Thursday, August 20, 2009

a question of childcare (1) attitudes

Never ask a question if you're not willing to be laid bare by the answer.

What started as an academic question for me - "Should SAHMs with young children use childcare so they can have a day off?" - has challenged me in unexpected ways.

It's driven me back to questions of first importance: how should we address questions of freedom? What's the meaning of motherhood? It's made me think about the broader issue of childcare. It's forced me to take a close look at my own life and priorities. Thank you so much for your comments, which have helped to sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I don't think I can tackle the issue of childcare in one short post. I'll cover it in a number of posts:
1. attitudes - how do we decide issues of freedom? What is God calling us to as mothers?
2. observations - what implications does this view of motherhood have for childcare?
3. research - what do studies show about childcare?
3. practicalities - what are some of the specifics we need to take into account as we make decisions about childcare?
4. examples - stories of friends of mine who have used or not used childcare with love and wisdom

Let's start with first principles.

motherhoood and the gospel
Have you ever noticed how many books on womanhood and parenting are dominated by rules, programs and "how to's"? We're left with a view of motherhood shaped more by rules than by the gospel, leaving us proud or guilt-ridden. But the gospel does two things:

  • it frees us from the condemnation and rule of the law to live in the freedom of God's grace
  • it shows us the shape that this freedom takes: the shape of Jesus' sacrificial love
Jesus gave up everything - glory, honour, happiness - to become human and die an ugly death under the anger of his dear Father for our sake. God calls us to be like his Son: to lay down our selfish ambitions to pour ourselves out in sacrificial love (Phil 2:1-11). Every mother knows that motherhood demands great sacrifice. It's a sacrifice we make not only because we love our children, but because our hearts have been captured by the gospel. The shape of motherhood is the shape of the cross.

free ...
As many of us have observed, there are no rules in the Bible about childcare. This shouldn't surprise us: as Christians, we're under grace, not law (Rom 6:14). When Jesus died, he set us free from law (Rom 8:2). God doesn't give us a set of rules and tell us to live by them. It's incredibly easy as parents to stand over one another in proud judgement on matters of freedom.

... to love
But this doesn't mean we're free to live however we like. God has written a new law on our hearts by his Spirit: the law of love (Jer 31:33, Rom 13:8-10). "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Gal 5:13 - see this talk HT Simone). The shape of freedom is the shape of love. When making decisions as mothers, the question is not "What can I get away with?" but "How can I best fulfil my responsibility to love those God has given me to love - my husband and children?".

the shape of mother-love
Love isn't some general, vague concept for mothers. Mother-love takes its shape from God, the life-giver, the God of compassion and comfort (Gen 3:20, Is 49:15, 66:13, 2 Cor 1:3 - see this talk). God gives mums and dads the awesome responsibility of loving, disciplining, teaching and training their children (Deut 6:5-9, 2 Tim 1:5; 3:15, Tit 2:3-5). Men fulfil this role primarily as they lead, love and provide for their families; women as they help their husbands and bear and nurture their children (Gen 1-3, Eph 5:22-33). God reminds mothers, tempted in the first century, as we are now, to escape the small world of raising children for publicly recognised work and ministry, that Jesus died to save us as we work within this role, not as we escape it (1 Tim 2:15). He describes the shape of mother-love: loving our husbands and children, being self-controlled and pure, and being busy at home and rich in good deeds (Tit 2:3-5, 1 Tim 5:9-15).

the high calling of motherhood
It's so easy to lose sight of the privilege of motherhood when we're changing a nappy, settling a quarrel, or waking to another long day at home with kids. I found Sharon James' chapter "Only a Mum?" in God's Design for Women a helpful reminder of what motherhood is all about: helping my children to love and serve Jesus and to introduce others to him. This eternal perspective gives meaning to the mundane tasks of motherhood. The world tells us that motherhood is demeaning and unimportant ("Is that all you do? Do you work?"). God tells a different story: that motherhood is of infinite value in his eyes.

