2016-06-30
Reprinted from "The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women" with permission from Baker Books

The idea that it's possible to be a "perfect" Christian mother is not only damaging to women who are desperately trying to do right by their children; it's also a perversion of our basic Christian belief in the saving power of Jesus. It's incredibly arrogant for us to believe that our human action is necessary for God to act in the lives of our children. The Bible makes it quite clear that each of us is a unique creation of God (Psalm 139). Any mother who has brought home a baby who cries all the time or won't sleep or who refuses to take a bottle can tell you that even newborns have a personality all their own. Any mother of a prodigal can tell you that our children will make their own choices no matter how hard we worked to instill God's truth in them.

Naturally, I believe that we parents have a little something to do with how our children turn out, but I also believe it's blasphemous to think God's ability to touch the hearts of my children is somehow dependent on my skill as a parent. Think for a minute about other Christians you know. Now think about how many of them were raised in Christian homes. If your friends are like mine, probably a few became Christians after very difficult childhoods where God's name was spoken only in vain.

My friend Megan was sexually abused by her father. Her mother left the family to live with another man on the other side of the country. And yet God lived in Megan just the same and has grown her into one of the most passionate, caring, joyful Christians I have ever known. The parenting she received could have ruined her, and indeed, the aftermath of her childhood has led to some painfully dark times in her life. But she has the faith to lead a Bible study for new Christians, to parent her children with incredible grace and love, and to boldly proclaim her love for Jesus to anyone within earshot.

It's also important to point out that there was a time when children were not even deemed capable of understanding things of faith. Historian Jan Lewis notes that as popular psychology grew to include the field of child development, "Evangelical views about youthful conversion built upon secular ones about the malleability of character, giving mothers a new responsibility. The work of redemption had to begin early, when a child was still in its mother's care, and, to the extent that evangelicals believed that the world had to be reclaimed individual by individual, the home became the main arena for conversions. . . . Mothers, thus, had it in their power to achieve not only the salvation of their children but also of the entire world." Here again, our Christian framework has been influenced by secular culture. We have created a role for mothers based on science and psychology and passed it off as "God's way."

The idea that mothers are responsible for the spirituality of their children is cult-like thinking at its most profane. If it were possible for mothers to raise perfect children, we would have no need for Jesus. If it were possible for "good" parenting to keep children on the straight and narrow, here would be far fewer heartbroken mothers and fathers in our churches.

The truth is that each child is born with his or her own set of gifts and weaknesses. Every child will experience God in his or her own way. At the end of the day, the best we can hope for is that we haven't messed our kids up too badly. (One of the most disconcerting realizations I had as a new mom was that I was the one my daughter would be griping about with her friends or therapist one day: "My mom is so unfair!" "You think that's bad, wait till you hear what my mom said to me once." "My mom never showed me the kind of love I needed," and on and on.)

I certainly don't mean to imply that parents aren't important; Megan would tell you that her life would have been a whole lot easier if her parents had been Christians. There are several passages in the Bible that implore parents to be intentional about passing a heritage on to their children. But when we place the full weight of raising God-fearing children in the hands of parents, we discount God's ability to reach a child without us.

Maybe I've freaked you out a little here. I do hope though that somewhere along the way, a light has gone on for you, one that has you rethinking your assumptions about what it means-and doesn't mean-to be a Christian mother. Even if you don't agree with me, the best result any author can hope for is for a book to open up conversations about an issue. If the ideas discussed so far don't ring true for you, that's fine. But I'd ask you to look around at the women in your church and search for those who seem worn down, listless, or at a loss for how to deal with the challenges of parenthood.

Take one of them out for coffee-sans kids!-and find out how she's handling this stage in her life. Figure out what you can do to ease her load and commit to helping her get the rest and time she needs to live out the dreams God has placed in her heart. Support her as she seeks God's wisdom in her life, even if God leads her down a path that is very different from the one you're following.

A friend of mine told me about a woman he knows who was the stay-at-home mom of three kids, including one with cerebral palsy. Her children are now grown, and her special-needs son lives in a long-term care facility near her home. She and her husband have started graduate school together, earning advanced degrees in biomedical ethics. My friend Tony told me, "It's awesome that she took the things God put in her life and saw the bigger picture of what they could mean in terms of the kingdom." In the midst of the intense challenges of raising her children, she sensed that there had to be a grander purpose to her situation. She allowed her mothering to shape her into a person who is using her gifts to impact her culture. Rather than seeing her children as her sole contribution to the world, she has used her parenting experiences to effect broader change. The motherhood chapters of her life now inform the rest of her story.

How that kind of perspective plays out in your life is going to be up to you, but I would like to offer some thoughts. In order to break free of this cult-like thinking, we need to find out for ourselves what expectations we carry around. Think about your own view of motherhood. What is the "ideal" picture you're trying to live up to? Take a little time to decipher where that ideal came from, what has factored into how you see motherhood. Don't worry if you can't answer that question. One curious result of my survey is that nearly every woman knows what the false expectations are, but few can articulate where they came from. It's not as if pastors are standing in their pulpits telling women to homeschool (well, maybe some are) or that Christian women come right out and tell each other to stay home with their children (again, maybe some do), and yet we've gotten these messages in subtle ways. Perhaps you read a book that formed some of your thinking, or there was a woman in the church you grew up in who seemed to have it all together and became your image of a good mom. Maybe it's just the disapproval you sense when you make a parenting decision that doesn't jibe with your fellow Christian moms.

Once you have a better understanding of where your expectations are coming from, you can start getting rid of those that come from our culture and replace them with real biblical truths about who God created you to be and how you can move toward that ideal in the midst of motherhood.

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