It happens with so many things. Two positions. Poles apart. Good reasons for each. But most of us somewhere in the middle just trying to do life. Women working versus staying at home is just such an issue.
Until this century, it was quite normal for women to work in a variety of occupations. whether she was strapping bub to her back and joining her family in the fields on the farm, or whether she was apprenticed as a seamstress or a match girl, women worked. The most famous example in the Bible is in Proverbs 31:10-31. We see the wife of noble character both parenting and running a house and working and earning money. Granted, this work was still viewed largely via the lens of the domestic sphere – these weren’t “career women” – most were occupations associated with running a busy home or farmstead.
It was only in the post-war boom years though that women staying at home became normal. The reasons were many – the post-war years were a time of economic boom and so for many only one income was needed for the family to thrive. In addition, many of the occupations previously held by women in the domestic sphere, moved to more professional spheres outside the home (baking, brewing, wool making to name but a few). So they weren’t available domestically and the idea of women performing these roles in a professional setting was culturally unsavory in a world where the roles that men performed were historically known and accepted as being held either domestically or professionally.
Of course rich women before that stayed at home with the rise of a middle class during the 18th and 19th centuries in the years where it was far more common for both men and women to work by economic necessity, but it was only in the 1950s that it became the norm.
That’s right. Only from the 1950s. But it quickly became embedded in culture through the new mediums of mass media as though that was the way it had always been. There was a revival of an almost Victorian ideal of the wife and mother as the perfection of womanhood, a picture of self-sacrificing service, quietness and meekness. This was the ad-man driven picture that embedded what was expected of motherhood and what it was supposed to look like (down to the colour of your lipstick). This advertised ideal/expectation painted a glossy veneer over the pure hard work that homemaking was (don’t get me wrong, it still is, but at least we have fridges and dishwashers!).
Since the late 1960s and the rise of second wave feminism, the aim has been to get women out of their homes and away from the drudgery of home making. During this time, the pendulum of culture swung against what had been the domestic norm since the 1950s. And you can see why – in many ways the domestic sphere was drudgery. A woman had no real choices. In most arenas, she couldn’t work once married. She was tied to the home. She worked all day and when her husband came home from work she worked all night too. Domestic life was hard. And lonely. It was brain-numbing, wasting a woman’s potential. And so second wave feminism picked up the stereotype of the oppressed housewife who needed to be saved and freed.
But many women liked their role in the home. In fact many didn’t think they had missed out and felt quite satisfied in charge of the domestic sphere in which the exercised their own authority and judgement.1
Like all things, for some it was good and for some it was purgatory.
But one thing that affected many women was domestic violence. She could be beaten and raped (which wasn’t a crime under criminal law at the time) and feminism in the 1970s drew a lot of attention to the shocking need for women’s rights and protections. This lack of personal rights had been evident for centuries but it was brought into sharp relief during these years (and when I say rights, I mean rights like the right to own property, or the right to remain unmolested).
Along with the good – allowing women to have a choice as to whether to be in the home or at work, and the focus on (what should have been) criminal behaviour to women – came the bad. The pendulum swung too far in making women feel like they had to go to paid work outside the home.
In an effort to reclaim choice, there has been a more recent swing of the pendulum back. Particularly from the conservative evangelicals in the US, many books “reclaiming” femininity from the feminists have created an opposite movement. Books tell us things like “I had succumbed to worldly thinking instead of viewing my profession as the Bible portrays is – a high calling from God.”2
That’s quite a pendulum swing. It moved us from a personal calling to motherhood which is entirely valid, to communicating that stay at home mum (ie not working) is not just a biblical calling, but a high one. What this communicates to working mums is that this calling is based on our biology and is higher than other callings. Which is really the equal and opposite position of the feminists who set it up as our duty to leave the home and go and work.
So. We are left with a stark choice: If you stay at home with your kids, you are a failure as a woman by refusing to do your duty. If you go out to work, you are a failure as a mother because you are refusing a calling that is higher than work.