wisdom and motherhood
While it's right to talk about the "high calling" and "sacrifice" of motherhood, we mustn't forget that we're creatures, not the Creator. God made us to need sleep, rest and exercise. This includes mums! If we saw someone working 24/7 without rest, we'd rightly be concerned. But we often have this expectation of the ideal SAHM. It doesn't help that mums in our society are often shut away from adult company and the support of extended family. Some women thrive in this context, but others struggle. It's important to be aware of what helps us stay emotionally and physically healthy as we serve our families (exercise? mental stimulation? adult company?), and to try to work out ways to make these things happen - but only to the benefit, not harm, of our children.

evaluating our decisions
The question isn't really "Is childcare evil?" or "How many days a week should Christians use childcare?" This is a bit like asking "How far can I go?" when talking about sex before marriage!** The real question is much bigger, and it confronts every married woman with children: "Am I fulfilling the high calling that God has given me - to love and help my husband and, with him, to love, teach and train our children as we raise them up in Christ?" The details of our decisions will vary according to our individual circumstances, and some of us may well need to use childcare, but all of us who are mothers need to examine our choices in the light of this priority. God has entrusted our children to our care: how will we respond?

love, not judgement
I hope that if you see me getting off-track in my priorities as a wife and mother, whether it's an issue of sin or wisdom, that you'll love me enough to speak gently to me about the choices I've made. In the same way, one of the ways I will show my love to you is to do that for you. This isn't a matter of me sitting in proud judgement over you, or you over me: surely we both know that we make mistakes in mothering every day! God gives us one another so that we can teach, admonish and encourage each other, without quarreling or back-biting (Col 3:16, Eph 4:15, Heb 3:12-13, Gal 6:1-2, Jam 5:16, 2 Cor 12:20). One of the ways we can do this is to speak the truth in love to one another, even in this public forum, as we talk about how the gospel shapes the decisions we make as mothers.

There are all kinds of ways we can neglect the high calling of motherhood. For me, it's by piling (good) ministry on (good) ministry until the far more significant ministry of loving, teaching and training my children is downgraded or squeezed out. My sister in Christ may tick all the SAHM boxes, but ignore her children's needs as she chats with friends on the phone or cleans the house a dozen times a day. Another friend may give her children over to the care of others, not because she's in real need, but so that she can pursue her career or because her husband has his interests and she has a right to hers as well. We all need to rethink our priorities in the light of this question:

How can I, in the situation God has put me in, best fulfil my responsibility to love, discipline, teach and train my children?

Next time I'd like to talk about the implications of the theology of motherhood we've talked about today for the decisions we make about childcare.

* I've covered a lot of theology in an extremely small space here! If you want to chase up the issues, I suggest you start with Sharon James' wonderful and very readable book God's Design for Women then move on to John Piper's (ed.) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
** Yes, I know the parallel is not exact - sex before marriage is wrong, although the stages towards it may not be; childcare is not wrong, although it can be misused. But in both cases there's no exact line - "This far and no further" - but only the higher goal of protecting and loving the other person.

first two images and images of sign and mug are from stock.xchng, other images are from WolfSoul, hugrakka, and Lucy Suzy at flickr


Simone R. said...

Hey Jean. You have set yourself a tricky job! Lots of good stuff here. Can I pick you up on a couple of things I think worth discussing?

You said, "So the question isn't really "Is childcare evil?" or "How many days a week should Christians use childcare?" This is a bit like asking "How far can I go?" when talking about sex before marriage!"

I think I'll disagree with this. Sex before marriage is wrong. The bible doesn't give us freedom on this. Childcare is in a different basket.

Also, "The real question is much bigger, and it confronts every married woman with children: "Am I pouring myself, heart and soul, into the high calling that God has given me - to love and help my husband and, with him, to love, teach and train our children as we raise them up in Christ?" "

I see what you're saying here, but where in the bible is motherhood elevated to this angelic status? My husband did a survey of the bible over on his blog and didn't find it anywhere.

