In Washington DC, it is only a matter of time before the kind woman standing next to me at a cocktail party will turn from talking with my husband and ask the inevitable, identity-testing, status-gauging question I have come to dread as a new and mostly stay-at-home mother…
“And what do you do?”
For blessing or curse, I live in a city and a culture that is uniquely focused on work. People come to Washington from all around the globe to make a difference in the world and while education and experience ought to matter for much of the important work done in Washington, as a professional nose-wiper working on an advanced degree in banana-mashing, this preoccupation with achievement can feel daunting nonetheless.
As a Christian, overall, I find this vocational emphasis to be deeply fulfilling. I have come to believe, as the Reformers did, that all truth is God’s truth and all work is God’s work. Yet, in my transition from a very public, marketplace vocation working for leadership on Capitol Hill to a mostly private, familial vocation as a stay-at-home mother, I have become increasingly aware of how difficult it can be to find sufficient resources, conversations, or even the vocabulary, to develop a coherent understanding and an intentional living-out of this quiet, care-giving vocation that now defines the waking and working hours of my days.
A few weeks ago I gathered around a beautifully set dinner table with a number of other mothers-some new and some sage-to explore this timeless, tenured vocation women have committed themselves to throughout human history. Admittedly, having only been a mother for five months I had the least to offer and the most to learn as I listened to the mothers of three, four and five children (even twins!) talk about the lessons, tensions, books and relationships that sustain them in their work each day. The evening was part of a series of Vocare conversations hosted by The Washington Institute and made possible by a grant from the Lilly Foundation, to bring together believers of a common vocation to discuss and learn how to better pursue their shared vocation in medicine or law or business or any number of professions, even stay-at-home motherhood. Thanks be to God.
The evening’s conversation centered around Andi Ashworth’s excellent book, Real Love for Real Life : The Art and Work of Caring, as well as a tiny treasure of a book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work ” by Kathleen Norris, a Catholic poet and novelist. Both books highlight the creative, purposeful and skillful ways stay-at-home work is both a meaningful part of God’s design and also a meaningful part of society as a whole. Yet this both/and proposition is precisely where the tension lies for so many of us mothers as we seek to hold together a sense of identity and an intentional use of our education and abilities while acknowledging the needs and limits within each season of motherhood.
Defining motherhood as a meaningful part of God’s work gives it honor. Though like any one side of a coin, it can also carry with it the implication that bearing and raising children is the only true and right way to do God’s work. The common impression within the church community that all “good women” will bear many children and proceed to raise them with a structure and intentionality that rivals Martha Stewart on speed, leads some to question their calling and perhaps, even their faithfulness. Likewise, defining motherhood solely in terms of its market value can affirm the real contributions stay-at-home mothering offers families and society, yet it can also fuel comparisons that reinforce the sense that moms aren’t doing “real work” or work that is as important as doctors or lawyers or accountants, etc. Several women around the table noted this sense of being “just” a mom or recall friends asking, “But what do you do all day?” Sensing that motherhood falls outside the realm of real work leaves many feeling pressure to find other, market-based outlets for their gifts and abilities rather than looking for unique ways to apply their education and pursue their talents in creative ways alongside or within their primary role as caregivers.
As is almost always the case, both emphases carry truths as well as falsehoods, but our challenge that evening was to find a way to hold together, and live within, the tensions of both in a way that acknowledged our common vocation as mothers, while also offering space for the unique talents and passions of every woman around the table-as artist or writer or convener or teacher or whatever the case may be. The conversation also sought to honor the various stages of motherhood. For example, one striking theme among the younger moms was the sense of having lost their identity, of not feeling purposeful or valuable and frequently questioning the ways they spend their time, whereas the mothers of older children were quick to emphasize the seasonal nature of motherhood, encouraging younger moms to recognize the limits and demands of each stage of mothering and to embrace the challenges and opportunities each new season brings.
Two women, in particular, exemplified these inherent tensions in their own observations that night. One, a 25-year-old mother of two young children who is trained as a graphic designer and has recently started taking part-time classes towards a Master of Fine Arts was frustrated by the feedback she was receiving from many of her fellow mom friends who applauded her new drawing classes as a good way for her to get a break from her kids. As she said, “When I paint it isn’t because I want more “me time” like having a latte or getting a pedicure. It isn’t therapy. It’s what I feel made to do. I am a mother, but I’m also an artist so I have to believe I am a better mother to my kids when I make time to paint even if I don’t pursue that as a career.” For her it means putting her kids down at the same nap time every afternoon, brewing a pot of coffee, eating a bite of chocolate and painting for a few hours before they wake up.
