I have twice abandoned ambitions for a PhD: first, at twenty-six, pregnant for the first time, and writing my master’s thesis during my summer vacation from teaching high school. My advisor, a gentle German man, encouraged me to consider pursuing the doctorate I had, in fact, planned for my life at the age of 17 when applying for college scholarships. But I was growing a child. And as my belly grew, my own bubble of ambition burst.
Almost sixteen years (and five children) later, I was once again entertaining ambitions for a doctorate — deciding, almost hastily, that it was now or never. In the matter of several weeks, I had rounded up the necessary references and transcripts to complete an application. All that remained was the writing sample: 5000 words and the academic research to support them.
I was a writer. This was no problem.
Except that it was a gigantic, insurmountable problem. I have five kids, an executive husband, and a writing and speaking career. And despite the fact that I had set everything aside for several weeks to burrow into the 18th century sentimental novel Beulah and the relevant literary criticism, I couldn’t get it finished. There remained 2000 mocking, unwritten words when other work deadlines clamored for attention.
Was I simply too weak-willed? Did I lack ambition? Had I failed to be creative enough in re-arranging my domestic responsibilities? Couldn’t I get up earlier, stay up later, give up more Saturdays? Surely there was a way to make this work. But the real truth wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it. I started to think that I didn’t want to — at least not at the cost of routine fast food dinners, missed school concerts, and chronic exhaustion. I couldn’t ignore the very real limitations of my life as wife and mother (not to mention author and speaker).
I have never called myself a homemaker — certainly never at my husband’s work parties when the children were younger and I stood next to my husband’s climbing, aspiring female colleagues making something of their education. Making money. I couldn’t help but envy them, feel myself pitiable in comparison. I would find ways, in conversation, to allude to my degrees, to exaggerate the scope of my (very limited) freelance work. At home, I was quite happy to be there. Everywhere else, I seemed inclined to make apologies. (Isn’t this the plight of the modern woman — that whatever our choices, it seems we’re always owing someone an “I’m sorry”?)
This essay isn’t a defense of my particular choices regarding career and family (a defense I have often wanted to make). But it is a defense of my longing. The longing for home.
My favorite book from childhood was a Little Golden Book. The 1967 picture book, Little Mommy, is a celebration of 20th century domesticity — and its reigning monarch. “This is my house and I am the mommy. My children are Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny.” The narrator, in her smocked brown dress, waves goodbye to Billy “who works in the city. He has a new car. Isn’t it pretty?” She happily does the dishes and sweeps the floor, wiping “the fingerprints off the door.” I find it jarring to read the book now — even if I am not unlike that little girl in the brown smocked dress.
It’s curious to think about the books that we take into our bones, especially as children. What makes us choose them from any others, begging for them to be read again and again? Why was I, for one, lured by the illustrated scenes of domesticity in Little Mommy, tamed into reverie by its easy jingles about the housekeeping? “I wash the clothes in my washing machine. I scrub them with soap and rinse them clean.” Then again, I suppose it is not at all strange that the first story I loved so well should have been a story about home, both its welcome and its work.
Home is central to the story of life with God, as the Scriptures tell it. At the very beginning of time, humanity had a warm, dry place to lay its head. Unlike other ancient creation myths, which conceive of a world birthed by violence, the Genesis accounts tell us that the Triune God made the world out of generous hospitality. Six days he worked, preparing for the arrival of his children. The very first homemaker was God himself; he was the reigning monarch of the cosmos.
Home is the fundamental story that the Scriptures tell. I wonder if this isn’t why Jesus situated some of his most important parables at home, including the story of a lost son, who, by his own foolishness, left for the far country, taking his inheritance with him. When he returned home — hungry and broke — he certainly didn’t presume to be received back into the family with all the rights and inheritance of sonship. But we know the story well: he was met on the road by the embrace of his father. Welcome home, the father whispered, his cheeks wet with relief.
Perhaps what’s most needed in the tired conversations about who’s supposed to be working, watching the kids, and folding the laundry is the reminder that home is a human longing and a shared human responsibility. I don’t long for home simply because I’m a woman: I long for home because this was humanity’s gift of grace in the Garden. And my husband has no less responsibility for home than I — for our marriage, the children in it, and our God-given obligations of hospitality. Furthermore, home, as a word to signify our present place and our most proximate relationships, is an inherent constraint in any of our lives, whether we’re single or married, childless or child-full.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get that PhD. But I do know this: vocation is a far bigger word than the work I do and the place where I do it. It is, as Dr. Steve Garber has said, “One’s entire life lived in response to God’s voice.” And most importantly, the longing for home will finally and fully be satisfied.
Not in this life, of course — but the next.