Going to stay: Demystifying the lives of missionary mothers
Are stay-at-home missionary moms really “missionaries”? Does their sometimes exhausting work on behalf of their families negate their role in building the Kingdom of God?
By Denise Poon with Chad Loftis,
Going to stay: Demystifying the lives of missionary mothers
At the heart of Christian missions is the word “go.” “Go” away from your home country. “Go” to a new place where you don’t speak the language or know a single person. Once you get there, “Go” out and do your ministry.
But a good number of missionaries don’t actually go anywhere. They stay at home. These are the missionary moms who spend their time overseas, not church-planting or working in a hospital, but at home taking care of their children and domestic work. Their days are filled with finding ways to keep their families fed, clean and educated in a strange environment, with navigating the pitfalls of raising children under the social microscope of difference and of figuring out how to do it all in most cases without any of the support and resources of "home". Are such women really “missionaries”? Does their sometimes exhausting work on behalf of their families negate their role in building the Kingdom of God?
Lauren is a mother of two who previously lived and served in Thailand with her family. “Someone in pre-field training once said that the hardest role overseas is the stay-at-home-mom and wife. You’re making just as many sacrifices as your husband, if not more, and you don’t see the front lines of ministry a lot, the things that keep you in the game. Of all the people who come back burnt out and depressed the majority are the moms,’” Lauren said. “So I knew that going in, but until you’re there, it’s hard to understand.”
We might call it the feminine mystique of missionary moms*: the misconception that missionary women who are stay-at-home moms, taking care of their children and domestic work are perfectly content doing so, or that they are somehow doing “less” than their fellow missionaries who are in “full-time ministry”.
When Lauren and her husband first moved to Thailand, they didn’t have any kids and focused on learning Thai and exploring their new environment. There was the “normal wear and tear of living overseas,” she says, but nothing to cause unnecessary alarm.
“Then all of the sudden that was all taken from me, in a sense,” she says of having her first child and recalling her thinking at the time. “It’s like, ‘I’m a mom now, what’s my role? I just learned language and now I’m at home all day just feeding my kid, I didn’t come to Thailand to do that. I came with a calling and I feel like I’m wasting supporters’ money just sitting here.’ I was trying to figure out am I going to be a full-time mom or am I going to do half and half – what do I do? What gives me life?”
Motherhood upends things, from a woman’s sense of time and priorities to emotional stability and even basic functions like eating and sleeping. It’s all uncannily similar to culture shock and, like culture shock, can produce a sense of disorientation and a loss of identity. In a missions context, it means mothers question their role, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of ministry involvement.
“Having a second child has been challenging. It’s more responsibility and more to take care of. I do feel a pull towards doing ministry...but I feel it’s selfish to Daniela [my second child] if I don’t give her my time,” says Genine, whose family is a part of a church-planting team. “I don’t know what my purpose in the team is anymore and I feel bad, like I’m not doing enough to help since I’m at home taking care of the kids. It’s a battle within me.”
Another missionary woman, Bec, who has three young boys and serves in sports ministry with her husband explained, “I work from home, so the kids are in your face, and you feel guilt for not giving them more attention. And how do you draw the boundaries with what’s work and what’s not, especially in ministry? I miss the defined-ness of going to an office and having a ‘normal’ job back in Australia. I feel like it made me a better mom, having that space.”
In Wanjai and Grace’s case, they spent most of their time at home when their families served in Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, as per those cultures’ prescribed norms and gender roles.
“In Bangladesh, women are considered nothing. Living there, I felt like I was being gradually battered down and I began to think that way too, like I was nothing,” says Wanjai, who had shared domestic responsibilities equally with her husband up until they moved to Bangladesh.
“In the beginning years, my ministry was primarily pouring tea,” Grace says of her time in Kyrgyzstan. “Sitting at the table with women from the community and trying to converse in a language that wasn’t my own felt very meaningless to me most days.”
This is a common theme for many mothers serving cross-culturally: a desire for “meaning” and “usefulness” - so prized in Christian ministry - and the subsequent loss of a sense of purpose, even value when this desire is unmet by life at home. When one isn’t “doing ministry”, or “enough” of it, a crisis of priorities leaves many missionary mothers under intense pressure to do and be more both inside and outside of the home. Guilt can quickly become overwhelming to say nothing of sheer exhaustion.
It is no surprise, then, that, as Lauren pointed out, missionary moms are becoming weary and burnt out.
So what does it mean to “go” and do ministry? Can "going" really mean staying at home?
“I began to see how this ministry of presence, of being with people, is very valuable,” says Grace. “Especially when the culture [where you serve] is about welcoming people into your home and hosting them.”
Nellie and her family have lived and served in China for over a decade, with four children. The youngest, Gloria, was adopted not too long ago.
“It was like, ‘Oh, woe is me! After ten years I’m still at home!’” she laughed good-naturedly, obviously no longer distressed that she was not doing accounting as she once did or involved at the “front lines” of ministry. “But what is ministry? Being a witness to those at home – that’s where faith is lived out. Sometimes it’s almost more powerful than doing a Bible study. Especially in this culture of first generation Chinese Christian woman, they hardly have examples of an actual Christian mom or Christian family to follow.”
