A woman’s work inside and outside the home is a controversial topic, to say the least. Opinions range from “A woman’s place is in the home” to “Women are just like men — they should be liberated!” My purpose in this article is not to enter that argument. Rather, it is to discuss the tension of balancing these decisions that I feel every day of my life. For me, it’s not an either-or discussion. For many of us, the question isn’t as simple as, “Do I stay home every day, all day?” or “Do I participate in anything else outside the home?” It is a balance of both.
Life has taught me that balance isn’t a place — it’s a process. You swing a little to one side, then you re-adjust to the other side. Most of us would agree that nothing is more important than our marriages and our families. But there are countless pieces to keep in place — so many balls to juggle. Our homes and the things in them are tools for our families. They serve us; we don’t serve them.
For example, although I would be delighted to have a Pinterest-worthy closet, I know that spending the resources (time, money, mental energy) to keep everything in my house Pinterest-perfect is not the correct balance for me. And, ironically, the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing well beats me up from the other side. And, from yet another angle, I have learned that bringing order from chaos is one of the best things I can do for my mental health and the peace of my family. But when is enough, enough? How do I balance managing the things in my home and the things away from home? I need to step back a little and look at the situation with new glasses.
My mama always said, “People are more important than windows.” Don’t misunderstand me — my siblings and I worked! We cleaned regularly, polishing windows, furniture, silver, and floors. But mother set the priorities. While she was a stickler for the frequently used front and back glass doors, we didn’t regularly wash all of the windows in the house. It would have been a full-time job. She taught us to filter what is most important — whether which windows to prioritize or whether other things in life.
How do I know what is important?
It can be helpful to write down your priorities.
- Write down what you think your priorities are.
- Write down all your tasks and responsibilities — do they line up with your priorities?
- Ask your husband what matters to him about how you spend your time.
- Ask your kids what matters to them about how you spend your time.
- Ask God what matters to Him about how you spend your time.
Understand that for most homes, managing the house, laundry, food, finances, and appointments can be a full-time, 40-hour job. Add family activities, music lessons, sports, homework, dates, and church activities, and something must be set aside. Life is further complicated if you work a separate, paid job inside or outside the home.
Picture your life as a 24-hour plate. Add in the time to manage all the household and family responsibilities. Then add in the sports, music, and school activities. Now, add in the church responsibilities. Finally, add in your part-time or full-time job. Pretty soon, the plate will not hold everything. Some things must fall off—often in a messy way.
Life has taught me that balance isn’t a place — it’s a process. You swing a little to one side, then you re-adjust to the other side.
We must proactively choose what to take off the plate. My mother chose window washing on the third and second floors of our big, old house. I choose my basement, attic, and a closet area on the second floor. They simply aren’t regular priorities. It is not healthy for me to only stay home and cook and clean for months on end (as if that were possible). I must be involved in other activities that feed my soul.
One way to fit in other things is to do smaller amounts on a regular basis. When it comes to nourishing our souls, we can unrealistically imagine how we’ll accomplish it. Whether you want to read more, practice your own music (instead of overseeing your children practice), craft, sew, exercise, or write, sometimes we imagine ourselves delving into the things we love in the fringe hours of our days with vim and vigor, but it rarely turns into reality. When that full-to-overflowing plate hits us the next morning, our plans for an hour of piano practice fly out the door in favor of filled lunch boxes and clean uniforms for our children. However, if I commit to working in fifteen minutes of practice three days a week, or (as I’ve been doing lately) stopping at the piano to play for about five minutes on my way to the kitchen, then those little bits add up over time. Moreover, they pay lovely dividends for the soul.
The other way to fit things in is to schedule them in a controlled way rather than let them happen at will.
As a pastor’s wife, there can be a constant sense of all the things that need done, whether it’s people who need visited, meals that need cooked, or cards that need written. Years ago, I noticed this constant nagging sense in my spirit—not in a resentful way, but in a way that stole my peace and made me feel like I was always not doing enough.
So, I decided to schedule a visiting day for every week. This practice gave me peace of mind, because on the other days of the week, when the thought of who needed a visit would come, I knew that visiting day was coming later in the week. I had three little ones at that point, and on visiting day, I trotted them around our tiny Alabama town in a very long triple stroller we called “the limousine.” This worked for me at that time in my life.
This concept works for scheduling housework, deskwork, laundry, churchwork, and so on. If there is a scheduled time to do things, it helps to (1) Clear the mind of having to keep track of a relentless to-do list and (2) Ensure that the thing gets done!
How does God feel about a woman working outside the home?
When deciding whether or not work outside the home, it is important to seek God and study his Word. Here are a few points of truth for your consideration:
- He gives us gifts and abilities and passions.
- He gives us clear roles and priorities.
- He gives us common sense.
- He expects us to pay attention.
- He speaks to us through His Word, the members of our family, our own anxiety, and so on.
If my kids are falling apart or getting themselves into trouble, I can almost guarantee you there is something that needs tweaking at home. What can I tweak?
