Starting a nonprofit to deliver water and AIDS services to more than 1 million people in Africa was the hardest thing I’d ever done. At 22, I co-founded Blood:Water with the band Jars of Clay. Over the past decade, I’ve spent my days on tour buses and airplanes traveling across US cities and African villages, mobilizing people and resources one person and one dollar at a time. That's all while going through the emotional roller coaster of running a global missions organization: feeling overwhelmed and hopeful and desperate and grateful over and over again.
Then, 16 months ago, I had my first baby. As a new mom, I am starting to suspect that motherhood is much harder. Parenthood, especially in these early months, is all-consuming beyond the demanding work of mission and activism—work that, by the way, hasn’t faded away. I now find myself, like so many moms, balancing the two.
I was not prepared for the pumpings between meetings and in taxi cabs and the back of airplanes, for washing parts, storing milk, and carrying coolers and ice packs. I was overwhelmed by waking every three hours to feed the baby, coordinating logistics and supplies with nannies and babysitters, and negotiating calendars with my husband’s equally demanding work schedule. There were times I showed up in the office with fevers and chills, trying to act like everything was okay. I was dumbfounded—and still am—by how difficult it is to get it all done.
I knew it would be hard. I didn’t know it would be this hard.
I was two months pregnant when I picked up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and I applauded her battle cry for women to keep advancing in the workplace despite the real or perceived limitations of family responsibilities. I resonated with Sandberg’s caution against backing out of professional opportunities simply because of competing family commitments.
I wanted her words to be as true for me as they were for her. But I have found that my attempt to lean into both motherhood and career feels a lot more like falling over. The truth is, I am wrestling with the unwelcome reality that there are true limitations to my ambitions. The biggest one: Time.
My husband James and I both work outside of the home, which means that the few hours at the end of the day are the only ones we get with our son. Some days, our boy is asleep before James returns from work. The free time we used to spend enjoying each other or engaging with our community has disappeared (at least for now), as we dedicate time to caring for our child. In having a baby and keeping up with work, I didn’t realize how much I would miss my husband.
I have no expertise when it comes to mastering the demands of motherhood, marriage, career advancement, and mission because I am simply in the middle of it, fumbling my way forward. (Or at least trying to.) But a conversation James and I had with our priest stuck with me. We asked her how she and her family have managed dual careers, three sons, significant mission responsibilities, and community involvement. She told us:
Life is a box. The things that fill your life are balloons. Only so many balloons can fit into the box. You can have a lot of little balloons. Or a few large balloons. But the box stays the same size. So, choose your balloons wisely.
I knew this basic premise, but I thought that our box would be different, that we could expand and adapt in ways that other families couldn’t. But we face the same challenges as so many parents before us: we are forced to sort through what really matters in this season of our lives.
Vocation asks us to live out a calling both in the richness of family life as well as in the world. Here’s how I am trying to navigate my vocational path amidst this new normal:
Setting My Values
No one will set boundaries for you, as important as they are. James and I are currently revisiting our marriage vows and our values and lining them up against our lifestyle. From there, we can make vocational, relational, and financial adjustments to ensure that our values are dictating our days, and not the other way around.
Motherhood, marriage, and mission are all long journeys that require more endurance than speed. Beware of the tyranny of the urgent. God did not ask us to live a life of hurry. Burnout will be inevitable. For us, it means that we are going to bed earlier, prioritizing practices like cooking meals together, and saying no more often, even to great opportunities.
Allowing Room for Grief
Be honest with yourself about what you have lost — be it autonomy, rest and recreation, or a sense of self. There is true grief in this transition, and it’s important to acknowledge it and give it space. Neither James nor I have wanted to scale back on our external missions and career paths, but we’ve had to give up some of that ambition. It’s been painful to let go.
Not Trying to Have It All
I realize that at this moment, I can’t have it all. I am learning a life of true vocation is a holistic one that includes career, family, community, and mission. Life is filled with seasons of ebb and flow, which allow us to dive deeper into one part while another takes a backseat.
Asking for Help
It’s liberating to admit that I don’t have it all together. It’s still hard to ask for help, but I can’t do it on my own. James and I can’t do it on our own. I’m beginning to see that a joyful and sustainable life is dependent on the kindness of a neighbor, the presence of a family member, and the consistency of community.
For fellow mothers out there working both at home and in the marketplace, I salute you. It is not easy, but you are not alone. Should we meet along the way, let’s hug and cheer each other on.
I pray we can set rhythms to live out vocation in both settings. May we find rest in the freedom of our limitations and in the God who created us to work, parent, and balance both: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 62:5-6).
Jena Lee Nardella is the author of One Thousand Wells, releasing Aug. 25 from Howard Books, and imprint of Simon and Schuster. She is the co-founder of Blood:Water, which she started 10 years ago at the age of 22 alongside the band Jars of Clay. She and her husband, James, have one son, Jude, and they call many places home.