Monday 7 September 2009 was a historic time in our house. Firstly, my son Daniel began his first day at playgroup. As he shook off my hand and took a brief backwards glance before going in, I knew he would be fine. Secondly, my aptly named daughter Sophia had her half-birthday. At six-months-old, she is embracing the world of solids, sitting up and is desperate to get on the move. Finally, this was the day that I returned to work following maternity leave, leaving the children in the very capable hands of my husband. With very mixed feelings, I unlocked the door to my office to begin to tackle the seven-month backlog in my in-tray.
I have been working with young people for nearly 12 years in a variety of capacities, but for the last five years, I have been working for a church. In that time, I have had a child, returned to work full-time, requested to work part-time, job-shared with my husband, had another baby and now I am coming back to work part-time! I find the whole balance between work and home hard and find that they often overlap. A great example of this was just a few days ago, when we had people over for dinner. Our church hosts gap year volunteers and this was my first opportunity to meet the team. All was going well until Sophia started crying. I went to feed her (note to self: any mention of breastfeeding is likely to embarrass most 18-year-old males, especially ones you have just met). A few minutes later, she cried again. I went to see to her again, only this time I was covered head to foot in her sick – the perfect mid-course accompaniment. I ended up cradling her at the dinner table, as I attempted to carry on the act of hosting and welcoming. Luckily, she didn’t need any more feeding – it may have sent the poor volunteers home before they had even started.This is not the only example of a collision between my work and family. I mean, how many youth workers have to adjust their day to take in a trip home as they have forgotten their breast pump and have a very real feeling that their boobs may well explode at any minute? Or, when planning conferences have to factor in how to also arrange and pay for a baby to be there, in order for them to be able to breastfeed, which also requires them to bring a husband to care for the baby and a toddler that needs to come when the husband comes. And don’t even get me started on the conferences that don’t provide childcare...
Of course, the whole balancing act doesn’t just revolve around breastfeeding, but affects everything. My whole world changed on 27 October 2006 when Daniel was born and nothing will ever be the same. When I returned to work, my attitude and priorities changed, in ways which hopefully had a largely positive effect on my work. I began to work more efficiently, aware that if I was going to be away from my precious little boy, then I was going to make it worthwhile. I began to think about whether meetings were relevant and effective and chose more carefully the things I said yes to. My husband meanwhile was at home with the baby and loving every minute. He has formed some great friendships with dads in the same position and has forced the annual Christmas meal to be renamed the Parent and Toddlers meal, rather than mums and tots! And I hope that this model has had a positive impact on the young people that I serve, as they see that it is possible to do things this way round, and also see hints of the financial sacrifice required by having one person not in paid work, more than balanced out by the rewards and privilege of spending so much time with our children.
I worked full-time for a year and a half, and it did work well. I managed to breastfeed Daniel for a year, cycling home like crazy from youth groups to get home for bedtime. The flexibility of my position was great, meaning that the various evenings that I worked gave me precious time with Daniel and Neil during the day. I thought of other friends that worked long hours in central London, sandwiched by a long commute and realised how wonderful it was that I worked so locally and could also work from home. It also felt right to follow our respective callings – me as a Christian woman in church leadership and my husband at home with our son.
However, despite the situation working well, I found that I was still missing Daniel. I thought that it would be great to live two lives – one where I spent all of my time looking after my son, and the other where I had a fulfilling career doing the things that I love. I came to the conclusion that the best solution was for me to request to work reduced hours. The Senior Minister has always been supportive of me and my family and it was agreed that I would cut my hours by around a third. I took things a step further by requesting that Neil worked for a third of the time as a children’s worker. I felt that as well as giving us an excellent working and living situation, it would also enable us to minister together, which I hoped would benefit the church and community. I initially felt cheeky, maybe even rude, to suggest this, but others had planted seeds that this would be good. As I pondered whether I was being too forthright, a mentor suggested that I should go for my heart’s desire and be clear with the church of what I would like to happen. So I went for it and the church agreed. Neil was put on a 12-month contract, beginning in September 2008.
This arrangement meant that we got to spend lots of time together as a family. It was also good to work alongside Neil and the set-up prevented me from over-working; I needed to be disciplined and finish work in order for Neil to work as well. And by this point, I was pregnant again, so it was great to reduce my paid work. However, I still think it is a toss-up as to which is more exhausting: running a youth club for 40 teenagers or running around after a single two-year-old. There were some unexpected reactions though. When I told one of the youth groups that I was planning to work part-time, someone responded by saying: ‘Why? Don’t you love us anymore?’ I said that I cared for them, but also wanted to spend more time with Daniel. They responded by saying: ‘So you love him more than us?’ I was genuinely shocked by this response, and continue to feel the tension between my role as mum and youth worker. Do I value my own children more than the young people that I serve? Is that just natural or should I look to be counter-cultural and value the young people entrusted into my care in the same way that I love my own children? Jesus commands us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Surely this extends to loving other people’s children as we love our own? I thought I did, until Daniel fell and cut his lip last Christmas. Over the years, I have seen a fair few accidents and I am normally calm and responsible. However, as the blood gushed from my baby’s lips, I began to wonder how I had become this blubbering, hysterical woman, rather than the unruffled, professional first-aider I was better acquainted with when faced with young people’s blood and bumps.
I wondered whether this showed that I valued my own child more than other people’s. On the other hand, I work with teenagers who are at a very different stage of life to my young children and I know that these tender years are formative times. I would hate to have my own children feel that I neglected them. Equally, I hope they grow up to know that other people are important too, and understand the work that I do.
Indeed, I often wonder how my role as a youth worker affects my own children. Last Sunday, we arrived at church very early – again. Daniel was quite pleased with this, though, as it gave him a chance to practice his worship leading. He spent a good half hour copying every move that the worship leader, made. He was tapping his feet at the same time, tuning up and singing. At home we have to pretend we are at church, where Daniel tells me to stand up and sit down, prays a bit and sings a medley of ‘Our God is a Great Big God’ and ‘Bob the Builder.’ He thinks that youth work mainly consists of eating biscuits and drinking coffee. Although I find this incredibly cute, I also find it vaguely depressing that this is his impression of church, although maybe he has hit on something with the biscuits and coffee. However, I hope that in a broader sense, he and Sophia will appreciate the all-age community that they are a part of and that being the centre of attention amongst a group of teenagers will build their confidence and sociability, rather than making them precocious. I hope that life as youth worker’s children will build a greater awareness of God’s love, and not push them away.
In the meantime, I have returned to work following maternity leave and continue to work part-time. The church, however, decided not to renew Neil’s contract so we are experiencing a new working arrangement once again. And so I go on, with a breast pump in one hand, a Bible in the other, with a few toy cars and biscuits for the youth group thrown in for good measure. As I juggle all these things, I find some comfort and an even greater challenge in Danielle Strickland’s words:
‘I've stopped aiming for balance. I've looked all through scripture and church history for people who did significant things for the Kingdom and none of them exhibited any signs of balance. I think balance is a myth. There are definitely different seasons and rhythms necessary for certain times in our lives. And wisdom, flexibility and experimentation are ways to find the right ones. But I'm not aiming for balance, comfort, or any sense of normal. I'm aiming for abandoned, surrendered and total engagement with God's kingdom sometimes that happens through relationships, programs, sometimes through structures and sometimes through a hospitable home... I'm open to any and every way.’
Amen to that.
Amanda Roper is a youth worker at Enfield Baptist Church