By Heather Walker Peterson

Where’s My Guru for Full-Time Working Mothers?

Who’s the matriarch with the spill of white hair? I’m watching other women approach her with eager eyes as they enter church, pausing to wait with deference, hopeful that she’ll have time to turn to them.

My husband tells me she’s a guru to homeschooling mothers. She’s written multiple books dedicated to stay-at-home moms. I mention her to another mama in my neighborhood, and she voices her admiration after attending one of the woman’s conferences.

• • •

The academic year is about to start. I sit in front of my laptop and envision my family’s fall rhythm: school, childcare before and after (the elementary school runs from 9:20 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.), speech therapy, piano lessons, tutoring, and church. I cut soccer twice a week from the list.

I wish I had a white-haired matriarch to talk with about this, an older friend I could approach at church. Who can give me insight on the best childcare options, the most flexible after-school activities?

I look out over the older women of our church. They are wise, warm-hearted women, but I don’t know of one of them who worked full-time after having children. I chat instead with friends who are working full-time and have kids a similar age as mine. We’re all trying to figure it out. There’s no popular book to consult.

Where’s my Christian guru for full-time working mothers?

• • •

One of my kids has behavioral challenges and feels friendless. I find a straightforward blog with tips. One I haven’t tried: orchestrate playdates based on my observations helping the teacher in the classroom. Not only am I expected to shift from a relaxing Saturday to one of preparing for a playdate, but I’ll need to be assisting in my kid’s classroom as I target playmates.

I already feel guilty that I help out the teacher once a year — if at all. I grieve the fact that the intriguing-looking local charter schools expect forty hours of volunteerism my husband and I would never be able to meet. Interestingly, my husband feels no guilt at all when he ignores the requests from teachers looking for assistance.

Where’s the Christian book at my bedside that says it’s okay that I’m not one of the clutch of mothers who mans an activity table for the winter break celebration, volunteers at the PTA spring carnival, or follows kids to the local apple farm?

• • •

This last year I had a new opportunity at work. I turned it down when I realized I would not only make less money but need to commit to one evening a week along with any other evening activity in my department. I didn’t think one of my kids could handle my additional absences. We also couldn’t lose the income that funded some of her needs. But only one of the friends I consulted had worked full-time after they had kids. Only one had that perspective.

Another working mom shares with me that she and her husband are too tired to lead their kids in the lengthy family devotions her church provides. Looking up multiple Bible passages after dinner is too daunting. Where’s the full-time working mom telling us how to get the biggest bang for my buck when it comes to family devotions?

A pastor friend on Facebook gushes about a Christian parenting book by an author who’s published dozens of books. I find one bluntly negative review on Amazon in a sea of positive ones. The review displays an excerpt in which the author bemoans the fact that some Christian mothers work full-time. The author claims they shouldn’t work unless a financial crisis in the family warrants it.

Maybe there’s so little in Christian books because publishers and authors would be publicly shamed by others in the church. Katelyn Beaty may have gotten away with expressing an argument for full-time working mothers because her book A Woman’s Place allows for all kinds of vocations for women. She includes mothers exhibiting fruitfulness in their lives through work full-time, part-time, or homeschooling.

Despite the lack of speakers and books, many other Christian mothers who work full-time must exist. According to the US Department of Labor, 70% of mothers with minor children are employed, and 75% of those are employed full-time. A 2015 report by Pew Research Center reported that half of two-parent families had both parents working full-time.

There are ironies with the criticism of full-time working mothers among Christian circles. One, as Beaty points out, is that in the scope of history, it’s a “modern phenomenon” that so many women don’t have to work full-time. Another is this: according to a New York Times article, mothers engage with their kids as much or more than mothers did in the 1970s. In the 1990s, upper middle-class parents began getting more involved — driving kids to additional sports games, etc.

But that means in the flush 1980s when Focus on the Family gained prominence, stay-at-home mothers were not doing more than full-time working mothers are doing now regarding involvement with their kids.

• • •

Where’s my full-time working mom guru telling me that the way to counter my culture as a Christian is to have them in fewer activities? To tell me that I’m actually not that much in control of shaping my children’s lives and their economic future? That providing them too many opportunities can lead them to believe they’ll have every opportunity — a belief that teaches them to disregard their own privilege or eventually breeds cynicism?

The New York Times article states that the American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged “intensive parenting,” sadly enough as more parents work full-time. A cited example is the AAP’s recommendation that children don’t watch TV by themselves, “instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — [TV] is to be ‘co-viewed’ for maximum learning.”

Can you imagine picking up a popular book for Christian mothers encouraging you to let your kids have screen time so you can hang out with your husband?

Not married until my thirties, I’m loath to experience emotional disconnection with my husband by piling on our girls’ evening activities. So, yes, an episode of the new Carmen Sandiego is in order for my kids to unwind while I chat with my husband as he chops something for dinner and I empty the dishwasher. 

A hidden benefit of both my husband and I working is our equivalent limited flexibility during the day. If I take a child to a regular weekly appointment during my working hours, I may need to work longer those days and he’ll have to pick up the kids. Do we want to increase the stress that evening by allowing another extracurricular? 

As a team in the care of the household, we are forced to discuss what our family can handle for activities. With these limitations, my husband and I have to think about what’s best for the family and not what’s best for the kids. We’ve decided what’s best is 10-minute devotions: a Bible story that fits the church year, the kids’ thoughts on it, and then a bit of impromptu prayer ended by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. There’s no guilt for skipping on the nights we have other activities.

My mama friends and I, we’re going to determine with our husbands what parenting and working full-time looks like. We’re going to pray a lot and consult the limited number of role models we have. We’re going to let go of shame and announce on social media when we’ve spent three hours grading papers while our kids watch Despicable Me 1 and 2 back-to-back.

And we’re going to be there someday to mentor our daughters in their full-time jobs and be the gurus other working mothers need in the church.

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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