I worried about Jem.
He was our third child, and only 17 months younger than his brother Cole. They were both very little, only 3 and 4 years old, but Cole, the older boy, had a spectacular energy and larger-than-life little personality. He ran and jumped and hollered his way through life. Little Jem was a milder and more thoughtful child; very sweet and lovable, but much quieter and less intrusive than his older brother. When he was a baby and toddler, he rarely took any initiative of his own, but would always do what his brother Cole did.
That’s to be expected, but I began to worry when he was three years old and still never did anything his brother hadn’t done first. Months passed, he was approaching four years old, and I had never seen him explore his own interests or initiate any game or activity. He ran when Cole ran, wrestled when Cole wrestled, drew when Cole drew, sang when Cole sang. When Cole once ran full force into a sliding glass door, Jem obligingly followed. He did what Cole did and talked about what Cole talked about. Their personalities were so different that I knew Jem must have his own preferences and interests, but he never once asserted them. I worried that, under the shadow of his big brother, my little Jem would never develop his own personality.
One morning, shortly after my husband and I had told the children that they would soon be welcoming a little brother or sister, we were sitting around the breakfast table talking about possible names for the baby. Cole had a long list of suggestions gathered from his primary class, preschool, and favorite cartoons. Their older sister had name suggestions from books and movies. The discussion was serious and, of course, dominated by the older children. Suddenly Jem left the table and walked around to put his hand on my knee, shyly asking for my attention. I turned to him and he said, “I know what we should name the baby.”
“Ok, what?” I said, expecting him to suggest the name of one of his own friends. But instead, he answered, with a mischievous grin:
He had made a joke.
And it came to me with great force, as he stood there smiling in anticipation at my reaction, that this had come from his own personality. Cole didn’t really tell jokes, and he certainly had never made one up from scratch. But in the middle of a serious conversation, without following anyone else’s lead, our Jem had, all on his own, made up a joke.
Well, his dad and I laughed uproariously to encourage him. And he was indeed encouraged. After my husband left for work and as I went throughout my day, Jem continued to make “jokes”. “I know what we should name the baby!” “What?” “Toothpaste!” “I know what we should name the baby!” “What?” “Car!” “I know what we should name the baby!” “What?” “Book!” All day long, Jem treated me to variations on the same joke.
This was not, objectively speaking, particularly funny. And it did not get funnier by being repeated 100 times. But it was his first ever independent activity, and I was determined to support it. I tried to make sure my 100th laugh was as genuine as my first. It took a fair amount of concentration, but I did it.
Later that night, my husband asked me what I had done that day. It had actually been quite a busy day. The boys and I had been all over the city with playdates and lessons and errands. But as my mind went over all those tasks, all I could see was Jem, smiling from ear to ear, telling me we should name the baby “Dirt” and “Fish” and “Owwie.” I had done a lot of things, but the entire day my heart and my energy and my mind continuously returned to this small boy and the need to support his uniqueness and independence.
“Today,” I replied, “I laughed at jokes.”
And in that moment, completely unexpectedly, the Spirit spoke to me. Everything around me went silent as the Spirit filled my mind with a flood of light and a comprehension so vast, I am still awed by it. A quiet voice boomed in my head and heart:
“This is what I do, too.”
I was floored, and taken aback. I had been kind of kidding; I didn’t really mean that laughing at jokes was all I had done. But here was the Spirit of God telling me powerfully that that was, indeed, the most important thing I had done, and that it was not silly or simple but the literal work of God. I understood in that moment that God the Father is not a God whose goal is to make lists and complete tasks. He is not focused on accomplishing projects and submitting paperwork. He is, in every moment, aware of the needs of His children, and is 100% engaged in offering them the love, support, encouragement, redirection, chastisement, validation, revelation, or companionship they need. I seemed to understand that even though He is, of course, aware of and has opinions about various logistical and budget and secular things, He is nevertheless spending His days laughing at jokes. And soothing wounds. And comforting hearts. And listening to prayers.
God does not mistake necessary for important.