Not, of course, that I think we shouldn't love our kids. We must. But the way you've described mothering makes it sound like you couldn't possibly do it and anything else at the same time. Does the bible ever make mothering so all-consuming?

[Can't help but see romanticised images of virgin and baby...]

I'll think more on this. Will post tonight.

Jean said...

Dear Simone,

Thanks for the excellent questions. As you might expect, they are both ones which crossed my mind as I wrote!

On the sex before marriage: yes, you're right, this is clearly wrong and therefore the two aren't directly comparable. Except that "How far can you go?" isn't a questions about sin, but about "How much can I do that isn't sinful?" In other words, holding hands, kissing, sitting alone together in a dark room, petting ... well, at some point we might draw the line, but these aren't necessarily sinful before marriage (at least the first three!). But the advice we give people is not "push it as far as you can" but "do what is most loving for you and your partner, even if this means doing less than is allowable". Yes, I know the parellel with childcare is far from exact. It's just I was trying to think of an example where love isn't about setting an exact limit but about doing as much as we can to protect and care for the other person.

Yes, I agree that "pouring myself heart and soul" could sound like there's nothing else in my life, and I agree this could sound a little "angelic"!! I think all the elements of mothering I've offered here are biblical - helping, loving, teaching, training - but I'm sure you'd agree with this! The "pouring out" is accurate language if it means self-sacrifice, but not if it means "do this to the exclusion of all else'.

You know, I think you might be right about this one, not so much because it sounds "angelic", but because it could produce an idolatry of motherhood which means that I focus on my family to the exclusion of all others. Which is why I put in (apart from the fact that it's biblical!) the stuff about "good deeds". But perhaps my language was clumsy and could be misinterpreted. Thanks for pointing it out.

I guess what I was trying to get that is that motherhood is something which demands great energy and attention, and that it (after loving our husbands) is the main sphere God calls married women to love and serve in. The "good deeds" flow out of home and family life: hospitality, caring for the poor, outreach etc. Nothing wrong with extra ministries or work! But they mustn't undermine our primary responsibilities, even if they will occasionally put strain on them. I explored some of these issues last year in balancing homemaking and ministry.

You know, I think my rhetoric may have just got the better of my logic at this point. Might go back and change that one. I'll think about it. :)

Thanks again, Simone, for sharpening my thinking. I'll keep thinking and I'll tell you if I change anything in my post.

Jean said...

There you go, Simone! I've put in an explanatory footnote about the "sex before marriage" example, and toned down the "poured out, heart and soul" to "fulfilled". I want what I write to be biblical, accurate and helpful to people, so thanks for clarifying my thinking and writing.

When you say your husband "didn't find it anywhere" I assume you meant the "pouring heart and soul" as some kind of exclusive goal which pushes everything else out of our life, not the responsibility of fathers and mothers to love, teach and train their children.

Sarah B said...

Thanks Simone and Jean, I've been looking out for this summing up series. This 'pouring out' idea was a bit much for me too....the analogy is that one is left 'empty' after pouring, this made me uncomfortable.
I have agreed with Simone's qs and really appreciate your sharpening Jean, thanks.

Jean said...

Thanks, Sarah! :)

Caroline said...

Hi Jean,
Firstly I should say that I really appreciate these discussions, and have found them helpful and challenging. Thank you.

I've been thinking about this a bit lately - mainly relating to what Simone picks up in her second point. Unfortunately I've also been very tired, so hope I'll explain what I mean reasonably understandably.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of elevating motherhood too much, from a Biblical perspective. I wonder about using a couple of verses from Timothy and Titus to say that our families are our primary area of ministry. It sometimes seems as if the verses which are specifically directed at women/mothers (which don't actually say that this is our primary ministry) carry more weight for us than the rest of the Bible.

I could also pick out a number of verses that warn against elevating our families above where they should be in our priorities (Matthew 10:37 and Luke 8:21 being two examples).

