Women speak to the value of motherhood

I want to back up a bit. My discussion of the value of wives and mothers led to a lot of criticism, including some comments about how easy it is for men to write such things.

Recently I’ve run across some writings by women on the same subject. These are successful, educated women. I might mention that most don’t agree with me down the line. But they have some things to contribute to our discussion.

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the July-August edition of The Atlantic. Her bio on the article reads “Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and the mother of two teenage boys. She served as the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.”

Slaughter writes about the difference between the instincts of men and women regarding parenting. She says:

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.
Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

I know that many will argue that this is merely a reflection of what society has imposed on women, but Slaughter isn’t so sure. She notes:

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

In March of this year, Lisa Miller wrote something similar in New York Magazine in the article “The Feminist Housewife: Can Women Have It All By Choosing To Stay Home?” She observes:

Meanwhile, what was once feminist blasphemy is now conventional wisdom: Generally speaking, mothers instinctively want to devote themselves to home more than fathers do. (Even Sandberg admits it. “Are there characteristics inherent in sex differences that make women more nurturing and men more assertive?” she asks. “Quite possibly.”) If feminism is not only about creating an equitable society but also a means to fulfillment for individual women, and if the rewards of working are insufficient and uncertain, while the tug of motherhood is inexorable, then a new calculus can take hold: For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity.

She references Slaughter’s experience, saying “Even Anne-Marie Slaughter would say that her maternal drive ultimately superseded her professional one, which is why she was unable to achieve more in her huge State Department job.”

Another relevant article is “No Happy Harmony” by Elizabeth Corey which appeared in October’s First Things. Corey echoes the other articles when she writes:

I’ve assumed throughout that women possess a desire to care for children that they feel more strongly than men do. Many may balk at this, although I’m often struck by how widespread my presumption is among conservatives and liberals alike. What else could give Slaughter, Spar, and Sandberg the confidence that increased political power for women will make for a more family-friendly economy?

The observation that women, as a group, undoubtedly have more of the “nurturing” impulse than men do (stay-at-home dads in New York City and Portland notwithstanding) does not yield the conclusion that sex alone should determine a woman’s course of life (what I call “gender determinism”). It does imply, however, that we cannot come to terms with the difficulties women face in the present day until we consider the way in which we feel the competing inclinations in our own souls.

Angela Miceli wrote something similar in this month’s Public Discourse from the Witherspoon Institute. In her article “Authentic Feminine Excellence” she notes:

Corey fails to acknowledge that we actually achieve our excellences through relationships. Is not the very gift of oneself to another a means of achieving a kind of excellence? Perhaps there is a unique, distinctly feminine excellence to be discovered—one that witnesses to the great paradox that all human persons reach their highest excellence through self-gift.
Perhaps we have not adequately explored this idea of a feminine excellence because of accusations of being “gender essentialists.” To be a gender essentialist is considered by most academics to be a great insult. However, I see it as plain common sense: men and women are different. They are not the same. Why, then, should we treat their pursuit of excellence as identical? With respect to professional success, research shows that even though the proportion of women in the workforce has increased, women are still more likely than men to adjust their work schedules to fit the needs of their families.

So even if you don’t like my assertion that men and women respond differently to the call of parenthood, many women writers are saying the same. They also present evidence to back my claim that families tend to be happier when women are given the freedom to lead in this area. Micelli reports:

That same year, an American sociologist published a paper describing similar results. Predictors of marital unhappiness, found Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, included wives who earned a large share of household income and wives who perceived the division of labor at home as unfair. Predictors of marital happiness were couples who shared a commitment to the institutional idea of marriage and couples who went to religious services together. “Our findings suggest,” he wrote, “that increased departures from a male-breadwinning-female-homemaking model may also account for declines in marital quality, insofar as men and women continue to tacitly value gendered patterns of behavior in marriage.” It’s an idea that thrives especially in conservative religious circles: The things that specific men and women may selfishly want for themselves (sex, money, status, notoriety) must for the good of the family be put aside.

