One day, shortly after transitioning from being an ESL instructor to being a stay-at-home mom, I was filling out one of those ubiquitous medicals forms at our doctor’s office. After listing my name, date of birth, address, and insurance info, I came to a field that had the option to either fill in my employer’s name or check a box that said “Don’t Work.” Having a strong commitment to intellectual honesty (and an even stronger philosophical disposition), I approached the receptionist to ask for clarification.
Instead she offered me a slightly puzzled look and then quickly replied, “Oh, you don’t work.”
Anyone who has been in a similar position understands how humbling, how demeaning this can feel. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or have ever been unemployed or underemployed, you know how these situations strike at your core sense of self. Just think about the ingenious ways stay-at-home moms describe their work in light of the marketplace by using terms like “domestic engineers” and “house managers.” It’s as if something about your very humanity is at stake, as if your identity as a productive human being is in question.
It feels this way because it is.
Not Just a Paycheck
We struggle to understand what it means to work as image bearers, at least in part, because in Western society we tend to think of “work” in terms of receiving a paycheck for a specific job. But when we define “work” in terms of salary and position instead of in terms of gifting and service, we communicate that anyone who does not draw a salary or work in the marketplace is somehow less human. And we end up elevating those who work in professional positions above than those who work in more mundane callings.
This creates a unique tension for many women when they are forced to choose between being “at home” or “working.” When the Industrial Revolution moved men and women away from family-based businesses to highly specialized jobs in cities and factories, as a society, we began to define “work” as whatever happened away from the home. (Insert joke about women who stay at home and eat bonbons and watch soap operas all day.) Frustratingly, the gender wars of the last several decades have only intensified this divide as both conservatives and progressives continue to argue about a woman’s role in the “workforce.” And as we do, we continue to define a woman’s work by where she works instead of in whose image she works.
When God made us in his image, he commissioned men and women to rule over creation together. And not only are we to rule together, the very things that embody this rule—reproducing and stewarding the earth—must also be accomplished in dependence on each other. These are not two distinct commands but one command with internal tension and intrinsic interconnectedness. In other words, God did not create the marketplace and the home to compete with each other but to depend on each other; and when we insist on pitting them against each other, we end up failing at both.
As women, we must recognize that imago dei work is larger than either that of the home or the marketplace, both encompassing and transcending them. And as image bearers, we rule over both. We do not enslave ourselves to cultural expectations of domesticity but rule over domesticity, using it to cultivate a place where every member—every image bearer—can flourish. Neither are we slaves to the marketplace, conforming to mechanistic structures of input and output; instead we exercise our personal gifting, as Peter says, “to serve one another.” We use our gifting to serve our families and those around us well.
A prime example of this is the woman described in Proverbs 31. When Lemuel’s mother advises him about the type of woman he should marry, she describes a woman who would make his family successful because she works sacrificially and does “not eat the bread of idleness.” She is the type of woman who knows how to leverage the marketplace to care for her family; and at the same time receives public praise because she cares for the needs of others. And yet, this passage is not some starry-eyed attempt to “have it all” but a beautiful description of finding the convergence, the delicate interplay, the holistic union of both nurturing our homes and exercising our unique gifting.
Undoubtedly there will be seasons of life when we must emphasize one over the other. (Quite frankly, there will be many times when you must weed your garden or change a dirty diaper or do something that will not directly capitalize on your MBA.) But we must stop assuming that our homes and our gifts are separate. Being women who work imago dei means being women who are productive and sacrificial wherever we are because our God is productive and sacrificial everywhere he is. And working imago dei means working like him.
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Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from Made for More by Hannah Anderson. Copyright © 2014. Used by permission of Moody Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.