In March, we invited women attending the upcoming conference to apply for a special dinner hosted by Every Square Inch and sponsored by InterVarsity Press/Crescendo Books with special guests Kathy Keller and Jen Pollock Michel.
To be considered, we asked applicants to submit 750-word reflections that answered three questions: (1) What do you do every day? (2) How do you feel about what you do? (3) When have you found your work particularly meaningful?
The selection process was difficult—145 women submitted reflections, and we were able to choose only 25. Although we will be highlighting the selected reflections throughout the month of June, I wanted to share five common themes that I found as I read through the submissions.
“I wear many hats.”
These women are doing a lot. They are mothers, wives, consultants, counselors, educators, entrepreneurs, sisters, daughters, caretakers, and writers—often at the same time. Their work includes assessing risk, planning family schedules, creating technology systems, driving carpools, and striving “to write Christ” on their children’s hearts. One woman, when asked to identify her industry from a list of options, said, “I qualified for 11 industries, so I chose ‘other.’”
Some of them are trying to “have it all”—success at work and at home. One said that, although she loves being a wife and a mom, she also loves being an accountant, confessing, “I’ve never been good at recreation.” She and her husband decided that she should continue working “mainly because of the natural way we tend to bond and what we wanted our children to see in our lives.”
Not all of them, however, chose the “many hats” they wear. “Today, I am a caretaker,” wrote one woman whose husband was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I’m a chauffer for my husband, who can no longer drive. I’m a wife whose heart is breaking and a lover who is gently trying to live out the gospel in her marriage.” A single mother wrote, “Motherhood is my favorite role, and my deep desire is that I could commit all my time and energy to this role.”
Although several women characterized their “many hats” lifestyle as “complicated” or “fragmented” or “disparate,” they also said it was marked by prayer. One wrote, “I’m having to do more, plan more, schedule more, follow through with more, keep track of more, organize more, and carry more than I ever thought that I possibly could. I also hug more, cry more, worry more, and cling more to the cross than I ever have before. I need grace, more and more and more.”
“I’m not sure how my work matters.”
Some said they struggle to understand how their work matters. A seamstress described her work as “sometimes mindless.” An account manager wrote, “I struggle feeling like I’m wasting my life here. What I do doesn’t seem to matter—no one will live or die because of it.”
This search for significance seemed especially common in the reflections written by stay-at-home-moms. One wrote, “Since my son was born, I have struggled that this season of my life-work does not feel very ‘spiritual.’” Another said that, when she tells people what she does, her answer “often elicits reactions that make me feel like I may as well say I traded my brain for my first child.” A former engineer confessed, “Although being at home with my son has been one of the biggest blessings of my life, I still cringe when I’m asked the inevitable question, ‘And what do you do?’ I often feel the need to justify myself, reminding my new acquaintance that, although I am staying home with my son now, I used to have a really cool job.”
Another stay-at-home mom with school-age children confessed, “What is my title? What is my job? Insecurity runs deep as I think about my answer. I now find myself at home alone, kids at school, no pressing event to prepare for, cereal on the menu for dinner since my husband often has meetings until far past bedtime. My first thought is that our life has outgrown its need for me. Then I stop myself before falling into the world of self-pity that I’ve known too well this past year.”
Even in the seemingly mundane and insignificant, however, many of the women talked about finding joy and victory. “My life may not be glamorous,” wrote one woman, “but it is glorious.” Another woman, whose daughter has a severe eating disability, said, “Perhaps my deepest influence comes when I’m down on my knees, cleaning vomit for the fifth time that day for nearly four straight years. Perhaps it’s when I watch her chew a single goldfish cracker and then excitedly announce, ‘I did it, mama!’ Perhaps it’s when we anxiously await the doctor to announce a weight gain of six whole ounces, and we cheer and applause because she continues to grow stronger each day. These are moments of little significance to the world. There is no nod, no applause, and no commendation from man. But in heaven, and in the eyes of the Greatest Servant, praise and eternal significance abound.”
“I’m not done yet!”
Many of these women continue to ask God for vocational guidance—even when their lives seem comfortably settled. Three women—all in their early 30s—shared stories about moving their families to Colorado together to plant a church in Denver. Another young woman—a mother of five who runs her own photography business—wrote, “Most recently, my husband and I are thinking about moving our family to the UAE as tent makers to help a new church plant. We are fervently praying for God’s leading and direction.”
Some women entering new seasons of life are reassessing and reevaluating where God might be calling them. One 57-year-old woman, who taught basic sewing and apparel entrepreneurship for 15 years, recently launched her own business. Another 46-year-old woman, who stayed home for 14 years to raise her three sons, now works as a professional organizer. She admitted, “Getting back into the working world has been a transition.” A 54-year-old physical therapist said, “There are opportunities on the horizon, and I am torn between what is next and what I am to do today.”
“I see brokenness everywhere.”
