Monday, April 21, 2014

what I'm reading: women, work, and the home

I couldn't wait for The measure of success to come out. Carolyn McCulley is a thoughtful, entertaining writer, and in this book she tackles the controversial topic of women, work and the home.

The first few chapters - a potted history of work - kept me glued to the page. They made me ask the question: How are our views on women, work and the home shaped by our culture as well as by the Bible? 

What did Paul mean when he encouraged young married women to "manage their households" (1 Tim 5:14) and to "work at home" (Titus 2:5)? Did he mean women with children shouldn't do paid work? Or that our homes should be beautiful? I don't think so. The reason we sometimes conclude these things is because of a post-industrial view of work and the home.

Carolyn McCulley says,
With the dozens and dozens of magazines, cable shows, and Pinterest boards, it's no surprise if you think about your home as an expression of your identity. ...

That's not the concept of the home that most people have had throughout history. The home was a center of productivity. If we don't know that history, then we will read the biblical verses about the home only through the lens of our current experience - and potentially misunderstand the intent of these passages ...

Over the last several centuries, Christians have engaged in this debate about where women should be productive. When mainstream culture devalued marriage and motherhood, Christians (and those from some other faith traditions) rightly upheld these important roles. When mainstream culture overvalued the workplace, they also rightly upheld the value of the home.

The only problem is that our modern concept of the home is not the same as the biblical concept. ... For most of human history, the home was the original small business unit, the building block of a community's economic vitality. It was only after the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution that the home moved from being a place of productivity to a place of consumption.
Did you catch that? For most of history, the home was a "place of productivity". Work was done in and from the home. Farming and manufacture were home businesses, led by mums and dads, their kids underfoot and working alongside them. Like everyone else, women worked in and from the home, in roles that earned money and roles that didn't.

What does this mean for the verses about women and work in the Bible? I'll be honest: I'm not sure. For a start, I haven't finished the book yet. But also, I don't think the answers are simple. This is going to take some time to process.

I still believe it's ideal for young kids to be cared for by a parent as much as possible. I think women will generally be the ones who do this, not just because of cultural norms, but also because that's the way God made us (Gen 2-3; Prov. 31:10-31; 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:3-5). We only see this as a problem because our society teaches us to idolize "career". Managing a home and raising kids is work, and it's meaningful, hard, skillful work.

But I am coming to see that there is flexibility and freedom in the way this might happen. It won't look the same for everyone. I have friends I greatly respect who made the decision - one that I think was wise for them - to do paid work a few days a week early in their children's lives because it helped keep them sane.* And we don't all have the choice: I have a friend who's a single mum and has to work in a thankless job so she can support her family.

I also know women who stayed home full-time with their kids until they reached school age, then took on some work outside the home; and women who stayed home with their kids, pretty much full time, into the teen years (hey, wait a minute, that's me - and my son's chronic illness has made me very grateful I have this option). Not so they can devote themselves to the "home beautiful" (an idol just as potent as "career"), but so they can love and serve those around them, and those God has entrusted to them.

Jesus doesn't want us to store up treasure on earth: sanded floorboards, a successful career, or perfectly behaved children (Matt 6:19-24). He wants us to work hard at the tasks he's given us; and he want us to work, not for ourselves, but for him (Eph 2:10; Col 3:23). He wants us to live for our true home.

You might also enjoy:

* Two had depression; one is an extrovert, with outgoing kids who enjoyed childcare, who found she was much more cheerful and productive at home while working a few days a week.

Quote is from Carolyn McCulley's The measure of success, 46-47, italics mine.


Deb said...

Thanks, Jean. That's actually a real encouragement today. :)

Tamie said...

Have you heard Peter Adam on the way our post-industrial revolution world has shaped the gender discussion Jean?

Jean said...

No I haven't, Tamie, but I'd love to. Do you know where I'd find this?

Jean said...

What was encouraging about it Deb? Curious! :)

Tamie said...

Now I'm trying to think what/whether he's actually published on this. I'll see what I can find. This stuff that McCulley's talking about is very familiar to me, and one reason is because it's quite similar to some of the stuff Peter Adam talked around in lectures at Ridley at various points. I remember him quite distinctly saying that the command 'to be busy at home' is a command about being busy (as opposed to idle), not about being at home as a particular location.

Tamie said...

Here's something introductory:

Jean said...

That's fascinating, Tamie, thanks. If you have any more resources on this, I'd love to see them.

Jean said...

Tamie, do you know if that's able to be shared more publicly? Or is that a Ridley college resource?

Tamie said...

I assume it's able to be shared publicly Jean. I just googled '"Peter Adam" industrial revolution' and it came up!

Deb said...

Jean, I think it was encouraging because it reminded me that it's God's Word I'm to look to for my "working/home life" identity. There are all those books on Christian "homemaking" and some of them make really firm claims about what Christian women should or should not be doing. But some of those claims are a cultural outworking of reading Scripture rather than stuff that it is in Scripture itself. I think I'll chase up the book because it would be nice to think about the layers of cultural change that we've put on top of our ideas about home and work and how this might be influencing our view of work. Plus I sometimes find the ideas of devoting myself entirely to "home" in the way some authors present as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the de-valuing of home and times it seems we've raised it to idol status in return.