Louise Irwin found it took a while to adjust to being a mum after a fulfilling job 

what do you do

After my third child was born, I stepped back from my much-loved job for practical and financial reasons. Childcare for all three children was going to cost almost as much as I would earn and so we made the decision that I would stay at home for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, and I didn’t do it because of any ethical or theological standpoint; it was simply a practical action. What I didn’t recognise at the time was how monumental this decision would be for me. I had loved my job – developing volunteers for a charity. It was fulfilling and fun and it satisfied my need for affirmation and interaction with people. I was good at it, and it felt very much the place to which I had been called. Being at home with my children, on the other hand, did not bring very much affirmation or a great deal of fulfilment, if I’m honest. I spent a lot of my time cleaning food off the floor (an exercise in futility if ever there was one), feeling completely exhausted and having no sense of achieving anything at the end of the day. My house was insanely messy, the laundry seemed to multiply exponentially and, even though I was never alone (never – children follow you EVERYWHERE), I was both lonely and craving time to myself! It was not an easy path.

Attending a wedding

Soon after I had made the decision to leave work, my husband and I attended the wedding of one of his co-workers. I usually loved meeting new people and have always been a fairly confident person, but I was worried about this outing. What was I going to say when the inevitable questions about what I did came up? “What do you do?” they would ask, and I would have to say “nothing”. That’s what was running through my head in the lead-up to the wedding. The room would be full of really successful, clever people who had managed to have children and continue with a career and they would find me confusing or embarrassing or ridiculous…

Christians should surely understand better than any that our career, our finances or our status doesn’t define us – our identity is in Christ and He never asked “and what do you do?”. In fact, the idea of work being our main identifier is turned completely on its head in the Bible. Colossians 3:23 says ‘whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord’ (NIV) So all the things we do – whether they’re paid or not – are for God. That means everything we do is hugely valuable, whether it’s folding clothes (was there ever a more thankless task) or performing surgery. It’s not how the world sees it, but we aren’t called to look at things in the same way as the world. When Jesus called people into relationship with him, he didn’t focus on their jobs but he didn’t ignore them either…Fishermen? No problem but also – now you’re working with me to bring people into my kingdom. Tax collector – ok but now you’re going to do it with integrity and you’re going to bring people into my kingdom. Doctor? Fine – but mostly you’re following me and you’re going to write about it and bring people into my kingdom.

Afraid of the question

So why was I so afraid of being asked what I did? As a child of God, I should have known that I was not defined by my job, and I did know that in theory, but we are part of a culture that is obsessed with money and status. My whole childhood and early adulthood, like most of my peers, had been focussed on education – working hard to get good results to get more and more educated, to eventually get a job - but now I was struggling to know what the point of that had been if ‘all’ I was going to do was look after my children at home! The problem was that I had totally bought into the insidious lie that our worth comes from what we do, not from who we are. Having let my work identity go, I was struggling to know who I was. I had unknowingly accepted the world’s view that money and status give us worth and so, the logical conclusion was that without work I did, and therefore was, ‘nothing’.

Well, we arrived at the wedding and by the time the meal was served I was ready to face the questions. But they never came. No one asked me what I did. Instead, they asked about me; what was my background, what was my story. They showed a much more rounded interest in me, as a person, than I had expected or experienced up until then. Perhaps this room full of successful and intelligent people had realised that how you make your money is often not one of the most interesting things about you and that it certainly doesn’t define you. This was a massive challenge to me – did people experience this same kind of acceptance from me? Was I good at asking about the whole person and not bringing my own judgements when I met new people? As a Christian who believes that my life is led by and centred on Christ, was I living my life in a way that demonstrated (perhaps most significantly to my children) that my worth did not come from my earning status?

So who are we?

This is a very difficult path for parents to tread. We are understandably often preoccupied with the conveyor belt of education that our children are on – getting the right school, the right marks, the right course, the right job, can be all-consuming. But we can encourage our children to use their God-given gifts, abilities and opportunities whilst affirming them in their identity as children of God. However, children are famously good at sniffing out hypocrisy so, it’s only when we fully enter into our identity as a child of God, that our children will grasp this for themselves. We can tell them their results don’t define them and their life is in God’s hands but we have to actually believe it ourselves before they will. In practical terms, perhaps we can learn from my fellow wedding guests and show genuine interest in people that stretches beyond their jobs and into their whole lives. Afterall, if we truly understand that this world is only a fleeting shadow and we are storing up our treasures in heaven then that will have the most profound effect on how we view all aspects of our lives now – whatever kind of work we do.