My current favorite book on motherhood is Learn How To Be A Mom, or, I should say, Lern Haw To Be A Mom.
It suddenly appeared by my side one day, printed with permanent marker on folded half-sheets of blue construction paper. The author had discreetly delivered it, sneaking away so I could enjoy the surprise gift on my own. The first two pages read,
a Mom has to Bee Brave.
She takes car of her child and She Loves God.
She Prasis God. Prasis God By her job.
I have thought often of the precious truth God reminded me through the words of my six-year old– that it takes courage to be a mom, that a mom “praises God by her job.” And I am blown away by her childlike grasp of what it has taken me years to learn– that my everyday vocation of caring for my children brings glory to God.
I’ve wanted to be a full-time mom for as long as I can remember. Growing up as an Asian-American on the East Coast, I didn’t have a cultural precedent for it. One college friend told me I was the first person she ever met who aspired to being a stay-at-home mom. But my mom was a homemaker for much of my life and seeing her example and impact, I wanted to follow suit.
After graduating from college, I spent some time as a staff worker in a campus ministry. Later, after some graduate work, I was married and a year later, gave birth to our daughter. Thankful to have the means to stay at home with our newborn, I settled into what had always been my dream job. Even during the exhausting early days, I would often well up with tears, overwhelmed with gratitude for the privilege of being mommy to our sweet baby girl.
It took about 8 months before the guilt started to hit.
Theologically, I knew all of life was meant for God’s glory and up until then, it had been pretty easy for me to see how my work glorified God. As a student, I felt I was getting ready for a career where I could serve God. In student ministry, I was obeying God doing spiritual work— evangelism, discipleship, and missions. Now my days were filled with nursing, diapers, playing, and other baby-related things, all blessings I genuinely enjoyed. But I had no categories for what it meant to do them as a Christian. So daily, I wrestled with my choice to be in the home.
As horrible as it sounds, I could not see the worth of my work as a mom. Though I grew up highly valuing my mother’s work, my theology could not adequately explain why it mattered to God. I wasn’t doing anything for my daughter, it seemed, that anyone else couldn’t be asked to do. I wasn’t earning income to support my family and I had to scale back in serving at church because of the baby’s needs. The only time I felt productive or justified in my use of time was when I could point to explicitly spiritual work I did in the context of relationships or ministry.
In my heart, I knew my work was important, but because I didn’t have a framework for explaining why, the fog of guilt followed me most days. Was I being unproductive by choosing to be a stay-at-home mom? Was the solution to try to squeeze in more work at church or use my new membership in the parenting club as an opportunity for relational evangelism? How could I justify my choice to be a stay-at-home mom when I could be working a job or doing more ministry?
Justifying A Mom’s Work
There are two main ways I have heard people talk about the importance of the work of homemakers and moms. There are those who list out all the money moms save by calculating the combined salaries of nannies, chefs, maids, chauffeurs, etc. Others talk about the work of discipleship, referring to stories about mothers of famous Christians. Raise your child well, they seemed to say, and you are changing the world through the next generation. The first group uses the cultural measure of wealth to grant worth to the work of a mom. The second uses the culturally Christian measures of conversions and positive social change.
It is good to know that even economists see value in the work of stay-at-home moms. And it is certainly a holy privilege to disciple our children with hope they will impact the world. But both lines of reasoning seemed incomplete at best. Neither explained how it brought glory to God for me to do the physical, earth-bound task of caring for my child— the activities making up most of my days. Both seemed to rely on faulty reasoning. One, that money was the ultimate measure of productivity, the other, that children matter because of what they will one day accomplish.
What I needed to correct the dissonance between my convictions about the importance of stay-at-home moms and my guilt came from an unexpected place. I found the answer not in resources about motherhood, but blogs and books about work. The paradigm-shifting correction came in the form of the Protestant doctrine of vocation.
The Reformers And Vocation
During the middle ages, religious professions were considered more meritorious than secular ones. The work of a monk, for example, was considered a special, spiritual calling, over and above a farmer or laborer. But for the Reformers, one implication of Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” was the demolition of a hierarchy of vocations ( “callings”). If all believers are part of God’s kingdom of priests, they reasoned, then whether monk or a laborer, a Christian represents God in his profession.
Luther described our different vocations as “masks” of God behind which God works in the world. Gene Veith in his book God at Work, which I read hungrily as a new mom, writes: “God expresses His love as He provides for His created order, and He calls human beings into the process.” Work is valuable because it is God’s ordained means through which he provides and cares for creation.
When saying Christians are God’s representatives in their vocations, the Reformers were not envisioning using secular work as a mere platform for doing church-related activities (e.g. workplace evangelism). Biblical Christianity does not pit the spiritual world over and against the material because God’s plan for creation, redemption, and consummation is for both spiritual and material. Rather, the Reformers understood Adam and Eve’s pre-fall commission to work as divinely mandated and good. Therefore, they valued work as an act of obedience in cultivating the earth, not as a necessary evil or means to support more worthwhile spiritual work.
