The number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise in 21st-century America after decades of decrease, according to a Pew Research Center report released earlier this month.
Pew found 29 percent of today's mothers are stay-at-home moms, up from a record low of 23 percent in 1999. Some see this trend as a positive advancement in the choices women now have. Others lament the actual reason many women are staying home, forced to do so because they can't find work or afford child care.
I call myself a stay-at-home mom, and my life probably looks like what most people imagine when they hear that term. I have twin boys. I do not work outside the home. I am their primary caregiver, and the majority of my day is spent with them, unless they are sleeping. But Pew Research doesn't count me among their 29 percent. In fact, a mother who makes any income at all—like me, paid as a writer and blogger—is a "working mom" in their report.
These research classifications of stay-at-home mom and working mom, labels indicated level of pay rather than lifestyle or identity, reveal how difficult it is to divvy up motherhood. This is why the so-called Mommy Wars are so frustrating; the categories don't quite fit.
As mothers, especially as Christian mothers, it should be very clear to us why that is. We are all doing work. We all have jobs to do. As human beings who bear God's image, we were made to work. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden, he gave them work to do (Gen. 1:28). The Proverbs 31 woman, the hopelessly impossible ideal we all seem to try to emulate, was a mother who worked hard. The fact that we get paid for it or don't get paid for it is a non-issue.
And yet, we feel this ever-increasing push to make a mother's work feel valuable, to put money on it as if it were a "real" job. See the recent viral video "The Toughest Job in the World." The clip lists all the tiring tasks a mother does, in a job interview format. It successfully reminds us that yes, a mother's work is very hard work. I admit, calling it "the toughest job in the world" may fail to recognize the likewise difficult jobs of ice fishing and coal mining and other laborious tasks that seem much tougher at first glance, but the video is still effective. It points to the importance of what mothers do.
But once again, the Mommy Wars rage on. As quickly as the video emerged, so did criticism. Writing for Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams thought the video made the work of a mother seem more important than other jobs, and in turn made the domestic sphere seem like the noblest place for a woman to work.
Christians can offer a different perspective to the conversation about motherhood and work by understanding that being a mom is a job, whether she stays home or not. While some detractors say that being a mom is important, but not a job—What else can it be? Sure, moms don't get paid for what they do. Work, even work done outside the home, is not always tied to income. Christians especially should know this point, too. In plenty of churches, volunteers serve at great cost to themselves, racking up the hours of a part-time or even full-time job, without ever seeing a dime. Their work is still meaningful and valuable.
By discouraging women from seeing motherhood as a job, we segment our lives into our own false categories of work and non-work. We inevitably pit one against the other.
Separating our work from our standing as image bearers, we risk making our work the idol we bow down to. We see this in women who exhaust themselves to advance their career for their own glory and in mothers who find their hope in their children. A middle ground, where work is seen as a product of our role as image bearers of our Creator gives meaning and purpose to all work, far beyond what a paycheck could ever offer.
Christians can help shift the conversation away from who is working to how we are working. In God's economy, faithfulness is the ultimate goal, not income.
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