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To Work or Not to Work? A Personal Reflection on the Role of Mothers and Paid Work

November 8, 2020, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question we often ask our children. Answers vary, but fireman, astronaut, doctor, and teacher seem to be amongst the most popular. In my son’s case – a baker. Now I can’t complain about that!

For me, the answer was clear as day. I wanted to be a mum and only a mum. I wanted to have children and fulfil the responsibilities that came alongside raising those children. I saw the love, passion and enjoyment that my own mother manifested as she tended to our needs, and I wanted to experience that all day, everyday as I nurtured a family of my own.

After I had my first child, however, I found myself returning to the workforce, which actually took me by surprise! That’s not to say I think all mothers should do the same. In fact, there are plenty of factors to take into consideration when contemplating whether or not to engage in paid work, and everyone’s situation is different.

To explore this topic further, I decided to look at what the Baha’i Writings say in regards to the role of the mother. Abdu’l-Baha states that:

The mother is the first teacher of the child. For children, at the beginning of life, are fresh and tender as a young twig, and can be trained in any fashion you desire. If you rear the child to be straight, he will grow straight, in perfect symmetry. It is clear that the mother is the first teacher and that it is she who establisheth the character and conduct of the child.1

As mentioned above, the mother is the first teacher of the child, for it is she who the children have a natural biological inclination to from birth. But does this imply that the mother’s only responsibility is to tend to the needs of her children? Does this mean she should not occupy her time with anything else?

The Writings place great emphasis on each person taking on a occupation or trade. Baha’u’llah states that:

It is made incumbent on every one of you to engage in some occupation, such as arts, trades, and the like. We have made this—your occupation—identical with the worship of God, the True One. Reflect, O people, upon the Mercy of God and upon His favors, then thank Him in mornings and evenings.2

I personally believe that being a primary caregiver to children and a homemaker is a form of occupation, albeit unpaid and unsupported to the degree it should be. I think it’s important to remember, as Chelsea writes in her article “What I Really Want for Mother’s Day”, that if a mother chooses not to engage in paid work, it doesn’t make her any less of a person. Many a time, I have heard my girlfriends talk about how they feel of little value to society staying home and tending to the needs of the household and their children. How they feel they are not contributing towards the development of the world because they are not “working”. It’s quite saddening women still feel this way about their role as mothers, especially since Abdu’l-Baha says:

Wherefore, O ye loving mothers, know ye that in God’s sight, the best of all ways to worship Him is to educate the children and train them in all the perfections of humankind; and no nobler deed than this can be imagined.3

And again:

For mothers are the first educators, the first mentors; and truly it is the mothers who determine the happiness, the future greatness, the courteous ways and learning and judgement, the understanding and the faith of their little ones.4

If only the rest of society understood the role of motherhood. If only everyone treated mothers with the same amount of respect as they do towards those earning six-figure salaries. If only we, as mothers, truly believed that we were doing the most noble work on earth, and acknowledged that raising the next generation of peacemakers is no easy feat! It would also be nice to be acknowledged through decent financial remuneration – but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. Shoghi Effendi states that:

The task of bringing up a Baha’i child, as emphasized time and again in Baha’i writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which a child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development, and it should therefore be the paramount concern of your wife … to endeavour from now imparting to her new-born son such spiritual training as would enable him later on to fully assume and adequately discharge all the responsibilities and duties of Baha’i life.5

Of course, that is not to say that fathers are unable to contribute to the material and spiritual development of the child, or that the mother’s responsibilities lie solely within the home, especially in light of what the Writings say in regards to gender equality. In a letter written to an individual, the Universal House of Justice:

With regard to your question whether mothers should work outside the home, it is helpful to consider the matter from the perspective of the concept of a Baha’i family. This concept is based on the principle that the man has primary responsibility for the financial support of the family, and the woman is the chief and primary educator of the children. This by no means implies that these functions are inflexibly fixed and cannot be changed and adjusted to suit particular family situations, nor does it mean that the place of the woman is confined to the home. Rather, while primary responsibility is assigned, it is anticipated that fathers would play a significant role in the education of the children and women could also be breadwinners. As you rightly indicated, Abdu’l-Baha encouraged women to ‘participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world’.

In relation to your specific queries, the decision concerning the amount of time a mother may spend in working outside the home depends on circumstances existing within the home, which may vary from time to time. Family consultation will help to provide the answers….6

I especially love this excerpt because it encourages each family to lovingly consult and come to a decision depending on its own reality – understanding full well that primary responsibility does not mean “sole” responsibility. I know many mothers who have no option but to engage in paid work, and I also know women who want nothing more than to take on domestic duties 24/7.