Laughing at a three-year-old’s first joke is not, by the standards of the world, necessary. It is not momentous. You may wonder why I spent an entire article on it! In a world of wars and strife and famine, surely a small boy’s terrible sense of humor is a mere speck of dust in importance to the world.
And yet, I testify that God cares about that joke. It is important to Him. He is aware and He is engaged and He is invested in the things that are important to obscure little boys with subtle personalities. All day long, whether or not He is also busy with tasks and necessary arrangements of various kinds, His heart and His concern are focused on the intimate details of the lives of His children. On a day when I put temporal matters at the back of my mind and my child’s happiness at the front, the Lord spoke to me to tell me “This is what I do, too.”
Little Jem is all grown up now.
Financial issues have required me to pursue a career, and so although I still have children at home, I am no longer spending my days with them but with my co-workers at a software company. I am well-paid and have opportunities for growth, and my work matters to my colleagues. I get satisfaction from my work, and from the acknowledgment and appreciation I receive there—which sometimes felt in short supply when I was a full-time mother.
But sometimes I get a sense, from the stay-at-home mothers I know who are struggling with the demands of parenthood and the difficulties of housekeeping and family management, that my life now is somehow more interesting or glamorous or accomplished than theirs. Or that I look down on them for “just” being mothers. Or that I’m lucky that I “get” to have a career. Or that a really satisfying life requires some kind of professional success. That a woman needs to have a career to fulfill her potential.
Having been a full-time mother and a working mother, I cannot possibly state strongly enough how absolutely incorrect those attitudes are. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a woman and mother simply having a job or career, as I do. It is often necessary. But it is desperately wrong to mistake necessary for eternally important.
We are here on earth to grow to become like our Heavenly Father, and He doesn’t have a secular career. His entire work and His divine glory are centered on monitoring and influencing the intimate hopes, fears, dreams, and private concerns of tiny individuals around the world. He is not sitting up in Heaven worried about filing paperwork and obsessing over profits. He is noticing that a small, shy boy has taken a first step to individuality. He is noticing a mother who is tired, a father who feels inadequate, a sister or brother in despair, a grandparent rejoicing. His days are filled with meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of His much-beloved children. This is the life we should aspire to: a life of attention and care, a life that prioritizes the needs of others, a life of service and devoted love.
A mother whose days are spent caring for her children is not missing out on any fulfillment or self-actualization—she is exercising her divine priesthood power and literally partnering with God to do His work. No job title, salary, business trips, promotions, or other earthly accomplishment can even begin to compete with that as a source of self-actualization and fulfillment and profound meaning. Nurturing children is not a second-best job. It is what God does, and it is unspeakably important.
The actual paid work I do in my career, my tasks and obligations, should not be mistaken for work of eternal significance. Some things are necessary to be done in this mortal life and we should do them well and with integrity. And of course, we can still do God’s eternal work in our careers by noticing the needs of others and showing care and charity to co-workers and customers. But if earning money and promotions and awards and market share are not the Lord’s primary concern, they should not be ours either.
The deepest swellings of our hearts and the rightful focus of our most passionate concerns should be with the needs of the human beings we are responsible for. For me, these are most crucially my husband and children. They matter eternally. Their triumphs and disappointments and joys and struggles are the overriding concerns of my Father in Heaven, and they should be for me as well. When (as happens more than I would like) I lose sight of their needs because I am consumed by career goals, I disappoint the Lord who loves them so tremendously. When I am attuned to them and aware of even their smallest needs, I know I am doing my Father’s most important work.
And when I stand before the Lord to report on my accomplishments in life, I know that He will not be impressed about that time I did a project that saved my company a ton of money. I know what He does with His days, because He told me by His Spirit and through the messages of the scriptures. We, his imperfect and struggling children, are His work and His glory.
In that day I will stand before him and say: “One day I laughed at the same joke over and over and over again all day long without getting bored—because that little boy You love so much needed help finding his personality.”
And He will say: “Yes, I know. I was doing that too.”
Kimberly White is the author of The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything and co-author of The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times.