Women, Work, and Our Crisis of Identity

Several years ago, I spoke to a friend at a church event who had been influential as a lawyer for the cause and practice of religious freedom. She had been single for many years, but now was recently married and a first-time mother. As we caught up with each other, she confessed that her transition from being a lawyer to being a stay-at-home mother with an infant was a lot harder than she anticipated.

“As much as I love being married and a mom after all these years being single, I didn’t realize how much I drew upon my work as the source of my identity,” she said with a small smile.

It’s very easy to confuse what we do with who we are. As one sociologist said, “Most people define themselves by their job. When they retire, they need a narrative about who they are now.”

Any change in what we do can easily trigger a crisis of identity — what is the story we are now to tell others about ourselves? While I think this is true for men, I think it is different, and perhaps more pronounced, for women because our productivity choices are scrutinized more often than those of men. That’s why the most divisive terms may be the dreaded “working mothers” versus “stay at home mothers.” If it were a simple description of the location of female productivity, that would be one thing. But these phrases are loaded with guilt and judgment.

Weathering Identity Shift

When your work is your identity, change can shake that sense of identity. Comparison to others can drive you to maximize your identity. We all feel it: it is a longing for significance, to be known and recognized, to be validated for our labors and achievements. This is nothing new. Even the author of Ecclesiastes saw this:

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

The New Testament version of that insight comes from 1 Timothy 6:6–7:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.

As much as change can challenge our own identities, time and experience often shift our perspectives about the identities of others, too. But there’s a more important perspective shift about identity that Jesus offers us.

Sitting at Jesus’s Feet

I have this crazy photo, a screen grab from the moment when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner looked down at earth from his capsule 125,000 feet high above our planet. He was only moments away from casually leaning over and falling toward Earth at supersonic speeds. My stomach churned with the queasy thought of being that high, yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the live feed. I was transfixed by the perspective he had. All of our striving, conflict, greed, and sin seemed peacefully erased from his view. Yet he was about to hurl himself right back into it.

You don’t have to be a daredevil to change your perspective. Jesus once offered two women an escape from their earthbound viewpoints, too. Yes, you know it — I’m going to drag out our poster girls, Mary and Martha. But I won’t tell you to be more contemplative/laidback/devoted or less busy/administrative/cranky (okay, maybe less cranky). Nor will I offer you any time-management tips from these sisters. I just want you to consider the perspective shift Jesus handed them all that day — men and women alike.

In Luke’s account, Jesus had just blown up the issue of identity with the story of the good Samaritan. A lawyer had challenged him about the neighbor he must love as himself (Luke 10:29), and Jesus gave him a merciful Samaritan, a despised ethnic group living nearby. Then “as they went on their way,” Jesus led them to the home of Martha and Mary. Martha immediately went into high gear with the work of hosting Jesus and his disciples. But Mary sat at his feet with the men, listening to Jesus instructing his disciples. Unlike most rabbis of his time, Jesus not only allowed a woman to learn the Scriptures, he also told everyone present that this was the wisest thing Mary could do — “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (verse 42).

No husbands were mentioned for either of these women. No children were mentioned, either. Perhaps they had them once. Perhaps they would have them in the future. No mention was made of their social status, either by wealth or social connections or job skills. But their one identity that was most important was the one that would exist forever: a follower of Christ.

Jesus Shifts Our Perspective

This is the identity we need to affirm among ourselves, not the labels that come with the kind of labor we do. As Christians, we are to be grounded in this identity, even as we add other roles and ways to express that identity in relationship to others. We might have an interesting job for a season. We might be married for a season. We might have children at home for a season. But those things can be taken away from us — or never given to us at all. They are gifts for this life only.

Jesus has promised that if we choose to sit at his feet, we have made the best choice of all. We will inherit the better portion, that which will never be taken away: a relationship with God, his word, and the promise of eternal rewards and life with him in heaven. In one simple sentence, Jesus shifts our earthbound perspective and takes us high above our daily lives to see the importance of being his disciple. That perspective shift is all we need to settle a crisis of identity.