Have you ever said that? I have. Have you ever directed it in word or thought about somone else? "Oh, she's just a housewife." I've also been on the receiving end of that comment.
The word "just" in that comment is not the legal use of the word. The implication of that phrase is that being a housewife is somehow inferior work. In a society which values work based on earning potential, it is not surprising that the role of housewife may be seen as inferior.
Often, we try to come up with terms to legitimize it, like calling ourselves "Domestic Divas" or "Household Engineers." Sometimes, we spend energy calculating how much money it would cost to replace us in the home. I don't care for either approach. I believe the principle of vocation provides the best way to understand the occupation.
Vocation is the principle that God calls people to areas of work as part of their lives of faith. The word comes from the Latin, voco, "to call out." Check out our own Rebecca's very useful Theological Term of the Week page for further clarification. Both Martin Luther and the Puritans developed doctrines of vocation. William Perkins, a Puritan, defines it: "a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good."
Perkins highights two of the most important principles regarding vocation: who determines it and its purpose. Luther stated the purpose of vocation is to benefit our neighbour. The Puritans looked at work as being something to serve the common good. Our vocations are not something we choose for ourselves. They arise out of not only what the Puritans called our "inward inclinations," but also the circumstances in which God has placed us. As Christians, there is the general calling to faith (2 Thess. 2:13-15) and within that, there is a particular calling to a specific life in Christ (1 Cor. 7:17), both controlled by God. The process by which we arrive at our vocations is overseen by God, who ordains our circumstances. For example, while there was a point at which I made a decision to leave my job to stay at home full time, the reality is that God ultimately made it possible. He is the one who placed me into a circumstance where it was financially possible, and He is the one who gave me the temperament to be at home. We may think we choose entirely on our own, but the opportunities from which we make these decisions are at the behest of God.
God also gives us multiple vocations, as Gene Edward Veith points out in his book God At Work:
In the family, a woman may have a calling to be a wife, which is a task in itself, but she may also have a calling to be a mother, a vocation that involves different tasks in a different kind of relationship. She may also be a daughter to her mother, a vocation that does not end with adulthood, but only when the parent dies. She might become a grandmother to her daughter's children. Then there is her relationship with her brothers and sisters, the whole extended family. These are all holy callings and gifts of God.And of course, a woman may have a vocation that takes her outside the home into paid employment or volunteer work. The point is, vocation is in the here and now in what God has given us. If you are a married woman, you have a vocation that has been given by God, and in which you serve your neighbour: your husband. If you are a mother, you serve your children. Outside the home, it's your employer and other people you come into contact with. Our neighbour receives our good works which are done as a result of our salvation and for the glory of God.
The housewife is a vocation within the context of marriage and motherhood. Why would we say we are "just" housewives when all vocations given by God are valuable and done for His glory?
Vocation means we can work with contentment, knowing that God has given us a particular calling, specific to us. If we are not content, perhaps it is because we are not looking at our work as a calling. Rather, we are looking at it as a choice, and choices can always look better or worse than another choice. Lack of contentment can also be a sign that we are not working as an offering to God, but comparing what we do to others, or looking for recognition and accolades. Vocation provides a purpose for our work, and can free us from the tendency to comparison.
The topic of vocation is a big one, and I encourage you to partake of some of the resources I mention at the end of this post. Whatever your vocations are at the moment, know that God has given them to you to work in everything for His glory.
Gene Edward Veith, God at Work
Gene Edward Veith and Mary Moerbe, Family Vocation
Ray Pennings, "Working for God's Glory," in Living for God's Glory
Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation
Os Guinness, The Call
Leland Ryken, "Work," in Worldly Saints