It can feel like our churches buy into this stay at home mum thing. Back in the 16th century, the Reformers, in a pendulum swing away from the corrupt and broken church of the day, exalted marriage, the family and the home. The later Puritans of the 17th century and the Methodists of the 18th and 19th centuries centralised the family as the first ministry and example of good government. Again you can see why. 1 Timothy 3:5 notes that a man should not lead in the church if he cannot lead his own family. While parenting was seen as a dual responsibility, the mother’s input was always the greater as the caregiver for obvious biological and cultural reasons. But her input gained increasing primacy with the male input beginning to diminish as work took him out of the home as times changed.
We can see these direct lines in our churches from the Reformers, but coloured with the increased parental responsibility of the mother in the 19th century and the rose tinted glasses of the 1950s. Our churches can sometimes feel as though this stay at home parenting model is the implicit expectation. Perhaps it isn’t, but we get vocal messages from pastors with large platforms like ex-Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll who taught explicitly that women should stay in the home. So perhaps our churches are not expecting this, but in the absence of conversation, the loud voices are the ones that play into our anxieties. Which is a lot of us. Working mums is the norm in how we are actually operating.
There are about 4 million families with children in Australia according to the 2021 census data of whom 25% work full time when the kids under 4. This increases to nearly 80% for parents with kids between 5 and 9. In each age bracket, the percentage of families in which only one parent works is no higher than 30%. In all the rest, both parents work.3
Just over a quarter of the 4 million families are single parent families. Of whom nearly 50% of mums work for the 0-4 age bracket and increasing to 75% with kids between 5 and 15.
Is there a difference for people attending church? There doesn’t appear to be. The NCLS data for 2016 showed that nearly 50% of church attendees were in some form of employment with 8% in the home and caring for the family.4 Those employed are relatively evenly split between men (52.5%) and women (47.5%)5 and so there doesn’t seem to be that much of a gender bias in the employment statistics for church goers.
So the reality is that most of us mums do paid work outside the home. For a variety of reasons – some may have to work to help make the family unit work, some would rather be stay at home mums but have to work, some may just want to work. They may feel it is best for their family – and they would be right.
Of the remaining women who do stay at home, many may want to work but can’t or they may want to be stay at home mums and just feel this is right for them and their family. And they would be right too.
One thing we need to be careful of is, in swinging the pendulum too far, making off the cuff comments like staying at home being a high biblical calling. Often homemaking as a “calling” is taken from Titus 2:4-5: “Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
To take homemaker as a biblical calling from this passage would be an over reach. We see from the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31 that she works and runs the domestic sphere, which in the ancient and Medieval world was quite normal. The context of this passage is not to prohibit women from working. The main context of this passage (and those around it in the chapter) is about godly character and holy behaviour so the gospel is not brought into disrepute. The devil makes work for idle hands after all – the wife of noble character does not eat the bread of idleness either (Proverbs 31:27).
So where does this leave us? First I would say lets be aware of the historical swing of the pendulum and that either way it usually swings too far. But lets acknowledge the goodness of both positions (and not get dragged down by the bad) and appreciate what each is trying to do. But lets also acknowledge that what that creates is a polarised positioning that we in the middle will need to navigate.
The main thing though is that stay at home is not a specific biblical high calling. Our calling is to be disciples of Christ. Paul, an apostle of God, urged us “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Eph. 4:1). That calling is being disciples of Christ, obedient to God. That calling does not say that specific things about our vocation. We are to be disciples of Christ and witnesses to the gospel whether we are at home or out in the world.
What does that calling look like for women in the home, or at work? Or parenting as a stay at home mum or being a working mum? I’ll save that for another blog 🙂
Suffice to say at the moment, we are not failures because we work or stay at home. You are not a better or worse parent because of working or staying at home. Your worth is not found in your vocation whether that be paid work or homemaker. Your worth is found in God. And it is through that lens that we view and shape our parenting.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17)
1 Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency. Britain 1970-1974, page 392
2 Carolyn Mahaney, Feminine Appeal. Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, page 99