She also observes:

In researching her 2010 book The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family, New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that, in spite of all the gains young women have made, about a quarter say they would choose a traditional domestic arrangement over the independence that comes with a career, believing not just “that only a parent can provide an acceptable level of care” but also that “they are the only parent available for the job.”

Corey sees an inherent clash between the quest for identity and fulfillment outside the home and the quest for excellence in the home. She asserts:

Thus they ask a question at the forefront of popular literature about women and work: How can ­women “balance” professional interests and family? Like countless other women, I’ve had to juggle my obligations as a mother and wife with the demands first of graduate study and then of teaching and scholarship. But I’ve slowly come to realize that this quest for balance, the desire to reconcile radically conflicting demands, is misguided. Work and family evoke from us two distinct modes of being and of relation to others. The conflicts between these modes cannot, if we are honest with ourselves, be wished away or ignored.

She also observes:

Yet this is precisely where such literature fails. It presents the problem as one that admits of solution primarily through political or social reform. But the problem Slaughter, Spar, and Sandberg describe is not at root sociopolitical. It is rather that the personal qualities required by professional work are directly opposed to the qualities that childrearing demands. They are fundamentally different existential orientations, and the conflict between them is permanent.

One final thought from Miceli is worth consideration. It’s certainly something I hadn’t thought of. She points out:

But perhaps our consideration of authentic feminine excellence has been stifled by something else, the discussion of which is curiously missing in Corey’s article: contraception. With such ready access and widespread use of contraception, women are often tacitly, and sometimes quite explicitly, expected to delay childbearing or forgo it altogether in order to advance their education or their career.
Contraception disrupts the order of marriage, sex, and childrearing. As a result, women often feel tremendous pressure from employers, colleagues, doctors, neighbors, and sometimes even their own friends and family members regarding the number of children they ought to have and when they should have them. If a woman should venture to have more than the respectable one boy and one girl, she is often lectured about the various contraceptive measures she should take to prevent such an “irresponsible” thing from happening again.

Being a wife and mother does not disqualify a woman from being active in the church. However, it’s my belief that God has prepared men and women for different tasks and that our spiritual gifts do not negate those differences.

9 thoughts on “Women speak to the value of motherhood

  1. Rafael G. Sustaita

    Tim: Not sure how this is related to the expressed view of women in scripture and how much of this is meaningful to us today in the spiritual realm.

  2. Tim Archer Post author


    The other day I wrote:

    I believe that men were meant to provide for and support their families. I believe that women were intended to be the primary nurturers and caregivers for the children, primary creators of the home environment for the family. Each gender contributes to the other’s tasks, but I believe there is an order that works on physical, psychological, and emotional levels. (The physical is admittedly less true in modern society, at least as far as labor is concerned)

    One reason that women in general feel undervalued and limited is the fact that we undervalue the role of mother. We’ve lost the sense of urgency when it comes to providing a solid, stable home environment for our families, something that I think God especially calls women to do.

    I believe that the church is strongest when men are providing spiritual leadership. I believe the church is strongest when women prioritize their roles as wives and mothers.

  3. Wendy Cayless

    Tim, prioritising the roles of wives and mothers is alienating and exclusionary to single and childless women.

    Men and women should prioritise their roles as using their God given gifts to serve, according to how they have been gifted, placed, educated and their life’s experience, NOT according to what gender they might be (to say nothing of how this alienates LGBTQI people)

  4. Nick Gill

    Tim, prioritising the roles of wives and mothers is alienating and exclusionary to single and childless women.

    Doesn’t have to be, unless one places a heavily wooden and literalistic meaning upon the concept of motherhood.

    The writer of Judges sums up Deborah’s work in one rich phrase that has nothing to do with her fertility: Judges 5:7

    The villagers ceased in Israel;
    they ceased to be until I arose;
    I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.

