Am I Being Selfish?: The Tension Between Parenting and Work

By Jessica Wolstenholm

Five years ago, I was in school and working on my PhD when I received some exciting news: I was pregnant. Nine months later, we had our first son, and I began the careful balancing act of being both a mother and a student. Thankfully, my husband and I were in the unique position of being in school together, which meant we had flexible schedules. I was with the baby half the day, my husband the other half. It was an ideal arrangement in which we had our cake and ate it too. We had plenty of time to work, and plenty of time with our son.


That all changed when my husband took a full-time job as a pastor. Suddenly, I was a stay-at-home mom and a student. I managed the set-up for awhile, but when I became pregnant a second time, I knew I had to graduate quickly. There was no way I could complete my degree with two small children running around, so we sent our son to childcare several mornings a week while I stayed home to study.


Once again, I found myself in an ideal situation—my son could socialize and learn in a new setting, while I could finish my degree—but that’s not how I felt. Instead, I felt guilt. I felt guilty for sending my son to daycare, and I felt guilty for enjoying the alone time. Aren’t good mothers supposed to love being with their children all the time?


The answer to that question is, of course, no. Most parents need a break from their kids (even the best ones!) but at the time, I only felt selfish. I felt selfish for pursuing my calling instead of staying home all day with my son. I also felt selfish when my calling affected our schedules, or required my husband to make additional sacrifices.


Over the years, I have heard similar sentiments from different women across all walks of life. I have heard it from seminary students wondering if their desire to learn theology was motivated by selfish desires. I have heard it from mothers who sliced their family income in order to stay home with their kids. I have heard it from working mothers who needed the extra money but wondered if they were shortchanging their children.


I think this pressure weighs especially heavy on women, because we are expected to be “all the things.” We strive to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect hostess, and the perfect Christian, forgetting that God requires none of this. No area of our lives is satisfied by our sufficiency, but Christ’s, so our limitations are not shameful. Instead, they point to the glorious sufficiency of God.


I also think this pressure comes from a narrow vision of motherhood, one which paints women as sole proprietors of the home. It’s a vision of motherhood independent of community, viewing “help” as a compromise rather than God’s intended design. It’s also a vision of motherhood without space for other callings, viewing ministry or work as threats, rather than beautiful supplements.


For all these reasons and more, parents often feel selfish when parenting and work collide, and although the balance can be tricky, it’s not inherently selfish, and we know this for several reasons.


First, God gives us gifts because He intends for us to use them. If you have the gift of teaching or leading or counseling or any other number of talents, God granted them out of His very own hands, and He did it with intention. This means we should steward our talents well, and without guilt. Of course, that doesn’t excuse us from prioritizing marriage and parenting, but it does mean we don’t always have to choose.


Second, stewarding our gifts can improve our parenting.  Since becoming a mom, there have been seasons when I didn’t have time to write. During those seasons, I noticed a slow, gradual withering inside me, as if my soul was somehow out of sync. Conversely, whenever I make time to use my gifts for God, I flourish, as if my soul is stretching out into the width and breadth of its purpose. This flourishing is so abundant that it overflows into every area of my life. When I come home from writing, I am a better wife and mom. I have more patience and more joy. The quality of time with my family is simply better, and that is another fruit of stewarding our gifts.


Stewarding our gifts also improves our parenting because of the example it sets. The best way to teach our kids to use their own gifts, is to model it. When we steward our gifts in healthy, God-honoring ways, we leave a legacy of faithful service for our children to inherit.


And finally, our kids were meant to be raised in community. Not all of us work because we’re called, but because we must. Perhaps you want to spend more time with your kids, but you must rely on the help of family or professional caregivers. This is, in many ways, God’s plan. From start to finish, the story of God’s people is just that—the story of a people. We were never meant to do faith or marriage or parenting alone, but with the help and encouragement of the church. When we embrace the gift of community, our children benefit from the diverse talents and teachings of the Body of Christ, and their lives are richer for it. This community-supported parenting is not a concession, but a rich blessing from God.


And what if some part of our motives is wrong? What if some shred of our ambitions is selfish? The good and the bad news is, that will always be true. Even the noblest callings are subject to corruption, because we are sinful people. We can turn even the very best work into a selfish endeavor, so it is wise and healthy to name that temptation, but it doesn’t negate the call. Instead, it challenges us to guard the integrity of our work by keeping watch over our intentions. The balance is hard and we will make mistakes, but God delights to see His children use their gifts. That is, after all, why He gave them.