On a recent car trip as I searched the radio dial, I stumbled across a Christian station broadcasting to a major market. The program director, a mother, was describing her role at the station. She talked with great warmth about her job as a ministry, but her final statement caught my attention: “Though I work outside the home, I try to parent like a stay-at-home mom.”

It seemed like an odd conclusion to an otherwise joyful accounting of a call to ministry. Why qualify it? But of course, I knew why. I knew because I had helped to perpetuate the Christian subculture that required she say it.

Seventeen years ago I shelved an MBA to become a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), a decision that entailed a boatload in foregone income. I don’t think Jeff and I realized we were answering such a big financial question at the time, but even as we stare down an astronomical college expense for our four teens, I know we would make the same choice all over again. I loved staying at home. I don’t regret trading my net worth for a nursery one bit.

But I do regret this: in private, I was hard on mothers who worked outside the home (WOHMs). I thought they were selfish for not having made the choice I had. I told myself my choice was nobler, my workload more worthwhile. And it turned out there were plenty of people to agree with me. Though my co-workers greeted my decision to stay home with uncomprehending stares, my church friends squealed with delight. It was as if I had finally ascended to the Christian ideal for womanhood, liberated from the fetters of feminism.

Yes, our culture may devalue the role of the SAHM, but within the church we tend to do the opposite. We practically canonize her.

Her praises resound in the Christian blogosphere, with daily offerings of encouraging words that she persevere in her underappreciated role. Church calendars cater to her schedule with weekday VBS programs and mommy groups. Christian publishing supports her: a search of “Christian working mother” on Amazon.com reveals about four relevant titles, while a search on “Christian stay at home mom” turns up well over twenty. I have to wonder if we haven’t traded one idol for another, if we haven’t swapped out the caricature of the empowered feminist for the caricature of the domestic goddess. What if, in our zeal to curb cultural adoration of Working Super-Mom we have fostered sub-cultural adoration of Our Lady of Perpetual Laundry, Madonna of the Mac and Cheese?

Don’t misunderstand: I am rooting for the SAHM. I think she is incredibly valuable. I’m just no longer willing to emphasize her value by devaluing her working counterparts, directly or indirectly.

Some Must Work

Because many moms actually do have to work outside the home, and Christians must be mindful of this truth. The fact that some of us even have a choice to stay at home marks us as children of rare socio-economic privilege, even if our choice is financially costly.

The most recent census data shows almost 8 million families living below poverty level in the U.S., a number that is on the rise. This means that for at least ten percent of the population, asking mothers to opt out of the workforce is out of the question. When Christian subculture exalts a family model that is inaccessible to the underprivileged, we add to their burdens. It is already difficult enough for modern-day widows and orphans to connect to the life of the church. Of course, the issue is not just a poverty-level one – many mothers above the poverty level work because their family needs two incomes to make ends meet. Mothers who must work to support their families need to know that the church is their refuge as well. When we uphold a “best case scenario” of motherhood that is withheld from a critical mass of believing women, what “grace-plus-this” scenario do we assign them?