“What do you mean you’re staying home full-time?” I was shocked when my friend first told me of her decision to stay home, full-time, to raise her family, I could not understand it. Why would a bright and well-educated woman give up her engineering career to be a full-time mom? Being then in my first year of university, my world was consumed with studying literature, discovering my relationship with God, and developing friendships. I really enjoyed the freedom to pursue my interests. I could not imagine life “stuck” at home taking care of a baby. “Domestication”—it was a pejorative term that conjured images of one-dimensional housewives like June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. I saw the image of the stay-at-home mom and housewife as an outdated ideal of the past. I had developed this prejudice towards domestication and the conventional model of wife and motherhood because I was influenced by the university culture in which I was immersed.
University was a wonderfully formative time in my life when I built beliefs I carried into adulthood. But in terms of cultivating beliefs about a woman’s role in the family, my university experience fell short in preparing me for a mature perspective on the complexities and challenges of family life. I did not really expect the university experience to prepare me for marriage and parenthood. But then, again, I wasn’t prepared for how the cultural atmosphere of individualism provided ambiguous direction as to the priority of family.
To generalize about the attitude amongst my female university friends about women’s roles and family, I would say there were two outlooks. Some of my friends were more eager to get married and assume the responsibility of motherhood. They were university-educated and smart, but embraced the vision of domestic life. Their inclination was to find their significance through their private life of family relationships. Other female friends were focused on excelling in their studies and pursuing their careers. Even though they had busy social lives, many of these women were not in a rush to enter a serious relationship. Instead, they were career-driven and sought significance in their public achievements of influence and independence. Although I respected the values of both approaches, I felt a closer association with the ambitions of my friends who wanted more than the conventional female role.
In addition to the influence of my peers, I was also influenced by the prevalent attitude in the liberal arts of deconstructing conventional gender roles. One course that embodied this approach was my feminist geography class. Feminist geography applies feminist interpretation to the study of geographic and societal use of space and its effect on perpetuating gender, class or racial oppression and inequality. Surprisingly, this course became one of the most thought-provoking and influential classes I took as an undergrad. It highlighted issues about the traditionally biased construction of society against the marginalized: women, children, immigrants, the elderly, and the poor. This compassionate perspective resonated with my growing understanding of God’s sense of love and justice toward the oppressed.
I also came to recognize that to some people, especially in academia, Christianity represented the traditional institutions and values that feminism criticizes. Not coincidentally, as I was learning about feminism, I was also developing my Christian worldview and asking questions like, “How does my Christian worldview handle criticism from feminism?” I desired to develop a coherent, sophisticated, and robust worldview that could understand the insights of feminism within the larger context of the Gospel’s redemptive work in the world.
It was only after graduating that it hit me that university was a unique and profoundly important stage of my life. It was a period of unparalleled freedom to think, read and pursue my interests and to network with a broad range of people. However, while it was challenging to work out the often conflicting influences of university life, the real challenge came after university, when my beliefs and worldview had to be worked out in “real life.”
Transition into the real world
The year after I graduated from university I met my future husband. As the topic of marriage arose, we both agreed on one thing: we wanted time to cultivate our marriage through travelling and pursuing our dreams and careers, before starting a family. Being a particularly goal-oriented couple, our work was a high priority: I was working in church ministry and my husband was pursuing a career in business and engineering. After three years of dating we decided to get married. And then began our rollercoaster adventure in the “real world.”
When I think of some traditional milestones of adulthood I think of getting a full-time job, getting married, buying a house, and then having a baby. The wise and sane way to reach these milestones is to do it one at a time, not all in one year!
But things didn’t quite go as planned.
Along comes baby
“What does this line mean!?” That is literally how I broke the news to my husband that we were expecting. Pregnancy tests are supposed to be idiot-proof. Even so, there was still a frantic moment of brainlessness while I stared and tried to discern the markings of the little blue line.
We were not ready to face all the implications of what that line meant. Only three months into marriage, we were still adjusting to life together. With the sudden announcement of a little one on the way, we felt a new level of pressure and responsibility. As we started sharing our news, one friend who was also a newlywed said to us, “I would be depressed.” I thought the news of having a child was supposed to be a time of joy, but I felt guilty and wrong for being overwhelmed with fear and grief. In dealing with the shock of the news, we went through a process of mourning: we were mourning the imminent loss of our independence and freedom to pursue our dreams. We were not ready for this life change.
Adding to the pressure of this new reality, my husband was going through job instability—a profoundly difficult challenge for someone so career-oriented and conscientious about his role as the provider. This added financial pressure caused him to spiral into cynicism and disillusionment about life.
As for me, I was unprepared for the realities of parenthood. I had to face my prejudices about women’s roles and motherhood. Although I had various experiences working with kids as a youth leader, I had no real life experience being responsible for children. I lacked practical knowledge of what it takes to raise a family.
I can understand why my generation is beset with insecurities about “growing up” and may take longer to make lifelong commitments such as marriage and parenting. Many of us who grew up in a typical North American household with a smaller nuclear family and working parents are sheltered from the practical responsibilities of managing a home: finances, chores, and caring for younger siblings. As my generation “grows up” and enters parenthood many may find, as I did, that we are underdeveloped in the personal maturity, stamina, and skills needed to withstand the challenges of parenthood.