Perhaps it is me not doing a chore so that I can spend relaxed time with my child. Perhaps it is me not going to an evening event so that my children can go to bed early—sometimes several days in a row.
I may need to accept the fact that they need a break from screen time, and they need real facetime with me instead – which means I won’t get as much done from my to-do list.
Sure, there are certainly days or weeks or even seasons when my family does not get the best of my attention. But the balance is in returning.
If I say yes to a speaking engagement, it costs my family — not just on the day of the event, but on the travel days surrounding it and, even more, on the days of preparation when my mind is preoccupied, and I have to say no to them more while I am preparing. So, when I return, I need to be aware of how important it is for me to invest in rebalancing things at home; not because I come home to chaos, but because I must re-center the balancing scales.
One of my all-time favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne, talks about planning recovery time equal to the time of activity. After a 3-day trip to see family and cousins and the zoo and travel, your family will probably need 3 days of slower schedule as soon as possible after returning. That doesn’t mean you have to sleep in until nine o’clock every day. But you may need to say no to a birthday party or having friends over or running to the store extra times.
Our homes and the things in them are tools for our families. They serve us; we don’t serve them.
From the time we were married, I have worked outside the home and inside the home. My teaching, counseling and church work happen both inside and outside our home – at scheduled times and sporadic times. So, I have learned a few things that help me:
- I need to be realistic about how long it takes to do things.
- I must take something off my plate if I add something to it.
- On extra busy days, I need to lower my expectations for housework on those days and plan something simple for supper.
- I schedule what I can into my weeks on a regular basis. But I must leave spaces in my schedule to allow for the unscheduled things.
Perfection and Motivation
If you feel it is your godly duty to have a perfect home, go for it, girl! But each of us must get quiet and honest before God about our motivations. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Why am I working for pay inside or outside the home?
- Do I struggle with saying no to people? Why?
- Why do I volunteer for things?
Am I working for money so that we can go out to eat and buy expensive clothes, rather than investing that time into my children? Why do I add jobs to my schedule? Why do I automatically fill in an open space in my schedule with another commitment? Why am I critical of people whose house I suspect may be cleaner or dirtier than mine? (or more or less organized, decorated, or expensive) Am I stressing about my house for the comfort of my family or to please cranky people in my life?
No one can make these judgment calls for you and your family. You must make them carefully and prayerfully. Only God, yourself and your husband get to tell you what the proper balance is between tending to your family and using your gifts and interests in other places.
Of course, I do not think that women must be barefoot, pregnant, and ignorant. I come from a long line of educated, working women. And I am passionate about the work I do in addition to tending my family. But I do know that we are masters at making excuses for why we say yes or no to things. We are often guilt-driven. We often work for our value. And often we tend to either expect others to meet our expectations or expect ourselves to meet theirs. Or both! Now there’s a fun way to live!
Instead, we need to pay attention to the painful places in our lives. Pain and anxiety are indicators of something that needs tending. If home life is generally unhappy or chaotic, adjustments are needed. Period. I’m not saying you can’t have any messes or any sibling fights or any lost keys. I’m just saying pay attention! Be honest with yourself.
If we do not have time to do the laundry, but we have time to browse Facebook for an hour, we need to be honest with ourselves. Perhaps we feel compelled to spend hours working resentfully on the church decorating with the excuse that “no one else will do it,” but really, we just need to be honest that we are choosing to do it because it fills a need for creating beauty within us. There is nothing wrong with making a trade-off if you are not neglecting a God-given priority and if you are being honest about your motivation.
Have you ever said yes to “all the things and all the people” as the saying goes, and then found yourself resentful and cranky and martyr-ish rather than joyful and fulfilled? This is not living from personal honesty and awareness.
Pay attention. Stress, tension, resentment, exhaustion, chaos—these are all messengers that something needs tending. Maybe you just need to be honest with yourself and with God.
Expectations vs. Habits
In this lifelong journey of learning to balance things, I have developed a mantra that gives me clarity: Loosen your expectations and tighten up your habits.
If home life is generally unhappy or chaotic, adjustments are needed. Period.
If I expect a clutter-free, sparkly clean home, it will only bring pain and stress to me and my family—unless, that is, I have the habits to make it happen. One of the best things we can teach our kids is good habits of tidiness, and I can teach them this by developing my own small, strong, manageable habits. That means that I make my home a priority, but since God calls me to do many things outside the home, and since there is absolutely nothing that can replace presence and time and connection, I also do my family a favor by being okay with some messes and some reasonable chaos. I focus on my home and yet by turn, I give them the gift of my unhurried presence. This is my unique story of finding balance. What is yours?
The bottom line is: Since home keeping is a full-time job, we must add outside responsibilities carefully and prayerfully. We must pay attention to warning signs that adjustments are needed. And we need to choose what we will trade so that our plate doesn’t overflow. There is rest that comes in knowing that we have chosen on purpose to do what we do. And if you add gratefulness and acceptance to that, you have a formula for some beautiful living.