Is a woman's most important work the care of her home and family? Or is she allowed ambition beyond her front door? The domestic scripts are changing today, and as 21st century women, we entertain new freedoms—even the privilege to ask these questions.
For those of us with a stake in the Mommy Wars (who do not return to work out of economic necessity), we are largely deciding our fates, not by convention or obligation, but by desire. We stay at home—or we choose career— because we want to. Desire is our new freedom. For many Christian women, it is also our fear.
What should Christian women want?
Like the majority of women today, I live at the intersection of work and family, even the work of family. I am a wife and mother, even now a writer—making the "rhetorical" questions of the Mommy Wars anything but rhetorical. They are not benign curiosities at which I play like a fascinated cat with her ball of string. The answers matter. What is my calling as a woman? Or better said, what does God require of me? The answers to these questions, theological in nature, beg to give meaningful shape to who I am and what I do. They are value-driven, even "teleological," if I may borrow an idea from James K.A. Smith. They mean to tell me what makes my life good. Is it children? Career? A complicated choreography of both?
I've spent the past 12 years of motherhood caught in the questions—and tangled by my desires. I have wanted to be a godly wife and mother. I have believed these to be God-valued callings. I have also wanted to write, a discipline begging something quieter than the spin cycle of home. The desires war. And I feel splintered.
What should I want?
In defense of desire
Desire is the earliest language we learn. It is primal. Babies cry for milk. They wail to insist upon sleep. Not yet one minute old, and each of us is instinctively fluent in the language of want. To want is to be human.
As Christian women, however, we often live disconnected from desire. Perhaps we fear the electricity of its truth, that it says something profound about our unedited selves. (Isn't that coveting?) Or maybe, somewhere along the way, we made what felt like a necessary agreement for faith. We would not want. Desire seemed like a self-serving project. So we abandoned it.
Apart from the intervention of grace, it is true we will fail the two greatest commands—to love God and love others—in favor of selfish self-interest. Desire is easily corrupted. But nowhere does God insist we amputate desire and sever this life source. Instead, we are asked to cultivate holy desire: to learn to love the lovely and to hate the despised. "Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways!" Renovate my heart's desires, the psalmist in Psalm 119 prays.
Teach me to want.
In the beginning
What can Christian women want? If there is permission for asking this question, we must also realize there is no finite inventory of answers. As far as I can tell, being formed into the likeness of Jesus is not like the production of stock furniture. Project humanity is infinitely complex, our God endlessly creative. Though we may share a common desire to glorify God, we will nonetheless live our lives differently.
Wisdom is needed for deciding our callings as women in the particularities of our time and place, and a search for wisdom necessarily returns us to Scripture. It must—for our spiritual formation is, in large part, a resistance movement. Don't be conformed to this world. Don't love as it does. Scripture provides a vital sense of recognition: This is God. This is what he loves. And this is how to follow.
What can and should Christian women want? In the beginning, in Genesis 1 and 2, we see the blessing of God taking shape in a family: husband and wife, parents and children. Be blessed, God said, and enjoy your posterity. Multiply and fill the earth. Want this, God says. Because it's good.
A desire for family has of course been particularly cherished in the history of the church. In fact, for women who are yet single, or wives who are yet barren, that the family is so highly regarded is often an acute source of pain. It can be difficult to keep company with the people who affirm the blessedness of what God has chosen to withhold.
Yet for however Christian it will seem to want family, this does not mean we modern women come by this desire naturally. In fact, where I live in Toronto, a city highly charged with ambition, many young Christian women view family with increasing suspicion. They are doctors in residency, clerking law students, PhDs with prestigious fellowships. Family feels like a potential threat to their hard-earned successes.
I have had my own lessons that multiplying—the world's curse on women—is not God's. Discovering I was unexpectedly pregnant with twins forced me to abandon plans for graduate school. That was not easy. But this initiated a slow process of growing into different desires, even the holy desire for family. God sees children—and calls them good. I am, still now, learning to agree.
Part of our spiritual formation as women today is to recover the desire for family, a desire the world fails to fully value. Nevertheless, desire for family isn't the only holy desire Genesis 1 and 2 inspires. In Genesis 2, we see Adam given the work of tending the garden God had planted. God made for Adam a helper in this work: Eve. She became heir to the great commission to work and to keep the land.
Men and women are paired to partner in the task of making culture. Men and women are made in the image of the God who took a formless world and called forth its beauty and its logic. It is thus part of our glorious and holy humanity that seizes the delight of work, even work beyond the scope of family. The desire for this kind of cultivation is not coveting: It is indeed calling.
Much can be made of the Hebrew word translated "work" in Genesis 2:15. Used in many other passages in the Old Testament, it is translated as "worship." This serves as another important and holy signpost: What can Christian women want?
Work that resembles worship.
Living with our disappointments
Scripture seems to bear out that women can and should want work and family, even the work of family. That doesn't put down the rabid dog of the Mommy Wars, yet it lends some confidence for meeting it. But maybe our greatest challenge isn't living with our desires. Maybe it's abiding our disappointments.
I think of women whose only culture-making today is their children's crayon art. They can't see the end of diapers. When will the real work of worship begin? I think of women stuck in jobs of mind-numbing monotony. Their bills are paid, but they wonder: when will the real work of worship begin? I think of women caring for aging parents, whose imagined years of freedom are not. When will the real work of worship begin? Want as we will, desire isn't always deciding our lives.
But here the gospel births hope. In the middle of the lives we have and have not wanted, there is a good God with a good plan for a good world: He decides our scripts.
"We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places—out of Galilee," writes Kathleen Norris in her essay, "The Quotidian Mysteries."
The Incarnation was God's most humble, holy work, and it is the source of all our worship. It is also the pattern for our labor, reminding us that our lives—and the real work of worship—are never paused, even when they seem inglorious. Our God-given Galilees are the place where each of us begins: the work that resembles worship.
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Jen Pollock Michelis the author of the forthcoming book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (InterVarsity Press), which releases in August 2014.