Ep. 83 || NIKKI DANIELS: FINDING FREEDOM IN CHRIST AS A WORKING MOM TRANSCRIPT

This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Laura:  Welcome to another episode of Risen Motherhood. Today we have a very special episode, especially for all of you working moms out there. I am excited to introduce to you, Nikki Daniels. She is a wife and mom to three elementary age school kids, and the Assistant Headmaster for Advancement, at Monte Vista Christian School in California. Nikki and I actually know each other. We attended the same church in the Chicagoland area, until her recent move up to California for this position. She’s incredibly wise – she wrote an article on this topic a few years ago, that was posted on The Gospel Coalition, which we’ll link to in the show notes and we knew she’d be a great fit for this topic. No matter where you are on the spectrum of working mom, part-time mom, or even as a stay-at-home mom, I promise there are wonderful nuggets of truth in here for all moms. With that, I’ll let you get to the interview with Nikki, Emily and me. 


Laura: Hi Nikki, thank you so much for being on Risen Motherhood today.

Nikki:  Thank you for having me on. I am super excited to be here.

Laura:  Yes, we are thrilled to have you on the show. Can you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your family makeup, and of course, tell us a little bit about your job.

Nikki:  Absolutely. I am the proud mother of three little ones – I have Lenaiah, age 9; Thomas, age 7; and Naomi, age 5. My husband and I, and our whole family just recently relocated to the Watsonville, California area (Central Coast of California). I am working currently as the Assistant Headmaster at Monte Vista Christian School. It is 1,000 students, 6 through 12, here in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains. We are enjoying all of three months of our California adventure so far, and everybody tells us we’re going to love the winter. [laughter]

Laura:  Nikki, just to give our listeners some background as well, you were talking with us while pre-recording, that you live on campus. Can you explain exactly how all that works? [laughter]

Nikki:  Yes. It’s a very unique situation. Monte Vista is a residential campus for about 100 of our high schoolers, most of whom come from China, Taiwan and Korea. Also, part of our 100 acre campus is housing that we provide for many of our faculty and staff. Many people are familiar with the cost of living in and around the Bay area, and this is something that we do in order to recruit the best faculty and staff. When we moved here, my family and I moved into on-campus housing. That has been a unique and fun, really great experience. My role as Assistant Headmaster - my focus is advancement, fundraising, and alumni relations. 

But I have a number of other roles as well that involve the operations and the business side of the school. I was sharing that there’s all kinds of unique situations I find myself in where living on campus and being in this role creates all kinds of unique opportunities to administrate and lead while wearing one’s pajamas. It’s just a fun adventure, and I am looking forward to figuring it out more and more as the months go by.

Laura:  Wonderful. Okay, we’re going to dive in pretty deep, pretty fast. Our first question and to kick it off is speaking to comparison. We know that it is a real struggle for all moms. Not just working moms, or stay-at-home moms. We’re curious if you could just speak to what does comparison look like as a working mom? And how do you stay focused on obedience to Christ in each moment, when you’re tempted to look at others around you?

Nikki:  Yes, absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly, comparison is a human problem; it’s definitely a female problem. We are so relational by nature, and sometimes there’s just the good and the bad that comes with that. Part of that is that tendency towards comparison. One of the things that I work really hard on in this area is to be disciplined with understanding my own personal triggers. I am sure it looks different for every woman and every mom depending on their situation. But I know for myself personally, I have to be really careful with my use of social media. Not so much in my own posting - as in how much I allow myself time-wise. Also, my thought patterns and viewing other people’s best sides of their lives and things like that. 

I have to be really careful about the kinds of parenting books or blogs that I read. Again, just making sure that my filter is strong for gospel-centered things. Not letting myself get distracted by other things that can lead down that comparison road. One of the things for me early on in being a mom, was just accepting that my experience is unique. That each of our experiences are unique. One thing that helped me was the fact that each of my three children individually, were intensely colicky babies. As I learned how to parent each one of them in their infant years, it was all about getting them to stop screaming. [laughter] I remember bouncing on an exercise ball in a dark room with my middle child, and just thinking about all those books that I had read, and this wasn’t in any of the books. How could it possibly be the right thing to be doing? It wasn’t what everybody else was doing, or what I had thought, or I had always been told to do. Learning that my uniquely colicky baby happened to like extended periods of time in a dark room, bouncing on an actual ball – [laughter] that was the way I could be the best mom I could be - just accepting that uniqueness, and then really focusing on obedience to Christ. I mean, this is what he’s called me to be – mom to this colicky baby - and therefore I am bouncing on this ball. [laughter]

