Mother's Day is past, and mothers are back to work, some in the home, some outside of the home, some doing both. And that's something to ponder.
As we might have guessed, Mother's Day is not only good for mothers, it also helps the economy. To be exact, it's worth $15.7 million to retailers, according to the National Retail Federation. But it's not as helpful to as the mothers who, on Monday, went back to work. They earn an estimated $476 billion annually.
Without women in the workplace, "it's fair to say America's economy would grind to a halt." So says Jessika Auerbach in a recent USA Today piece. So also says Carol Evans, CEO and president of Working Mother magazine: "If the 71 percent of all women with children who work lose their ability or inclination to work, then we will have a loss of economic strength in this country."
Evans edits a magazine that helps working women manage the stress of having a job and being a mother. Auerbach has just written a bookAnd Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell the Truth about Work, Love, Money, and Each Otherthat empathizes with and encourages both working mothers and the women who take care of their children. They are two of millions who recognize (1) that working mothers are a reality in this economy and (2) that this reality is hard on mothers and children.
I'm not going to preach for or against mothers working. I know some mothers who absolutely should work. I know some who absolutely shouldn't. This decision is one requiring prudential judgment not sweeping moralisms. But in this culture, Mothers Day is not only a time to reflect on mothers' relationship to their children, but also their relationship to this culture, especially it is trying its best to exploit themto not put too fine a point on it. Working out salvation in this culture goes hand in hand with working out how and when and where we work.
We live in an economy with an insatiable appetite for consumers. Consumers are those who have money to consume goods and services. So it is in the self-interest of this economy to create more jobs to manufacture more goods and services to generate more income so that more people can consume these goods and services. Is it a surprise that this economy not only now welcomes women into the workplace but is also utterly dependent on them for its survival? And that is has exponentially grown another industryday care and nanniesto make working mothers possible? Which group will it next suck into its vortex, and how far will they be sucked?
This would be a "So what?" if it wasn't for the nearly obvious fact that it is good for mothers to spend lots of time with their young children. I need not marshal the many social and psychological studies that support this common sensethey are legion. Fathers also need to spend time with their children, but, all things being equal, no father can match the nurturing care that a mother gives. No father had a child grow inside him for nine months; no father experienced the bonding, redemptive pain of childbirth. Thus no father has an attachment to his children as does a mother.
And yet we've created an economy in which motherswho have this remarkable and miraculous bond with their offspringin some instances feel compelled to turn their children over to the care of relative strangers for the bulk of every day. These mothers get to spend only a harried few minutes with their children in the morning, and then an exhausted hour or two at night. Of course, they also get custody on the weekends. If the state had mandated such an arrangement, we'd cry, "Tyranny!"
(And let's be honest: for both men and women, our "need" to workto "use one's gifts," to "follow one's calling"is sometimes little more than a justification for having been sucked into the capitalist economy's idea of the good life. At least that's often been true of my motives.)
Some mothers really have to work to live; their singleness and poverty require the earning of income, and they live by the sweat of their brow. But even this dehumanizing situation can be redemptive. When accepted in faith, all suffering turns us Christlike. If the cruel and dehumanizing death of the Carpenter-Rabbi is redemptive, so will the mother's cross of forced labor.
On the other end of the spectrum are mothers who balk at the sacrifices motherhood requires and still want all the stuffincluding the social prestigethat comes with high paying jobs. Since their husbands already make decent money, it is hard for a person like me to understand why they bend the knee to our society's ideas about prestige and the good life. I'm sure I'll get a few emails explaining why, but to be frank, I've heard the arguments for nearly four decades, and I'm just baffled why any mother would be willing to give up those few precious years for such stuff.
But most working mothers fall in the uncomfortable and ambiguous middle. They are not quite poorthat is, they really could survive on one income. Then again, they live in a society in which children have not unreasonable expectations: To have new clothes now and then; to be able to go to summer church camp; to live where their family is not subject to the whims of a landlord; to go to college; and so on. And it is very difficult to offer such blessings on one income in many areas. They may not want to give their souls to General Motors or Coca Cola while they hand their children over to near strangers, but at this point they can't see how they can care for their children unless they doand the irony is not lost on them.
Many couples, of course, work out middle solutions. Some manage to arrange schedules so their children spent the vast bulk of their time with one or the other parent, and very little time with relative strangers. Other mothers depend on the family of faith, which is, thankfully, more than a mere metaphor in many places.
And this brings us to the point where the church might have something fresh to add to this sometimes tiresome debate.
The point of God's provision for children is not that children need to spend every waking minute with the nuclear family, but that they are raised and nurtured in a familywith people who love them, who are committed to their welfare, who interact regularly with their parents, who care about them beyond payment for services rendered, and who share their parents' fundamental beliefs and values.
We in the church should certainly offer mothers spiritual discernment as they figure out God's will for their working lives. But we need to do more if we really are the family of God. We too should question our culture's capitalistic and therefore individualistic assumptions: namely, that we are solitary souls who must make our own way in this world. I'm wondering if we can instead act like an extended family, a place where spiritual mothers and fathers regularly take into their homes the children of mothers who really do have to work, so that those children can continue to nurtured by family during those working hours.
Then again, maybe it's just a pipe dream to think that the modern church, driven often by managerial principles that encourage growth, choice, freedom (capitalist values that undermine the family!) would really act like a family. But with God, all things are possible, no?
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker). You can comment on this article below or on his blog.
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Frederica Matthewes-Green addressed this perennial issue in "Moms in the Crossfire."
Previous SoulWork columns include:
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)