Stirring IT Up: Day-Care Chain-Gang and the Meaning of Motherhood

Recently I saw a very young "day-care chain gang" and thought, with all due respect for those for whom child care is an absolute necessity- we can not simultaneously hold up the supremacy of motherly presence without seeing in her absence a supreme privation.

Often we've experienced that certain incredulity from others when they discover we are a single-income family, seeking to support a family of eight, on a ministry income (prior to eight years ago), when both of us have graduate degrees. As a father and provider, with many years of working with numerous children and families, and researching the modern family phenomenon extensively in graduate school, this little incident prompted me to share this relatively short reflection on the ideal of stay-at-home motherhood.

Once while navigating the grocery aisles with a few of her little helpers, my wife was offered these words of encouragement by another woman: "Better you than me."  The woman's cynical, stressed, unhappy demeanor prompted my oldest daughter to reply under her breath, "You're not kidding."

This irony says a lot. It offers us a common premise: happiness. The ancient philosophers and Christianity affirm that the end of human existence is happiness.  I submit here that, among other things, if people were tuned into the real nature of happiness there would be many more stay-at-home moms (and stay-at-home moms who are genuinely happy). I submit here that the DNA of human existence, the potentiality for genuine happiness, is revealed in Christ. Happiness is not a function of the "Almighty I," but of the "Sacrificial I for You."  

In my experience, the "working mom question" is hardly ever about what's best for the children, much less a God-given identity and mission.  On the contrary, it often revolves around the Almighty I: "I'd be bored," or "I went to school too long not to use it," or "I can provide a better living for the kids." Ironically, we'd hear from many teachers the problems they were having in classrooms which they attributed to the absence of a home-life, and yet many of these had younger children themselves in day-care enabling them to... take care of a multitude of other children?

For those who think their extra income is more valuable than their presence, consider this anecdote. Friends of ours who are graduates of Dartmouth shared a story of an article about their alma mater where students were asked what they might have done differently as parents. An overwhelming response can be summed up: they would have invested in personal presence.

No amount of "presents" can surpass the value of "presence."

Let's face it, there's no "perfect" situation- but there ought to be a prioritization of values. I'm stating above that the value of motherhood can not be both honored and disregarded at the same time. Either she is principally valued as the one primarily entrusted and gifted with forming her kids (as is sociologically validated, and anecdotally affirmed by anyone working closely with kids!), short of which "motherhood" is diminished as a mere "guardian" or "caretaker" anchored by biological connection.

Have we lost the vision of what it really means to form our children for this life and eternity? What that takes? What's at stake?

As politically charged as this may be, without it being stated we run the risk of a parent-less society-- which I'm of the opinion is the source of every social ailment: the God-designed ideal is for husband and wife in sacramental marriage (seeking to follow God's plan for mutual love), and mother "making home" for younger children (with a husband's full involvement). Everything short of this ideal is not lost- but is not easily replaced (certainly, we all ought to entrust our lives and work to God's grace, but recognize where that work is humanly realized through us).

It's revealing that if anyone on a job-interview were asked the question, "How well will you do at this job? What will you give for it?" the answer would be most emphatic: "I'd strive for the best! I'd sacrifice! I'd give my all!" And yet this is not the same response most parents give to the same question asked of how they will parent. The standard seems to be: "They'll be ok." The simple question- what is more valuable (again, life-sustenance aside), children, or work?

My brother-in-law and his wife make many sacrifices to make ends meet on their single income. Their motivation?: "We didn't have kids for others to raise them."

Now self-employed for eight years, homeschooling and contributing 40% of our time uncompensated to Image Trinity- we kid (pardon the pun) about how many weeks of income we have until  we inhabit a park bench (Steph warmly smiles and tells me it will be a nicely-kept park bench!); we recognize the lack of any retirement savings (in our 401K plan, the "K" is for "Kids") or any education savings (we're investing in their full, personal success and praying to God they receive scholarships or the human-resources to make it).

Yes, there are sleepless nights when our faith is challenged (many where my prayer has a certain resemblance to begging), but all this is a gift of unsurpassed value to our children: Living evidence that what God calls us to, He will provide for.

God has been and will continue to be faithful.  We would not trade a day of financial serenity for formational serenity. We can not put a value on the great joy we have in "being family" - endeavoring to create an environment (albeit imperfectly) where they are saturated in a full, human vision created in Jesus Christ... to strive for the very best God created them to be... for themselves, and for the world around them. [And as I'm saying this, noting that even if it were possible to "do" parenthood perfectly, children will choose. Particularly as they're getting older and venturing beyond the home, we give permission to all to please provide the extra-parental prayer, support, and yes, correction, where it may be needed!]

Recognizing the tremendous potentiality and mission here, fully intended to be realized and anchored in "home"- I really can't understand how anyone could say "what do you do all day?" Nothing is built without sacrifice... throw away everything else, every endeavor, work, ministry-- this magnificent "work of home" is our God-given, sacrificial, but joy-filled call to build a civilization of love.