Is it okay to be just a mom?
We are conditioned to believe that being a powerful and impressive superwoman in every area of life is the ultimate goal. But what if you feel called to be primarily a mother? What if you feel like that is what you were made for?
The overlooked reality is that no one is “just a mom.” A mother may be a wife, daughter, sister, friend, church member, church leader, homemaker, missionary, educator, volunteer, listening ear, helping hand, reader, learner, thinker, artist, author, musician, mentor, language-learner, server of those in need, etc.
She may excel in determination, integrity, sacrificial love, intelligence, selflessness, humility, quick-wittedness, and a nurturing heart. Whether in paid roles or not, within the home or outside it, the possibilities for her love and wisdom to change lives are vast.
But I know what the question is really about: Is it okay if I primarily invest my time and talents in the raising of my children? Is that a good enough use of my education and skills? Is it enough for God?
An important note before I go any further: This essay cannot cover every person, every situation, every possibility. I previously wrote about how our work and ambition glorify God in “Holy Ambition” and how “having it all” is not any Christian’s highest goal in “Can Women Have It All?”
This discussion is not about how much a mother should work outside the home, nor is it meant to demean anyone in any life situation. I am championing the calling of deeply investing in our children for the sake of God’s kingdom. I am honing in here on the mothers who choose to make mothering their primary job, although it is disdained in our culture. This is for the mother who longs to center her work on her family and wonders somewhere in her heart if that is enough.
If the outcome of raising children is not majorly significant; if the investment of parents is not overly important and can easily be simulated; if parenthood is a bottom-rung job requiring little skill; then perhaps it is a waste of an empowered woman’s education and gifts to stay home with her family.
But what if raising children is a fundamental and vital commission in the advancement of God’s kingdom?
Historical norms and new ideals
In pre-industrial societies in the West, the distinction between work and home was much less defined. These days we may “bring work home,” but for many people in the past “work” was already in the home; the happenings of the home were the very definition of work. Labor revolved around making a home and providing for the family; the farm animals slept in the house; the family shop was the first floor or front section of the family home. Everyone, including children, participated in the life and growth and sustenance of the family. Generally speaking, neither men nor women “worked outside the home” in the modern sense.
This was not all a flowery ideal; many people worked under others in near-slavery conditions, and even for those fortunate enough to have a degree of autonomy, life was harsh and often stayed at the level of subsistence. Whether pre- or post-industrial, some people were actually slaves, so their work did not benefit themselves and their families could be brutally ripped apart against their will.
Industrialization initiated the increase of production outside the home realm, with cities exploding as people flocked there for greater earning potential and stability. This was as drastic a shift for human society as the shift from nomadic life to agriculture, and we are still undergoing and understanding these monumental changes; the whole system is still in flux for men, women, and children alike. Now there are often two dichotomous worlds, that of the home and that of the job, and enormous pressure for us to prioritize the work world over the home world.
Because of the newness of this way of life, we are still in the infancy of asking and answering important questions about what this means for us as humans. What ideas have we accepted about work and the family that need to be reexamined? Is the pressure that industrialization has put on the family a neutral thing? What does human flourishing look like? What is the Good that we should pursue? Can we do work and family in a way that honors God and doesn’t deprive women or men of who we can and should be? These are weighty, ultimate questions that bleed into the everyday questions: How do I spend my time on a day-to-day basis? What do I do with my children? Where do I invest my energy?
I bring up this brief historical perspective not to glorify the past or try to reproduce it, but because I want us to think more critically about the views we have absorbed from the current cultural air. Why do we define work almost exclusively as a paid job separate from home life, and worship it absolutely? This is a very new cultural construct.
Of course I am thankful for the many people who work hard in their careers to contribute to society. Most jobs will be outside the home by necessity, and I appreciate the benefits of modernization. I ask these questions to unmask the unspoken but unyielding ideals that drive our choices.
Why is the sacrificial, creative, ceaseless work of a stay-at-home mother called “not working”? We are very confused.
The call of motherhood
I do not want to be like the servant in Jesus’ parable who was given one talent (an enormous sum of money) and buried it to keep it safe instead of investing it for his master’s gain. The master was pleased with the servants who invested their trust responsibly and doubled his wealth, but he reproached the first servant and took away even what he had (Matt 25:14-30).
Is being primarily a stay-at-home mother a good enough steward of God’s gifts?
You cannot read the Bible seriously and escape the vital importance of raising up the next generation to know and walk with God:
"We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments..." (Psalm 78:4-7a)
In addition to the obvious fact that we need people investing in children in order to have a next generation, we must intentionally teach and train our children to know and delight in God and his ways. The Bible does not relegate this work to people who are not skilled enough to secure impressive jobs. It is seen as a central work of the people of God; when left unfulfilled, his people as a whole flounder and turn away from him.
We parents are the first line of disciplers for our children, by our modeling and explicit instruction. Our children will also be loved and mentored by many other people throughout their childhood (and adulthood), and that is wonderful and essential. But the responsibility for their spiritual and holistic guidance into adulthood ultimately rests on us parents.
In a stirring and daunting charge, God’s people are instructed to make growing ourselves as disciples and discipling our children a part of everyday life, all the time. It is a comprehensive lifestyle.