Emily:  Yes. I just love that we all struggle with comparison. Sometimes like you said, even we see things on social media and on blogs, and they could be good be good things to do. You can start to imagine all the ways; like, “Oh, should I be doing that good thing, instead of the bouncing on an exercise ball thing,” or whatever it is? [laugher] I agree with you, there’s that layer of protection that’s needed. Not because these needs are really bad things, but just because it gets us distracted from Christ Himself, and from the things that He has given us instruction, and to do in His Word. Then also looking into that moment, and going like, “Okay God. What would you have me do for this child now? How am I best going to serve my family?” You’re thinking of that person you saw that was doing this cool homeschool thing at the table. You’re like, “Oh, that was so awesome!” It might have been great, but potentially distracting from what it is you have right in front of you.

Nikki:  Absolutely. 

Laura:  Yes. Another common struggle that moms or women all face beyond comparison, is putting our identity in our motherhood. Or, Nikki for you, maybe putting your identity in the work that you do each day. I am curious as to how you try to keep your identity rooted in Christ, rather than your success in your career?

Nikki:  This is one area that’s the bifurcation of my life - the flipsides of this coin has actually been a real help. This is because in any given day, I am interacting with two sets of people. All of the two sides in me, that set of people only care about one. When I am with my kids, they could care less what I accomplished at work that day, if I accomplished anything, or if I messed something up royally at work. It doesn’t faze them the least. On the flipside, here in my professional environment with my colleagues, they have no clue about my parenting. Well, except for the funny stories I tell them. [laughter] But  for the most part, what kind of parent I am, or was the night before is completely separate - in that sense I often use the analogy of being a two sport athlete. So, I suppose you could say, “Oh, then you’re in better shape, and dah, dah.” That’s true, definitely, but it also means that at any given moment, I am focusing on one, and not the other. The reality is, you have to be focused, that’s what it’s going to take to being able to do both [working and motherhood] at the same time. I am a firm disbeliever in the concept of multi-tasking. [laughs] At least for me personally, it doesn’t work – my mind has to be on one or the other. 

Then I would also say, just thinking about where we put our identity – really, just that constant, daily reminder that Christ is really the only thing that applies across the board in any of our lives. He equally values me as a mom, and me as a professional. He’s the only one. The good news of the gospel is that He’s called me to do these things, that He’s the only one that cares about those things. But actually, He doesn’t really care about those things. He cares about me. Again, going back to my kids don’t care if I screw up at work, Christ-- my success or failure in either of those areas, it’s really not an issue because I am His daughter, and I am free from that.

Emily:  Yes, that’s so good. We all need that reminder that in Christ we are free from the law. [laughs] We’re free from having to define ourselves in any sphere of life, by our perceived successes or failures. Then riding that rollercoaster of, “Oh, I did well, so I feel good.” Or, “I wasn’t doing that well, so now I am going to be really down in the dumps.” You know what, Christ has bought us for a price, and He’s redeemed us. Like you said, it’s true for any role we inhabit. We’re still in Christ. 

Nikki:  It’s freeing, that’s the word that comes to mind so often.

Laura:  When you live with your identity rooted in motherhood, or your performance at work, or what that person thinks of you, that is a very heavy calling. Emily and I have had a lot of offline conversations lately about being really grateful that our standing before the throne does not depend on us performing like puppets to some standard that we’ve set for ourselves, but that we can just come freely to the throne and say, “Hey, I’ve messed up. I didn’t do this perfectly, but there is grace that meets me there.” That is just something that I can be brought to tears by, of being grateful for the future – and that the present doesn’t rely on my success or abilities as a mom because I will always fail. [laughter]

Nikki:  Absolutely.

Laura:  Speaking of all the things we need to do, as a working mom, your time is probably really divided. It sounds like again, for you, your lines are blurred between even your two lines. How do you make wise choices with how your time is spent? Another way to phrase is maybe how does the gospel guide your to-do list?

