Culture At Large

Modern parenthood and the myth of the Proverbs 31 woman

Tim Fall

A recent Pew Research survey about modern parenthood revealed some interesting societal shifts. According to NPR's story on the survey:

... fathers spend three times as many hours a week on child care, and twice as much on housework, as they did in the 1960s. Sounds like a major shift, although — amazingly — the report notes that today's moms actually spend more time on child care than their own mothers did in the '60s, and it's still double what fathers spend.

The Pew survey found that now an equal percentage (48%) of fathers and mothers state a desire to be home with their children rather than work. Something I thought more significant, though, is that “the number of working mothers who say they prefer a full-time job shot up since 2007, from 21 percent to 37 percent.”

What does this tell me about mothers and fathers and their roles with each other and their children? It tells me that someone - perhaps NPR, perhaps the researchers, perhaps the parents who took the quiz offered as part of the research - sees the word "job" in a narrowly defined way.

There is a lot of wisdom literature in the Bible about work and families and parents caring for children. But when it comes to working mothers, the person who gets the most attention is the Proverbs 31 woman. If you give the passage even a cursory glance, you can see why some people mistakenly look at her as the ideal for all women. “Biblical womanhood” some call it. There she is, the Proverbs 31 Woman: now go forth and do likewise! (Or you could just watch Rachel Held Evans give it the old college try.)

The Proverbs 31 woman never existed. She's not a real person. She's a personification.

What a load of hogwash. Some people seem to read Proverbs 31 as a biography of the woman every woman should emulate. I have some news for you: The Proverbs 31 woman never existed. She's not a real person. She's a personification.

The Book of Proverbs begins with a call to Wisdom, personified as a woman. It then goes back and forth in comparing this woman Wisdom with another woman, Folly. After this there are a few chapters of wise sayings and insights on life and faith. Chapter 31 comes along and the wise sayings and insights come to an abrupt halt. The first 10 chapters and the last chapter are like bookends to Proverbs, and (like other parts of Scripture) constitute a chiasm. This chiastic structure demands that we read the last chapter in light of the opening chapters.

Proverbs starts with a call to follow the woman Wisdom and avoid the woman Folly, and ends with warnings against foolish behavior. It then provides an example - through the person of the Proverbs 31 woman - of what wisdom in action looks like. That personification is a literary device to give us an idea of how someone can live out the wide range of wisdom found in the middle portion of the Book of Proverbs, wisdom that includes work and families and parents caring for children.

Working mothers and working fathers certainly need wisdom in caring for their children. We can look to God's word, of course. Even more, we who belong to Christ have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

So whether you are a parent who works in the home or whose job takes you out of the home, you can rest in knowing that God cares about your work, your family and how you care for your children. And He is with you always.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Workplace, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Home & Family, Parenting