Working Mothers and family life – Part 2 – The role of history


This is the second part to the post, Part 1 is available here, on female occupations in the Bible

This post is written to rebut the idea that the one Biblical model for family life is for the husband to go out to work, and for the wife to stay at home to look after the children. While I do not believe there is anything wrong with that model in and of itself, I am not so excited when it is preached as the only spiritualy legitimate and valid model for family life. I can’t help feeling that this is often a sign that people are imposing their own political views on others, and trying to authorise these views from the Bible.

I come from a traditional African background where for generations women would run economic ventures while also caring for children at the same time. This is why I am bemused, as I am sure are many other women from traditional backgrounds when people talk about a mother’s life as if it is an “either/or” thing. Will a mother spend her day looking after the children? Of course! Will a mother be involved in economic enterprises? Of course! (Will a father spend his day looking after the children? Of course! Will a father be involved in economic enterprises? Of course!) What is more, I believe that this is the model that we find in the Bible.

Historically speaking
Going out to work:
I think it would be useful if we considered history. Firstly, the idea of anyone, male or female, routinely leaving their home to travel long distances for work, that is, “going to work” is itself quite new. It only truly started happening in the UK after the Industrial Revolution which occurred roughly between the 18th and the 19th Centuries. That is only 3 centuries ago, or 300 years! This same thing would have happened at various points throughout history for different people for different reasons but my point was that it was not standard in the way that we take for granted today. For the greatest part of human existence, “work” has meant joining together with the community to communally work the fields or engage in agriculture or build houses or repair fences or practise a craft or trade. The point though is that it would have tended to be local; if not actually at home, then perhaps within comfortable walking distance for most people. For the greatest part of human existence, children have not necessarily gone to school to learn reading and writing. Rather, children would simply be taken along to the workplace and their parents would watch over them while simultaneously teaching them their crafts. In this way, a child would be immersed in his parents’ work from childhood and this is the way skills would be handed down from generation to generation, and trades would remain within families.

Boys would stay with the men, and girls with the women:
Of course a consistent difference between men and women throughout history has been that men are physically stronger than women. So obviously it would make sense for men to be employed in the heavy duty work such as ploughing fields, building walls, where the women would take on roles that they could do. This does not mean that women did not take part in manually demanding work, as we have seen in Part 1. Rather, they did as much as they could do – but this would not have been everything. Because of this there would have been a distinction between the men’s roles and the women’s roles, even within the same overall trade. After being weaned, (when a child no longer needed to be kept by its mother to be breastfed), then the boys could go off to be with the men to learn “manly” work, while the girls would stay with the women to learn “womanly” work. Depending on the trade involved, if it would have been unwise to have young children running around, taking a child to work might not have happened immediately after that child was weaned. It is not necessarily true that a child would immediately have been dropped wholescale into the world of work. There would also have been time for children to play. At this time a child might have been watched by grandparents, also actively working, perhaps sifting grain out in the sun, or by older siblings, or by cousins, or by the larger community – or indeed by parents. However I imagine that parents would not necessarily have been the first choice for watching their own children as the childbearing years also correspond to the years of greatest physical strength for both men and women. Within a community of people it is a more efficient use of that strength to be employed in demanding physical work, and to leave the lighter task of watching the children to grandparents or siblings. I know that someone is immediately going to pipe up and say that watching children is physically demanding. Perhaps so, but then the task would be made easier when shared with other people. In my experience, you might have groups of adults doing the supervision, who will then direct older children to feed the babies, carry them etc – so one person would not necessarily be doing all the heavy lifting of the children/or running after them.

Additionally, in my experience, watching after children is almost always incidental to performing another main task, and it is literally a case of keeping a watchful eye over their playful activity.

This is exactly the way life remains for many communities around the world, even in our modern days. No matter what we in today’s Western world might think, this is actually what is normal.

