2016-06-30
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Carla Barnhill, editor of Christian Parenting Today magazine, isn't afraid to speak her mind on the realities of parenting and the pressures that are unduly placed on mothers. The mother of two recently spoke to Beliefnet about the unrealistic ideal of Christian motherhood, submission in relationships, and whether feminism is a dirty word, issues she explores in her new book "The Myth of the Perfect Mother."

What makes motherhood different for Christian women?

I think there's a whole other layer of expectation for Christian women because there's so much pressure in evangelical culture in particular for women to stay at home and for children to turn out a certain way. All of those expectations tend to fall to the mother. What makes it especially difficult for a Christian woman is that it's all couched in biblical terms. I just think there's this whole layer of "God wants you to live a certain way, God wants you to parent a certain way, God wants you to feel a certain way about motherhood." So whenever a failure or difficulty comes up in parenting, it doesn't just feel like you're failing as a mother, it feels like you're failing as a Christian.

Do you think that Christian culture lets fathers off the hook?

I think it has for a long time. I look at Promise Keepers and even the Wild at Heart movement of the last few years as almost course corrections for the way that churches let fathers slide off the hook. Even though there are conservative evangelical churches that would say that the father is the spiritual head of the household, there hasn't been the same kind of pressure on a father in terms of the involvement he's supposed to have in a child's life. If you see a teenager who's gone off the deep end or has started to rebel, it's the mother who gets blamed in the minds of other people, not the father.

What message do you think the TV series "Desperate Housewives" has for Christian women?

I hope it will tell Christian women that women are ready for the veil to be lifted. Hopefully as it gets talked about, Christian women too will say, "I'm glad someone's talking about this, because my life isn't the way that they make it sound either." And maybe they won't ever watch the show, or admit to watching the show, but hopefully just the buzz about it will let them know that it's OK to talk about this now. It's OK to tell people that you don't always like being home, or that it's hard to be home.

I was reading an article about the show, and they were comparing it to "Sex and the City," and the guy who developed the show said it's different because these women aren't really friends, they have all sorts of secrets that they keep from each other. And that really struck me. I thought, isn't that just how we live as Christian women? We keep a lot of secrets from each other, because we're really afraid of the shame and the guilt that we assume will come from our fellow Christians if we're honest about how we feel, about our struggles. More than anything, it opens the conversation and says, let's talk about this. Let's put that June Cleaver to rest for good.

You wrote in your introduction that on one level every mother understands Andrea Yates, the mother who drowned her five children. What do you mean by that?

I think there's a part of every woman that, when she's honest with herself, knows how close we get sometimes to doing things to our children that we don't want to do. In the middle of the night when you haven't had a good night's sleep for eight months, your brain doesn't necessarily kick in and tell you the right thing to do. At the same time, Andrea Yates wasn't an abusive mother. She didn't kill her children out of abuse, she killed her children because she felt that she had failed them drastically as a mother. She just had this overwhelming sense of failing as a mother and feeling like they would be better off somewhere else, they would be better off without me. She slipped into a deep psychosis, but I think that that sense of "I have no idea what I'm doing and I can't handle this anymore," that's something that a mother can relate to. Thankfully, we deal with it in a better way than she did.

Part of your message is that Christian mothers should get real about the true burdens of motherhood. Are you asking mothers to let go of their ideals and high hopes for parenting?

Not at all. What I'm suggesting is that we replace what's false with what's real, because that's where we're going to find the beauty and the joy of motherhood. When we replace the idea that my kids have to turn out a certain way, that I have to live a particular kind of life, with something better-- like God is involved in my parenting, and there are things that I can learn through this--then all of the sudden we have a different kind of peace and joy and contentment in what we're doing because it's not about these end results. It's recognizing that there's beauty and mystery and blessing in the process of parenting. To me it's replacing a flawed joy with something that's much more pure and much more God-ordained, if you will. To me that's a much more refreshing and peaceful and joyful way to live as a mother than to try and do all these things because I think I'm supposed to.

I read one interview in which you said, "I'm willing to be the bitch on this one." What did you mean by that?

[Laughing] That was an early interview. Basically what I mean is that I realize that this book is going to raise some hackles. And there were times in writing the book that I thought, I need to pull back on this. Then I thought, you know what? All those books for women with flowers on the cover and pretty script writing, they do that. Somebody needs to be the one to say, no, it's really like this. Somebody's going to have to take the heat. So I'm going to be the one to say it, and if that means I'm going to get some heat for it, then I can do it.

What is your take on "Women, submit yourselves to your husbands"?

My take on it is that it's a much longer passage than that. It's a passage about mutual submission. It is obviously focused in on marriage, but I think every relationship involves some submission, it involves selflessness and to me it means being other-centered. It means as a woman you have to think about what the other people around you need and want--and men do too. That's very clear from the whole Ephesians passage, that this is not just women submit, but men, you have to do what's best for your wife too. As Christ gave his life to the church. To me it's saying that relationships are about selflessness. You aren't going to get your own way all of the time, and you need to be willing to step outside of yourself and see what's best for other people. That's the way we live as brothers and sisters in Christ, as husbands and wives in Christ, as mothers and fathers in Christ. We live that way because that's the way that Christ lived for us. It's a sacrificial way of living.

Some of the conversation about the stultified housewife reminds me of what Betty Friedan wrote in "The Feminine Mystique" 40 years ago. Is feminism a dirty word for evangelicals, and why are some Christians talking about working outside the home as if feminism had never happened?

I think feminism has been misunderstood in the evangelical world and therefore has become a dirty word. I think that the way that feminism has been interpreted by some evangelicals is that it's saying, "Women, you can ignore your family because you are more important." They see it as promoting selfishness, and that's where the hitch comes in for them. I don't see feminism that way at all. I know lots and lots of working mothers, and I don't know a single one of them who doesn't agonize about how she's going to do all this, and I don't know a single one of them who ignores her children because she loves her job so much. So there's this fake [idea of a] mother who's out there, working for greed and a new Lexus. I've never met her and I know a lot of these women.

Do you think there's an ideal for Christian women to homeschool their children? What made you choose public school for yours?

The homeschool thing is born out of our fears of what's going on in the bigger culture, and we see it as a way of safeguarding our children. So I think it's something people decide to do after they've had children, when they go, "I didn't realize what a scary place the world was, let's keep them here." I think homeschooling is a great thing if that's what works for a family. My only issue is when we make it a prescription for every family and say this is the best way, this is God's way to educate your children. Because it's not. When the Bible says, "Teach your kids as they walk along the road," that Deuteronomy passage that gets used a lot, the Bible's not saying, "Don't let your kids go to public school." It's talking about the way you live your life. We've chosen public school partly because our public school is a terrific one, and there's nothing about that feels damaging to our children. The kids in the neighborhood go there, it's been a wonderful experience for us.

What do you think churches can do to better foster happy, balanced Christian mothers?

Get rid of the whole idea that mothers can only talk to other mothers. We tend to put people in life-stage groups, and I think that's really limiting for them. There need to be opportunities for women to talk to each other about other things, an art club or Bible studies that have nothing to do with motherhood, or a job group where they talk about their working lives, or whatever-a way for women to connect with one another so we can help each other remember there's more to us than just our role as mothers. That kind of raises people's hackles a little bit because they think I'm saying motherhood's not important, and I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that God created us as fully rounded human beings with lots of layers of interest and lots of passions, and to celebrate another passion or another interest doesn't diminish my passion for motherhood.

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