Was She Suited to Be a Pastor's Wife?

She finally had the family she had always prayed for. Why wasn't she content?

Posted in , May 27, 2021

Brianna Bell; photo by Evan Dion

I was 27 years old and living the life I always wanted…or thought I did.

I was married to a youth pastor. We had two daughters, and I was pregnant with our third baby girl. My husband, Daniel, was busy at church (very busy), and our family was beloved by the congregation.

We were like the youth group families I’d idolized growing up, with their stay-at-home moms, cheerful kids and involvement in church.

My own family was the opposite. My dad had walked out while my mom was pregnant with me. My mom worked long hours but couldn’t afford much beyond the necessities. I was a self-proclaimed Jesus freak, riding my bike miles every Sunday to attend church by myself, where I’d sit in a pew with my middle school friends and long to belong to one of the families around me.

For years, I’d prayed for the kind of family I had now.

Why was I so unhappy?

It wasn’t just that I was struggling emotionally with an exhausting third pregnancy or that I had recently been diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

I felt totally unsuited to being a pastor’s wife and stay-at-home mom. I’m not the most organized person, and my days at home with the kids did not remotely resemble the sprightly, creative families I saw on social media—let alone the relaxed, can-do moms I remembered from youth group.

I wanted to support Daniel’s ministry, but more and more I found myself resenting how much time his job required. Not to mention the master’s of divinity he was completing on the side. Much of his work happened during afternoons, evenings, weekends—exactly when my energies flagged and I yearned for Daniel’s help and companionship.

I’d studied communications when I was in college, and I hadn’t anticipated how much I would miss writing professionally after the kids arrived. The more my parenting duties expanded, the more I wished I could work part-time to supplement Daniel’s modest income.

Our family was God’s answer to my prayers. Why couldn’t I be grateful? What was wrong with me?

Everything came to a head when I got the diabetes diagnosis. A routine blood test came back showing elevated sugar levels. My doctor said I needed more tests right away.

Daniel was at church, overseeing a youth event. I called to tell him, but he couldn’t leave the kids at the event unsupervised.

It was nearing bedtime for Penny and Georgia, our four- and two-year-olds. I recruited one friend to stay with the girls while another, Lauren, took me to the hospital.

Lauren helped me into her car. I struggled to fasten the seat belt. “I wish Daniel were here,” I said. She squeezed my hand.

By the time I returned, late that night, Daniel still wasn’t home. I knew something had to change.

“Why couldn’t you at least come to the hospital?” I demanded when he arrived. “This isn’t what I thought our family would be like.”

Daniel held me and told me he was sorry. In his voice, I heard how torn he was between his obligations. I knew it was unfair to blame him. It wasn’t his fault that the life I’d always wanted was making me unhappy. I didn’t even know how to express what was wrong, and I was afraid of what might happen if I did.

Daniel would never walk out on me the way my own dad had. But would he be upset if I upended our family balance just so I could work? Would I be honoring God if I chose work over my family? Was that even a fair question to ask?

Mom told me my dad had never been particularly reliable. He wasn’t a doting husband even while my mom was pregnant. By the time I was born, it was just my mom and me.

Mom moved in with her parents for a while when I was born. I often spent weekends and time after school with my grandparents. Though Mom worked as a train station agent, often on evenings and weekends, money was tight. Everything felt precarious.

I found the security I craved at a church youth group. Mom signed me up for vacation Bible school. I kept going. I wished my family could be like those youth group families: two parents, mom at home, financially stable, involved in church. I asked God for a family like that.

A family like Daniel’s. He and I had met during college. Daniel’s father owned a business, and his mom stayed home, raising three kids and taking care of the household, where Daniel and his friends liked to hang out—looting the fridge and piling on the sofa to watch TV.

Daniel’s only rebellion was embracing a stricter version of Christianity than his parents had. For Daniel, an old-fashioned family felt like part of God’s call. For me, it felt like the safe harbor I’d always wanted.

Four months after we married, I learned I was pregnant with Penny. Our perfect family was on its way. It didn’t take long for my idealism to wane. As a new pastor, Daniel was paid little but expected to be available day and night. We lived in a basement apartment, barely affording groceries. I felt alone, constantly exhausted.

When Penny was five months old, we dressed her up as a puppy and took her to the church Halloween carnival.

“Where’s Daniel?” a friend asked. Her husband was holding their baby. My back ached from carrying Penny.

“Daniel’s here helping with the carnival,” I said. “I’m not sure where.”

Late that evening, Daniel and I were still at church while Penny slept in her car seat. I helped clean up the mess, long after other families had gone home and tucked their kids into bed. I kept thinking about my friend’s husband holding their baby.

Not long after Daniel got a job as a youth pastor at a different church, our second daughter, Georgia, was born. Daniel’s new job was even more demanding. The youth group was large, and Daniel had high hopes for the students he worked with. He left the house every morning and sometimes didn’t get home until late at night.

A restlessness built inside me. I’d assumed that a key part of the family I yearned for would be a mom who stayed home with the kids. But in my heart of hearts, I wanted to do more than parent. I wanted to be a freelance journalist, to have responsibilities outside the house, to contribute to the family income.

Making that desire a reality would require everyone to change. It felt risky. How could I pray to God for help when I was turning my back on what he’d already provided?

I made friends with a woman at church named Franchesca. She had two kids and was a graphic designer. I tried to convince her not to return to work after maternity leave. I couldn’t bear my days without her. Who would I meet for park dates and long walks?

Franchesca said she enjoyed working, and I had to admit her kids did fine in day care. I could tell by the way she talked about her job that she found something in her workplace that she didn’t at home.

“Why did we even decide that only you can work?” I asked Daniel one night while I loaded the dishwasher.

“Of course you can work,” he said. “It’s just that day care is so expensive.”

Daniel had encouraged me to write before, but this seemed like a more direct invitation. He and I worked out an arrangement. I would write while the kids took their naps. If I got paid, we could afford some child care. I sold a few articles and decided to put the girls in day care two days a week. It felt momentous. Then I got pregnant with Eloise. Was God trying to tell me to stop working?

I remembered my mom and how she would agonize over who would watch me while she worked. Eventually I told her it would be easier if I just looked after myself.

Though my mom and I were close, our relationship was complicated. It must have wounded her every time she heard me say that I wished I had a “normal” family.

I thought about all those afternoons by myself. Somehow things ended up working out. I found the youth group, went to college, married Daniel.

Maybe it wasn’t quite accurate to say that God had rescued me from a bad situation so I could become a stay-at-home mom.

I had learned to be resilient growing up. God had been present at each stage of my life, helping me move forward, loving me through the hard parts. The expectations I’d placed on myself were rooted more in fear than faith. I should have remembered: One of God’s favorite messages is “Do not be afraid.” What would happen if I listened to God without fear?

Eloise was born healthy. When she turned one, I enrolled her in a half-day child-care program and wrote every day. Gradually I was able to build a successful freelance career. The kids were fine, and my life began to look more like my friend Franchesca’s—busy and fulfilling.

Daniel was promoted to lead pastor of a new branch of our church. At one time, I might have taken that as a sign for me to step back and do everything to ensure he succeeded.

I told Daniel I was proud of him and wanted to support him. I also said, “I don’t want to feel pressured to be the perfect pastor’s wife.”

“I would never expect that of you,” Daniel said.

We’re still figuring out what it means to balance work, family and church in a clergy household. That task is so much more straightforward now that I no longer let fear guide my thinking.

It’s not the life I always thought I wanted. It’s better—the life God wants for us.

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