According to Luther, a Christian’s vocation is the means by which he fulfills the second greatest commandment— to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Reformers insisted God is glorified in our vocations not because he is the beneficiary of our good works, but because it pleases him when we love others and care for his world. This means that whether we are bakers, artists, truck drivers, teachers, farmers, or moms, our work matters to God.
What This Means For Us
The doctrine of vocation exposed the sacred-secular divide I unknowingly carried into my new role as a first-time mom. A corrected theology of work transformed the way I understood motherhood and the Christian life as a whole, enabling me to see the worth of what I do and freeing me to serve with joy.
Moms (and dads!), here are a few implications of what the doctrine of vocation means for our everyday work of parenting.
1. Moms and dads, your work glorifies God because he uses means.
More than a few times, exhausted, I’ve looked back at my day and consoled myself, thinking, “Well, I kept my kids alive— that counts for something doesn’t it?” Of course I say that in jest, and ideally, we would aim for more than survival. Still, keeping our kids alive and thriving is no easy task. It is exhausting and ordinary work; it is exceedingly important. You only need to consider the heartbreaking effects of neglect on children to understand the importance of providing what you see as basic, routine care.
In the everyday grind, it is easy to wonder about the worth of the mundane tasks we spend most of our energy on.This is where it is helpful to remember the “masks” of God. Have you ever considered that God is answering your prayers for your children through your work at home? He is feeding them their daily bread through you. (Sometimes quite literally as you take care of your pregnant body or nurse a baby.) He is answering prayers for health and protection as you clothe them, buckle them in safely, and keep them from running into busy streets. He is growing their relationship with him through your prayers and instruction. He is shaping their minds as you speak with and read to them.
The doctrine of vocation says as you serve your children, God is working through you. Your work glorifies God’s because you are acting as his hands in the life of your child, whether you are folding the laundry or opening the Scriptures.
2. Moms and dads, your work glorifies God because you are loving your neighbor.
As Christian parents, more than anything else we want our children to love and follow Jesus. We want them to seek him, serve him, and live for his Kingdom. But this doesn’t mean everything else we do for them is less precious to God.
The everyday, earthbound things you do are not given meaning by making them subservient to the explicitly “spiritual.” We don’t feed our kids so they can be missionaries one day. The fruit of your children’s future good works is not the only, or even main, reason your work glorifies God. The things you do to serve your children matter right now because as you love them, you are fulfilling the second greatest commandment. You are loving your colicky, fussy, little neighbor as yourself.
We feed, change, and hold our children because we love them. We cook, clean, and chauffeur for them because we love them. We teach and disciple them because we love them. We pray they’d be willing to go to the ends of the earth for the sake of the Gospel because we love them.
3. Moms and dads, your work glorifies God because you are imaging him.
A child’s first context for understanding his heavenly Father is his relationship with his earthly one. Psalm 103:13 (ESV) says, “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” I have learned so much of God’s character through watching my husband interact with our kids. And recently, it was through observing a dad cooing over his baby daughter that God struck me anew with praise for his mercy and love for me.
Gene Veith writes in God at Work, “The magnitude of the parents’ role, the remarkable power fathers and mothers have to create, nurture, and shape their children, both physically and spiritually, has to do with the fact that God is the true parent.” In this world, we reflect God’s Fatherhood when we we fulfill our roles as loving parents.
Just as Adam and Eve were called to image God as vice-rulers in the garden, we are to image God in our physical and spiritual parenting. As we hold and speak tenderly to our children, we image his provision and care. As we soothe a hurting child, his comfort and compassion. As we give time-outs or engage them in tough conversations, his loving discipline and instruction.
Although the presence of sin in our lives means we do not perfectly image him, the Holy Spirit resides in believers to make us more like the Father. Knowing Christ transforms the motives and methods by which we parent. Our goals for our children will be increasingly informed by the Scriptures, and the way we respond to them, worthy of the Gospel, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. When you overflow with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as you serve your children, you are imaging God to your families and to the world.
God’s Regard Of Something
Newly initiated into motherhood and struggling to make sense of what it means to worship God as a stay-at-home mom, I read as much as I could. I saved reflections and helpful quotes in a folder on my computer labelled “vocation” and got as far as I could on my own. Eventually, I reached an impasse. I was still trying to shake a theology that held evangelism and missions as more important than any other work when I submitted a question to a writer who graciously e-mailed back. One particularly clarifying point he made was this (italics mine): “It is God’s regard of something that makes it valuable. That needs to be our criteria.”
Moms and dads, God regards your work as valuable.
As you parent in faith, you are working as his hands, obeying his commandment, and reflecting his image. What a holy calling! What an immense privilege! And what encouragement in our work to know that, as my daughter said, a mom “praises God, praises God by her job.”