A few months ago I asked God what I should do with my time once our youngest son starts school next year (link). Inspired by the legacy of my grandmothers’ generation, I wanted to pursue my God-given vocation rather than just a job. I wanted to find work that would honour, rather than compete with my role as a mother—as a “worker” who is not interchangeable, but already entwined in a web of relationships with particular people in a particular place. I collected stories from other mothers who had done this by: working in family businesses, working in their church or their children’s school, working from home, monetising their work in the home or “working” as a volunteer.
One “job” that God called me to do fell into that last category: I agreed to take over the running of a lunchtime Christian group at our older sons’ school while our youngest went to preschool for an extra day.
I have come to appreciate that the work of mothers is best described as polychronic—that is, achieving multiple goals at the same time
Recent weeks have thrown a couple of “spanners” into the works, which have prompted me to reflect a little more on the work of mothers. I have been forced to find ways of better integrating work and motherhood so that it’s a case of both/and, not either/or. I have come to appreciate that the work of mothers is best described as “polychronic”—that is, achieving multiple goals at the same time.
Since writing this article, life has thrown all of us another major “spanner” into the works, in the form of a global pandemic. This has forced us to integrate our roles as parents and workers in a different way. I plan to write more about that in a number of future articles.
The Worker with a Child
The first problem that arose was that our youngest son was having trouble settling into his extra day of preschool. He would cry when I dropped him off and plead with me to come back early. By the time his usual preschool days came around, our son was already tired, grumpy and reluctant to go.
On the day of the lunchtime group, it felt like I spent the whole day driving to and fro between school, preschool and church (I also run a Bible study on that day). I was going to so much effort just to get our youngest son “out of the way” so that I could do my volunteer work without children. And knowing that he was miserable at preschool rather undermined the whole enterprise!
I started to wonder: What if I kept our youngest son with me all day? Maybe I could do both: look after my own child and serve our church and school communities at the same time. Maybe childcare and my volunteer work could be integrated into a single place. So I tried it. For three weeks, I took our son with me for the day: he came to church for Bible study and played with some other children, then we sat and had lunch together, and finally he came with me to the lunchtime Christian group, sitting (almost) quietly to one side, listening and joining in.
This has worked so well that we are now planning to drop our son’s third preschool day altogether. After all, this is his final year at home with me, so why not maximise our time together? Our son may not be participating in a tailored preschool program run by qualified early childhood educators; but he is learning about life and ministry from me, his one and only mother.
The other benefit of bringing our son along to school is that it gives the students a little glimpse into the life of a Christian mother—something they may not usually get to see. It may also help them to imagine a future where work and motherhood are not mutually exclusive.
Working Mothers of the Bible
We meet a few “working mothers” in the Bible. For example, widows in the early church were expected to have done numerous good deeds including “bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, [and] helping those in trouble.” (1 Timothy 5:10). The famous “wife of noble character” in Proverbs 31 makes food and clothing for her household, sells surplus garments for profit, invests in productive real estate, manages employees and gives to the poor (Proverbs 31:10-31).
But there is one major difference: in all likelihood, these ancient mothers often had their children with them as they worked—they were simultaneously caring for and teaching their children. It would seem that in Bible times, wealthier families did employ nurses to help with childcare. But even then, the division between domestic life and work would have been fairly porous. Every family saw children as apprentices: they were watching and learning their parents’ work, so that they could one day take it over.
I think we would all benefit from finding ways to reintegrate the various aspects of our fractured modern lives. Instead of driving around between home, work, school and daycare, where only one thing happens at a time, perhaps we could find ways of making our lives more “polychronic”. Maybe we can find creative ways for mothers and fathers to involve their children in their work, so that, at least some of the time, work and childcare can be “both … and” rather than “either … or”.
The Worker with a Womb
Asking God (very publicly!) what he wanted me to do next year was risky; and the answer he gave was a big surprise.
In the last week of January I was standing at a major crossroads. I had applied for a part-time job in a local Christian school and they had invited me in for an interview. Perhaps the time had finally come for me to get a “real” paid job! That same week, a Bible teacher I admire had invited me onto his podcast to discuss the topic of motherhood and work. To my astonishment, over one thousand people listened to our conversation and a number of them subsequently bought my book and recommended it to others. Maybe the time had finally come for me to launch properly into my career as a writer!
Maybe the time had finally come for me to launch properly into my career as a writer! … It turns out that God has something quite different for me to do next year.
But that very same week, I found out that I was pregnant with our fourth child. It turns out that God has something quite different for me to do next year. I later found out that I was not successful in my job application with the school. But for several weeks I was torn: Would I tell the school about my pregnancy straight away? Would they mind? Could I accept the job and keep working after the baby arrived? Could I bring the baby with me to work?
I also worried that people might have a negative reaction to the news of my pregnancy. My family and friends had been so excited that I finally had a chance to re-enter the workforce and start a “proper” career. They knew how much a second income would ease the pinch for our family—maybe we could finally go on a holiday or fix up the house. I expected people to wonder how I could “let” this happen—I obviously lacked the knowledge or commitment required to prevent another pregnancy from interrupting my career.
The True Heart of Motherhood
For now, the fact is that a small person has made my womb their home, and God is ushering me gently back into the very heart of what it means to be a mother. Being a mother means offering welcome, nourishment, nurture and guidance to the people God brings into my home. It means slowing down to accept the gift of this person, this day, this moment, even when the “to do” list in my head is nagging loudly. It means humbling myself to accept help in my frailty and exhaustion. It means anchoring my heart to this place, our home, and seeking to make it a realm of joy and truth, gratitude and grace—blessings that will brim over into the world around us.
Whatever other work God gives me to do in the future, I pray that its notes will sound in harmony with this, the true work of motherhood.
 I first heard this term during a conversation with Alastair Roberts.