Work is not primarily a thing one does to live but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.
In addition to fireworks and W-2 forms, the wintry start to every new year also ushers in Epiphany—a day to mark the Magi’s gifts to the Christ Child which “revealed” Jesus to the world as Lord and King, and to begin a six-week season set aside to “show forth” or “reveal” the church’s mission and work in the world. It seems utterly appropriate that this season to reflect on our work as the Body of Christ comes on the heels of New Year’s resolutions, when we are naturally inclined to reflect on our lives and make amends for the coming year. Yet if New Year’s points us to who we want to be, Epiphany brings a challenging yet comforting reminder about for whom we are to be. It is a call to reflect collectively on the mission of God’s church locally, nationally and around the world, but it is also a call to reflect on how, as individuals, we faithfully steward the work of our days to His glory.
For mothers of young children, like myself, these more personal questions of Epiphany—the deep-rooted questions of work, purpose, mission and vocation—are often perennial questions, staying with us well past Ash Wednesday and outliving many a well-intended resolution. They linger, begging always to know if the Reformers were considering motherhood in declaring that “all work is God’s work,” or if such broad inclusivity could really apply when it comes to making EasyMac® and buying wet wipes. They linger also because they are questions of identity and purpose, often leaving even the most dedicated mothers to wonder if their pre-baby lives and longings have any place or relevance in the way they do life as a mom.
Fortunately, there are a number of excellent resources which thoughtfully address the value and importance of a mother’s work. I offer only a few here in order to focus more intently on the latter question of a mother’s sense of identity and purpose. That said, in her excellent book, Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring, Andi Ashworth offers rich reflections on her own life-long call as a caregiver across many seasons and settings to build a credible case for what can at times be an underappreciated calling. As she writes, “Human needs are complex…Caregivers use the diverse body of knowledge and skill they’ve acquired and design their work around the needs of the whole person or family. A business, on the other hand, must specialize, usually in only one kind of service.” She goes on to note how using unhelpful terms like “nonworking” to describe stay-at-home mothers diminishes not only their work but their confidence. As she writes, “This is rarely an accurate description of someone and steals dignity from a person made in God’s image as a worker.”
Like Ashworth, Agnes Howard gives much-needed vocabulary to the valuable work of a mother’s life. In her article “In Moral Labor,” which ran in the March 2006 edition of First Things, Howard describes pregnancy like this:
Pregnancy is not just waiting but real work. Exactly what kind of work is it? Terms offered by the market are not much help: It is not evaluated like salaried tasks, and phrases like “maternity leave” construe the event as though it were vacation or hiatus from meaningful employment. We might better avail ourselves of theological categories to help make sense of women’s labor in this phase of procreation: Hospitality describes the mother as welcoming a needy guest, self-denial honors the pains and costs of that nurture, and stewardship observes the boundaries of her agency in respecting Providence.
Of course, not all mothers have become so by way of pregnancy, but the idea that Christian faith provides better categories to account for, and attribute value to, a woman’s otherwise invisible work holds true far beyond the gestational period of motherhood. Moreover, our faith is the only one in human history to profess a God made incarnate of a woman—the same incarnate God who grew up to dignify such humble household tasks as foot washing. And while neither Howard nor Ashworth set out to provide a theological treatise on motherhood, their practical and vocationally-minded reflections offer a welcome framework to further examine the value, skill and creativity of a mother’s work. What is more, each provides a context sufficient to endure the doubts, discouragements and deep personal questions that inevitably accompany any work worth doing.
However, even as richer frameworks help us better understand how our work matters, many mothers evade the more elusive suggestion that who they are could matter to their work. As Christians, by and large, we are comfortable helping a woman explore her identity as a mother, the role-based identity that raises new circumstances, new challenges and new needs. However, we are often less comfortable exploring what it means for a mother to take up questions of personal identity—those which address her expectations for life and motherhood, her long-held hopes or ambitions, her doubts about parenting or other abilities, her sense of duty or obligation to many different relationships, her body image, her understanding about personal sources of fulfilment and so forth. We vaguely recognize these tensions, of course, but hesitate when it comes to engaging them as honest questions, fearing that such inquiries might perpetuate selfish inclinations or yield too much ground to the politics of feminism.
There is prudence in recognizing the human heart’s proclivity to self-absorption, to be sure. And there is wisdom in avoiding the vitriolic and overly politicized “mommy wars” that pit stay-at-home moms against working moms using a dichotomy that is best described as false. Yet in the midst of these well-intended concerns, the church fails to provide practical tools and coherent answers to a generation of desperately confused moms—a generation who grew up knowing they could be anything they wanted to be, but now, as grown-ups, have no idea how or what to pick. By providing better language, broader categories and a realistic context for women to navigate these issues, the church can offer mothers practical resources to more fully steward their life and work.
