As usual when I bring up my dissatisfaction with being solely a Stay-At-Home-Mom, I get a variety of responses, from encouragement to pursue a career and fulfill my own dreams at whatever cost to the polar opposite philosophy that a Christian woman has no business doing anything outside the home at all and ought to be happy and content filling her role as a wife and mother.
I'd like to clarify a few of my own thoughts on this issue; like anything that matters it's complex and the conclusions drawn by each person vary widely. Disagreements seem inevitable; even on the interpretation of scripture within a similarly-believing group of women the variations are enormous. So these are only my thoughts for my own life. I'm not preaching a sermon here or telling anyone how they ought to be living. I'd love to hear reader comments, but please don't be offended or flame me since I am judging no one's life but my own.
Feminism and the Mother
Here's my first shot of controversial fireworks. I think Feminism actually has done a lot of good for this country. In my view, although the traditional nuclear family presented in the 1950's looked flawless on paper, it didn't play out quite as well in real life.
In general women held the role of second-class citizens. Mothers warned their daughters, "Don't be smarter than the boys. They don't like that." They were expected to be expert maids, nannies, laundresses, dishwashers, cooks, tutors, seamstresses, decorative sex objects and organizers for their families but for the political or academic nature of things, they were told "not to worry their pretty little heads." Women were often put on a pedestal of virtue, trained to exhibit a high level of self-control and never to reveal any inner feelings or inclinations apart from her expected narrow role.
I've heard the statistic of today's high divorce rate cited time and again as a proof of the failure of Feminism, the eroding of morality and the Family in our country by the militant Feminist movement and the cultural norm that sends young women the message that it's all right to abandon their families in order to try to achieve their dreams or worse, that they have a new masculine responsibility to contribute financially to a family's well-being they ought never to have to assume.
In some cases I suppose these gender-reversal errors occur and the few times they do happen are enough to send Christians to their prayer closets in a tizzy, weeping for the moral decay of their nation. Realistically, from a God's-eye view, I imagine the perspective is a little different. God hates divorce and has stated this clearly in the bible. But God was also able to see every one of the hidden dysfunctional crimes committed in secret back when women belonged to their husbands and could not leave them, the abuse, the neglect, the harassment. God could see the Priests and Pastors who told these women that they had no choice but to stay married; that to leave a husband, even a dangerous, threatening one was akin to adultery and would brand her forever with the Scarlet Letter in society's eyes.
How much have we really declined in encouraging women to speak out? In bringing skeletons out of our country's closets do we really represent a decline or is it possibly more of a cleansing, a bringing the dross to the top where it may be skimmed and purged. Only God knows.
I do know that the second-class woman of a century ago is not the Biblical ideal for the female God intended. Nor is the insecure, chauvinist man who needs to keep others in their assigned places below himself the representation of Christ that a Christian man ought to be.
Feminism certainly has its problems, like any new movement, but overall I appreciate living today where I as a women have at least a fair chance of being treated as a human being rather than a living poster of Betty Crocker. Still, it confuses the lines of what it looks like to be a Mother in today's culture. Rather than debate the ethics of staying home versus working, I'd like to retreat one step farther and look at the Biblical role of a Mother and Woman and explore what it means to be female. Only when those roles have been established is a solid guideline given for proper expression in daily choices such as choosing a career.
The Proverbs 31 Woman
I've told my husband, poor guy, that if I hear one more sermon or women's Bible Study on the Proverbs 31 Woman I am going to scream. Feminine behavior, it seems, gets driven into the ground using old King Lemuel's "Virtuous Woman", usually by men who have no idea what it's like to walk a mile in spiked heels, if you get my drift.
It's been used both as a crowbar to force women into the size-4 mold of Victorian virtue and as a rallying cry by frustrated women who insist that it's not actually unfeminine to own land, to make decisions or to enjoy higher math. I've even heard it taken so far as to teach women that to be a "good" Christian wife, you have to keep a garden.
To me the Proverbs 31 Woman isn't so much about specifics as it is about doing your best with what you have. If every woman was supposed to own land, then those who have no money or head for math would be out of luck. If every woman was supposed to garden, then ladies with brown thumbs like myself would never please God. Instead, the message seems to me to be this: If you have a garden, garden well. If you buy land, use wisdom. If you sell cloth, get a good price and use upright business practices. If you care for children, care for them well.