For another mother of five older children, she described an epiphany moment she had as she was frantically forcing three small, crying kids into the car for a Bible Study she felt committed to lead as a way to “stay involved.” As she described, ‘I finally realized this wasn’t worth it. My kids were miserable, I was miserable. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was insisting on this.” That night she sat down with her husband and they talked about what they wanted to be true for their family, what kind of family motto they wanted to have, what Bible verses they wanted to live by, and how to use those principles to make good decisions about their priorities and commitments. It also meant not doing Bible Study for awhile and spending that time doing activities with her kids instead.
What I love about these two stories is how they demonstrate the uniqueness of every situation, and the importance of discernment within similar-but-not-identical circumstances In both cases, these are women who have chosen to be full-time, stay-at-home moms and probably have similar commitments to drive and run errands and prepare meals each day. Yet, for my artist friend, part of her commitment to her family includes a commitment to her art. For my friend who learned to commit to principles rather than activities, faithfulness was taking a step away from the pressures of what a mother “should” be, in favor of what was good for herself and her kids for that brief season of time. Clearly there is no one “right answer” even though there are principles that matter for both.
I often find myself somewhere in between these two stories, at times fighting the urge to commit for commitment’s sake while also feeling the sense that I was made to engage certain work and relationships that may necessitate some time away from my child. For me, it has meant finding ways to bring my daughter along with me for most of the meetings and commitments I have and working with my husband and close friends to create opportunities to do work on my own when needed. For my best friend who is a tremendously gifted thinker and writer and teacher (as well as a former dancer), she has learned to protect the Monday nights when her husband is home early, to either drop-in on a dance class or to take that time to read and think and write over a cup of tea away from her home. Like my artist friend, her time away isn’t intended solely s xzas “me time,” as much as it is a way to pursue her interests and steward her gifts in ways that fall outside her natural day as a mother.
In every case there is the commonality of care-giving right alongside the uniqueness of each woman as a person. For some, their natural gifts as a teacher, administrator, chef, organizer or nurturer may align very easily with many of the roles motherhood requires. Yet, for those who, like me, have less of a natural inclination toward some of the traditional duties mothers perform (except maybe throwing birthday parties!) my desire and commitment is still to care well for my children and to find ways I can allow my gifts and strengths to shape their childhood in unique ways, even as I rely on discipline and responsibility to do the equally important tasks (i.e. cleaning) that come less naturally to me.
In this conversation, along with so many others, I come back to the things I first learned in Dr. Steve Garber’s excellent book, Fabric of Faithfulness, which argues that sustainable faith comes from having a coherent worldview, mentoring relationships, and community. As I think about motherhood as a vocation from this lens, I can see where all three are essential for women – young or old – to find peace and sustainability in what is arguably a rather chaotic enterprise.
Worldview affirms a mother’s place in God’s world, it gives her value and meaning not only for a season of babies or teenagers or empty nest, but over the whole of history. As one mother said at the table, “parenting is a culture-shaping enterprise” – an idea that is rooted in a holistic view of the world and a mom’s place in it. Additionally, finding more experienced mothers to mentor and encourage you along the way can offer hope and practical advice when sleepless nights feel overwhelming. Likewise, engaging relationships with younger or newer moms to encourage them with what you have learned or endured through your own experience is equally important. Finally, community is critical for moms, especially young moms, whose care for young children can often, by its very nature, be isolating. I find that the ability of women to meet the practical needs of fellow moms is astoundingly rare – helping scrub a bathtub after a friend’s kids have been sick, taking half a frozen lasagna to a friend whose husband is having to work long hours, calling a neighbor while you are out-and-about to see if you can grab a gallon of milk for them. And beyond practical needs, community is providing a place for women to talk with each other about their needs and limits, to talk about the unique challenges childrearing introduces in marriage, or to laugh about the sheer grossness of caring for messy little kids who vomit far too often for no good reason.
Leaving the table, I was reminded of the wonderful observation by G.K Chesterton in his book What is Wrong With The World in which he asks, ” How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
As I think about what it means to faithfully pursue my work as a mom, I hope myself and others can commit to this larger vision of our role as “culture shapers” who can hold our own beside PhDs and playwrights, lest we be tempted to think our daily occupation as nose-wipers and shuttle drivers is anything less than a grand enterprise.
Kate Harris is the former Director of Programs and Development for The Washington Institute, wife to a good man and mother of their three young children.