Finding better—or even adequate—language to articulate the tensions of motherhood is particularly challenging because questions of identity are caught up with questions about work. Yet “work” is a term that tends to lose its meaning in discussions about motherhood because of its narrow application as a synonym for career-oriented occupations. As Christians, our definition of work is infinitely more inclusive than that, resting in our understanding of a God who made man in His own image to do productive, creative and manifold work as He does. What is more, by entrusting man with His work God also made him responsible in it. Because of this, we rightfully understand our work broadly as those many and varied things for which we are responsible, whether or not it builds our resume or aligns tidily with prescribed roles.
“Stewardship” is another term that denotes this responsibility to rightly use the gifts, resources and relationships God has entrusted to our care. For all Christians, embracing this richer definition of work as responsibility is important, but for mothers, especially, it provides much-needed vocabulary to talk about work in a way that accounts for all of life, all together. It also offers a paradigm sufficient to examine specific questions about skills, interests and calling by recognizing that questions about what we are to do are inevitably tied up with who we are to be.
As we come to embrace better vocabulary to express and understand the many ways our work gives shape to identity, we must give attention to how we account for our contributions in a meaningful way. In most cases it means thinking outside the framework of career counselling and personality tests to allow for more categories—or different categories—to make sense of our efforts, hopes, desires, disappointments and successes. Broader categories might include areas of unique skill or giftedness (perhaps paid, perhaps not) such as the ability to convene purposeful discussions, to give especially thoughtful or creative gifts, to create and maintain lasting traditions or events, to strategically connect people and ideas, to create order out of disorder, to manage money and/or time, to grow your own food, or to discern and encourage unique talents in others. They might also include particular areas of interest such as arts investment, quilting, urban planning and development, strategic philanthropy, medical missions or aid, screenwriting, legal advocacy or countless other categories of care.
These broader categories of skills, abilities and interests do not disregard or compromise the importance of mothering, but instead acknowledge that not all women who are mothers are the same. Nor will they all find the same sense of vocational fulfilment through their domestic work. This is not to say, of course, that the responsibilities of motherhood bear any less on women who find its demands particularly challenging, but rather to acknowledge that we all bring different interests and abilities to any job we do. By asking a husband or friend to tell us the ways they have consistently seen the Lord work through us, by paying attention to the things we think about as we are falling asleep at night, what websites, blogs or other publications we spend time on when there is arguably no time, what people or skills we are most intimidated and/or impressed by—all these help us begin discerning if there is indeed work which is ours to do.
Finally, as mothers seek better understanding of their work and identity, it is important to keep in mind the practical context that governs how they live into their day-to-day responsibilities. The comprehensive realities of life, such as whether a husband works from home or travels frequently, whether family is nearby or far away, if finances allow room for extra help or require extra income, if kids are healthy or not healthy, if marriage is stable and happy or requires extra effort—these are all enormously consequential in how we come to steward our responsibilities faithfully. Not all work is for all seasons, and at the same time, some work is perennial and will inevitably find ways to sprout up. In every instance we need to carefully discern what work we are to pursue—or not pursue—in light of our other responsibilities.
For one close friend of mine who is a gifted artist as well as a stay-at-home mom with two small kids at home, pursuing her calling as an artist means having her kids share a room so she has an art studio to paint in while they nap. She uses Saturday mornings when her husband is home to take classes toward her M.F.A. As she says, “Painting isn’t some luxurious version of ‘me time’—it is just an essential part of who I am . . . I am a better mom to my kids when I paint.”
Similarly, my sister, who worked in ministry before her two boys arrived, recently discovered how much she missed teaching and discipling younger women. As a result she now coordinates schedules with her husband so she can spend one morning a week training ministry staff at a nearby college and she continues to do one-on-one mentoring sessions throughout the week. As she says, “I never thought I would want to go back to work after I had kids, but the funny thing is, this doesn’t even feel like work.”
In all of this, whether it be language, category or context, it is essential for mothers to recognize that the goal in exploring identity in light of work is not to do more or be busier, but rather to think better about the ways we engage the fullness of our callings. For some women, it will mean granting themselves permission to explore interests, skills or opportunities that persist outside, alongside or amidst their responsibilities as a mom. For others it means evaluating whether or not their priorities and commitments are properly aligned with the commitments they have to their family. For all women, it means being humble enough to step outside the bounds of our own comfort and offer the fullness of our gifts in service to Christ, trusting that if it His work to do he will provide the margin needed to do it.
A light-hearted joke from our pastor last Sunday brought Epiphany to light for me in a new way as I was contemplating what, particularly, this season means for mothers. He suggested that had the wise men been wise women instead, Mary would have benefitted from far more practical gifts than those bestowed, such as warm casseroles and disposable diapers. Despite this silly illustration, it struck me that very often my own view of what is an appropriate gift to offer Christ may not be the one He is asking me to give.
In contrast, the kings didn’t offer gifts that reflected their own good common sense, as mothers are indeed inclined to do; instead, they brought gifts that reflected Christ—as King, Priest and Redeemer. Similarly, as believers engaged in every square inch of God’s good work, mothers have an opportunity to use this Epiphany season to reflect not on the work they deem most valuable to Christ, whether it be inside, outside or alongside the home, but instead to reflect on—and step into—the work Christ deems most valuable to Him.