Recently I heard the story of a newlywed couple that planned to spend five years getting to know each other and paying off school debt before starting their family. That may describe some of the couples you know. It described Steve and me when we were first married. It sounds reasonable — and typical. What’s not so typical is that the wife was on the cusp of beginning her career as a medical doctor, after years of mounting school loans. She needed to work for at least five years to make a dent in her $100,000-plus loan bill. She was 30.
She also wanted to start having babies.
“Every time she brings up babies,” her husband said, “I buy her another cat.” Publicly he was brashly confident that working till 35 was a reasonable approach to family making. Privately he wasn’t so sure. When he asked an older married friend about it, his wise friend advised him saying, “Step one, tell her she can go home and start a family. Tell her you’ve got a plan.’”
“But I don’t have a plan,” the nervous husband admitted.
“That’s step two,” his friend said.
Sound reckless? I thought so at first. But it also sounds bold and exciting. It sounds masculine and strong. According to our God-given design, it’s the man’s job to provide. Just as it’s the woman’s job to bring forth and nurture new life (see Genesis 1-3). Contrary to what we see all around us, when babies arrive, most women want to be with their babies — often to their surprise.
In her book What Our Mother’s Didn’t Tell Us, Danielle Crittenden captures that moment:
The woman with a slightly enlarged belly who announces that she plans to return to her office six weeks/six months/two years after her baby is born may genuinely believe she will be able to do so—and in many cases, she will do so. But what she is also revealing is how little she really knows about what is about to wallop her, hard. For until you are holding your actual baby in your arms … you can’t know how you’re going to feel when you become a mother. This surprise is motherhood’s greatest joy and its darkest secret: Suddenly, you can’t stop thinking about your child.
It’s strange then, that in all the public discussions of the problems faced by working mothers, the most animating aspect of motherhood—that we love our children more than anything else and want to be with them as much as we possibly can—goes unmentioned.
Crittenden’s insights echo an ancient rhetorical question, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (Isaiah 49:15a)
If this is something you desire — to have babies and to be the one at home caring for them — then the sooner you start preparing for it, even if you’re not yet married or even dating, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to do it when the babies arrive. Because even though it will be your husband’s responsibility to provide, wives have to do their part to be able to live within a husband’s provision. And that’s a lot more likely if you plan ahead.
The trouble is that in our day and age, women aren’t often taught to anticipate this desire or affirmed for it. Even more rare is preparing for what to do about it. Crittenden writes, “As modern women, we are taught to anticipate many things in our lives—except one.… We may plot every move of our advancing career as carefully and thoughtfully as a cartographer. But the single most profound, life-changing decision that the majority of us eventually make is the one we are now least prepared for—the act of having a child.”
For many new moms, by the time the babies start coming, their financial and career decisions have been made in such a way that their options are few. For many of you reading, this will be you someday; consider that 80 to 90 percent of Americans get married, 70 percent of American marriages include children. I’ve had friends find themselves in the midst of their 12-week unpaid maternity leave, grieving the countdown till they’ll be forced by their financial obligations to return to the office. Even though I was dead set against day care — I fully intended to be our children’s primary care giver — I didn’t always plan with that reality in mind.
But I could have. I did plan ahead when it came to other things. The most obvious example is divorce. We knew before we even got married that for us, divorce was “not an option.” Of course legally it was, but in our minds, it wasn’t. And so we live as if it isn’t because we believe, based on God’s design for marriage, that it isn’t. You live what you believe. When divorce is not an option, you handle conflict differently; you fight differently. If your marriage is a garden, you pull weeds as soon as they’re spotted. You nurture seedlings and cultivate the soil.
Many women want to be stay-at-home moms someday. What if you live like daycare is not an option? You handle work differently. You make decisions early on that make it possible to follow through on your beliefs. As with a commitment to sexual purity, you don’t make the decisions in the heat of the moment. You make them well in advance of the circumstances that will require you to act on your beliefs.
Is there another way? Is it possible to do things differently — to avoid following the cultural script that says you spare no expense to get your education then work like a man and do what’s required to succeed at your career?
I wasn’t intentional about my field of study, my career path or my financial plan when it came to preserving my option to stay home with our kids. Of those three areas, the one that has hurt the most is the last one. I financed graduate school and always just assumed the money would take care of itself. I figured I’d either marry rich or have a well-paying job. It never occurred to me that there was a third option: I’d marry average and risk having to keep my OK-paying joy in order to make our mortgage payments. This is the far more likely scenario. And it’s the one that came to be.
On our second anniversary we were expecting our first baby and both working full time to pay down our grad school loans in excess of $35,000. I tried to add kids in a way that left my pre-kid way of life undisturbed. But a baby changes everything. I had to learn after the fact that what I’d always suspected, that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, was true. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being the one to care for our first born. But I also couldn’t be there for him and maintain my full-time job and full-time salary. I had to choose.
For us, that meant my working from home and juggling competing demands of children and writing deadlines. It’s been a blessing to be able to work from home — something I don’t ever want to take for granted — but still, it’s often been in direct competition for my affections and time and energy. Often I’ve wanted to miss the deadline and focus all of my attention on my primary responsibilities as a wife and mom.
If you’re not married or a mom yet, you have the opportunity to be a good steward now and later. Women can help their men be good providers by being considerate in the amount of provision they require. I wish I’d been more thoughtful of my future husband when I was taking out all those student loans. It was selfish of me to assume a man would come along and be willing to assume my financial debts. Mercifully, Steve did, but those loans have created years of extra financial burden.
Other practical ways of being a good steward now, with an eye to the future, include living within your means, adhering to a budget, building up a savings account, tithing, giving generously and serving others in the body of Christ. If you’ve already stumbled in this area (James 3:2) and have debts, work vigorously to pay them off.
J.I. Packer writes in Knowing God about the main pitfalls to hearing from God about His will for our life. One of the six he lists is “unwillingness to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of action.” Of this he says, “‘Think ahead’ is part of the divine rule of life no less than of the human rule of the road.” Often we can see what is wise and right (and what is foolish and wrong) only as we dwell on its long-term issues. “Oh that they were wise … that they would consider their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:29, KJV)
I wish I could say I did everything right when I was single, or even that we did everything right once married, but neither would be true. Thankfully we serve a merciful and mighty God who is able to redeem our sin and use our circumstances to make us more like Christ (Romans 8:28).
I’m so thankful for the answer to that ancient question in Isaiah about the mother nursing her baby. Even if a mother forgets her nursing child — an unnatural and tragic event when it happens — “Though she may forget,” our Creator says, “I will not forget you!” And He has not forgotten. By His great mercy and grace, the good news of the Gospel is the hope we need when we falter. He remembered His promises and sent His Messiah, the Christ. Apart from Him we are unable to do anything from faith. And “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b). But we are not left there, despairing. For “when you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15).
You can’t know the future, but you can learn about what’s typical and statistically likely. And financial prudence will, by God’s grace, serve you well, even if you never marry or have children. For women who don’t marry or have children, God’s call to ministry will likewise be well served if you are free of debt and obligations that limit your future flexibility. Preserving your ability to serve — either a husband and children or the body of Christ in undistracted ministry — is the goal, to God’s glory.
Copyright 2011 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.