Having it All vs. Giving it Up

The choices we make – or the ones that are made for us – don’t have to make or break our calling

Two articles about work and motherhood jumped out at me from across the screen this week.

One was written by a mom who, at the ripe old age of 38, feels it may be time to give up the lifelong dream of a PhD and career in theology. In an article for Christianity Today, Ohio author and minister Marlena Groves writes:

These tensions are very real. As a wife and mother, a good deal of my daughters’ and husband's well-being is tethered to how I treat them and the decisions I make. If I take them and their needs into full consideration, does that mean my own “professional success and satisfaction” are doomed? If I forsake their flourishing in favor of my own, will I ruin them? If I don’t get a PhD and a job teaching at a seminary, will I miss out on my calling and holy ambition? Am I fated to live a mediocre and unfulfilled life?

Meanwhile, the Irish Independent interviewed actress and fashion designer Amy Huberman (no relation, ;)) on how the apparent career-setback of losing out on an American television show was a blessing in disguise. “It was the best gift in so many ways,” said Huberman, “because that year we had [daughter] Sadie and I don’t know if I would have otherwise.” She later added, “Sometimes the disappointments take you by surprise. This week I got really close to something I wanted and I actually surprised myself with my level of disappointment.” 

As I read each piece, reflecting on the fact these women were already moderately to amazingly successful, I couldn’t help but wonder why being a mother and feeling creatively fulfilled seem to forever be at odds. Not just that, but by any measure, these two women should be content, right? Both are earning paychecks, pursuing work in a field they enjoy, and raising families.

By any measure, I should be content, too. I followed a calling to serve abroad with my family, married to a husband whose vocation is flexible and fulfilling, children who have us nearly all to themselves and a fledgling writing career.

But… for them, and for me, it still seems to come at a cost.

Missed chances, delayed plans, and difficult choices haunt mothers at any age and in any circumstance. Not just that, but I’d wager these same issues haunt every woman everywhere. I don’t know if men feel this cost as keenly as women do, but I believe this truth is the same for all: For every yes, we trade a no.

Some are able to combine work and calling into a singular vocation. Many ministers are becoming bivocational, working part-time in both the secular workplace and the church. Meanwhile, some generous businesses are learning to accommodate working mothers and fathers with flexible hours and job-shares. Still, these are a lucky few. Women can feel forced to work outside the home to provide for their family, or conversely, forced to stay at home to mind their family.

It can feel like a no-win some days.

I talk a really good game with my friends and colleagues about our holistic family life, about the ministry we’ve discovered and the “joys of following Jesus anywhere.” But it, too, came at a great cost: giving up our families, forsaking financial security, abandoning the “American Dream” (whatever that is), and parenting our children alone without the aid or insight of parents, aunts and uncles.

Saying yes to a dream might mean saying no to our kids, our parents, our homes, or others’ expectations. And saying (or hearing) no to a calling, a goal or a job may fill our lives with more questions – or it might just make room for other yesses.

So what do we do when we feel the pull like Marlena or mourn the disappointment like Amy?

No matter the choice we make – and to be sure, there is no one-size-fits-all here – we can fear we’re missing out, or we can learn to give it up. We can taste the bitterness and the gall, or we can count it all joy and turn into that gracious giver God apparently loves so much. And we can readjust as necessary, understanding that a yes or no now doesn't mean it's forever.

As Marlena concludes, “On days when I am beset by the fear of missing out and by the tension between my desires and my family’s needs, I’ll remind myself that everything God has is mine. The kingdom life is the abundant life. “

We’ve really no idea what we’re missing out on till we look at it with aged eyes and wizened souls. And I wonder if by that time, we’ll see all that we’ve gained, instead.