Nikki:  Yes. One of the big pieces of that process for me is the acceptance of so many good things that I cannot do. Whether that’s ministry opportunities, relational opportunities, or even recreational opportunities. I don’t say that in a martyr way, but just really coming to terms with prioritization, and what I am called to do, which is care for my family. I put my work in that category as well because my work is what provides materially for my family. That ultimate calling is what my priority is. Beyond that, nearly everything else has to be on the chopping block. 

In the early years of motherhood in particular, I learned the hard way that just because a task or specific role is something that is “good” - or could be a morally good thing - doesn’t mean that it is good for me to take it on, or to add it to my plate. I am sure it will change as my children age, but for right now, this stage that we’re in, the most crucial thing they need from me is time. That’s a precious resource that I have to guard jealously for my family. That impacts the decisions I make for my schedule certainly. But it also impacts the decisions we make for them. We’re not a family that does a lot of after-school activities. We’re not running around from practice, to lessons, to whatever. Those are all really good things, and in my weaker moments, I am having anxiety because my children aren’t going to know how to play the flute, or whatever it could be. [laughter] But, again, for right now, where we’re at, that time together is so much more important. Just trying to weigh those and keep the priorities that, even ones that... there are times when, how could it possibly not be the right thing for me to be a room mother? Or things like that. Just accepting that in my case and in my situation, oftentimes it’s not.

Emily:  But I love what I hear you saying, is like, “Okay, I understand my calling.” Our family is going to evaluate our circumstances and say, “How can we live that out and that is going to require us, as it does every family, to make a counter-cultural decision in order to have that time to invest well in our children?” I feel like every mom understands that there are sacrifices we make that the world would say, “You need to have this for your kids.” We are like, “We either don’t have time for that.” Or, “We can’t do that because of this or that reason.” I just love that you guys have looked at that, and are saying, “We’re going to protect our time this way.” It is going to be costly, but that’s okay because this is about what God is asking us to do, and not about what the world says is normative or important.

Nikki:  It goes back to that idea of the uniqueness of each of our calling. I firmly believe that God is calling the family next door to go to soccer three times a week. But I also understand, and can reconcile that that’s not what He’s calling our family to do. I am letting those two co-exist, and I am accepting that is a key piece of all this, I believe.

Laura:  The stewardship of time is a real difficult thing for any mom or parent when there are so many things calling at us. It’s how do we steward our time well, through not just doing good things or better things – but how do we do the best thing? That’s what my husband and I always talk about is, “What is the best thing that our family can engage in?” Speaking of some of those things that you can engage in, Nikki, how do you make time for ministry with such a busy life and a lot of things calling for your attention? What is the importance of being involved in your local church, and how do you carve out time for that?

Nikki:  This is probably the piece that is the most complex because you can say, “Well, I am going to forego those recreational opportunities.” Or, “I am going to forego those relational opportunities.” But ministry, in my mind, is not a choice of whether or not. That is a universal calling for all of us. So then in my situation, it becomes what does that look like for me? 

A reality for me over these last nine years since I became a mom is that I hadn’t learned that what I do ministry-wise is not always necessarily the thing that I am most drawn to. Or the thing that I really want to do actually. My call becomes a thing that fits and works well within the context of my other calling. In the end, of course, it’s always works because of God’s providence. Because that is where He called me, though He called me through a different way. Then it does become the best scenario, and He works in and through it. 

An example might be women’s ministry. I love women’s ministry, and when I was younger, before, and had more time, was just so impacted by various women’s Bible studies and things in different churches that I’d been in. That would probably be a natural inclination for me, to be a part of that. But the reality is, for the way that that works, logistically, it doesn’t work for me. What I’ve ended up looking at has been more things like teaching, and things that happen on a Sunday. Again, because I can maybe teach my own childrens’ class. Or at the very least, they’re in a class while I am doing my ministry. Not taking away time when the five of us would have been together, and things like that. 

Some of the things that I’ve done over the years – we had a capital campaign exploration committee which, honestly, even though that’s what I do for a living so you’d think, “Oh, of course she wants to do that.” But I think, “Oh, I’d rather do something different.” But at the end of the day, that was a group that met at 6 am, at Panera every other week, and that worked for me. That was a way that I could plug in, and a way that I could minister within my church. It ended up being an incredibly rewarding experience for me, and I developed relationships that I never anticipated. So on and so forth. 

