Nothing brings on unwanted advice like becoming a parent. From binkies to breastmilk, suddenly everyone is an expert, whether they have kids or not. And when it comes to the issue of whether to work or stay at home, the opposing sides are usually ready to take up arms against each other. Childrearing choices speak to our deepest convictions about gender identity, family, and the structure of work in America. Will daycare cultivate violent, needy children, incapable of intimacy? How can we structure a society where mothers have the same opportunities as fathers? And while we're figuring this all out, how should I live my life now?

Most people must make vocational decisions amid competing claims. A wider spectrum of people can actually choose how to spend their days than ever before. But making fundamental life decisions is a complex process and hugely contingent on individual personalities. Even successful and capable women like author Catherine Wallace find themselves "juggling cinderblocks," as she puts it, in the attempt to balance the pressures of work and family.

Wallace's story begins 20 years ago. She was then a newly tenured English professor who, having just given birth to twins, was also the mother of three asthmatic children under the age of two. Faced with the prospect of paying high fees for an R.N. who could deal with respiratory ailments and was willing to be a nanny—if such a person could be found—or dropping out of the academy, Wallace chose the latter. But she continued to keep her eyes wide open and her pen working as a freelance writer, requiring her to try every trick in the book—from working only during naps to daycare, from working part-time to overtime.

Regardless of her choices, she found, each action brought a barrage of condemnation, placing her in the midst of the Mommy Wars. (Wallace sharply observes that while no one has criticized her for continuing to subject her family to the asthma-inducing Chicagoland area—a much more quantifiable risk—any childcare decision would induce anger and derision from someone or other.) The relentless questioning was not merely coming from others. Big inarticulate anxieties faced her in the night, gradually forming themselves into one overarching question: Why has compassion—toward our kids, our spouses, our friends, and our larger community—been marginalized as simple-minded, sentimental, and private, instead of being recognized for the tough-minded resilience it requires, the key role it plays as the bedrock of society? Why does paid work tend to trump all other activities?

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The notion of vocation lurks behind our society's esteem of work, often at the expense of unpaid endeavors such as acts of compassion. Since the Reformation, Christians have sought a sacred significance for their mundane jobs parallel to monastic or priestly callings. Martin Luther's concept was radical: All are called to their station in life, accountable to God and neighbor in the shape we give to our days, hours, and minutes. This makes sense for those who both like their jobs and imagine them to be important. But the notion of a sacred vocation can run into two basic problems. First, as John Calvin—and Betty Friedan a few centuries later—argued, some work is simply drudgery. To name such tasks as someone's vocation, the means by which they are to work out their salvation, is to degrade them. Second, with the rise of capitalism, the sacred transcendence of work is seen increasingly in terms of spending power. But excess money does not bring the satisfaction it promises. Soon the mansion becomes merely "the house," the Mercedes "the car," and everyone is working overtime to pay off the loans.

All the big reads informing the Mommy Wars, from Joan Williams' Unbending Gender to Juliet Shor's The Overworked American and Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood, endeavor to retrieve the unpaid realm of life from the jaws of work. Wallace treads previously covered ground carefully, though, resisting the elevation of all unpaid activities to the status of "family work." As feminists have been saying for decades now, tasks such as toilet-cleaning are drudgery, Wallace argues. Just because such work occurs under the same roof as interaction with a child does not make the two commensurate. Wallace borrows Miroslav Volf's definition: Work is something we do for a purpose outside the activity itself, such as for a paycheck or to keep the Health Department out of our bathrooms. Toilet-cleaning is an admirably clear example.

Non-work tasks that maintain a family, whether reading to a child or tucking that child into bed, are also valuable. But they do not become valuable only if or when they are financially compensated, however indirect the "compensation." So, while reading to a child might be passing on "middle class capital" (Joan Williams), Wallace resists the assumption that such calculating cost-benefit analyses go into every human endeavor. Instead, she categorizes reading to a child together with tucking in that child. Such tasks are part of "life": activities that are intrinsically valuable.