An artificial distinction between economic work and non-economic work:
I think that a big part of the issue when talking about a woman’s role is the fact that people make an artificial distinction between economic work and non-economic work. Our modern Western dependence on capitalism is a huge, but largely hidden aspect of this discussion. In traditional societies, families would be largely self-sufficient. So as far as is possible people would grow their own crops, raise their own cattle, make their own clothes, build their own homes. In addition to all those, however, they might concentrate on particular trades for the sake of swapping skills with their neighbours in their local communities. This was for the sake of plugging gaps in their own capabilities. Let’s assume that a family actually managed to be totally self-sufficient. By their own hands they managed to raise their own cattle, make their own clothes, grow their own crops – and they were prosperous in it. There is no question that of course the woman of the family would have been involved in all of these things – in fact, she would likely have been right at the helm – whether it was making the clothes, or organising the servants, or monitoring the accounts. We see all of these things in the account of the Proverbs 31 woman. So this way, the hands of the woman would have contributed fully to making her family prosperous, even if there was no actual money involved. And of course she would have been simultaneously looking after the children, specifically the girls. They would have been right alongside her, learning her skills from day by day interaction with her (as Jesus taught the disciples). In those days, economics – whether by barter, or with actual money – was primarily a way to trade with other people to fill in skills that a family could not manage by itself.

So do you see how false and artificial it is for us to now say that mothers should not work in an economic capacity? Mothers have always worked in this way, to make their families prosperous – always – even where there was no actual exchange of money, or even barter involved. It is only very recently that we have started to make the distinction between a mother’s “paid” work and “unpaid work”. The fact is that whether paid or unpaid it has the same actual value to her family – working to make them prosperous. Or it could be like saying that “a woman’s activity to make her family prosperous” is fine, as long as it does not involve her getting paid, however “a woman’s activity to make her family prosperous” that is, work with the same ultimate motive, perhaps doing exactly the same work suddenly ceases to be fine, just because money has suddenly become involved. To me, this is a false distinction. Let me here give an example to illustrate what I mean.

Let us imagine that we have three mothers. Mother One is very hardworking and versatile, and one day she makes a quilt for her daughter’s bed, and on the next day she makes a coat for her son. Mother Two is also very hardworking, but she prefers to be a specialist. So on day one she also makes a quilt for her daughter’s bed, but on day two, she makes another quilt – and exchanges it for a coat for her son. So from both mothers we have exactly the same amount of work, with the same purpose – to look after their children – but with Mother Two we now have an “economic aspect” to her work – simply because it involved a trade with someone else.

Now let’s say that Mother Three is very similar to Mother One: on day one she makes a quilt, and on day two she makes a coat. However her son already has a coat, so she sells the coat, and buys him some trousers instead. So with Mother Three she is actually doing exactly the same work as Mother One is doing. She is working to look after her family. She is using her profits to purchase items for her children. And yet Mother One is fine, because there is no money involved, but Mother Three is working for money – and suddenly her work becomes a bad thing.

This is why I say the distinction between a mother’s economic activity and non-economic activity is largely artificial

So when people say or imply that “a woman’s place is at home with the children”, and this is “the Biblical model”, it just makes me shake my head. No, no no and no! There has never (never, never) been any historical distinction between “being a mother” and “being fully economically active” (even where no literal money is actually involved). Yes, women stayed at home and looked after the kids, but then, so did the men, because work was mostly based locally. Moreover, if anything, childcare has historically been split very evenly between the genders for the most pragmatic reasons of teaching the respective genders what they needed to do. If we as Christians are desperate to reinstate “the Biblical model”, then we should be working for a return to traditional communities where several generations of the same family would work alongside one another, and grandparents and cousins would all be within calling distance, and expenses and stresses of looking for childcare would be unheard of. This is actually a sustainable model, and it has served different communities within humanity very well for whole millennia. Contrary to what many Christians seem to suggest, working mothers are not the big scourge of the world and society today, and they are not the reason for the collapse of society.

Image of woman weaving by Peter Griffin at

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