“I’m just a stay-at-home mom.” I say it without meeting the person’s eyes, with my hands behind my back, and a sheepish smile. Usually, this question comes after I’ve asked the person about their career—I ask the nurse how long she’s worked, or the hairdresser if this was her dream job as a little girl. With big smiles and bright eyes, they tell me all about their journey to this occupation and how much they love it. Then they ask the inevitable question: “What about you? What do you do for work?”
I’m just a stay-at-home mom.
Have you ever found yourself in this situation? Struggling with shame over this title, even though you chose it so long ago with such joy and purpose? Perhaps you feel like it’s the lowest option of vocations available. Perhaps, at times, you even feel like your education has been wasted. Even more, maybe you often feel guilty that you aren’t doing more—like a side-hustle, volunteer activities, or church responsibilities—because, after all, you’re only a stay-at-home mom.
What if the title stay-at-home mom didn’t need to be covered in so much shame? What if we could not only do our work with pride and joy, but say it to others with our heads held high? I believe we can, if we develop a better theology of work from Dorothy Sayers.
Dorothy Sayers delivered an address called, “Why Work?” at Eastbourne, England, on April 23, 1942—in the midst of World War II. She wanted to call England to not return to their pre-war way of economy, of making a good enough product just to make money. Rather than doing the work because they loved it or for the pleasure of the thing created, she saw people working whatever job would bring in money and doing their work only well enough to make that money. In another address from two years prior called “Creed or Chaos?” she touched on this subject of work as she recounted a conversation she had with a surgeon:
A very able surgeon put it to me like this: “What is happening,” he said, “is that nobody works for the sake of the product; the aim of the work is to make money to do something else. Doctors practise medicine, not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living—the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way. Lawyers accept briefs, not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession which enables them to live.”
Sayers later laid a deeper foundation for this better way to view work in her address “Why Work?” She called people to first view work not as a means to another end, but the end itself. She said we create and work because we are made in the image of our Creator, and man’s “satisfaction is found in the fulfillment of his own nature, and in contemplation of the perfection of his own work.” She compared this to how we passionately work at a hobby with no financial return. “That, in practice, there is this satisfaction, is shown by the mere fact that a man will put loving labour into some hobby which can never bring him in any economically adequate return. His satisfaction comes, in the god-like manner, from looking upon what he has made and finding it very good.”
She believed that people begin to hate their work when they are solely doing it for monetary reward. With a beloved hobby, a person “is no longer bargaining with his work, but serving it. It is only when work has to be looked on as a means to gain that it becomes hateful; for then, instead of a friend, it becomes an enemy from whom tolls and contributions have to be extracted.”
Our society still suffers from the same wrong notions about work that Sayers’ society did. As stay-at-home moms, we often feel shame (or are shamed by others) because our work isn’t financially gaining—if anything, it’s actually creating more strain financially at times. It’s not easy caring for three little ones on a single income, and we’re grateful for all the help we’ve received from loved ones over the years. In our current financial climate, it’s only getting harder, especially when you have debt.
To add to the shame, we likely heard all through our growing up years the same mantra repeated to us about school: Get good grades and graduate so you can get a good-paying job. Go be a doctor, a nurse, a dentist, a lawyer, or some other job that makes a lot of money—not for the love of it, but for the financial return. However, we chose to be stay-at-home moms and make no money. Therefore, we believe our work is worthless. As a former teacher put it to a loved one of mine: “What a waste of a talent.”
Sayers wanted to flip this idea completely over. She said,
The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so engrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. It would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work—our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure—and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?”
Does your work pay as a stay-at-home mom? No. But is it good? A thousand times yes. What do you make financially? Nothing. But what is your work worth? The price of a soul.
Even though we signed up for this job full well knowing that it wouldn’t benefit us financially, that doesn’t mean we can’t lose sight of the actual work and become more focused on what we’re earning. As moms, we can be tempted to work not for the sake of our children, but for what our children may become—as trophies we can display someday for all our hard work of pouring love and a home education into them.
It’s out of this mindset that people grow to not only hate their work but also come to simply work for the weekend. But Sayers says with the shift of doing our work for the love of the work itself, our whole attitude is changed: “A third consequence is that, if we really believed this proposition and arranged our work and our standard of values accordingly, we should no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure; we should look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work.”
