Author Virginia Woolf is famous for writing, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Swinging the pendulum
Since she penned this quote, women have seen Woolf’s writing as a catalyst for understanding the restlessness they feel in their position in life. Much of the literature around Woolf’s time period (and later), centered around this “trapped-housewife” motif that Betty Friedan expanded upon in her later work. Woolf was trying to capture the idea that women have ambitions, dreams, and in many respects are multi-faceted human beings. A woman must have some level of autonomy and freedom if she is going to write, Woolf says. Or to put it another way, a woman must have space if she is going to create.
In a response to the push of second-wave feminism to get women out of their homes, Christians pushed to keep women in their homes. The impetus was noble. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” we say. Instead we’ve made it all about the baby, and missed something in the process.
What Friedan was trying to accomplish was to show that women were bored. Woolf was trying to say that women need some space and freedom separate from the families they care for. Their solution was to leave the home entirely, arguing that women were better than what the home offered them.
And women were bored. Privilege had given white women (an important distinction) more time than they needed. Advances in technology made the once arduous task of housework and cooking not all that difficult. So like the good pendulum swingers that we are, we (as a society) swung the pendulum out of the home and into the marketplace. Christians saw a problem and swung the pendulum back—too far back, I think.
Trying to find a happy middle
But we are fully-orbed humans, and some women, feeling similar angst and restlessness that Friedan and Woolf expressed, are trying to find a happy middle. We don’t want to abandon other ambitions, but we don’t want to abandon home either.
Hannah Anderson recently interviewed Michelle B. Radford (an artist) for Christianity Today about this tension women face when they enter motherhood, but have a deep desire to create. She begins this way: “Instead of viewing motherhood as a barrier to her artistic calling, Radford has learned to embrace the inherent tension between the work of raising a family and the work of creating fine art.”
Having children made me realize that being a writer doesn’t define me, but motherhood doesn’t either.
I had a lot of expectations about what I would do once I had children. After pregnancy losses and infertility, I was just so happy to be pregnant that giving up any pre-kid aspirations seemed like a no-brainer. Like Radford, as the reality of motherhood set in, I couldn’t shake a desire to create, to write, to think, and to process the new world I found myself in. In many ways, I didn’t know how much I needed words and writing until I had small children to care for. Without the outlet to write, I would get frustrated. I needed space to think and write, or I couldn’t be present for my kids.
So our family adapted and found time, even in small increments at first. But with each paragraph I wrote, I had the energy to go home and care for the children God placed in our life. Having children made me realize that being a writer doesn’t define me, but motherhood doesn’t either. I need both to serve faithfully. The pull that Radford had to both create and care for her kids deeply resonated with me, and I imagine does with many other moms as well.
There is a real struggle in our Christian sub-culture to define womanhood and motherhood in terms of sacrifice, and it is a sacrifice (all of parenthood is, really). But instead of making it about dying to self, we define what that death should look like. We assume it always means the death of a dream or death of aspirations, when I’m not sure that is always the case. It definitely involves a re-orienting of our aspirations, and maybe even a tabling of them for a while. But the one who sacrifices the most is not always the one who gives up the most. Sometimes the one who sacrifices the most is the one who sacrifices time for hobbies, or bedtime routines, or even sleep (as needed). The sacrifices abound in the Christian life, but we shouldn’t define the sacrifices always in terms of abandoning one vocation (creativity or marketplace) or another (motherhood).
Driven by love of neighbor
The impetus that drives me to continue to create, even when it’s hard and I don’t have much time, is the same thing that drives me to want to be a faithful mom. Radford says: “All of us have more than one vocation, but they all have a single purpose: to love and serve and care for our neighbor. I began to realize, too, that my vocation as a mother and my vocation as an artist had the same person—God—calling me. There’s a unity to my different vocations.”
I want to be a good writer because I want to serve the God who made me a writer. I want to be a good mom because I want to serve the God who made me a mom. These “dual vocations”, as Radford calls them, work together because God is a God of order and unity. Sure, there are times where one vocation gets more of my time and energy. In my current season of life, my mom vocation is that one. But women’s lives ebb and flow, and it won’t always look like this. And that’s okay. We need a more robust understanding that to be human is to be a multi-faceted being. No person is defined solely by their vocation—or multiple vocations.
The guilt women face over these dual vocations is real. I feel it. Radford felt it. Many feel it. So what’s the solution? I think Radford is on to something when she talks about neighbor love being the driving force behind our work. When motherhood and writing are more about my neighbor (either the little neighbors in my home or the neighbors in the outside world), then I am free to work where God has placed me. We are all called to love our neighbors with the ways God has created us, for the good of the world that he has made. The challenge is figuring out what that looks like, but it should never be a cause for false guilt of mom-shaming.
As the world we live in becomes increasingly global, and work is less tied to a concrete place, these conversations will only increase. For a long time, the only option women had was to choose one vocation over the other, and many did. Now women have the opportunity to grow into their dual vocations and find what Radford has found, that embracing both makes us more fully-invested humans.
Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan, and even our conservative Christian culture have attempted to swing the pendulum of female vocation in a myriad of directions, but we all would be better served by a more middle way—where women can use their gifts in the home and the marketplace for the good of everyone in the world that God has made.