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
Negatively, we see a mammoth example in the life of King David of what happens when you do not train up your children. There is a gulf of difference between parenting practices of ancient near eastern kings and ours today (unless you happen to be very old-fashioned royalty), but the Biblical author repeatedly points out how his sons were never disciplined for egregious sin, never questioned when doing whatever they wanted: “His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:6a). Three of his sons committed serious offenses against their siblings or father and were killed as a result.
The all-encompassing nature of the nurture, discipleship, and education (thanks to Clay Clarkson for these categories) of our children requires the skills and character we have gained in our education and life experience. And even more so, through parenting we will gain skills and character like never before. God sanctifies us in astounding ways through parenthood.
The diligent, creative, loving management of a home is more comprehensive than any other management job; we absolutely need to be talented in our character and perseverance. And whatever specialized skills we bring to the job will bless our families and our homes: our artistry, our medical training, our communication skills, our theological knowledge, our math and science expertise, our musical ability, our organizational skills, and so on.
We will make our homes better places for flourishing. We will ignite our children’s passions and curiosity. We will have conversations with people in our spheres of influence that enrich and challenge their thinking and living.
It cannot utterly fail
Of course, we cannot ensure that our children will follow Christ, even if we were perfect in every way (and we are not even close). But our Spirit-empowered work of raising our children to know and love the Lord cannot be worthless, cannot utterly fail, even if our child chooses to turn away from God. Faithfulness to Christ is itself success, and it is eternally valuable.
But even a wayward child is blessedly limited by their upbringing, as David Mills (“Enchanting Children”, Touchstone) explains:
"Even if he insists on losing his faith, it limits the sort of faith he will adopt instead.… It directs what charity he exercises.
"'[A]s we were driving through Sag Harbor just now,' wrote the lapsed Catholic writer Wilfrid Sheed, 'I saw three hopelessly fat, plain girls, who by the sound of it were also stupid, and I thought a certain pagan friend of mine might say, "Why do these fat, ugly people marry and procreate and produce such hideous children?" And I thought, No Catholic could ever say that. Nobody is altogether worthless to us.'
"There you have a man who, though he had lost his faith, was still governed in this matter by the Christian imagination he had gained in childhood…. Hence the need to form our children’s imaginations, to counter what the culture and our failings both teach them."
Our work as parents continues in some capacity, certainly in prayer, for the rest of our lives. Parents of those shunning the narrow path know this well, as they pray and plead and hope for the truest freedom for their children.
Just a season
“This is just a season.” The kids won’t be young forever, and when they leave the house, or really as they gradually assume more responsibility and self-discipline, daily life will be radically different. Motherhood with children at home, especially little ones, is a season. I have heard this from very encouraging older mothers trying to help us younger mothers see that some present hardship will pass.
But sometimes people mean something more like, “This is only a season, and then I can get back to my real life.” But what is real life? C.S. Lewis’ brilliance does not fail us: “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life -- the life God is sending one day by day.” (Not that parenthood itself is an “unpleasant thing,” but it does involve a few of them, as does any job.)
No one misses diapers and tantrums, and I know very well the delirious anticipation of bedtime after a tiring day. I’m not criticizing the battle-weary mother who longs for a bit of rest. I just want to avoid the attitude of anxiously staring out the window waiting for a different time, forgoing the wealth of possibilities right in front of us. Why are we so quick to mean, “It’s just a season, you’ll get past it,” and rarely, “It’s just a season, so let’s thank God for the joy and sanctification he is working in us that I never imagined beforehand”?
In a way, “just a season” means this precious time is a gift from God and should be used and enjoyed to the fullest. In another way, it means that one day the things we have set aside or pulled back from in the midst of hands-on motherhood will once more be ready for us to explore and pursue.
What will I lose? What will we gain?
But what about my career? What will I lose if I pause or slow down my career during my children’s time at home? What will I lose if I wait to start ramping up my career or my education? Is it worth it?
Let’s not forget the other side of those questions and the other people involved. Our culture forgets these, which is very telling; questions point us in a direction. The questions the world asks lead us on toward specific conclusions.
What will we gain if I have a close and vibrant relationship with my children that endures through their childhood into adulthood? What will we gain if my investment overflows in a return of children who love the Lord with all their hearts and spend their lives serving him? What will we gain by training our children for the task of raising up their own children, so that the mission of making disciples who make disciples is embedded in our family life? What will I gain for eternity, and even now in sanctification and joy, by loving and serving these eternal souls that God has entrusted to me?
It is worth it.
Joy and love
Amy Carmichael, lifelong missionary to India and spiritual mother to over a thousand orphans and rescued children, unfolds the truth of humble love in her description of turning from the work of evangelism tours and conventions to care for children:
"Could it be right to turn from so much that might be of profit and become just nursemaids? 'Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He was come from God and went to God; He riseth from supper and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded Himself.' He took a towel—The Lord of Glory did that. Is it the bondservant’s business to say which work is large and which is small, which unimportant and which worth doing? The question answered itself, and was not asked again. It was a foolish question, for the Master never wastes the servant’s time.
"Children tie the mother’s feet, the Tamils say, and Bishop Paget said, “With the venture of faith there is need of self-discipline and of effort.” Babies are truly a venture of faith and, in India at least, they tie the mother’s feet. … We could not be too careful of our children’s earliest years. So we let our feet be tied for love of Him whose feet were pierced." (Gold Cord)
John Piper says that “love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others” (The Dangerous Duty of Delight). Being a mother advances God’s kingdom by bringing forth a new generation of people who know and treasure the Lord God and overflow this joy into the world in the form of loving service.