  5. Wendy Cayless

    Nick, in practice that is what is emphasised (in the churches I have been a member of anyway). Friends who are battling with infertility do feel less than “ideal” in a culture which elevates bearing children above serving as one is gifted.

  6. nick gill

    Everyone feels less than ideal all the time. It isn’t anywhere in the church’s job description “to make people feel ideal.” People who rely on the church rather than God to establish and protect their identity will be susceptible to discouragement from the failings of others.

  7. gal328cofc

    hi Tim,

    I really appreciate the deepening of the conversation in this way, and particularly the way you bring in feminist voices to bear on this (this seems particularly brave as feminism is still so often reviled in church contexts, so, bravo!).

    One of the things these pieces reveal is that feminism–as a continuing, evolving movement–has (largely) moved past the pursuit of an “androgynous ideal” in which the differences between gendered embodiments are ignored as irrelevant to personhood. One way of honoring these differences is a recourse to a kind of gender essentialism that valorizes the feminine over the masculine–this takes the form of praising female ways of knowing, ethics of care as expressions of the feminine, etc. I don’t think that Slaughter and the other authors you quote are necessarily located within this strand of feminism (I don’t know their work well or broadly enough to make this judgment) but certainly it seems that you are interpreting them through your own lens of male/female gender essentialism.

    The thing I think these authors get absolutely right is their description of the “problem”–that women, and women’s embodiments, aren’t a good “fit” for the paid workforce in various ways, and so far, the “solutions” (in scare quotes because they are not, in fact, actual solutions) has been to insist that women simply, well, pretend to be dudes from 9-5 or however long their workday is. You can diagnose this as a problem with women having women’s bodies (women get pregnant, women are primary caregivers of children, women lactate, etc.), or you can diagnose this as a problem with the workplace being implicitly coded as masculine in ways that just aren’t livable for women–nor, let me add, increasingly for men, who are belatedly discovering the joys of shared caregiving and parenting. Surely what we all really need is a work environment that recognizes and honors the fact that all of us are human beings with families, friends, homes, and obligations that matter to us much more deeply than the obligations tied to a paycheck? Surely this reaches beyond gender stratification?!

    So I still want to pushback on this idea that this is a problem because “women are women” and that this is best defined through (attributed, if not actual) childbearing capacity. Women are many things, and women’s bodies do many more things than give birth, and as Wendy keeps pointing out, many women never do or can give birth–this does not make them less of a woman than others. If women’s bodies are a “problem,” it’s because we’ve inherited societal expectations and structures that construe them that way–and those expectations and structures are not givens; human beings created them, and human beings can (and should!) change them when we see that they are harmful and counterproductive. This is, as I see it, one way of defining the work of justice that we as Christians should have our eyes on!

    To bring things back to the church, then, it’s helpful to bring this same sort of analytical approach to our expectations of each other and our structures of decision making and power within our congregations. Do these expectations of women really describe the actual women sitting in the pews? Does every woman in the church fit this narrow definition of “who women are?” If not–do we tell these women who don’t fit, for whatever reason, that they are somehow not proper women? That’s what we have been telling them. Is this a helpful or a harmful message?

    I could leave that a rhetorical question, but I’d rather not. Instead, I’ll point you a wealth of testimony on this archived at and . There’s a lot of harm done when we teach people that they cannot be who God calls them to be, and that they cannot even aspire to follow the call they’ve heard and taken seriously from their own church, because that call wasn’t after all meant for them.

    Our measure for sound doctrine must, must, include consideration of the fruits it produces in the lives of those who strive to follow it. Our doctrine and practice in the CofC causes harm. These are stories of pain and bewilderment and they’re hard to listen to. But I beg you, and your readers here, to take a deep breath and dive into them.

    Thanks once more for the time and space and thought you’ve given to this here on your blog. It is encouraging.

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