Servanthood and the New Testament Mother and Wife
I have asked myself over and over what it really looks like to live a life devoted to Christ. Everyone will tell you his or her version of it and it's possible that it looks different for every person. At some point in the discussion, however, the idea of servanthood always comes up. To be like Christ is to serve those around you rather than yourself. But this again looks different to different people. Some insist that you need to be fulfilled as a person in order to give your best to anyone else. A burned-out mother is not the best mother she can be. To a point, this makes sense. Others point out that only with abject self-sacrifice can servanthood truly be reached. Christ increasing and us decreasing means exactly that: us decreasing in every way, pouring our lives out like water from a clay pot. The other camp reminds us that there needs to be something there to pour and a dry pot can't give water to thirsty people. Some say this fulfillment comes from God alone, gleaned from precious moments of quiet time while others say it actually comes from ministry and service, the more we pour, the more satisfied we are and the more we have to pour.
While such discourse may be interesting, it still doesn't answer the questions: "Should I only stay home or may I have a career?" or "If I must have a career/job am I out of God's will?"
To me the answer lies back in the Bible and like the previous section it comes from looking at the heart rather than the circumstances. What does the Bible really say about being feminine? What does a good Mother really do?
Paul's letters speak at length about how a functional family is supposed to work and the role of each participant. But he is intentionally vague on the nuts-and-bolts, which makes his instruction both timeless and a bit frustrating. A wife is supposed to support and respect her husband. Does this mean she is to cook him a good dinner every day and keep his house clean or does it mean she needs to affirm him in his job? I say it depends on the husband. A chef might not need or want his wife to cook dinner, for instance. I think the issue goes deeper than steak and potatoes. God wants a wife to see her husband as worthy of her respect. She is to relate to him as a person who deserves her highest praise, whose shortcomings don't result in emotional castigation but who is becoming every day more of the godly man he is supposed to be. I think the way that plays out could take a hundred different forms and still be right. The woman who thinks her husband is a total idiot, who makes decisions for the family over his head, who treats him rudely or selfishly is the one out of God's will, not the woman who gets take-out after a long day.
A mother too is not necessarily the woman who stays at home following her children around waiting on them hand and foot. A good mother takes responsibility for her children and nurtures them in the creative footsteps of a God who nurtured the word into being. She makes sure they are well fed and clothed, that they are taught the things they need in order to relate to others and God and that they are set on a path to take responsibility for their own lives. Some mothers do these tasks herself; others delegate them, but the point is that they get done.
Biblical Culture: Extended Family and Wet-Nurses
To continue the thought from the previous section, I don't see how delegating motherly tasks makes a mother less in God's eyes. In the culture of the patriarchs, a mother was surrounded by helpers. Maids, nurses, grandmothers and siblings all lives together under one roof (or tent) and shared the task of caring for children and household. It is only in our egalitarian American pride that we insist mothers cannot be good mothers unless they do it all alone. It's okay to ask for help, as long as the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the child entrusted to the mother's care is not compromised or abdicated.
With this in mind I don't see how it's possible to preach either for or against being a Stay-At-Home-Mom. The Bible is full of career women, from Deborah the judge to Lydia, the seller of purple cloth in Acts. God also strongly teaches servanthood and responsibility for your family.
Man Looketh on the Outward Appearance
Ultimately I see it as a heart issue. A woman who feels called by God to a certain career should obey the call and God will provide her a way to make sure her family receives the nurturing they require, whether providing her with extra strength or with help, it will work. If a woman is called to provide that care herself then she should do it with a glad heart and work unto the Lord. That is where I find myself right now.
The thing that I don't like to see is people who take a single situation and insist it's the only way to live a righteous life. Women, as well as men, ought to examine their hearts. An honest appraisal of motives and an invitation for the Holy Spirit to examine her heart will bring out telling results. A woman who stays home through laziness or timidity may be less in God's will than someone who works a career with joy, takes care to ensure that her family is well-cared for and who trusts God with all of her heart. Conversely, a woman may be stepping on the heads of her children to attain worldly success instead of giving up her own desires to care for her family. It depends on the heart, like most things in Christ's kingdom.
The decision to work or stay home rests between a woman, her family and God. Both choices are fraught with danger, spiritual and natural and both open a woman up to criticism. But to return to the Feminist's empowerment of women, it's actually a very powerful woman who can stand up to the opinions of those she respects and do what she knows God has called her to do. The responsibility and blame rests not on her husband's shoulders, not on a pastor's shoulders, but on the slender feminine shoulders of the woman herself as God created her to be, an independent, free-thinking woman who has chosen herself to be the woman who is strong enough to serve those around her in whichever way God has gifted and called her.