Work and family as a theological dilemma

Spoiler Alert: This piece references a YouTube video entitled Perfectly Natural, from the Dust Channel. You can watch this 12 minute short film here before reading.

Recently, the YouTube Sci-Fi channel Dust recommended to me Perfectly Natural, a short film exploring the future of child rearing.

It starts out with a couple welcoming technicians from the Future Families Corporation into their home. The technicians hook their infant son Max up to a virtual world where he can have experiences of his parents, link into social media and even learn to play musical instruments or speak a foreign language. The parent’s options are determined by what their employment packages cover. This five year minimum contract promises all sorts of benefits for the child and gives the parents freedom to return to work early.

You are quickly pulled into the unease of the mother, Wanda. She has been strongly encouraged to come back to work and it is her company that has made the technology available. The virtual programme, however, has catches. If she wants to see what the baby is seeing, she has to buy them. Now that she has ‘extra help’ at home, the company expects her to work longer hours. Their 10-month-old has to be hooked up for a minimum of nine hours a day. The pressure to give their child more that they had eats at Wanda and Jack. This comes to a head when Wanda is prevented from holding her child by the computer because he is in the middle of a 19-hour update. But the fear of harming Max’s neurological functions forces Wanda and Jack to stay in the programme despite their misgivings, emotional pain, and the growing distance between the three of them.

This short film is a powerful reflection on what so many parents, especially mothers, experience and feel today. Many mothers know the tension of wanting to be with their children and the desire to contribute to meaningful employment.

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore’s book Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma is a grounded Christian response to this phenomenon. While it was published in 1994 and misses the entire third wave feminism movement, it asks pertinent questions surrounding the issues facing women and working mothers especially.

Miller-McLemore prefaces the book by stating that she is going to defy a number of social ‘rules’ that define sections of Western society. Never hurting another defines the ‘good girl’, unconditional love defines the ‘good mother’, self-reliance and achievement define the ‘good man’, self-fulfilment and self-assertion define the ‘good feminist’. She does indeed challenge these by asking some hard hitting questions and posing some possible solutions to the work life balance that seems to be so elusive for women in contemporary Western contexts.

Miller-McLemore is also a theologian, who believes that theology contains powerful truths that can debunk and critique these ‘old and very powerful myths’ (p14). She writes:

Christian ideals of motherly self-sacrifice and fatherly hard work, as they have been interpreted by church tradition and promoted in society at large, not only fail the lives of many people today, but misrepresent both the intent of God’s creation and the promise of the gospel message itself (p20).

Her book uses a Christian feminist maternal theology to challenge the societal division of labour in the family and workplace along gender lines and calls for a rereading of biblical and theological traditions to “reclaim the values of caring labor for both men and women” (p20).

Miller-McLemore draws on psychology, feminist theory, theology, church practice, scripture and personal experience to broadly analyse the dilemma of work and family in contemporary society, albeit from a white, middle-class, American experience. She acknowledges her limited exposure to the issues facing women of colour, blended and single parent families or same gender families. She attempts to use the experience and wisdom of mothers as a “source for new visions”, offering worth to what has often been seen as peripheral by men and therefore having no value – “the indispensable, unremunerated caring labor, which…undergirds human life” (p22).

One of the areas that this author found most fascinating was the analysis of 20th century psychology, mainly that of Freud and Erikson. Erikson’s concept of generativity, being the second last stage of life, severely limits adult experience to meaningful vocation (which he assigns to men) and fruitful procreation (for women). By assigning these aspects in such a gendered way, despite holding both in high esteem, Erikson has been less than helpful. Men, often far too late, discover that their work is not all that gives them meaning and purpose while women realise that their value is found not only in their role as mothers. Both genders actually need a healthy balance of the two to have a fulfilling generative experience in their adult lives.

A second fascinating insight was the use of Orpah to explore issues of women’s courage and decision making. While theological tradition tends to praise Ruth and her decision to follow her mother-in-law Naomi to a new land, it has failed to recognise that Orpah’s decision to return to her ‘mother’s house’ (Ruth 1:8) may have been just as courageous. Perhaps Orpah can be a role model of scripture to women navigating the path of motherhood. As Miller-McLemore suggests, “Many women who take up motherhood alongside other ambitions today pay the price of a nameless and subtle condemnation similar to that which clouds the history of Orpah” (p87).

A third area of interest was the practical suggestions that Miller-McLemore offered congregations. She sees congregations as having three roles. Firstly, the descriptive or pastoral role to listen carefully to women’s and mother’s lived experiences, to understand far more fully what life is like for women today. Secondly, the normative or prophetic role is to search scripture and critique how work and life is valued. If the Protestant work ethic, economics or politics are actually damaging to individuals and families, they need to be challenged. Thirdly, the programmatic or proclaiming role offers practical ways to assist women, mothers, men and fathers get to a place that is more in line with God’s intention for humanity. Perhaps congregations have to change the way they divide caring labours, men need to make stronger commitments to family in the home and the church community can extend the network of caregivers that are necessary for a child’s healthy development.

Miller-McLemore encourages individuals and congregations to be willing to learn not only from mothers but from children as well. To ‘go at the pace of the child’ was a final insight of personal revelation.

While staying with my brother and his family in Canberra, we all went Stromlo Forest Park to have a run. While the rest of the family went off to chase personal bests, I took the three-year-old twins around the short circuit. While we still reached the same destination, we three conversed with ducks, figured out the water supply system, admired people’s clothes and speed, laughed at insects and watched the ripples on the dam. Going at their pace proved a much more enlightening experience.

Dr Katherine Grocott




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