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Work-life balance for mothers: Integrated living is key

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I often find myself reflecting on the complexity of balancing work and family. Many mothers and future mothers aspire to “have it all.” How do we walk a tightrope between two dominating areas — our family and our work — that so often compete for our attention? 

Some working mothers battle a particular insecurity, wondering if they must choose a career over other ways they are called to lead, such as in their family or in their church. While I find it impossible to achieve total balance, I always return to the idea of “integrated living,” meaning I aim to carry every aspect of who I am into everything I do, resisting compartmentalization and either/or thinking.

I bring my entire self into my two primary roles — caring for my husband and three children and serving the students and employees of Calvin University. How I invest in and serve my family overflows into how I conduct myself in the workplace and vice versa. Integrated living invites women to bring their whole beings into their work. It recognizes that we are intentionally designed by God, uniquely wired to live and lead wholeheartedly in all of the places to which He has called us.

Accepting the invitation to integrated living allows us to sit in and with relational and emotional complexity. Many women I have worked alongside in professional settings have an ability to approach workplace conflicts with added measures of grace and compassion, perhaps due to their experiences refereeing disagreements between family members at home. And many of the female leaders I look up to have an uncanny knack for working through professional challenges with wise discernment and life-giving optimism because of the leadership gifts they have exercised in their homes, schools, or places of worship. In a world full of scarcity, God’s economy offers us space to lead from a place of abundance, recognizing that He uses everything for His glory.

My leadership philosophy is rooted in the theological concept of imago Dei, described in Genesis. I believe each of us is created in the image of God, and this conviction informs my approach to integrated living. We serve a God of intentionality and purpose. My life’s purpose is to lead in a way that points others toward Jesus, in all the spheres and spaces He has placed me. When I shy away from leading with authenticity and wholeheartedness, I fail to do what I’ve been created to do.  

As mothers in professional leadership, we may sometimes find ourselves battling “imposter syndrome,” chronic feelings of self-doubt and insufficiency. It’s tempting to sit in that place of self-doubt where dread and anxiety loom. But the truth of the matter is, I don’t know one leader who truly has it all together. In fact, the more I try to have it all together, the more likely I am to miss the truth: it’s not actually about me.  When I strive to achieve another person’s ideal of leadership, I fail to center God’s call on my life, and this actually hinders me from stepping into the fullness and freedom of leading as God intends. 

In the Bible, we see example after example of Jesus elevating women into positions of influence and impact. Throughout the Gospels, it was often women at Jesus’ side when things seemed the most uncertain. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene attended to Jesus during the crucifixion in His time of suffering. Three days later, it was Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the news of the empty tomb. These women didn’t set out to make a name for themselves. No, they simply lived with Christ at the center, and their impact on advancing God’s Kingdom persists to this day.

I often tell the women in my spheres of influence that their vocation is not merely their job. At Calvin University, we talk about vocation as “the life-long process of tuning in to God’s call, understanding who we are in Him, and living our lives accordingly.” This permeates every place we are called to live and lead, including family, paid work, church, and community spaces. When we recognize our primary calling as God’s children and seek to integrate all the roles and responsibilities He has placed in our lives — whether running a board meeting or helping a teenager with Algebra homework — we find comfort and hope in the fact that we can rely on His grace for the strength to tackle each challenge that comes our way.

To practice faithful integrated living, we must stay connected to the Holy Spirit, the Source of our purpose and calling. As a busy mom and executive, I’ve learned that the tyranny of the urgent can easily distract me from living in integrated ways. So, one of my leadership practices is to set aside regular times of retreat. The main reason I do this is not because I need a quiet place to work or because I want to withdraw from everything that demands my attention. Rather, I carve out space to pay attention to God. During this retreat, I reflect on where I've seen the Lord at work, and I examine where I feel anxious or unsettled, prayerfully seeking to understand how God may be working in those areas to draw me closer to Him. In these quiet moments, I bring my whole self to Christ — fears, hopes, disappointments, insecurities, and questions. And every time, He meets me with renewed strength and purpose, through patiently and lovingly reminding me of my primary identity in Him. 

As women and mothers in a time that often fosters division and disillusionment, let’s embrace a model of integrated living. Let’s lean into the spaces where God has called us, bringing all of who we are into every facet of our lives. Let’s embrace the roles God has called us to fulfill — minute by minute, day by day — practicing the presence of God as we walk in step with His Spirit. 

Dr. Sarah Visser is the executive vice president for student experience and strategy at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

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