All those different ways that ministry for me as a mom has just needed to be reframed into what is possible within the context of these other things. Then God blesses it and it flourishes from there. Even f I can’t see it when I first sign up for it. [laughs]

Emily:  God is so good in the way that He brings about ministry opportunities [laughs] and then puts things on their heads that we don’t see necessarily in that way he does. He makes it all work when we trust in Him, and I love how you brought that piece of providence in. It’s so true, He does it again and again, just to provide the way that all of these things fit together. 

Laura:  We’d love to hear from your position, what do you think is one of the most difficult things that a working mom faces? How would you respond to that with the gospel in mind?

Nikki:  The thing that comes to my mind when I think about a challenge of working motherhood is really my own fear, and particularly a fear of judgement. Within our Christian community, the high value that we place on parenting and motherhood, that’s something that unites us. That is a shared part of our faith community. That’s a beautiful thing, but on the flip-side of it, there’s a difficulty that comes with that. This is because it looks different for different people. I have found that there is a sense of … mutual insecurity … maybe would be how I would define it. In relating with each other as Christian moms, when we’re doing it so differently, we all have to fight against this fear that, “Well, if she’s doing it that way, and I am doing it a different way, she must think her way is the right way. Therefore she must think my way is the wrong way.” Does that make sense?

That’s a very oversimplified way of thinking about it, and I don’t know that anyone really thinks about it that specifically. But I have found over the years, and again it’s either me perceiving it, or me inventing it in my head, which I firmly believe happens quite a bit. But it’s just that idea of how we get to a place - as stay-at-home moms and working moms, and just moms in general. That we can go back to the idea of the gospel freeing us. That your mothering, my mothering doesn’t impact our status as daughters of Christ. We can still come together; we can mother differently, and still support and encourage one another. I have been blessed with many relationships where that does take place – just really some formative friendships and one in particular during my mothering years that has just really helped me to understand that, to rise above that fear and to fight against it. But ultimately, what really counteracts it, I believe is again, going back to the gospel and our understanding of who we are, and how we’re viewed by Christ.

Emily:  I love how you articulate it – that “mutual insecurity.” [laughter]

Laura:  Brilliant. [laughter]

Emily:  You explained it exactly like you said – even if it’s at a subconscious level, it is what we do when we meet a mom who mothers differently than we do. We don’t have to be afraid of missing out because of what Christ has done with us, and for us. We don’t have to be afraid of man’s judgement because of what Christ has done for us. But we have to stop, and intentionally remember that in those moments, we can, like you said, be different, but also be in Christ. 

Another thing I always have to remember too is in our culture, we very much have this dialogue of like, “Working mom, stay-at-home mom,” whatever. Around the world, throughout history, in different cultures and socio-economic areas, these types of insecurities aren’t necessarily even happening, because it’s like, “Feed your family! Do your work and take care of those around you.” It’s maybe a little bit more urgent than that, but I always have to get that perspective too, that God’s truth is universal in Christ, yet the gospel applies to us universally for those who trust in Him. There isn’t some specific thing for our culture that is different than it is for moms through all of time.

Nikki:  Absolutely. There are distinctions that we have generated culturally, over time that I do think we have to strive against.

Laura:  At the beginning, when you were speaking about the high calling that Christianity or Christian circles have put on motherhood, one of those things that we do all have a biblical calling to do, is to pass on the gospel to our children. Whether one is a working mom, stay-at-home mom, part-time mom or any of those “types” that we’re talking about - all these different “camps,” – we all have one united goal.  How do you balance this? How does that come in? What’s it look like for you? Especially for the mom who’s working and wondering like, “How on earth do I juggle both of these roles, and really invest intentionality in my kids?” What are some choices you’ve had to make, and how does that play out in your life?

Nikki:  My biggest encouragement to a mom scratching her head and wondering about that is if God has blessed her with a spouse who’s also committed to the gospel, lean on him. [laughs] When I think about gospel-centered parenting, and how I do or do not do that on any given day, the level to which I rely on my husband cannot be overstated. It’s more than logistical. I had mentioned that for years, I have worked days and he has worked nights and weekends in the mental health counseling practice. Obviously we had the integration going there. We used to joke like we were a tag team - I’d come home, we slap hands [laughter] and he would walk out the door, and my shift was on. That had it’s own challenges to be sure but that idea of the two of us really sharing everything about our parenting role. There was never anything that I did as a parent that he didn’t do, or vice versa. We were completely interwoven in that way. 

