Mar 19, 2011

Why do women return to work? And should they?

A. Why do women return to work after children?

In the following list I’m not trying in any way to pass comment on the reasons women return to paid employment, merely to identify them.

1. Financial necessity

For many the option of choosing to stay at home is not open to them. Economic necessity means at least some part-time work to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. In parts of the world it would be beyond the wildest dreams of any family to survive on a single income.

2. Financial improvement

For others work is a choice but a choice in which economics plays a big part. It might be possible to live for a few years on one income but going back to work is about ensuring a better quality of life for a family. It’s about having enough not just to pay the bills but to enjoy a nice holiday, etc.

3. Missing the world of work (maybe even a grief over loss of independence)

Someone described stopping work to look after a baby as a form of grief; the loss of a life, of a world, in which so much energy, time and commitment had been given and so many rewards had been received. For some it feels as if a life has ended and it’s not too strong to think of those first few months at home as a grieving over a loss of independence.

There are friends at work you don’t see any more and then there is the enormous challenge of  leaving something you’re good at to do something you don’t feel very good at.

The goal for some women is to re-enter the work-place and resume the career ‘as soon as’.

4. Escaping the isolation of caring for a baby

‘When I became a mother I found myself for the first time in my life without a language, without any way of translating the sounds I made into something other people would understand.’ Rachel Cusk writes in ‘A Life’s work’.

Someone else commented:

‘I went to a dinner party on Thursday. And I had nothing to say. I was out of it. I couldn’t talk about the only things that mattered to me.’

Raising children full-time at home when everyone else is out in the world of work can be an isolating experience.

5. The embarrassment of staying at home ie peer-pressure

It’s inevitable that people will start to ask ‘are you coming back to work’ even before the birth. In a culture (see below) that has created the expectation that mothers will work it can be a little awkward to tell people you’re not.

6. The cultural expectation is that women should have it all.

Good bosses desperately want to keep good employees and do their utmost to keep women in work.

The culture creates favourable terms to ensure women can work (and thus fosters the expectation)

The law protects a woman’s right to return to work after the birth of a child.

‘Policy makers urgently need to face up to the fact that the values underlying much social policy may not match the desires of women not the extent that they have assumed.’ Professor Geoff Dench

7. The battle to prove that you can have it all

Almost the definition of the modern woman is to have it all. Those who choose to give up work to raise children feel that they are not

B. Should Christian wives go back to work?

1. The bible’s model of a godly woman or ‘an alphabet of wifely excellence’

Proverbs 31:10-31

The wife of Proverbs 31 is a purposeful, energetic, wise, successful, strong, capable wife.

She cares for the family, she earns an income.

‘Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity.’ Waltke


There is nothing unbiblical or sinful about a mother working alongside her duty to her family.

This woman works in a way that keeps the priority of being a wife and mother.

2. The priority for wives

Titus 2:3-5

teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

i) The primary Christian duty of wives and mothers, according to Paul, is that they should ‘love their husbands and children’.

Love, as defined by God’s love is measured in sacrifice and service.

ii) Busy at home – John Stott comments: ‘It would not be legitimate to base on this word either a stay-at-home stereotype for all women, or a prohibition of wives being also professional women. What is rather affirmed is that if a woman accepts the vocation of marriage, and has a husband and children, she will love and not neglect them.’

iii) Such a biblical understanding of womenhood should bring:

  • Blessing to the home
  • Fulfilment to the wife
  • Honour to God

iv) Our culture of ‘liberation’ works to undermine God’s priorities and replace it with a secular agenda

  • Feminism makes the mistake of equating equality of status with equality of role.
  • Feminism encourages women to forsake their calling to care for husband and children in pursuit of self-fulfilment in a career outside the home.

3. What is the Biblical principle that should be at work in the decision?

“In what way can I best love those God has called me to love (especially my husband and children) as I love and serve Christ? By working outside the home or by working inside the home? By working part-time, full-time or not at all.”

Key conclusion: The answer to this question will be different for

i) different families

ii) in different situations and circumstances

iii) with different gifting and capacities

iv) and even for the same family in differing seasons of life.

Our natural inclination is to polarise the debate by reducing everything to a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ view on moms going back to work.

What we need to recognise is that in our churches there will be a spectrum of positions. A scale shall we say between 1 and 10 in which 1 is a decision to choose to work (there is no economic necessity no need other than a self-motivated decision to seek a career) and 10 a decision to choose to stay at home (again a situation in which the income of a wife plays no part) and then a 5 represents the woman who willingly or unwillingly has to look for paid work to pay the bills.

For the most part it won’t be obvious to us where any couple sits on this spectrum and that usually means that we are not in a position to judge the motives of those who work and those who don’t.

In the next post we’ll consider:

What are the dangers in women trying to hold together the world of work and home?

What part should husbands play in all this?


  • Neil, I wonder whether we could inject into this a concept of fulfilment (work, relationship, etc.) which bears more reflection of creation, fall, redemption & consummation. I’m not sure that, “Such a biblical understanding of womenhood should bring… fulfilment to the wife’, necessarily. This side of Jesus’ return, the best of our vocations and work will always involve some frustration, and we’re better off remembering that. I’ve found Ajith Fernando helpful on this (e.g. here).

    It’s something which is being recognised by what you refer to as ‘Our culture of “liberation”‘. Recognising that there’s frustration and waste in ‘only’ working at home. Of course there’s frustration and waste in any role east of Eden! Their mistake is not that they won’t seek some non-frustrating godly role. If that role were so ultimately and completely fulfilling, everyone would recognise it and dive into it at all costs. Everyone knows there’s some satisfaction, but it’s messier and more frustrating than pure fulfilment. Surely the mistake of modern feminists is to seek liberation through a different kind of work (which is also frustrating but in different ways), rather than redemption and meaning in Christ. But these answers aren’t straightforward.

  • PS Thanks for blogging on this. It may have been personally precipitated, but with your pastor’s vision you’ve seen that people will need to think of it much more widely, to support and build each other up in our churches.

  • […] Why do women return to the world of work after their children are born? (see 2. Biblically speaking, should women return to work and what criteria should we apply is assessing […]

  • I am at this particular point myself. I retired in my early 40’s, bought time as a government worker, and then took time off to take care of my elderly parents. I hated leaving my job when I did, but the peace I found after I can never regret. I took a few classes and now while I send out a few resumes each week, the job market in my town is just fair to not existent.

    I want to go back to work because I was good at what I did, I enjoyed meeting new people on the train ride in to town each day, the connection we all shared of getting off work and going home. Today I am not married, but amicably divorced. My son was raised well and is now finishing up a graduate degree in Southern Cal, and my parents are doing better than I am. Iot is not to prove I can have it all or anything else. I like working, based on what the Bible says about women who work.

    For me working gave me fulfillment as étrangère notes. I started my own business, and I see no one, and hated it eventually. I no longer travel much and can’t say what I would do if I did. For me working was my sense of accomplishment each day. What can I say, it is for me and me only, working for me was a highlight.

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