Monday, July 15, 2013

Motherhood and Professional Callings

I have taken a break from blogging while working on my book. I'm happy to say that the book is fully drafted now! Stuart and I still have some polishing to do, but it should be available in the coming few months. Hooray!

Now that I have a chance to get back to my blog, I want to tackle a critical issue that my students (particularly female students) often ask me about: How do you balance the idea of a professional calling with the choice to be a stay-at-home Mom? There are no easy answers here. And as a working male, I am perhaps not the most credible voice.

I do have some strong feelings, though. And my good friend Michelle, a former MBA classmate of mine, articulates them more convincingly than I can. So I want to share her story and her words with you.

Before I introduce Michelle, however, I want to assert strongly that we can still exercise our calling in life if we choose not to be employed. The way that society equates having a calling with having a job does a terrible disservice to women who choose stay-at-home motherhood over professional careers. The media and other leading voices sometimes express thinly veiled disdain for women who choose to do their life’s work on the home front. They imply that women who stay at home are somehow suppressing their potential and succumbing to archaic societal expectations. If this view is right, and a calling is something you can only pursue by choosing a professional career, then stay-at-home moms surely have sold themselves short. But if instead we define a calling as using your unique gifts to serve an important cause, then motherhood and family life become the noblest and most urgent expressions of calling.

This is where I want to introduce Michelle.

Like many young people, Michelle had a hard time deciding what to study in college, and agonized a lot about what she should be when she grew up. It was during this time of uncertainty and stress that Michelle sought a "priesthood blessing" from her father (for Latter-day Saints, such blessings are a way to receive inspired counsel). Although the blessing provided comfort to her then, it would take years for her to fully appreciate how it would guide her future. Among other things, the blessing promised her that God would be beside her, helping her to discern her mission as she went along through life. It also told her that there were many ways she could accomplish her mission in life. This diminished her fear of missing her “one right path.” In fact, her path soon began to unfold in ways that surprised her.

Michelle served a mission for her church, even though that hadn’t been her original plan. She later decided to get an MBA, an idea that she said came out of the blue. While in school, she discovered dreams and passions that she hadn’t recognized before. One of them was a fascination with technology in management. She landed a job in telecommunications and business process, thousands of miles from home, and loved it.

Eventually she met her husband in her new community, and later decided to quit her job to raise her children. Over time, she found ways to keep her resumé and her network current, even as a stay-at-home mom. She did some consulting work on the side and tried her hand at starting a business. She became a member of the undergraduate advisory board of the Marriott School of Management. She anticipated going back into the corporate world at some point.

But that point has never come. About 10 years ago, Michelle developed serious health problems that severely limited her energy and mobility. For someone who had been a “doer” all her life, this was a monumental challenge. Not only did her illness threaten Michelle’s ability to return someday to the work she loved, it also made motherhood – her most important job – more difficult than ever. But Michelle remained inspired by her father’s blessing. The Lord had promised that He would guide her to find her mission in life, and that there were many ways she could fulfill it. She continued to have a driving desire to use her talents to engage with the world.

Michelle discovered that one of the few things she had enough energy and time for was blogging. Writing a blog also fit well with Michelle’s gifts for technology and communications. She envisioned a blog that would provide a community for LDS women, and that would introduce others to their lives and beliefs (see Michelle didn’t anticipate how large the response to her blog would be, nor the new connections, interests, and directions it would foster for her. For instance, driven by the searches on her site, and inspired by Elder Russel M. Ballard’s 2010 LDS General Conference talk on addiction, she became deeply involved in helping various organizations and individuals get more information online about addiction and recovery.

Looking back, Michelle sees the hand of God in almost every step that led her to the blog. She realizes that without her health challenges, she never would have seen this opportunity. She reflects:

“I couldn’t have planned it. I couldn’t have set a goal that said ‘I’m going to be this when I grow up.’ I’m along for the ride. It’s very different from having a dream and pursuing it with all your might. It’s trying to keep an eye open for doors, and having my limitations be part of what opened those doors.”
Michelle doesn’t have a job, in the traditional sense, but she does relish a sense of calling, although she feels that God continues to refine her calling as she seeks to balance her professional gifts with her family responsibilities. She says:

“First and foremost, I want to validate motherhood. But our culture is swinging the other direction. It’s almost minimizing motherhood as a career. The more we validate motherhood, the less conflict mothers feel. Women don’t have to do something else to prove their worth or fulfill expectations.
“We should cherish motherhood because there is nothing more important. But God gives us gifts and talents to use them. It’s just a matter of discerning how to go about it. He expects me to always be asking if I’m doing this in the right balance.

“We worship a God of abundance and compensatory blessings. He is not out to strip us of what matters to us, even though he asks for sacrifice. In reality, I figured out more of who I am because I’m a mom, and that gives me the ability to be more fulfilled in other parts of my life.”

Michelle’s path toward her calling remains less than clear to her. Recently, she has felt strong promptings to pull back from some of her volunteer involvement. She is still making sense of those promptings – is God signaling to her that she is entering a season when her family needs her undivided attention? Does He have new unanticipated opportunities and challenges in store for her? Michelle has seen enough surprising twists in the way God has used her that she has come to trust the promptings that guide her calling. As she puts it, “I want to be potter’s clay.”

As she looks back on the unplanned opportunities that have come her way, the word that comes to Michelle's mind is “astonishment.” She has been astonished in precisely the way Eliza R. Snow expressed when she taught:

"Let your first business be to perform your duties at home. But, inasmuch as you are wise stewards, you will find time for social duties, because these are incumbent upon us as daughters and mothers in Zion. By seeking to perform every duty you will find that your capacity will increase, and you will be astonished at what you can accomplish.”

If, as we have argued, callings are about finding that place where your unique gifts and talents can be used to benefit others, then motherhood is as eligible for the status of calling as any professional identity.