By Heather Walker Peterson

Questioning God About Childcare

My friend Caroline is reading the Old Testament passage and Psalm. She tucks her hair back behind her ears, bending over the lectern. (This is a friend who tears up when she holds out the goblet of wine to me during the Eucharist: “The cup of salvation.”) She is reading a portion of Ruth — “whither thou goest, I’ll go.”

That is what my husband and I thought we were saying to God when we moved to Colorado Springs for his job. I had left my part-time position as assistant chair at a Christian university in Minnesota. I had liked the position, more than I’d realized — planning, receiving feedback about ideas, even the politics — the prayerful strategizing that goes into working with people. My special prayer for my department had been the first two verses of Psalm 127 — a request for God’s guidance but also for a spirit of restful trust within academic culture where over-commitment is often assumed.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
  those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
  the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
  and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
  for he gives to his beloved sleep.

It seemed the right choice though, to leave for my husband’s new work. I knew I was giving up the possibility of going back to full-time work after choosing adjunct status while caring for my young children. Being chair, I had heard, was like two full-time jobs.

Within a year in our new city, we had friends, and I was serving in an arts ministry and coaching PhD students in their writing. I could focus on being available to our daughters and doing something that wasn’t academic for the first time since college­ — writing.

But I called my husband crying one afternoon, wishing out loud to him that we could return to Minneapolis. Reading the chapter in Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me about “reading promiscuously,” I had wept with relief to find a kindred spirit. My many and valued friendships with mothers in Colorado Springs, a city full of Christian ministries, made me doubt my own parenting practices. It seemed that everyone was homeschooling, insisting on Robinson Crusoe rather than Ariel or Belle for their kids. But it was taking its toll on me, and I was starting to feel guilty that I let my kids check out library books other than classics.

At the lectern, Caroline is reading: “Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?’”

Surely, rest wasn’t just relaxation. It was less anxiety, but it was also the contentment of being part of something bigger than oneself and one’s family. The arts and faith ministry had given me that, but I was drawn to more. How could one rest when one was restless?

When the Dean of Humanities called me about the position of department chair at my former institution, I couldn’t stop imagining myself in the role.

“If you’re imagining it, then you’re going,” a friend said.

Yet twenty-five percent of the time, I was imagining being stressed and unavailable to my family. I was picturing late night emails and early morning prep.

I was direct with the dean — “I don’t want two full-time jobs.” And he said — “It doesn’t have to be that way.” He recommended I call another department chair, and she stated that she went to bed at 9 p.m. That sounded like it could work for me.

Because of shifts in his company, my husband’s job had developed so that he could work remotely. Our kids would be in school soon. And yet I was still hesitant. Why? It was the thought of not being able to see my children immediately after school. After being gone for over six hours, my kids would still need childcare for an hour or more each day. I felt I was crossing a line from acceptably-invested mom into career woman with children as peripheral, despite the fact that I had hired babysitters for my adjunct teaching. I was struggling to choose an arrangement I wasn’t seeing modeled in my community.

One day, when my mind was filled with the possibility of becoming chair, when I was between running to find a missing shoe and checking that the younger one washed her hands, I prayed something like this:

“Brass tacks, God. Is it okay for me to have regular childcare? When in Scripture do you ever see childcare? I know I’m just wanting a proof-text, but seriously, why can’t childcare be in Scripture?”

The next Sunday, Caroline’s voice, gentle with emotion, reads of Boaz taking Ruth as his wife and her getting pregnant and having a baby. Afterwards, she reads the following: “Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse.”

His nurse? Not his wet nurse, but a nurse in the old-fashioned sense, an additional woman in the home who cares for young children. Childcare. And Ruth isn’t a woman in a house by herself with her mother-in-law but a woman who has recently become the wife of a man with multiple servants — she’s running a large household. She’s an administrator.

“Really, God?” I ask, “Really? Is this for me?”

Caroline then begins the Psalm: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. . . .”

My skin prickles. My body is a cup tilted toward the words.

I don’t believe God arranged the Revised Common Lectionary Year B to answer my prayer. I don’t believe that morning was a definite “yes,” but rather that it was a clear working of his Word read corresponding with open ears. It’s evidence that God listens to the needy prayers of a mom who’s having a hard time remembering that she gets to weave, plait, and tie the threads of her own motherhood.  

About the Author

Heather Walker Peterson is a writer, mother, and assistant professor and chair of the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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