Heidi Bratton on the Vocation of Motherhood
As I have read the media’s recent treatment of the “children versus career” question facing many modern women, I’ve noticed that every journalist addresses the question from the woman’s point of view. Time magazine asked in a cover article: “Babies vs. Career: Which should come first for women who want both?” The Boston Globe responded with an article that asked who is happier, “professional women with children or professional women without children?” Women of every stripe are encouraged to ask, “What’s the best time, place, and situation for me to have children? How can I be a successful mom?”
Unfortunately, two fatal flaws in these questions put any Christian woman asking them in direct conflict with her faith. Let’s look at the first flaw. To ask how a woman can derive the most benefit from having a child is to put the cart before the horse; it reflects an immature understanding of Christian motherhood.
The First Flaw
The Christian worldview values the nurturing of life as not just one of many choices God wants us to balance successfully, but as the ultimate privilege he wants us to embrace faithfully, even sacrificially. Given that becoming a mother provides a woman with a unique opportunity to nurture life and that having children is the normative expectation of a Christian marriage, a woman’s first thoughts about motherhood should not be “How can I add little people to my life with as little hassle as possible?” but rather, “Dear God, what must go so that children can come?”
What does this mean in practice? Mother Teresa of Calcutta said to women:
You and I, being women, we have this tremendous thing in us, understanding love. I see that so beautifully in our people, in our poor women, who day after day, meet suffering, accept suffering for the sake of their children. I have seen mothers going without so many things, even resorting to begging, so that the children may have what they need.
The mothers of India demonstrate their practical willingness to put their children’s needs above their own by their self-sacrificing actions, even to the point of begging. Where is this willingness in our society? As evidenced by the Time and Boston Globe articles, it seems to be lost.
American children are not starving for food, but they are starving for a more generous portion of their mothers’ presence in their lives. Instead of accepting personal sacrifice for the sake of their children, as do mothers in India, American mothers spend their energy debating how to have both a career and kids without missing a beat. It is tragic. Caught on this success-based, me-centered merry-go-round, mothers abandon six-week-old infants to virtual strangers at mercenary daycare centers. They put their school-aged children in before- and after-care programs that have the kids eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school. Mothers leave kids just approaching their teens to be unsupervised latchkey kids.
None of these solutions will work in the long run, because they do not nurture life. Working Mother, a magazine that is ironically dedicated to helping mothers stay in the workplace, proved the point in its presentation of an independent child-care report called “Who’s Watching the Kids?” The report concluded that the overall quality of childcare in the nation is “unacceptable.” The adult-to-child ratios in child-care centers were such that “teachers are so busy feeding, changing, and cleaning the children that there is no time for chitchat—no time for human interaction that is just as important to a child as being fed.”
Because only a mother can provide the care her child really needs, a Christian woman should not attempt the split-focus pretense of pursuing a full-time career and being the best possible mom at the same time. The care of children is an issue of critical importance that our society has not been willing to address in a manner that keeps children’s welfare as the top priority, not mothers’ convenience or employers’ ease. The reason? Our success-obsessed society is asking its childcare questions not only in the wrong order (mother first, child second), but also from the wrong point of view.
The Second Flaw
The second faith-grating flaw in the questions asked by Time and the Boston Globe (and all they represent) lies in asking the questions from the adult point of view. This also puts the cart before the horse and reflects an immature understanding of Christian motherhood. If one could poll the youngsters, not the adults, one would find that they want their mothers, not a string of caregivers or yet another fun and educational summer camp.
So, what if Christian mothers were willing to ask the bottles-versus-briefcases question from a child’s-eye view? What if, instead of trying to milk even more dollars from employers and the government—which is Working Mother’s answer to the problems identified by their report—believers in Christ were to admit that childrearing is a time-intensive vocation that is best done by parents, not a loose patchwork of paid caregivers? What if believers were to stop pushing for subsidized daycare programs and start pushing for active mothering (and fathering)?
The immediate result of such a flipping of priorities and reversing of perspectives would be that a Christian mom would come into direct conflict with her peers, but into complete peace with her faith. St. Paul’s words pierce the heart of the matter in Romans 12:1–2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers [and sisters], in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
As a Christian, I am called to be different. I am called to ask what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God for my life, not what works best for me. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa put it this way, “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.”
Does this mean that a Christian woman cannot juggle, balance, and swing it all? No. It means that she can be the best possible mother, be a faithful mom, without becoming a circus act! All she needs to do is instate Jesus and the model of his life into the center ring. Jesus, “the Son of Man, did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). He did what was best for those in his care, not for himself. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He unsettled people with sound-bites like, “The last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16), and “The greatest among you will be your servant” (23:11). Jesus equated “success” with single-minded servanthood, love, and the sacrificial nurturing of life, not with split-focus juggling acts.
Once Christian women are willing to stand apart and respond to God (not Time magazine) by embracing the privilege of nurturing life through motherhood, the solutions to the career-versus-kids dilemma will look very different. The debates and wrestling matches over childcare will be over. Moms will take care of their babies. There will be an open admission of the fact that most American mothers do not really need to work to provide for the basic human needs of their children.
Once mothers embrace a truly Christian worldview regarding the importance of mothering, even in situations where there is a true financial need for them to work outside the home, they will choose to retain as much responsibility as possible for the primary care-giving of their children. What might this look like on a personal level? For one mother, the necessary sacrifice may be learning to live on a single income or putting off childbearing until she and her husband are financially stable. For another mother, it may be learning to work at odd hours while the children are sleeping or at school.
On a national scale, the embrace of motherhood would mean policies and programs that would demonstrate that America is committed to her children and her families. Dana Mack describes several government initiatives in her book, Assault on Parenthood, that “insist that strong, healthy families are integral to a strong, healthy society that has children’s well-being at heart.”
One idea jumped off the pages of her book at me, a good, common-sense policy with an established precedent: “Government might also require employers to institute preference-in-hiring policies for parents who are returning to work after a hiatus for child-rearing—the same sort of preference-in-hiring arrangement, indeed, given to veterans who have interrupted participation in the labor force to serve in the armed forces.”
That is a beautiful concept! America has validated the importance of the work of those who defend her from outside military threats by instituting preference-in-hiring policies for them when they return from military duty. Can she validate the importance of defending the family, the very foundation of civilization, by instituting preference-in-hiring policies for women (and men) who “interrupt participation in the labor force” to serve as parents?
This is the best policy idea I have heard to date. It creates a cultural environment that puts first things first and encourages mothers to nurture their own children personally. By underscoring the idea that family and work are not mutually exclusive because they do not have to be accomplished at the same time, such a policy would free mothers to fulfill personal ambitions outside the home when they and their children are ready.
The bottom line, from the child’s-eye view? Childrearing is a time-intensive calling, and loving parents who profess faith in Jesus Christ cannot raise their children by remote control. It is time to listen to Mother Teresa, who said, “It’s not what you do but how much love you put into it.” It is time to follow Jesus’ model, and get off the career-versus-kids merry-go-round and start loving our children enough to be there for them. It is time to become soldiers on the home front, showing that we believe our children to be blessings, not burdens, by fighting for more time to spend with them instead of trying to find better places to stash them.
Heidi Bratton is the author of Making Peace with Motherhood . . . and Creating a Better You (Paulist Press). She has written and/or photo-illustrated 11 Christian children’s books. Heidi and her husband John home school their five young children and are parishioners at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church on Cape Cod. “Who’s Watching the Children” appeared in the April 2002 issue of Working Mother.
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