[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”147679409X” locale=”US” src=”http://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/51G5ypyCOcL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Mommy Guilt, Work,
and The Role of Women
A Review of
A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World
Hardback: Howard Books, 2016
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Reviewed by Ashley Hales
I didn’t actually expect to love Katelyn Beaty’s book, A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, The Home, and the World. You see, my own relationship to work is complicated. I’m a stay-at-home mom (at least from the outside) living in the middle of suburbia, helping my husband plant a church in a neighborhood miles from where we each grew up. It doesn’t look like I’ve done much with my life. Sure, I can point to my Ph.D. from a prestigious university in Scotland, my few years lived overseas, our years of ministry in Salt Lake City, as things that make me interesting — evidence that I’ve worked, I’ve made my mark on the world. I squeeze writing a book into the wee hours. But since my weekly routine involves grocery shopping, caring for four little children, and managing homework, I thought I’d find more mommy guilt. I was expecting to either feel shame for the form my mothering takes (“Why aren’t you using your Ph.D.? We need more women in the academy!”) or feel that the portfolio life I’m living (balancing life as a writer, pastor’s wife, mother, volunteer) was somehow less consequential than a 9-5 job.
What I found in Katelyn Beaty was a woman who understood the pull of work, womanhood, and Christian faithfulness. Beaty is the youngest (and only female) managing print editor for Christianity Today — a job she accepted the same day her engagement ended. This back story provides the impetus for Beaty’s book as she traces a cultural view of women in the workplace and then shows scripturally how bearing the imago dei means that both men and women were created to work — in the home, in the marketplace, and in the world.
Beaty is a gentle guide. Her prose is not cantankerous; she is generous with those with whom she disagrees. She takes issue specifically with a Christian culture where femaleness is equated with roles of being a wife and mother so that these “norms are elevated to a spiritual prescriptive.” Indeed, she explores how bringing her femaleness to bear on her own work is not a liability, but “a gift from a mysterious, surprising, and endlessly creative God.” All of this is good news to this particular woman reader who, when asked one word to describe herself in a job interview, replied: “driven.” Beaty invites conversation, asking women: where do your desires, ambition, and calling align? How does your work mirror our creative worker God? What is the intersection where, as Buechner wrote, “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?” These questions are vital for both men and women. And yet, they can veer towards the theoretical.
What do you do if your ability to work is not a matter of desire, goal-setting, and alignment of your deep gladness and the world’s hunger? What if you need to work simply to provide for your family? What if you are a primary caregiver (to children or aging relatives) or simply cannot work? Enter: privilege. I cheered to see Beaty acknowledging that the narrative of work in mainstream secular Western culture — one that the evangelical culture of “be anything for God” has taken on — is borne from privilege. The very fact that you can read a review about a book on women’s work means that you are privileged. You likely have leisure time, literacy, education, and financial means to buy the book. If those who read Beaty’s book are privileged, then, the question for the Christian reader is: do you use such privilege for the pursuit of God’s Kingdom and for the love of neighbor, or do you build your picket fences and see work as “fundamentally about what it can give you, rather than what you can give it?”
In calling us to partake in a grander narrative of the Kingdom of God within our working lives, Beaty has come under fire for writing about motherhood and marriage without experiencing either. It’s true, she’s not a wife or mother. Yes, she’s only 31. But lack of experience does not disqualify her from writing on such topics, especially as she does so with such grace, research, and willingness to center other women’s stories with broader experiences than her own.
In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, Beaty stated that a stay-at-home mother lacks the cultural influence of a corporate worker. It’s a statement with which I patently disagree, and yet one which I held before a baby, my husband’s job changes, and a failed economy meant I stopped teaching. And yet, in another way, I didn’t stop teaching or writing. That work just took other forms. I may not make a salary right now, but my early morning hours writing make me a better mother. This is what I think is behind Beaty’s statement about cultural influence. She writes, “We were never meant to work just for ourselves and our families.” To this, I shout a hearty “Amen!” We are always meant to work — men and women — to pursue shalom and live out the Kingdom of God as our primary calling. Caring for children, just like a corporate job, can easily eclipse our membership in God’s Kingdom, as Beaty notes. This doesn’t mean that we must leave corporate America and become missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa (though it might for some), but it does mean that a Kingdom mindset needs to infuse whatever work we do.
Work is one way we find our identity. This is part of the goodness of creation. Beaty writes how we have been created to rule and reign: both men and women together are called to tend gardens, to build cities — to do the work of culture-making in whatever sphere in which we’ve been called and placed. Yet, like so many of God’s good gifts, it’s easy to use your work as a prop for self-identity — to see your role whether you’re a CEO or stay-at-home mom — as that which defines us more than our personhood in Christ, more than our belonging to our neighborhoods and churches. It is our human tendency to idolize that which we pour ourselves into; the common culprits are often our career, marriage, or our children.
As soon as you put yourself into relationship with others — perhaps especially as a wife or mother, but also as a neighbor, colleague, or church member — you are drawing a boundary of relationship that necessarily constricts your options. I will relate to this person and this community in a special, unique way. As a mother to small children, my options are not endless. There are sacrifices that must be made to be a part of any real, vulnerable, and lasting community. Now, I have the choice as a woman to figure out what work looks like within those very real circumstantial boundaries or chafe against them. I’ve done both. One of the problems of the evangelical baptism of the “do anything, be anything” mantra is that in its focus on individualism, it does not effectively explore the real joy and constraints of being in community. I would have appreciated Beaty’s guidance here. It’s important to craft a large vision for femaleness and work (which is long overdue), but it’s also vital to articulate how we move around joyfully, purposefully, and peacefully within the structures and strictures of our communities.
It’s almost comical, in the very writing of this article, I served breakfast to my children about 100 times, made coffee for my husband and me, and monitored sibling fights — just to get back to the “work” of writing. But when I step back I realize that I don’t need to choose one way to bear the image of God, as if writing or mothering were opposite poles vying for my attention. All of my roles — even as a worker in whatever form that takes — are ordered underneath my identity as a child of God and part of his church. When we start there, may every woman find her place — in the workplace, the church, the home, and the world.
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, but she spends most of her time chasing her four children and helping her husband plant a church in southern California. She writes at www.aahales.com.