“Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith & the Academy,” edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil
When I was a teenager, my parents went back to school for their doctorates. One year, all three of us were enrolled in college simultaneously. I remember the changes to our family life and schedules. My dad was out of town periodically to attend classes at the seminary. Dinner was occasionally after 10 PM so we could eat with my mom, who had evening class. We could have eaten earlier without her, but family meals were always a priority growing up.
The changes weren’t all bad. We all benefitted from my dad’s thesis work on forgiveness. I spent many hours with my mom in the university library, helping her lug heavy tomes down to the copy room. The acrid smell of printer ink brings back fond memories of those afternoons together. I remember the pride and joy I felt watching my parents graduate and seeing them receive their doctoral hoods. Watching my parents navigate the challenges and pressures of balancing their work, life, and family responsibilities, I learned a lot.
Given my background as the daughter of a pastor and a professor, I was intrigued by the recent book Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith & the Academy, edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil. The book is a collection of essays by Christian women who are mothers and academics. They address many topics, including balancing work and family, coping with cultural expectations, what it means to be a “good mother,” and how to navigate the challenges of being a professor/mom. One of the central questions they seek to answer is how to fulfill our callings to care for our families and be good stewards of the gifts God has given us (xii).
Although recent surveys show that 70% of mothers work outside the home (28), there is a lingering perception that work and family are conflicting interests for women. Certain beliefs about “traditional” gender roles and Western cultural expectations add to the assumption that women have to choose between being a “good mother” and a “good worker” (47). Interestingly, working fathers do not face the same assumption. As Ji Son points out in her essay, “Recategorization”:
On some level, we equate “working” mothers as making a choice that is detrimental to the child’s well-being and safety, simply by choosing to work. We do not frame it the same way for fathers. We do not talk about a father’s choice to work; we simply assume that dads will have to work (103).
The authors argue that much of the conflict stems from unrealistic standards (86-87) and unnecessary comparisons with others (92). The unrealistic standards include the culturally defined concepts of “ideal mother” and “intensive mothering.” In her essay, “The ‘Good’ Mother,” Christina Lee Kim describes ideal mothers as being “often portrayed as having complete and utter self-sacrificing devotion to their children’s physical, emotional, academic, social, and spiritual needs” (86). Combined with “intensive mothering,” this creates an impossibly high standard for women:
Mothers should also be fully present and fully giving, providing for every aspect of her child’s needs by utilizing every aspect of her own resources, whether mental, emotional, physical, or financial. Furthermore, intensive mothering suggests that the very act of being a mother should fulfill the mother’s role as a woman and complete her identity (86-87).
As Christian women, we should all want to be good mothers and strive to use our gifts and abilities to the best of our abilities as we serve God and care for our families. But we need to free ourselves of the burdens we place on ourselves and others to uphold extrabiblical ideals. I was pleased the authors of Power Women pointed readers back to Christ and the gospel:
I cannot meet an impossible superficial standard. I can be free to the same standard of God, where [we] get the same offer, the same help, and the same promises: an unattainably high standard of righteousness that is met solely by faith in the work done through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The kingdom offers a better impossible standard to strive for and a better means of arriving at it (106).
I also appreciated Stephanie Chan’s reorienting the discussion of the work-life conflict around work-life enrichment. Work-life enrichment considers how our experiences in both work and life add to and improve our work and family life (29). This is something we assume about men who are husbands and fathers. Men often talk about how family responsibilities drive them to be better at their jobs and how their families support and encourage them in their careers. Men also tend to find enrichment and purpose in their work.
Why would the same not be true for women who are wives, mothers, and workers? How does my work make me a better mother, and how do my experiences as a mother enrich my work life? These are questions worth considering. I was intrigued to learn that studies show mothers spend more time interacting with their children now than in previous generations (38).
Is that despite or because of the high percentage of mothers working outside the home? From my own experiences as a daughter of a professor mother and as a “working” mother myself, I believe it’s the latter. Working full-time has helped me prioritize and better utilize my time with my family.
On the whole, I enjoyed Power Women. While the primary audience is mothers who work in academia, any woman working or considering how to balance work and family will find encouragement and valuable information in the essays. Men, too, would benefit from the discussions on work-life enrichment and how to navigate family responsibilities and work with grace. I have a few disagreements with a couple of the authors regarding their beliefs about ordination (139) and praying to God as mother (117). These are not central to the book or the themes of how we can serve God and our families well.
The book was particularly timely for me as I recently decided to go back to school to pursue my Ph.D. Twenty-two years ago, I decided to postpone my graduate school plans when my husband and I met and got engaged. He was two years into his Ph.D. program, and I didn’t want to wait years to get married or try to commute between two universities/locations. In those twenty-two years, I’ve focused my time and energy on childrearing, homeschooling, and supporting my husband in his career. I don’t regret a single moment.
It was the best use of our gifts and resources at the time. But my boys are older now, and I’m ready for a new challenge. Our responsibilities may change and grow in each season of our lives, but our goals remain the same: glorify God and enjoy Him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 1). As Paul encourages us in Colossians, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father,” (Colossians 3:17).
Rachel Green Miller is the author of Beyond Authority and Submission. She is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a popular blogger at A Daughter of the Reformation.