometer for their well-being.
Biblically, if there is any basis for placing stay at home moms on a pedestal, I have yet to come across it. As far as I can tell, the Bible places a greater emphasis on the strength of womens’ faith in the face of all circumstances—take the geneaology of Jesus in Matthew: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) , and Mary, all women of various stations (3 widows and 2 Gentiles) with various economic situations, but each living out a life of faith that involved the raising of children in the whole gamut of life circumstances.
I have to believe that it is not “what we do” that makes us who we are as mothers, but how we live according to our faith in a greater God, and this applies to both stay at home moms and those who must—or choose–to work.
Briana Meade is a millennial mom with two kids who writes at brianameade.com about faith, millenials, and motherhood with all the self-doubt, confusion, and grace that results from the intersection of these three topics.