I'm full-time at home with my (home-educated) children, so it's not as if I think they're not important. I know that when your children are little they absorb more of your time and energy, and that is to be expected. And even when they're older, I agree with you that motherhood demands great energy and attention. I think it's the word "primary" (and similar) that I keep reading in these sort of discussions that I have trouble with.

Surely biblically, our primary ministries have to do with loving God, seeking first the kingdom, and loving our neighbour. We love our husbands and children as part of this.

Jean said...

Hi Caroline,

I actually agree with you on this one. I used "primary" in my comment, didn't I? It's not in the post except about the dad's role in parenting, although it may have been implied. But it's clumsy language when used of motherhood and women, because of the possibility of family-idolatry, as you say.

On the other hand, there are primary spheres in which we are to "love God, seek first the kingdom, and love our neighbour" (which yes, I heartily agree is our "primary" goal) and for a married woman with children this is marriage, home and family, and reaching out to others from this context in good deeds and evangelism. So I guess it depends on how you use the word.

Love Jean.

Jean said...

One more thing. I'd base this on Genesis 1-3 (as interpreted by verses like 1 Timothy 2:15, which make it clear that these chapters are still fundamentally important to understanding biblical manhood and womanhood) not just on a few verses in the NT. But you're right, we need to read these verses in the context of the wider kingdom goal, which is more important than family or anything. It's just that I think the NT makes clear that the primary sphere where we pursue these kingdom goals for men and women is the same Genesis to Revelation. Nonetheless, you are right to warn against family idolatry.

Jean said...

... or rather Gen 1-3 as interpreted by 1 Cor 11, Eph 5, 1 Tim 2, etc ... I'll shut up now!

Anonymous said...

Dear Jean,

thanks again for urging me again to think hard about Biblical priorities - to be the suitable helper of my husband in my role as wife and mother (Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians 5 and 6), to be a lover of my husband and children and busy at home (Titus 2). It's good again to be reminded that even though the word "childcare" isn't mentioned, that childcare, like so many other issues relating to motherhood are related to whether I am being a godly helper, a loving wife and mother. I thank God for your bravery and honesty. Reading the book "Radical Womanhood - Feminine Faith In A Feminine World" by Carolyn McCulley, I have been called to repentance on the many ways I have allowed ungodly feminist thought to make its way into my worldview. McCulley's careful and detailed assessment of the 3 waves of feminism and the damage it has done to humanity (despite some goodness). Far from there being "something vaguely personally insulting", your blog and McCulley's book have been a timely reminder to me to keep examining my motives and my priorities against God's word with humility. Thanks Jean for your insightful and hard work on this topic.

Simone R. said...

Hey Jean. After Carmelina's comment (regarding Nathan's graph - something vaguely personally insulting)I went back and looked at my blog posts and saw that they very much could be interpreted as if I didn't like that this discussion is happening.

Let me sincerely apologise if you took it like that (which, reading again, is quite likely). I wouldn't have linked to you unless I thought the discussion in some way worthwhile. People are likely to comment on a blog post that raises questions on things that affect them. That's what I was getting at by putting the graph in. And 51 comments is huge! I didn't and don't feel at all insulted by your last post (or this one). And when I linked to this post it was in a good way. I'm glad that you wrote it and would have written some good stuff in my comments if I had had more than 5 minutes this morning.

I am sorry if I offended you. It was unintentional, but stupidly careless.

Anyway. To your argument.

I, like you, think that this is a better discussion to be having than the last. If we can look at what it means to be a mother, then we'll be better able to work out the child care thing. And I'm glad you're doing this (as opposed to me). I'm confident that you'll be thorough.

I'm happy with the 'evaluating our decisions' paragraph now that it's changed a litle. I agree wholeheartedly. I see teaching and caring for our kids as my main responsibility in life. Whatever else gives, that mustn't.

[The 'high calling' language doesn't really do much for me, nor the sacrifice stuff. Not sure why. I suspect it's a personality thing. It's not that I don't agree with what you're saying, I just don't really think of motherhood like that. I'm mum. And I love being mum. Perhaps if I felt a strong pull towards my career (which I don't - though I love to work a bit now) being at home with the kids might have been a sacrifice.]