Almost all of these women shared stories of loss, sadness, sickness, and pain—at home and at work. One woman wrote about her ten-month-old daughter who passed away almost two years ago. Several shared stories about cancer, leukemia, death, drugs, addiction, aging parents, abuse, divorce, and learning disabilities.
They didn’t just talk about the brokenness “out there” in the world; they talked about the brokenness inside themselves, too. One woman confessed, “I was hit with the conviction that, although my face wore a cheerful, warm smile, my heart was filled with an arrogant selfishness and a critical spirit that left me unable to relate to others with any kind of authenticity.” A college counselor and assistant admissions director said, “Let’s be honest. I rarely feel lovely or reflective of my good God. Most of the time, in both of my roles, I am anxious, overly analytic, and certainly critical of others and myself.”
One ministry assistant shared a story about the brokenness of poverty. “I once was trying to discreetly help a lady with her utility bill,” she wrote. “As I pulled out the bill I needed, I glanced at some of the notes she had scrawled. She was a widow, and my heart ached as I thought of her being alone, on a meager, fixed income and trying to make ends meet. That was probably the first time I got teary when helping a client.”
Several wrote about relational brokenness. A banking center manager said, “I also get the chance to sit and meet with customers, especially unhappy ones. This particularly makes my job challenging.” A woman who works in campus ministry shared, “It is also tough when I feel like the light bulb goes off and one of the girls truly understands the gospel. But then a few weeks later, she isn’t listening to wisdom and is making unwise decisions.”
Some of the brokenness they talked about related to unmet expectations or hopes deferred—professionally and personally. One wrote, “There are certainly days when I have longed for a different lifestyle. I have frequently allowed my thoughts to drift to ‘if only’—if only I had gone to seminary and went on to become a renowned women’s leader, if only I had become a nurse and could use my skills to help the hurting and sick in developing countries.” One teacher, who longs to add “mom” to her list of roles, wrote, “The ache to be a mother is often acutely sensitive. Could he not demonstrate his power in touching my dead womb?”
A few women talked about systemic brokenness, too. One government employee who does threat assessments wrote, “Through the years of doing this work, there have been many times that the realization of how sin has permeated this world has brought me to tears. The depth of depravity, the unbelievable dehumanization of God’s image bearers across the world, the injustice and the enslavement—these have broken my heart.” A bioethicist said, “There are some days when the brokenness of the world is overwhelming for me, as I wonder why I need to put so much energy into persuading people not to kill each other in their attempts to eliminate suffering.”
Throughout all of this—the “many hats,” the struggle to find meaning, the career changes, and the brokenness—there was another common theme in these essays: “But God.” In the midst of their circumstances, their eyes are fixed on the One who loves them, cherishes them, equips them, sustains them, and fights for them.
One cardiac nurse who works at the same hospital where her husband passed away, wrote, “When I go to work these days, just steps away from where my husband breathed his last, I’m no longer focused on my mediocrity or even wondering if nursing was the best career choice for me to make. The Lord is near, and he is enough.”
A photographer confessed that she struggles to love her adopted son because he “is riddled with so much fear and just needs to be loved unconditionally. I have a lot of guilt about this.” She continued, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love, is helping me in this.”
Another woman, who works in campus ministry, told a story about her own struggle with infertility. One Sunday morning, she went with her husband to church. “As my eyes looked around the congregation,” she wrote, “all I could see was a sea of young couples, their arms filled with small children. My arms were empty. I felt hopeless. Then I looked down the same row I was sitting in. The Lord whispered to me, ‘You do have children. You are a spiritual mother to many. Look, there’s the one you gave hope to when her brother was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. There is another young woman—all she wanted to do was hookup and drown her sorrows in alcohol. But now she is leading her sports team and family to know me.’ The list went on. The row was full of college students. College students to whom I was a spiritual mother.”
A speech pathologist shared how God once used her to bring affection to a family. “My son never would kiss me before,” the mother of a 4-year-old boy told her. “But since you’ve been working with him on strengthening his mouth muscles, he’s able to pucker and loves to kiss me! I always thought he just didn’t want to kiss me. I didn’t know that he couldn’t. Thank you for helping him!”
One woman, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote, “When I arrive at the end of my day to stretch my little friend—a sweet 9-year-old girl who cannot talk, who will always be wheelchair bound, and who has intense difficulty controlling her movements—I stretch her lovingly. Biomechanically, I am preventing contractures, but theologically, I am affirming that she is made in the image of God and worthy of my best.”
After lamenting the systemic brokenness of the world, one doctor wrote, “I expect this is why Revelation 21 is my favorite part of the Bible, where we are reminded that one day God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or grief of crying or pain. I can hardly wait.”
On a personal note, I want to publicly thank all of the women who submitted reflections. Since we will be highlighting the selected ones throughout the month of June, I wanted to use this article to celebrate the women who were not selected. Most of the quotes in it, therefore, are taken from those reflections. Thank you for sharing your lives, thoughts, and stories with us. I was humbled and honored to read them.