It was the first of ten small group conversations I hosted as research for my book. Within the first hour, over finger foods and wine served in a lovely home in north Austin, there were tears.
One of the women, Chelsea, had landed a prestigious job working for a state senator. But she shyly admitted to the group that she was more drawn to the work her friend is doing: raising and homeschooling children. “This is an area where I could bring my intelligence, my care, my desire to become a mom spiritually,” said Chelsea, then single. Yet, “if I do that, it’s not enough. It’s this crazy Proverbs 31 pressure, that I’m not an accomplished professional woman.”
Shortly after, another woman started tearing up. An Anglican priest and the mother of two children, Tish admitted that working outside the home was something she couldn’t not do. “I so wish I were content with just being at home, in terms of simply being at home,” she said. “There are people who have these preternatural spiritual gifts of mothering, and I don’t have them.” Her wiring and passions drew her to work beyond mothering—and this brought some shame.
After that first tear-laced conversation, I realized that I couldn’t write a book on women’s work without writing about motherhood. Based on the group conversations I had in 2014 and 2015—all together attended by more than 120 women—I saw that the choice to have children profoundly shapes women’s bodies (literally), schedules, political views, relationships, spirituality, and identity.
And because the choices about parenting are so personal, and because the stakes so often seem so high, many women feel the need to defend their choices against others’ perceived judgment. And the more choices women have for integrating the dual calls to caretaking and to career life, the greater the insecurity over whether they are making the right choice.
Hi. Welcome to the Mommy Wars. I don’t have children (something that has been noted online recently). Yet even I have taken a few hits in a battle that touches everything from class, education, theology, and gluten consumption. In Christian circles, where we try to maintain a base level of kindness, we are more likely to engage in the wars as a passive-aggressive skirmish, with statements like:
- I just don’t know how you do it. It would be so hard for me to be away from my kids.
- I just don’t know how you do it. I would get so bored at home.
- I just knew I couldn’t miss a day of my kids’ lives.
- I just knew that God didn’t want me to waste my education and skills inside the home.
But in my research, I learned that what Christian mothers share in common far transcends what keeps them apart. And in a moment of US history when political and cultural divisions run deeper than perhaps ever, unity on what matters most offers a gospel witness. If Christ has “made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2), then surely he has united the breast-feeders and the bottle-feeders, the career professionals and the caretakers. So in the spirit of the unity that mothers already have in Christ, let’s remember what holds us together. In the course of research, I learned there are at least five things all mothers—working moms, stay-at-home moms, and every mom in between—agree on.
1. We love our children fiercely. The choice to work outside the home or inside the home is not a choice based on varying levels of love. Every mother I met is making the best decisions she humanly can for her children, and each family has a unique economy of needs, pressures, and callings. And many mothers don’t have a choice at all, needing to work to make financial ends meet. While love is going to look different based on that economy, love is the animating drive. Instead of holding each other in suspicion, let’s assume that other women are motivated by the same love for their children as we are for ours.
2. We find the “working mom” / “stay at home mom” language limited. Moms agree: These tired labels just don’t describe our daily life. Follow a woman caring for small children for a day, and you’ll witness mental, emotional, and physical labor that rivals that of some corporate executives. Follow a professionally oriented mom around for a day, and you’ll witness her often doing as much cleaning and caretaking at home as her full-time stay-at-home peers (in a phenomenon Arlie Hochschild called the “second shift”). All moms work; let’s find language to acknowledge this, whether or not a paycheck is attached.
3. We all have given up something. As Anne-Marie Slaughter declared in her 2012 Atlantic essay, women still can’t have it all, for reasons both personal and political. Love means sacrifice, and whatever choices a woman makes about her profession and her parenting, she will give up something. Leaving the workforce is hard. Leaving the house is hard. Working out a part-time arrangement is hard. It’s all hard. Instead of subtly shaming each other for making the “wrong” sacrifice, let’s encourage one another as we mourn losses as well as seek God’s goodness.
4. We all have been hurt on social media. Oh great—another article on Facebook that “proves” that attachment parenting, or vaccines, or homeschooling, or public schooling, or spanking, or vegan baby food is “best” for “all children everywhere.” Or the Instagram photo of the nonprofit leader with perfectly coiffed hair traipsing across Rwanda with a baby slung across her back. Or the comments sections. We all have found our social media feeds minefields of mommy judgment, places where the women we worship with on Sundays so quickly become our ideological enemies. Let’s all be aware of how our words and images affect the flesh-and-blood women in our communities. Our words can curse, but they can also heal.
5. We all need grace. During a group discussion in San Francisco, writer Bronwyn Lea confessed that her first year of motherhood had been “brutal to [my] sense of identity.” Because it was her primary task that year, she approached it like she would any job: researching meticulously to find the “best” way of mothering. It took “buckets and buckets of grace” from friends at church for Lea to come to peace with her parenting decisions. “Anybody who is trying to attach their identity to performance as a parent is setting themselves up for tons of tears,” she said. “There are no gold stars.”
How we wish there were gold stars—tangible markers of success in the crucial work of raising our children. Yet often the only performance review we get in a day is a shirt covered in milky spit-up—or a nagging guilt as we pull into the driveway after a day of work. In the midst of our fears, foibles, and outright failures, Christ’s grace is more than enough; it’s sufficient. His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead of boasting in our own choices as mothers and as women, let’s rely on his grace—and each other—to face another day.
Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and co-founder of Her.meneutics. Her book, A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World, is now out from Howard / Simon & Schuster.