Parenthood is a daunting job, to say the least. Everyday is an emotional rollercoaster, and you find yourself confronted with feelings of joy, pain, fear, anxiety, elation and pride all in the span of a few hours. For many mothers, myself included, the opportunity to engage in a “day job” is an opportunity to stabilise your emotions – albeit for a few hours. Working can provide an escape from the chaos of parenthood, as well as the chance to re-align ourselves in a bid to better provide for our children. It also provides us with the chance to contribute towards the affairs of humankind, as stated above.

That being said, the extra hours required for work naturally means fewer hours to tend to domestic duties (and a whole lot of Mum Guilt!). A recent study found that “while more men do housework and childcare than they used to in the past, women are continuing to manage the household – even when they are employed.”7. Mothers will rarely, if ever, find themselves in a position where they are working 9 to 5. Their mental load is ever-growing, and the fact that they have to work a day-job in addition to managing the household can lead to a dramatic spike in stress levels. So there’s a lot to take into consideration when deciding whether paid work is the way to go!

However, we are incredibly lucky as Baha’is to have the power of prayer and consultation to help us in times of need. We have the Writings to guide us so we can figure out what our intentions really are and come to a decision that is ultimately going to benefit our family and our community. That, combined with the assistance of loved ones, means we can rest assured that whatever decision we make will be for the best. The most important thing to remember is that mothers, regardless of whether we engage in paid work or not, are engaging in the most noble work of all – raising children to establish a life that will “conform to the divine Teachings in all things.”8

  1. Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1982, p. 139 []
  2. Baha’u’llah: Baha’i World Faith, p.195 []
  3. Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’í World Centre, 1982, p. 139 []
  4. Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Centre, 1982, p.126 []
  5. In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 16, 1939 []
  6. A Compilation on Women, Compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Baha’i World Centre, January 1986, p.27 []
  7. Sex Roles Journal as cited on www.independent.co.uk, January 22, 2019 []
  8. Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Centre, 1982, p.126 []
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Dellaram is a Baha'i, wife, and mother of three, who works as a freelance journalist and copywriter in her hometown of Ballarat, Australia. She is passionate about building community and loves the thrill that comes with op-shopping!

Discussion 2 Comments

Thank you for this article, I appreciated how balanced it was and how it relied heavily on the authoritative guidance we are so blessed to have. It can be quite confronting how marginalised mothers and children seem to be from the rest of society, at least here in Australia.

Here are some additional pieces of guidance that I find relevant. You’ll see that the first quotation fairly emphatically defines service as an unpaid wife and mother as “work”, as you mention in your article.

“You ask about the admonition that everyone must work, and want to know if this means that you, a wife and mother, must work for a livelihood as your husband does. We are requested to enclose for your perusal an excerpt, ‘The twelfth Glad-Tidings’, from Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘Tablet of Bisharat’. You will see that the directive is for the friends to be engaged in an occupation which will be of benefit to mankind. Homemaking is a highly honourable and responsible work of fundamental importance for mankind.”

(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, June 16, 1982: Women)

“The great importance attached to the mother’s role derives from the fact that she is the first educator of the child. Her attitude, her prayers, even what she eats and her physical condition have a great influence on the child when it is still in womb. When the child is born, it is she who has been endowed by God with the milk which is the first food designed for it, and it is intended that, if possible, she should be with the baby to train and nurture it in its earliest days and months. This does not mean that the father does not also love, pray for, and care for his baby, but as he has the primary responsibility of providing for the family, his time to be with his child is usually limited, while the mother is usually closely associated with the baby during this intensely formative time when it is growing and developing faster than it ever will again during the whole of its life. As the child grows older and more independent, the relative nature of its relationship with its mother and father modifies and the father can play a greater role.”

(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, August 23, 1984)


Sonia (November 11, 2020 at 8:53 AM)

Dear Sonia,

Thank you ever so much for your feedback and for sharing these additional quotations!

You know, it’s so funny, because after the article was published, I thought to myself – I wish I added a bit more about how any occupation, as long as it serves to be of benefit to mankind, is worthy of merit. And motherhood is probably the epitome of that! So I love that you’ve shared that quote which so perfectly sums it up.

Thank you also for bringing my attention to the second quote, which I think sheds further light on the biological connection between the mother and child, and which I believe is one of the main reasons why we are indeed the primary educators.

How blessed we are! All my love.


Dellaram (November 11, 2020 at 5:13 AM)

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