Unlike many women, I did not have an identity crisis when I became a mother. That’s probably because I didn’t really have a career to identify with in the first place. I had tallied up seven years of tertiary study and worked a few part-time jobs; but I certainly didn’t experience any grief at having to stop work when our first son was born.

I spent the next ten years of life with my centre of gravity at home. We welcomed a second son and then a third into our family: I was busy caring for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers on repeat.

This year, our youngest son will be getting ready to start school; it will be my final year of having children at home during the week. I can feel an identity crisis looming.

But this year, our youngest son will be getting ready to start school; it will be my final year of having children at home during the week. Now I can feel an identity crisis looming. What will I do once our littlest one goes to school?

Our Grandmothers’ Careers

Our modern society has a script for this transition: once all of your children start school, you should get a paid job outside of the home.

But this hasn’t always been the script. Neither of my grandmothers ever did a single day’s paid work after having children (needless to say, their families were able to survive on one single income). In today’s world, that would be incomprehensible: a mother of older children who is not working must be excessively wealthy, lazy or plain unemployable. Our modern economy only values work that is paid; if my grandmothers weren’t earning money then their marketable skills must have been lying fallow. What on earth were they doing with their time?

Sadly, one of my grandmothers passed away this year; her funeral was a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman. Although my grandmother never worked, people kept speaking about her “career.” Granny was a prodigious writer—of poetry, plays and books. She also ran a theatre in the family’s backyard and founded several societies. But my grandmother did all of this without any formal training or payment. Her work emerged organically from her passions and talents; it flowed out from her home to benefit the wider world.

From watching the older ladies in my church, I can tell you what the other women in my grandmother’s generation were doing with their “spare” time. They were cultivating gardens and preserving the produce; they were making clothes, quilts and blankets; they were cooking meals to share; they were looking after other people’s children; they were teaching children about God in schools and churches; they were running “auxiliary” groups to support local hospitals and other organisations and some of them had paid jobs, nursing and teaching in the community.

In previous generations, mothers stood at the heart of society. They were at the centre of a web of relationships that started with their own families and stretched out into the wider community. Men may have been the “head” of institutions like families, schools and churches, but women were the heart.

In previous generations, mothers stood at the heart of society. They were at the centre of a web of relationships that started with their own families and stretched out into the wider community.

While most mothers were “unemployed” and therefore unpaid, they were busy living out their God-given vocation: their skilled hands were turning God’s creation into useful and beautiful things to serve family and neighbour; their love and practical care were knitting together the communities around them. And they did all of this while supporting their husbands and raising their children: motherhood and work have never been mutually exclusive.

Mothers Are Not Interchangeable Workers

Our modern economy sees people as detached, interchangeable individuals with a particular set of saleable skills and functions. But a mother is not just a set of skills: she is an irreplaceable person, bound to particular people in a particular place.

Motherhood makes no sense in our modern economy which severs natural bonds between families and neighbours and replaces them with artificial, commercial relationships between clients and professionals. Why would I care for my children for free when I could earn money caring for other people’s children? Why would I volunteer to look after my ageing relatives when I could earn money looking after other people’s relations?

Of course, many women manage to do both—to serve the wider community and their family. But we need to ask ourselves: What does our society lose when we outsource a mother’s core functions to paid professionals? What do we lose when we insist that a mother leave her network of natural relationships in order to do “real” work for strangers?

The recently televised “Old People’s Home for Four-Year Olds” was a social experiment that demonstrated how ongoing relationships between children and the elderly are mutually beneficial. Many people responded to the show by petitioning the government to invest in intergenerational facilities and programs. But this reveals just how much we have been conditioned to expect human relationships to be professional and commercial. We already have an effective and universally-accessible intergenerational institution: it’s called the extended family! The first response I had to the show was to take my children to visit my grandparents more regularly.

Theologian Alastair Roberts describes a mother’s work like this:

The logic of abstraction and alienation departicularizes us and cuts loose the bonds that bind us to each other, our labour, and our world. However, the work of the mother is invested not merely in the performance of generic service functions for prospective or current economic agents (which she could in theory pay another to perform for her), but in the creation of the world of the home, a world that is unexchangeable, a world that is uniquely hers, a realm of life of which she herself—in her embodied particularity—is the heart and the source … The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

When Mum Needs a Job

The sad reality is that our modern economy will not validate my unpaid work as a mother: our family will eventually need a second income in order to make ends meet. But how can I find work that honours and grows out of my God-given identity as a mother, rather than competes with it? Here are some ways I have begun to approach it.

Follow the cords of relationship

Firstly, I have started looking to the network of relationships that I already have—in our church, our children’s school, our neighbourhood—for work that would strengthen those real and particular communities. To that end, I have started telling people in those networks that I am looking for work in case an opportunity opens up. I know a number of mothers who work with their husbands or other family members, using their skills to add value to the family business. Another friend has decided to cut out the “middle man” and simply home-school her own children!

Work together

As I have spoken to other mothers about our shared desire to find family-friendly work, a kind of “mothers’ co-op” has developed where we share relevant job opportunities and recommend one another to prospective employers.

But I can see the potential for even greater cooperation: between us we have a small-scale economy just waiting to come to life. You want to take a teaching job at the local school? Let me mind your kids instead of sending them to daycare. Your child wants to learn Spanish? Let me tutor them and you can repay me with piano lessons or cleaning. Your teenage daughter wants some babysitting work? Let her mind my kids while I do some work from home. Let me design and print your party invitations in exchange for some of those handmade earrings etc. etc.

Monetise what you are already doing

I have also been considering whether I could monetise something I am already doing. Some mothers I know have started businesses making clothes or other products from home; others have commercialised their work in the kitchen, selling family meals or allergy-friendly snacks; others provide training or tutoring in a particular skill; and some mothers use their creative talents with words or images to earn money.

Do it from home

Working from home can provide a more family-friendly option. For example, a friend of mine is a hairdresser; but rather than work in a commercial hair salon and pay someone else to mind her children, she has set up a small salon in her garage. Now she earns an income by serving her friends and neighbours, while her children (and theirs!) can play just outside the door.

Start as a volunteer

While a second income would ease the pinch of having a family budget that is stretched to its limit, I have started seeing the question of payment as secondary in my search for meaningful work.

We all have to grapple with the fact that there is a significant difference between a job and a vocation. A job may pay the bills, but it won’t necessarily help me to live out my God-given calling to use my talents to serve the communities I belong to. A vocation, however, will be immeasurably valuable, meaningful and satisfying, but it may never pay the bills. How blessed are those who have found a way to combine the two! 

My “Job” Offer

At the end of last year, I was asked to take over the running of a lunchtime Christian group at our children’s school. One hour before I was due to give my answer, our youngest son was unexpectedly offered an extra day at preschool—the very day the group takes place. I took that as a sign from God and agreed to take it on.

Since then, the school’s leadership has expressed their gratitude and enthusiasm, even announcing my new role on Speech Day.

I’m as excited about this volunteer work as I would have been about a paid job. It has provided me with a precious opportunity to use my gifts to serve our school community for the glory of God.

It sounds strange to say it, but I think I’m as excited about this volunteer work as I would have been about a paid job. The work may not be paid, but it has provided me with a precious opportunity to use my gifts to serve our school community for the glory of God. And who knows—maybe one day it will lead to a paid role at the school.

I suspect that I will never have a “career” in the modern sense; but if my contribution to the world looks anything like my grandmothers’, then I will be very proud.

See more on this topic from Harriet Connor here.