Years ago, an author of a book on men and women in ministry with a PhD from a evangelical seminary spoke at a bring-your-own lunch workshop at another such school. Her opinions included the option that a woman might have biblical grounds for contributing economically to the household—a concept she pulled right out of Proverbs 31. Finally, one of the people in attendance raised a hand and asked, “But wouldn’t you concede that the ideal is for the woman to be home full-time raising the kids while the man is out working?"
She seemed ashamed. "Yes. That is the ideal."
At that time, my brother-in-law, Mark, and my sister, Mary, lived six blocks away. And Mark walked one of my nieces to school every morning while my sister left to teach school. A seminary student with a flexible work schedule, Mark was known in the neighborhood as the dad every kid wanted. Some afternoons my nieces came straight to our house until their parents arrived home. And none of us viewed this as unideal. In fact, we all loved it! The girls had the deep involvement of both parents, as well as the support of the extended family unit. And we enjoyed their presence.
So I think neither the speaker nor the questioner at that lunchtime talk went far enough. If we're going to speak in the realm of ideals, isn't the ideal for both parents to be around?
"She's at home, he's away at work" is a post-Industrial Revolution perspective. And while we might say it's a luxury to have a dad around during the day, it's also a luxury to have a mom around during the day. Having either set-up is a choice almost exclusively limited to two-parent, middle- and upper-class households.
But here's the good news. Despite technology’s many consequences, one benefit is that flexible work hours are increasingly available to both men and women. A couple can contribute to the economics of their household, be available to the kids, and never have to pay a dime for daycare or leave a child without at least one parent at all times (unless they're on a date).
Consider what life was like in an agrarian society without modern conveniences. Both parents worked at home. Mama never got down on the floor to play “Candyland” with her little ones—she was too busy canning peaches, ironing, and feeding the rabbits. And Papa was out in the field or perhaps in the shop doing blacksmith work, engaged in the tasks that required more physical strength. But he was around. And the kids spent a portion of the day helping him. Sometimes Grandma would take the kids and give both parents a break.
But industrialization yanked both fathers and mothers from the home. And until we had child labor laws, it pulled the kids out too. Only middle- and upper-class families could afford to have one parent at home. And the divorce rate skyrocketed, as the family unit no longer worked together for the common good. They hardly saw or knew each other. Even in middle-class homes where the father was the sole breadwinner and they could afford to have one parent at home full-time, the family experienced consequences. In the words of one of my students, “Our American mindset always makes it about money, and it simply isn't always about money. A man provides leadership, companionship, discipline, stability, and whatever else his gifting and abilities contribute. Having been raised in a traditional home that was bereft of a male role model because of my dad's long hours at work, I feel the void and don't believe that is God's design either.”
So, the so-called biblical ideal of Mom at home with kids and Dad at the office or in the factory is really only a Westernized application of “provide for one’s own” and “be workers at home.” (Re. the latter, Paul was doubtless writing to women who were, for the most part, already contributing economically from home, and the emphasis was not on the location but on hard work.)
One of the most devastating effects of this division of labor was and is a creeping sense that God did not “make” men to handle being around kids. Our language expresses this concept when we refer to mothers as “parents,” but dads as “babysitters.” I observe this phenomenon especially when the women go away on a retreat.
In the words of one Christian social historian, “When did we make it socially acceptable for men to be incompetent as parents?” Case in point…
A male economist/theology student with whom I discussed these ideas this week, upon viewing this clip wrote with grace:
"It is such a denial of so many giftings that he already has and could develop. It's not so black and white. it's not "man go" "woman stay" and anything inbetween is not ideal or unbiblical. This echoes what I [feel] about wanting to engage more with my kids someday (hopefully!). Maybe being at home with my kids during the day some wouldn't be a bad thing?"
God did not create women for childrearing and men for work. God gave both man and woman two tasks: Have dominion over the earth and be fruitful and multiply. And both male and female are needed, fully, to accomplish both tasks. How that looks today can vary. So let us show some grace and flexibility in considering how best to work out our Christianity when it comes to economics, the household, and childrearing.