I have found that so critical when it comes to how we are portraying the gospel to our children because so much of that just happens in life and in the daily tasks of doing life. When you’re a working mom, and you are absent from things more than you would want to be, to have a spouse who is striving for the same things that you’re striving for, as far as how the gospel interrelates with what we’re doing in our home and how our families are interrelating that gives you a multiplying factor, and just peace of mind. It’s almost like you’ve got this teammate who is going for the same thing you’re going for. Even if you can’t be there scoring points for the team, he is. Just knowing that, and having each other’s back in that way has been huge for me because it is such a challenge in and of itself - to be away, and still be figuring out how to weave it into his life. It’s hard.

Emily:  Yes, so true. We talk a lot to moms, but assuredly, God says a lot to parents in general, and especially fathers in terms of passing along wisdom and instruction to their children certainly being a team in that is critical, no matter what your work situation looks like. [laughs]

And it’s amazing with both parents being all hands on deck because everybody drops the ball and everybody has off days. I was telling that to my husband the other day. I was like, “One of the things I love about you is that when I am having a hard day and I am just done being patient, I am done saying the right, godly thing. A lot of times I’ll see you swoop in with a smile on your face and grab a book.” It’s like, “Wow, I am so glad there’s a partner in this” 

Nikki:  Yes. I’ve really seen it; it’s evolved over the years because a lot of the toddler years was just like, “Oh my goodness, help me keep control of myself!” [laughter] That’s still happens too, don’t get me wrong, but now that we’re starting to get into the more complexities of emotional things. I am with my nine-year-old daughter, and there are times where we’re in discipline situations, and I honestly don’t know what to do. I almost have to call a timeout, like, “Just freeze because your father and I have to go talk because I don’t know what to say to you right now.” [laughter] It’s kind of funny because I can see how she starts to sense that rhythm. I think she can tell when I am in unchartered waters and I need Dad, and that kind of thing. But I don’t really mind that because I also want her to see that modeled in the way that we are interconnected and need each other because yeah, I get stumped on a regular basis to figure out how I should respond to [laughter]

Laura:  I think we all do. [Laughs] Well Nikki, as we wrap up here, what is one thing that you have really learned about who God is, and what His plan is for you in motherhood? As you’ve grown in your role, how has your understanding of the gospel changed?

Nikki:  Motherhood (and probably most all of us moms would agree with this to some degree or other), has been the most transformative piece of my life thus far. Apart from becoming a believer in God, and being His daughter. The process of becoming a mother has broadened my vision and my understanding of life. I have a sense of the complexities of life. Since becoming a mother, there’s not much left in life that I see as black and white and simple. Just the understanding of life’s complexities is one thing that my children have really taught me. 

Then, the other thing I would say, they have really taught me, they stripped away any semblance of hope that I am in any way, shape or form in control of my life. [laughter] I say “they” like it’s my three little children, but obviously it’s not. It’s what Christ is doing in me, through the experience of being their mother. But I am a personality as far as type A, go-getter, where I could be tempted to lean on the crutch of different ways. But I am holding it together. They keep the crutches out from underneath me, [laughter] and I am holding on by a string most days. But I consider that such a blessing because it’s left room for the gospel. Daily, it has allowed me to keep coming back to the understanding of who I am and who Christ is, and how my smallness is a pointer to His greatness. Yes, in a lot of ways, yes, I would say that motherhood has shrunk me [laughs]. But it has expanded and deepened me in all the better ways.

Laura:  That’s beautiful.

Emily:  So good.

Laura:  It reminds me of this quote that I’ve had on my wall for a little bit that said, “Oh my precious friend, it is a mercy to be made and kept poor enough for Jesus to be all.” That has rung very true in motherhood; that our weaknesses keep us poor – I like how you use the word “shrunk.” Those drive us to the cross; the more that we see that we’re insufficient, that we cannot do it all, we can’t keep up with all the people around us – they’re not keeping up either – but the more that we recognize that, the closer that we can come to Christ, and recognize that He fills all those empty places. That when we are low, that is when He is our all. That is certainly a truth that rings universal in motherhood. 

Nikki:  Absolutely. Yes.

Laura:  Thank you so much today for being on the show Nikki. We’ve really appreciated your time.

Emily:  Yes.

Nikki:  Thank you for having me. It’s been a joy.