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By clumping intimate relations and childrearing in one camp, and toilet cleaning and paychecks in the other, Wallace does not mean to oppose the two realms. Life is distinct from, but not the opposite of, work. It is not merely snoozing on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, to use her example. Nor does it occupy a separate sphere, presided over by the morally sacrosanct wife/mother. Life—caring for our children into self-sufficient adulthood, maintaining intimacy with our loved ones, getting to know our neighbors—takes the same amount of energy as the many other important things we do. It is, well … work.

But why is it, wonders Wallace, that signifying something as "work" is the only way—or the easiest way—to say it has value? In the realm of relationships, the equation is often uttered in surprise: This is work! We are conditioned to think that if an activity doesn't conform to the structure of the marketplace, if it doesn't earn a paycheck, it shouldn't demand as much time, sacrifice, and skill, despite all evidence to the contrary. Wallace's thoroughgoing analysis of this historical hang-up about valuing life, especially compassionate life, makes her argument stand out from others.

But Wallace does not want to denigrate work, or the potential of the workplace. The fact that we do something for a purpose outside itself does not make it problematic, per se, she argues. Such activities can be engaged in honestly, with a sense of purpose and with satisfying results. Plus, work is necessary, and earning a living is a form of care. It is when work is seen in terms of the quasi-religious obligation to make the most money possible that it becomes problematic. When we identify ourselves with and work for spending capital alone, we "sell ourselves short"—or perhaps the metaphor should be "buy ourselves out." The workplace becomes humanly uninhabitable, and nothing is left over for life.

In carving out a space for life, Wallace seems at first to risk perpetuating the notion of separate spheres. But distinguishing life from work is just a tactic toward her larger task. Wallace is trying to counter the evaluation of unpaid tasks according to a market ethos by arguing that work should step back and learn from the ethos of life. Work should be the kind of activity that engages our truest selves, as imago Dei. It should encourage the cultivation of the hard-nosed virtue of compassion and the pursuit of goals out of an ethos of abundance rather than scarcity. Work should allow one person to serve another, not with an eye to the bottom line, but with "gladness and singleness of heart."

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Of course, it often doesn't, Wallace acknowledges. And children need parents to work for a paycheck, sometimes two of them. The price of an undergraduate education is astronomical, and still rising. And the toilet will not go away. So even though work can and should become more like life, it will always remain, to some extent, work. There is no economic utopia that will completely relieve the tension between work and life. Though Wallace would certainly advocate for workplace changes, her research and analysis remains at the level of decisions that must be made amidst conflict and ambiguity.

Given this agenda, Wallace's failure to provide a thoroughgoing critique of gender roles within the family is striking. The unstated focus throughout the book seems to be on the responsibility of women to make and live with choices. Granted, Wallace does argue that women are usually the casualties in the childcare debates. She takes approving note of increasing numbers of fathers taking on primary caretaking responsibilities. But she never explains why she assumed primary responsibility for childrearing in her marriage, without raising the possibility of both partners cutting back or her husband taking on the domestic responsibilities. There may have been reasons, but unstated assumptions covertly reify the "Angel of the House" ideology that Wallace tries elsewhere to resist.

Still, the thoroughgoing analysis of why we shortchange work, life, and ourselves, and the passion with which she approaches the question of how to live our lives, makes this book worthwhile. Wallace's honesty forces her to retain in her argument the tension she has found in her life: Parenthood is about legitimate, conflicting pressures. This may not be good enough for those looking for pat answers. But it is true to life, and ultimately more useful and satisfying because of it. Perhaps her own options to restructure work, as a writer, keep her from settling for policy recommendations at the end of the book.

Instead, Wallace ends the book with a how-to section on the practice of Christian discernment. The discernment section assumes—and demands—that the reader actively work toward a decision about how to live the good life. Not many authors end with a section on how to put their own truth claims into practice. Even books that begin passionately have usually conformed to some drier academic standard by the end. Wallace retains the initial urgency of her questions—shifting from history to theology to story to psychological data to how-to—in order to address the real and varied concerns that plague today's parents. The result is truly a work of compassion.

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Randi Sider-Rose is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Chicago.

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Book Title
Selling Ourselves Short: Why We Struggle to Earn a Living and Have a Life
Release Date
June 21, 2024
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