Looking forward to part 2.

Laetitia :-) said...

A couple of questions:

Is it ok for a father to use childcare to pursue a career?

Is it ok for him to use childcare to pursue recreation?

Caroline said...

Hi again Jean,
It was probably a bit unfair to comment on your blog about this, when it was actually comments elsewhere that have really been making me think hard about this “primary responsibility/ministry” thing. But although you didn’t mention “primary” in the original post, it did seem to be implied in such expressions as “those God has given me to love – my husband and children”.

And I’m sorry if I made it sound as if I thought you were just coming up with a few proof-texts to support your position (which on re-reading I think I did). It’s more that I think the Bible teaches us a number of things about where we should be directing our priorities, and I don’t think that family comes first on the list. And in our society, when so many non-Christian parents say, “family is what matters”, to say that our children are not our number one priority is quite shocking. Which is not for a moment to say that we should be neglecting them, and probably also off-topic.

I think I’m more comfortable with the idea, as you suggest, of a primary sphere; it seems to fit better with the Bible passages quoted. Actually, I agreed with the content of your original post, it was more the emphasis seemed a little overdone. And there was lots in it for me to think about, regarding my own attitudes and priorities. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant to finish this sentence ... McCulley's careful and detailed assessment of the 3 waves of feminism and the damage it has done to humanity (despite some goodness) has been a good kick up the pants to not follow the ways of the world but to keep allowing God's word to renew my mind and my life (Romans 12:1-3)

Jean said...

Dear Simone,

It's ok, I wasn't offended, but it's lovely of you to try and mend bridges all the same! I'm glad you didn't find it personally insulting. And I thought Nathan's graph was very funny! :) Also I appreciated your comment here - thank you, that was kind.

It's interesting what you say about the language of "high calling" and "sacrifice". I'm not sure many mums would agree that there's no "sacrifice", so this is probably personality and perhaps the personalities of your children as well. I know one mum who would have said this until number 3 pushed her over the edge - and another who wouldn't say this even after 3, as she still seems to breeze through motherhood. So we are all different. But I must admit I know more "sacrificers" than "breezers" (not to suggest you have to be a "breezer" just because you enjoy it! - conversely, I love being a mum and there's plenty of sacrifice for me). I guess we agree on this at least: Jesus does call us to sacrificial love.

Love Jean.

Jean said...

Dear Laetitia,

If the father was the main caregiver I would say exactly the same things for him as the mum regarding childcare, work and recreation. As you're no doubt aware by now (and we'll have to agree to disagree on this one!) I do think God has given men and women different roles in marriage and parenting, and that the woman will usually be the main care-giver, which is why I'm talking about motherhood and childcare.

In Christ,


Jean said...

Thanks, Caroline; and yes, like you, I've found the distinction between "priority" and "sphere" to be a useful one. Are you happier with the emphasis of the original post now it's been toned down a bit, or does it still seem "overdone" to you? Are you talking about theology or tone? I'm not saying this defensively, I'm sincerely interested in what you have to say.

Jean said...

Dear Carmelina,

I have to read McCulley's book! Thanks for your encouraging words - this is not an easy topic to write about (I'm aware I'm opening myself up to all kinds of criticism!) so I appreciate your encouragement.

Love Jean.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jean and Simone,

I feel both tensions/experiences ... some days feel like they are a "breeze" and a "joy" and other days feel like a "sacrifice" (asking Jesus to help me exercise self control when I want to lash out, for grace to keep going even though I feel like curling up in bed and ignoring the mess and the noise, for strength to show tenderness when I want to scream and for joy even when I want to be doing something else - much like today really!). Overall, like you Simone, I love being Mum or Mamma in my case!

Laetitia :-) said...