My husband and I had a long way to go in maturity. The beginning of our son’s life was the end of our old ways of life.
Evaluating my worth
Job Description: Food preparation, sanitization, milk production and distribution, temper tantrum control, lots of TLC, animated story reading on demand.
This is how one friend humorously describes her life as a mother on Facebook. When our son was born, I started meeting other women who also struggled with the adjustment from a life of career-oriented independence to a life of domestic responsibility and motherhood.
What about my needs? Facing this question was perhaps one of the greatest adjustments to motherhood. Now the needs of my child took precedent over mine. Instead of having time to take care of my needs, all my time was spent caring for this child—doing solitary, repetitive, and mundane tasks. This little child was completely helpless and dependent on me. He needed regular, hourly attention. I was lucky to get an hour by myself when the baby was sleeping. Take a nap, shower, or catch up on laundry? These kinds of daily choices were now my reality. Having time to read, discuss, reflect, and sometimes even pray felt like a luxury.
In my conversations with other mothers, the issue of personal worth and value often arises. In our former lives, we were used to judging our worth by certain measures of success such as public approval or recognition. As someone who craves social interaction to stay sharpened, I found the environment of the home isolating: most of the time, it was just me and baby. I was isolated from the things that formerly stimulated my growth personally, spiritually, and intellectually. The scope of my social circles and influence was narrowing. The measures of success that I formerly looked to were stripped away.
In the rare times when no demands were being made of me (usually at 4 a.m. in the morning when everyone was asleep) I would have time to think. I thought about God and what he was doing in my life. I started to realize what informed my definition of success. I started to recognize that over the years I developed a distorted notion of success that stemmed from an incorrect vision of how God viewed me.
I found my value through what others thought of me and my security in my position among my peers. If I was doing better than my peers, I felt secure. If I was not achieving as much or more than them, I felt a failure. And based on my current stage of life in comparison to my close friends, all of whom were still unmarried and progressing in their professional careers in law, medicine and finance, I was not living up to par. For so long I resisted conforming to conventional female roles. But here I was, on maternity leave, a stay-at-home wife and mother, changing diapers and cooking meals—what was I doing with my life?
Why did I have this deep-rooted belief that the roles of wife and mother were inferior? Certainly a woman’s value should not be measured by her fulfillment of domestic responsibility. But by minimizing my unique role in the home I was perpetuating the exact attitude feminism speaks against that devalue women. Not only that, I was devaluing the God-given womanly qualities that complement and serve family in a significant way.
The role of wife and mother in our postmodern generation is complicated with women holding important roles both in private and public spheres. Now that my maternity leave is finished and I have returned to work full-time I can understand the tension women experience juggling responsibilities at home and at work.
A new measure of success
One new and significant way God is at work in my life is teaching me, through the practical life lesson of parenthood, the meaning of the Gospel. Through this process of self-examination God is pointing out my deep-rooted issues of self-centeredness and insecurity. Although it’s hard to face, I am not left hopeless. God is reminding me of His solution to my sin through the Gospel. I am reminded of what a perfect parent God is by first demonstrating sacrificial and long-suffering love to us through Jesus Christ. Now as a parent I can understand, in my own human way, the depth of compassion and long-suffering God has for humanity. The sacrificial relationship between parent and child was modelled by Jesus Christ when he chose to give up his life on the cross for the salvation of humankind.
New life begins when one sacrifices oneself to serve another. As in the birth process, new life must emerge out of a path of pain and suffering. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This gospel principle of dying to oneself to bring new life is parallelled in parenting. As a parent my daily choices involve dying to myself to put the interests and needs of my child ahead of mine. I prioritize my child because I want to see him flourish. On a cosmic scale, Jesus modelled dying to himself in order to bring humanity hope and new life. Re-learning the Gospel through the lens of parenthood has given me insight in times of discouragement and new fruit in my spiritual relationship with God.
I have begun to taste the new kind of fruit that God wants to bear in my life. As we die to our old ways God brings us new joy in other areas of our life through our relationship with our son. There are areas in our life that would not have been challenged or cultivated if not for having a child. We’ve seen that having children has brought depth to our relationships: our marriage, family, and community.
First, having our son has brought a new dimension to our marriage and helped solidify our marriage commitment. Second, we’ve also grown in our respect and honour of our parents now that we understand a bit better what they endured. Furthermore, our son has given us an opportunity to connect with our neighbours and cultivate relationships within our community. It is amazing how easy it is to connect with neighbours through the common interest of our children. Parents want to be with other good families who will look out for each other and have a positive influence on their kids.
Becoming a mother has taught me that I am only a small part of God’s larger redemptive plan in my family, community, and world. My life is not my own. By yielding myself daily to God he can bear through me fruit that can bless my family and community. Through the practical and spiritual discipline of parenthood I’ve re-learned the lesson of the Gospel and deepened in my appreciation of God’s sacrificial parental love for us.