"What do you want to be when you grow up?" When you were a child, chances are you were asked this question, probably by a teacher or adult at church. The point wasn't so much to get you the proper career training as it was to inspire you to identify your budding interests. As a child of the 1980s and '90s, I heard the question a lot.
I grew up in an era when laminated posters on classroom walls told us to "Reach for the Stars" and "Dream Big" against gaudy fluorescent night skies.
"I can go anywhere! . . . I can be anything!" went the theme song of LaVar Burton's PBS series Reading Rainbow. While the song praised the magic of books, it also seemed to herald endless achievements, provided young viewers kept a positive mental attitude.
For all my young mind could discern, when it came to dreaming big about what I might accomplish in life, gender mattered little. From a book series at my elementary school library, I learned about Billie Jean King, Mary Lou Retton, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and other sports stars who had defied deeply held beliefs about women's athletic abilities. Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president the year I was born. Sandra Day O'Connor wielded a gavel in the highest Court in the land. In a project about the 1986 Challenger explosion, I studied Judith Resnik, an engineer who had died tragically alongside her six crew members. But she died doing what she was supremely good at—something she loved. From these and other women, I absorbed the belief, imperceptibly at the time, that being a girl would not factor into a career choice later in life.
From generation to generation
I also absorbed this belief from my mom. Like most of her peers in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1970s, she decided to attend college. She was the first woman in her family to do so. After earning her bachelor's degree in library science, my mom worked at a law library, then a university library, before having her first child (me) in 1984. From then until 1991, she was a full-time stay-at-home mom. For one year during that time span, she had essentially been a single parent: my dad, a Marine captain, was stationed in Japan, returning for two weeks out of the entire year. Not long after he returned for good (and eventually left the military), my mom returned to library work—when my brother and I were old enough to stay home alone.
My mom didn't return to work for the money. My dad's career with the Marines, and later at a construction company, well covered our family's expenses. Besides, most librarians (excepting highly specialized reference librarians) enter the work for the books, not the money. It was this sheer love—of books, children, and education— that compelled my mom to go back to work.
She wouldn't have said this at the time, in part because she had not yet become a Christian. But by going back to the library to do what she loved, my mom was pursuing more than a career. She was pursuing a vocation. Throughout much of Christian history, the word vocation—derived from the Latin vocare, "to call"—was associated with religious orders and monastic life. But starting in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers and, later, the Puritans taught that all Christians, ordained or not, had a calling in this life. And they taught that God cared just as much about "secular" work as about "sacred" work, because all of creation is his. As Martin Luther wrote,
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps, but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
It's interesting that Luther mentions the maid. He was writing in a time when most women married young, usually without choice. Their work in this life was overseeing duties of the household. Today we might be tempted to take pity on these women of history for being consigned to the home, even though they might have really wanted to be shoemakers. Yet in his own way, Luther was dignifying her work as equally as important as the shoemaker's—provided it was done in a spirit of worship and excellence.
I believe we are in an utterly unique moment in history for women. More than ever, women can enter vocational fields long reserved for men. No, not every woman "can be anything," as the Reading Rainbow theme song says, because no human can be anything. But doors long thought divinely closed now swing open for women like me.
This is good news not simply because it means that workplace discrimination, fueled by sexist attitudes about women's abilities and intelligence, is diminishing. The opening of doors—and options—for women also means that now more than ever, Christian women have the chance to do the work they are best suited for. We have a better chance of investing wisely and meaningfully the time, energy, gifts, and abilities we've been given.
Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." In other words, our work in the world should be both deeply needed by others and deeply satisfying to us. Women choosing a career path, or going back to work after having children, might center their decision-making on this quote. They might ask themselves: What would I do if I didn't get paid for it? What have been the happiest moments of life, and what might those moments reveal about my work decision? What gifts can I uniquely give to people in need? How will my work bring more beauty, truth, justice, and love into the world?
After asking these questions, some Christian women will earnestly feel that being wives who support their husbands and mothers who raise children is their life's work. For this they should be supported. Marriage and motherhood are supremely important realms of human activity. And if the women's movement of the 20th century was ultimately about women's choice, then women who choose more traditional paths should be encouraged, not squelched.
Christian women who discern their vocation to be beyond marriage and children should likewise be encouraged, though. When another editor and I started Her.meneutics, Christianity Today's women's blog, in 2009, we wanted to create a forum for women to discuss topics beyond marriage and family. We felt that those important topics had nonetheless overshadowed other concerns among Christian women, such as media, social justice, education, and popular culture. All I knew to do was to create a website that I would want to read (my deep gladness), and given the growth of the site in the past four years, other Christian women (and men) want to read it too (the world's deep hunger). It can be uncomfortable to talk about one's own vocation. God's movement in our lives is mysterious, and talk of "my calling" can sound pious and egocentric.
As a child, I never answered the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "editor"—much less "woman editor!" But I'm grateful for the chance to be one, and hope that you, reader, find work that gladdens your own heart, too.
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