For most of my early life, female-ness was all I knew. My mom was single for a significant part of my growing up years, and I have two sisters. So until first grade or so, I was pretty sure the only difference between boys and girls came down to haircuts. Sometimes I took clues from first names too. But since the '80s celebrated a number of gender-neutral names like "Chris" and "Sam," most of the time, certainty came down on the side of the haircut.
This naiveté is laughable, of course. But as I've grown older, I've come to realize these formative years of living exclusively with and among other women has significantly shaped my own sense of identity and vocation as a woman. Most notably, it has given me a deep curiosity to understand the angst that punctuates so much of what it means to be a woman today. And, specifically, to try and better understand the confusion, striving, and uncertainty that seems to lie at the heart of so many of our modern choices, responsibilities, roles, and commitments.
A recent study by the Barna group highlights this sense of confusion and unrest among women. Not surprisingly, at first glance, women seem generally satisfied with their life and choices. More than three-quarters of women (76 percent) said they are either "satisfied" (50 percent) or "extremely satisfied" (26 percent) with their life. Yet while these numbers seem promising, almost every other indicator reveals a stark sense of dissatisfaction. Sixty-two percent of mothers with children at home, for example, say they are dissatisfied with the balance between their work life and their home life. Seven in ten say they are dissatisfied with the amount of stress they experience in their life, and six in ten do not feel they get enough rest. These numbers are slightly better among women who do not have children, yet nearly two-thirds (63 percent) still say their lives are too stressful.
What this data underscores is the complexity that comprises a woman's sense of satisfaction, and the dissonance that seems to mark so much of women's modern experience. At the same time, it emphasizes the need for Christians to provide more substantive resources, both practical and theological, for women whose lives and work are marked by complexity.
My complex role in the "mommy wars"
In my own life as a happily married mother with three (soon to be four) children who works part-time managing a small non-profit organization, the need for better resources feels obvious to me. On the one hand, we live in a culture that glories in the zero-sum game of the "mommy wars," the unending expectations of "having it all," and the elusive but perpetual effort to "balance" work and home life. On the other hand, our church communities too often engage the challenges modern women face with equally one-dimensional responses. They either endorse these same cultural frameworks with a bit of Christian spin, over-simplify the reality of "life seasons," or reduce the complexity women feel as fodder for theological debate about a woman's role.
In the meantime, as the Barna data shows, women both inside and outside the church are struggling in fragmented, disjointed lives full of stress and uncertainty, while the depth and richness of the gospel sits untapped. The confidence and joy we have in Christ goes unheeded simply for lack of sufficient theological imagination to consider how the gospel might meaningfully and distinctively speak to women in the fullness of their lives, roles, and experience.
In my own life, it's the fullness of the biblical narrative that has offered me the hope, coherence, and sustainability to navigate what might otherwise just be a disparate smattering of responsibilities over many years. The doctrine of creation, for example, reminds me that I'm made in the image of the triune God whose nature and identity are vastly dimensional and dynamic. Therefore, if my life and identity feel complex, I can take comfort that this is not a problem to be solved, but rather, a fundamental part of my design.
Likewise, when I encounter limitations in my life, instead of engaging these as impediments to God's purposes or inhibitors to my true calling, I take heart that through the Incarnation, God himself chose to dignify the ordinary constraints we all face as a means of demonstrating how he does his own work in the world. With all resources at his disposal, God did not transcend time or space, or make a grand triumphal splash in order to redeem the world. Instead, he came humbly to a particular woman at a particular moment in a particular town amid specific socio-political and economic realities—and he asks us to exercise faithfulness no differently. As such, when I encounter the limitations of my own particular finances, time, energy, or relationships, I'm reminded that God invites me into an incarnate faith, not an abstract or theoretical one. It is through these very specific circumstances, hopes, realities, and longings that he wishes to work out his purposes. And this is very good news for women whose lives are increasingly marked by the sense of never having enough time, rest, and bandwidth to live the life they long to live.
A call to live
In the same way, it's critical for Christian women to remember that our calling to follow God is not only about our aspirations and abilities. God did not come to save the strong, but the weak. To speak not only to the leaders and the influencers, but the poor, the meek, and the invisible. And with this comes the essence of the gospel, which is that God heals us not through exhibition of his own grand talent or supernatural abilities, but by his wounds (Isaiah 53:5). Likewise, it is in our own suffering and grief, our own confusion and disappointment, that God desires to weave coherence and purpose into our lives.
The Reformers were wise to remind us that, indeed, "All work is God's work." This is tremendously good news for women seeking to make sense of their own identity and calling in the midst of our fragmented world of paltry definitions that allow some things to count as "work" and other things to fall, somehow, outside of work. The deeper truth is that God made each of us to take up our many and varied responsibilities in time and in season. Our job is not so much to make something of ourselves as to avail ourselves, allowing him to make whatever it is he wants to make of us over the course of a lifetime.
So, whether our primary work happens within the walls of our home, our neighborhood, our schools, the marketplace, or even on a public platform, the heart of our work as Christians ought to always be the same: to offer ourselves fully and obediently to whatever and to whomever God has given us to care for within the context of time, circumstance, and season.
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Kate Harris is the executive director at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, and soon-to-be the mother of four.