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A week ago, the blogosphere began buzzing about a debate that, to be honest, I thought maybe we’d moved beyond. Turns out I was wrong. The whole situation was about whether or not it was OK for Christian moms to work outside the home. Seriously. And people got really mad.
I have an opinion about it, but I’m a man. Instead I asked my sister — the notorious Mama Monk, Micha Boyett-Hohorst — to address it in a guest post. I asked her because she is a feminist Christian who has worked full-time in ministry in the past but currently stays home. Her excellent blog is about her struggle to maintain a robust spiritual life despite being a harried mom. Here’s Micha’s response to the whole moms-and-work kerfuffle:
Last Saturday, a little corner of Christian blogland erupted when Matthew Paul Turner
joked about John Piper’s video-stance in which he “discourages” most mothers
from working outside of the home. Not only did Turner’s blog flame up with
angry comments (from both sides), but several of the blogs I follow couldn’t stop
talking about the topic on Monday. While Turner’s wife Jessica continued the
conversation, Nicole Wick posted a History of Women’s Suffrage and Rachel
Held Evans questioned whether women are really satisfied with the choices
we’ve been given. Among every conversation I came across, I found angry
mothers: Stay-at-Home Moms shouting Titus 2 at Working Moms (and Working
Moms pointing stubbornly at Proverbs 31).
That morning I sat at my computer in a post-Bible-bashing-induced funk
while my two-year-old son ran around the dining room table, T. Rex in hand,
singing, “Dinosaur Train!” I’m a SAHM who formerly worked full-time for a youth
parachurch ministry. Though I’m grateful for the opportunity to be home full-time
and though I’m in love with the life I share with my son, I often ache over the loss
of my life in ministry, a season when my gifts and passions so beautifully aligned
with my God-given calling, One year into my son’s life, I chose to stay home, not
because it was necessarily the most biblical option, but because 1) I could, and
2) it was right for our family in this season of our lives.
So, having been a member of both sides of this particular Mommy battle, the
big bloggy maelstrom I encountered was surprising…and disappointing. Call
me naive, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me that the same young, progressive
Christian population willing to read Turner’s edgy humor could be so convinced
that God always calls women to stay home.
That night I explained my frustration to my husband while I stuffed my mouth with
husband-made Caesar salad. (Authentic dressing with raw egg and anchovies?
Heck yes!) “I can’t help but think we’re having this discussion simply because we
live in a society privileged enough that some women don’t have to work,” I said
with a little strand of romaine hanging from my lip. “We can quote scripture about
women in the home all day long, but what does it even mean to work? And what
does it mean to be in the home?”
Even Piper’s video admits that our understanding of “work” and “home” have
changed drastically in the past 100 years. There was no reason to ask if it
was biblical for mothers to work before World War II. Mothers simply “worked.”
The concept of a Stay-at-Home Mom did not exist until sixty years ago when,
following the war, servicemen were given the chance to get an education, which
led to better-paying jobs, which led to a move from rural farmland into cities, and
subsequently to suburbs. Young, married women from rural backgrounds were
handed keys to shiny, new three-bedroom homes. The existence of suburbia led
to a new concept: the homemaker. The “American woman” who had always lived
among extended family and shared mothering tasks with sisters and mothers
and aunts while working on the farm or making ends meet in the factory, found
herself in a brand-new situation. She was isolated in her home, caring only for
her immediate family. Her work had downsized considerably. She no longer
needed to garden or butcher or collect the eggs. For the love of Betty Friedan,
she had a washing machine!
Three out of my four great-grandmothers lived on cotton farms in the 1920’s and
30’s, raising young children. Were they SAHMs? Well, yes, and no. Of course,
they raised their kids, hovering nearby while their eight children played with each
other. But they also worked. They worked as hard as every farmer’s wife in the
history of the world has worked. They planted gardens and milked cows and
stacked firewood and canned vegetables for the winter, all while raising babies.
Their kids played around them on dirt floors while they tore cloth for diapers.
Was anyone asking if it was biblical for my Grandma Johnson to be gutting the
chicken for dinner instead of playing catch with her very tall sons (those Johnson
boys had the longest legs in Oklahoma according to my Memaw)?
No. Because everyone knew she had to feed those boys. And because it
would be an absurd question to ask of someone in that situation and culture.
I’m not implying that applying Scripture to the discussion of the working mother is
absurd. In fact, it’s vital. The Bible is clear that being a mother is holy business.
(Ask the Proverbs 31 woman.) The Titus 2 passage that came up so often in
this week’s discussions simply states that a woman is to “love [her] children
and husband…and to be busy at home.” If we want, we can read that through
a feminist lens of rage. But whatever we may think of Paul’s feelings toward
women–and I can be as conflicted as the next Christian feminist–it seems to
me that Paul is simply saying we need to love our families and fight against
laziness. Among the women I know who struggle with their choices to work or
stay home, I can think of absolutely zero who are besieged with laziness. And
in that sense, this passage is a really an act of grace to those of us who daily
question whether or not we’re completely screwing up this motherhood thing.
Professionals or not, we’re all busy at home.
Of course, that argument doesn’t get us all off the hook. If I were going to argue
for a biblical reason women shouldn’t work outside the home, it would be that
God longs for us to know actual rest, something our culture doesn’t have the
ability to give us, especially when we can so easily agree that we’re run ragged.
I’d have to argue, for the same reason, that women shouldn’t work as hard inside
the home, either. Do you know any stay-at-home moms who get much rest? I
don’t. Between PTA and carpooling and volunteering and homemaking, there’s
stress at home, too. And that’s also a cultural issue.
So as much as I’m thankful that I was not raising kids when Grandma Johnson
was whipping hers into shape (I would have been a terrible beheader of
chickens), I also regret that our culture lost our sense of balance when we shifted
from shared work and motherhood into the either/or lens of our modern society.
We’re all talk about “options” for mothers; but really there are only two: work forty-plus hours a week or don’t. I could list the problems with the choices we’re given:
too few options of flexible part-time work or work at home, the ridiculous cost
of childcare, the lame six-week required “maternity leave” that forces working
mothers to spend half their professional days pumping at the bathroom sink.
I long to find some balance between the life of the mother I need to be and the
minister I am called to be. But, whether it’s a cultural problem to be remedied
or a fact of life, whichever path a mother takes, she will bear the burden of loss.
Neither choice is easy because neither choice is whole. Both require immense
So, until some genius can tell us there’s a way to do our work like Grandma
Johnson, digging in the garden while the kids run around us, I don’t think there’s
going to be an easy answer. Being a mother is always hard. Being a Christian
mother means we get the rare calling to offer each other grace in the midst of our