Hi Jean,

What I was really trying (and probably failing) to get people to consider is that if we're talking about a situation where Dad is off at work, Mum's at home with the kids and Dad is able to go out to a work function (sans family) or off fishing with the boys of a weekend then effectively he is using childcare for career or recreation - it's just that the carer is unpaid (and therefore potentially unrecognised as such) because she is a parent.

So if this situation is legit, then surely letting Mum go off to a coffee shop to people watch (sans family) or go to a ladies only dinner every so often would also be legit?

Jean said...

Most definitely! I'd hope husbands would look after their kids so that their wives can enjoy the company of friends or spend an hour or 2 in a coffee shop when possible, for sure!

mattnbec said...

Thanks, Jean. I love the fact that you've re-focussed us and reminded us of the bigger picture. Personally that's really helpful and has possibly given me a bit more clarity regarding our #2, pre-school and baby #3.

Secondly, the short comment about parenting books and the gospel was really helpful. Being at the 'pregnant-brain and emotional' stage again has left me wanting at least a metre between me and any parenting books for a) lack of energy and b)feeling guilty and cross with them because I'm falling so far short of the perfection they espouse. So your observations about parenting, parenting books and the gospel are balm for my soul today!


Jean said...

Thanks, Bec, I'm glad you were encouraged. Praise God for his grace!

Rachael said...

Hi Jean, I've been reading all this and thinking about it and would like to make a comment sometime, particularly as we live in one of those cultures where children are "vicariously parented" as a commenter put it on this post. I'm still trying to nut it all through, particularly the question of what is cultural and what is biblical.

Jean said...

Dear Rachael,

I would love to hear your perspective on this, particularly as someone who's lived in another culture and seen things done differently.

When you say "vicariously parented", do you mean that the mother is away from home so the care of her children is given over to others, or that the mums are home and the children's care is shared within the community? Because the latter strikes me as perhaps more Proverbs 31 than the first. In Prov 31 the mum is working from home, ministering from home, and the kids are no doubt in and out and underfoot, but their care is probably shared among the people in the community - in this case, a large, wealthy household with servants, but in poorer communities and the so called "olden days" (even back in my mum's childhood - a generation back in Australia!) kids spent a bit more time running from house to house and care was perhaps shared more communally, although the mum was still home and the main caregiver.

I'd love to hear your observations!

Love Jean.

Rachael said...

Hi Jean,
I wrote "vicariously parented" because that is how it was put in the comment on the post I mentioned. I think the idea here is that it is the community rather than the nuclear that family raises children; more like the latter than the former of your two possibilities. The mother is not absent but part of a community that as a whole raises children. And I agree that we have seen this to varying degrees in our own culture and it is possibly only our very modern and intense concept of parenting that limits parenting to mother and father. And when we have a community that shares the same values, this can be a wonderful way to raise children. Anyway, as I said, I haven't nutted everything through yet and hope to leave some more helpful comments soon.

Jean said...

Thanks, Rachael. It's fascinating what you say because my thoughts have been running along similar(?) lines: if we did a better job of caring for one another in the church (including caring for the children of overwhelmed, single, financially needy or sick mothers) childcare would be far less necessary, if necessary at all. Also that taking my kids along to ministry (unless it's bothersome for others, in which case I may need to give up that particular ministry unless my husband, a grandparent or trusted friend can care for my children) or working from home with kids around may be good alternatives to childcare for many. Anyhow, just rambling thoughts!! But I'm looking forward to hearing yours when you have time - no rush! :) Love Jean.

mattnbec said...

Yes! I think there is something to the more church/communal-oriented parenting thing. And certainly I feel that in practice when my kids are babysat by Christian family (and biological family) or when I babysit the kids of others' in those camps. There's something more known and in that sense, responsible about it. When Christian family mind our children, you know they genuinely love them and support you in growing your children to love and serve the Lord. It's a bit the same as how we thought through who would look after our children, should we both die - it had to be people who would aim to bring up our kids in the same direction as we would aim to. Obviously it's a bit different in breadth, but I think the parallel is there to some extent. And it also is a good way of growing the inter-generational elements of Christian community.