“I was so focused on the fruit of ‘ministry’ that it sometimes felt like my responsibilities as a mom got in the way of that,” Grace says. “But being faithful as a mother and a wife, is just as valuable as being faithful in ministry.”
And being faithful as a wife and mother in a cross-cultural context means that you have a natural niche to build relationships with those around you.
“Children are a way of breaking the ice,” Genine says. She often takes her two kids out to run errands and just get on with daily life. “When the people in our community see them, they always ask questions. And I have a way of building relationships with them and starting conversations.”
“I didn’t feel like it stood in the way, though I didn’t agree with it and it goes against my own values,” Grace says of Kyrgyzstan and the traditional and patriarchal culture. “Being a mom and having kids helped me connect with other women in the community. It was definitely a bridge.”
For Lauren, being at home meant she could spend more time with Pawn, their house helper. Lauren was able to use the Thai she learned and informally disciple Pawn. Out of that relationship, as well as their family’s ministry with missional business, they eventually helped Pawn open her own business, a burrito truck (watch a video about Pawn's business here).
“My takeaway is whether you’re doing ministry or whether you’re at home with your kids, your role is serving by keeping your family healthy,” she says “For me, thriving here has looked different during each season: thriving as a stay-at-home mom, thriving in friendships with other women, or thriving helping Pawn start her business. Whatever it is, that ultimately serves my husband and his ministry.”
Sheree and her husband have been missionaries for over fifteen years. She doesn't have kids of her own but shared about an experience she had as a single woman in her early years in Zambia. She stepped in to help one of the missionary families with cooking and taking care of their boys while the mother had to go out of town.
“It was a big undertaking. Holy cow, they ate so much food! By the end of the week I was exhausted, it was unreal,” she said. “When she came back, I told her, ‘I appreciate so much what you do, day in, day out. I don’t know how you do this.’ If this woman hadn’t been there, the whole household would’ve fallen apart and her husband wouldn’t have been able to do his ministry freely.”
But should being a missionary wife and mother boil down to doing whatever serves the man’s ministry? Are married women little more than accessories to their husband’s calling?
Bec says, “I do a lot for Sports Friends but I don’t have an official role. I do miss the respect that comes with a title. I don’t like being thought of as just a missionary’s wife. I’m a missionary and a wife – it’s not the same.”
Some families are finding ways to make the woman’s ministry role outside the home a priority.
Kiki, mother of a two-year-old and a four-month-old who lives in Southeast Asia, said she sobbed with relief when her husband, Trey proposed they leave the large city where they had been working as church planters to pursue her passion for counselling in another part of the country. “God arranged for us to be here and for me to be able to thrive in a role that I love,” she says, “but Trey also showed a lot of humility to consider ministry and calling that wasn't directed by his desires.”
Since giving birth to their second, Kiki works part time while Trey contributes to a church-planting team. They share parenting duties between them and with their full-time nanny, Liew. “Trey has always considered himself to be equally a parent to our kids,” Kiki says, “and we decide together how they are doing and what they need. I know that he loves being indispensable in caring for them.”
Of course, having an official role and being a mother demands difficult choices. Kiki says, “I've had to say ‘no’ to my kids at times...and I have gotten really good at saying 'no' to extra work responsibilities!”
But the benefits for her and the whole family outweigh the challenges. “I know that [Trey], too feels the strain of balancing work and family, but...you know the phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’? Our marriage was the most difficult it’s ever been when we were in Bangkok and I was struggling so much on a personal, spiritual, and ministry level. Now I love that I am always looking forward to going to work and I am always looking forward to going home too.”
Even when there’s flexibility between ministry and motherhood, though, the tension is still a burden for many women.
“The question of balance of doing enough and being enough, I think that’s forever,” says Grace, whose children are now either in college or high school and who also serves these days in full-time ministry as a counselor. “I have to continually go back to ‘Who am I with You, God?’ And as I grow deeper in my understanding and experience of God’s love for me and who I am in Him, I live with more freedom and joy. My kids, my marriage, and my ministry are not to be the basis of my value and worth.”
“It all comes down to my relationship with God,” echoes Nellie. “I can dream of all the things I could be doing, but if I don’t have a healthy strong relationship with God, then both are meaningless.”
At the end of the day, then, perhaps it isn’t necessarily about being faithful as a mom or wife or faithful to a ministry, but who you are being faithful to.
“It’s taken me a really long time to get there,” says Grace. “I’ve looked to my kids and husband and marriage as somehow they define or rate me. That takes its toll on us as women. To define ourselves from what’s outside of us. I think part of my journey is about my enough-ness with God. In other words, how God sees me, just as a I am, in the place that I am - will I choose to rest in the truth that I am loved by Him?”
A search for this kind of rest might not answer all the tough questions eternally facing missionary mothers: “should I be more at home or more outside in ‘ministry’?”; "Is what I do of any value?" and “How can I find more support?”; It might not immediately transform the norms and expectations surrounding mothers in cross-cultural work.
But maybe, if we all paid a little less attention to those norms and a little more attention to God's love it might just encourage us all - women and men alike - to do a bit less “going” and a bit more “staying”.
* Betty Freidan’s controversial book The Feminine Mystique refuted the myth of 1950s and 1960s America that every housewife was content in her role. SIM Stories does not recommend Freidan's book but we couldn't resist alluding to its title here given the similar "mystique" that often surrounds missionary women.