As a mom, I often find myself living for naptime and bedtime; I count the hours and minutes until I say goodnight to my children and close their doors so I can finally have some freedom. I stop delighting in the work, because, more often than not, I’ve become frustrated that my work doesn’t seem worthwhile. I don’t see the lovely, obedient children I thought my staying at home would create. Again, I start to see my work as a shameful waste of my time, and I long to do something with real results that I can proudly show others. I forget that the purpose of my work isn’t to create perfect children. Rather, God called me to this work and put a love for it in my heart.
With this reset of principles, naptime and bedtime aren’t an escape from grueling work, but the necessary rest and change of rhythm I need to continue the good and important work of loving another image bearer. My breaks are a chance to refuel so that I can be the best mom possible and do this work for God’s glory.
Isn’t that the point of any work? To bring glory to God? As Sayers said, “Let the Church remember this: that every maker and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade—not outside it.”
Another way this doubt of the worth of our work creeps in is the thought that we should be doing more. We feel guilt rise up in our stomachs as we hear about the volunteer opportunities in our church or the mom with a small business on the side, and we think, I’m only a stay-at-home mom—I should be able to do more. We try to smother our guilt by taking on more and more activities, until one day we wake up burnt out, exhausted, and struggling to get the ordinary tasks of being a stay-at-home mom checked off because of all the other tasks we’ve added on.
Yet as Sayers began to say in that last quote, it’s in doing our single occupation to God’s glory that our calling is fulfilled, not in adding to it. She went on to say,
The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word. The official Church wastes time and energy, and, moreover, commits sacrilege, in demanding that secular workers should neglect their proper vocation in order to do Christian work—by which she means ecclesiastical work. The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery, or sewage-farming.
I don’t believe Sayers is saying that we should never give of ourselves to serve in church. Instead, she’s calling people to not neglect their primary occupation (and therefore, their calling) to do “Christian” work. Sayers wanted her audience to understand that their work was good and even Christian work simply because they themselves were Christians seeking to do good, true, and beautiful work. They didn’t need to add ecclesiastical work to their lives to bring glory to God and worth to their livelihood. It was good all on its own and deserved their full attention.
The same is true for stay-at-home moms. Our work is worthy, Christian work because we are believers seeking to steward what God has given us to the best of our abilities. We don’t need to add on unending extras to our lives so that we feel justified in our choice to stay home and care for our children. Our work is good all on its own, and if we have extra time and resources to devote to other things, then we are free to do so—but it should never be to the neglect of our primary calling.
Just as it was in Sayers’ day, it is still tempting to view ecclesiastical work as more holy or more valuable to the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament, there was a divide between the holy work of the priesthood and the work of the normal person. But now, because of the work of Christ, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 ESV). This is the great and wondrous calling for every Christian, including the work of stay-at-home moms.
As we do this work, we know Christ has gone before us. Where the first Adam failed, and every one of us have failed, Jesus fulfilled the law for us—even stay-at-home moms. Though Jesus was not a mother, he did the work of serving others and putting their needs before his own. As a mom, when you wash the caked-on mud from your children’s hair and nose while they squabble, remember your Savior who washed the filthy feet of his disciples while they argued over who was greatest. As you train children who never seem to listen, remember your Savior who regularly taught the disciples and the crowds while they remained blind to the truth. As you gather your children into your lap for “one more story,” remember your Savior who said, “Let the little children come to me.” Yet where we fail to remain patient, loving, gracious, and compassionate, he did each of these acts perfectly. He took our place and did what we could not, so we could receive his work in our place.
The Creator of all the world did not see it as beneath him to serve “the least of these,” and neither should we. Our work has great worth, and it is the same kind of “lowly” work that Christ did.
Will any of this stop the world, your family and friends, or even your own children, from questioning you? Sadly not. But this mind shift isn’t for their benefit—it’s for yours. Sayers said that to truly serve others with our work, we must paradoxically forget about them as we do the work. She said,
The moment you think of serving other people, you begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause, and to harbour grievance if you are not appreciated. But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labour of pure love.
We’re not doing this work to please the onlookers and receive their approval or thanks. We do this work as a labor of pure love, and our satisfaction must come not from what we may receive from the work, but because we love the work and believe in its priceless value: The soul of an image bearer who is beloved by God.
Lara d’Entremont is a wife, mother, and freelance writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. She writes about the intersection of theology and fiction at laradentremont.com.