Is Motherhood Real Work?

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“When are you going back to work?”

Before our son came, people asked. After he arrived, they asked even more. It didn’t matter to whom I spoke: friend, stranger, student, retiree, believer, nonbeliever. No one wondered, “Will you go back to work?” People assumed I would. No need to ask about if, just when. A cultural assumption emerged: new moms keep old, pre-baby careers.

Why do we expect women to take maternity leave rather than stay home when their first child is born? Maybe cost of living is to blame. Maybe it’s the belief that two incomes are always better than one. Maybe only a closed-minded thinker would dare to ask, “Will you stay home now?” Whatever the reason, we tend to assume new moms will return to old jobs.

But I was a new mom who left an old job. When am I going back to work? How could I answer that question? I felt awkward, even embarrassed, as I responded, “Oh, I’m not going back to work.” Both in what I said and in how I felt as I said it, another underlying belief bubbled up. This time, it was personal: stay-at-home moms don’t have real, meaningful jobs.

Other stay-at-home moms in my church say they often feel the same. One told me that when people ask “what she does,” she starts by saying, “Well I would work, but . . .” Another, who works part-time from home while caring for two kids, said, “I find myself thinking that the only ‘productive’ parts of my day are the ones I spend engaging with my paid work.” Rather than “missus” teacher or “doctor” so and so, we have all chosen to be “mom” from nine to five (and 24/7). Even so, it’s hard for us to see the payoff. Do we really work? Is our work meaningful?

The God who spoke both women and work into existence answers with a resounding yes. He wrote Genesis 1–3 into the Bibles of new moms like me, in part, to convince us not only that we do work, but that it’s rich, rich work. Not salaried work, but valuable, vital work. I have only just begun this work, but already I have realized that there is no stay-at-home mom. There are only work-at-home moms.

Entrusted with His Image

After all, God gave the very first woman he created the job of being a mother. When God made Eve from Adam, he made her a woman (Genesis 2:21–23). He did not make her a mother. Rather, he entrusted her with the task of becoming a mother.

As soon as God finishes fashioning Adam and Eve “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27), he commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). With what job would the Creator of every subatomic particle in a gargantuan universe employ the first creature in his image he ever made? Making more humans: “Adam and Eve, work together to fill the earth with my glorious likeness. I could form a hundred children for you with a single puff of my breath, but instead I want you to labor to become ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ to the glory of my name.”

God employs all creation to display his glory, but the first project he charged to the first people was to become the first parents of the first babies — babies whose makeup would showcase God. Sure, they would look like Adam and Eve, but oh, how they would they image God!

“The first project God charged to the first people was to become the first parents of the first babies.”

So through the lens of Genesis, “my” childbearing becomes God’s image-furthering. When we embrace God’s call to love and care for even one child, we are saying to the Holy One, “I love and care for your matchless likeness. I want to see your goodness, beauty, and worth spread to the ends of the earth, and in some mysterious way, you showcase your glory in the five-inch face of this newborn baby. So I will tend to the needs of this little image you have entrusted to me, to the glory of your name.”

Labor Pains

Seen in this way, we can’t but conclude that motherhood is worthwhile work. Even so, if we read further in Genesis, we can better understand why moms, especially young ones, struggle to value motherhood as its Creator and Giver does.

When our first parents sinned, God justly cursed the good work he had given humanity to do. God said to Eve (and as a result to all women), “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). From infertility to miscarriage, from nauseating pregnancies to difficult deliveries, we feel the fall’s physical effects on motherhood. Many never become biological mothers. Some lose children. Where God does grant a child, knees tweak and backs strain under years of constant care for another’s well-being.

But sin ushered in an emotional struggle as well. Becoming a mother is painful; staying a mother is too. Raising children exhausts, frustrates, scares, and sometimes bores us. What we were made to embrace and enjoy — the God-given, precious responsibility to nurture life and so further his image — causes us to worry and sigh. We lose God’s grand vision for motherhood in the pile of dirty diapers we need to toss or (later on) the curfews keeping us awake until they’re home.

Mothers of the Living

We can find it again in the creation story. By God’s grace, we can be mothers who gladly continue the work of creation despite the fall’s effects. But at this point, we would do well to ask, “To what end? Why would God give me the job of nurturing humans made in his image first to biological life and then to physical, mental, and emotional well-being if ultimately the curse ensures everyone will die?”

God settles our angst in an unlikely place: Eve’s name. In Genesis 3:19, God delivers the final words of the curse: to dust you shall return. The first humans God created to enjoy eternal life in his presence — they will die. Any future humans entrusted to them — they will die too. With this news we would expect the garden to fall shamefully, despairingly silent. But it was not so. In the very next verse, we read, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).

The mother of all living? Why would Adam give Eve this name? Didn’t God just say that Eve’s body, and all the bodies that come from hers, and all the bodies that come from theirs, would dissolve into dust?

He did, but he also said something else. While cursing the serpent, God declared that one of Eve’s offspring would stamp out this patron saint of sin and death (Genesis 3:15). God would permit Satan to sow evil on earth — but the clock is ticking. The enemy’s time short. For one day, through Adam and Eve’s childbearing, Satan would be overthrown, sin conquered, death vanquished. God promised it, and there and then, Adam believed God’s promise. He believed God enough to name his wife “the mother of all living” in the face of pain and death.

“This side of a tiny manger, a bloody cross, and an empty tomb, no childbearing is an exercise in futility.”

Mothers, do we believe God’s promise? This side of a tiny manger, a bloody cross, and an empty tomb, no childbearing is an exercise in futility. Motherhood is not meaningless, but a mission from God. Jesus Christ, the promised seed, has overthrown Satan, conquered sin, and vanquished death. Because of him, we are not just nurturing little bodies that take in first and last breaths. We are caring for hearts and minds and souls capable of enjoying this Jesus forever — in real, perfect, resurrected bodies, with chests rising and falling in eternal praise.

Job as Old as Eve

When does a new mom go back to work? She never stopped. People will still ask, but by God’s grace she will see motherhood as a job as old as work itself. What is more, she will believe that a mother’s labor matters, eternally so. We are not just nurturing image-bearers who reflect a glorious God. We are nurturing potential Christ-enjoyers and Christ-exalters. We stay home, and we work to this end with all our motherly might.

When rightly captivated by the God-given task of motherhood, then, we will not dread a change in or the loss of career, hobbies, or leisure upon a baby’s birth. Rather, we accept the task as both gift and opportunity to shape life to the glory of God.

works from home as a mother, writer, and editor. She and her husband, T. J., live in Denver, Colorado, with their son.