Childbirth preparation classes didn’t prepare me for the experience of giving birth. The information about deep breathing went clean out of my head as I moaned and wailed through contractions, until my husband hesitantly offered, “Maybe that breathing thing would help?” (It did.) My water broke just minutes before our first child was born, and for a panicked moment I thought the warm weight was my son falling, with no one near to catch him. (I soon learned that a good deal more pain would precede his arrival.)
Similarly, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to motherhood. I wondered during pregnancy what it would be like to be a mom. Probably, I told myself, my baby will be funny-looking and will cry a lot and will never sleep. I wasn’t being pessimistic, exactly. I just thought that if I could come to terms with a less than optimal outcome, and still be excited about the upcoming birth, I’d have it made.
It worked. Compared to the scenario I had imagined, the real thing was so much better. Sure, there were sleepless nights, and times I couldn’t figure out how to comfort my baby, but there was also so much joy and so much love.
In her beautiful book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, author Jennifer Senior explores the joys and trials of being a parent. In one section of her book, she gives a fascinating analysis of the shifting goal of parenting.
Parenthood has changed dramatically since World War II. Children used to work with and for the family; they contributed in meaningful ways, especially economically. After World War II, Senior writes, “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.” As a result, “Today, we are far less clear about what ‘parenting’ entails.” Many of parents’ historical responsibilities have been largely outsourced, including education, medical care, making clothes, growing food, and vocational training.
Senior adds, “What parenting does involve, however, is much harder to define. The sole area of agreement for almost all middle-class parents…is that whatever they are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone. Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”
This gave me pause. I immediately want to argue Senior’s conclusion; it seems so individualistic and selfish. But even if I disagree, do I tend to parent that way by default? All Joy and No Fun made me ask myself: What, in the end, do I think is the goal of parenting?
The more I think about it, the more I consider my role as a mother in terms of discipleship, which I define as teaching/learning to follow Christ. It means much more than just sharing information; it has to do with teaching values, shaping character, and communicating a vision for life.
Jesus’ approach was to disciple a motley group of men by sharing life with them, then sending them to go and make disciples in turn. Parenthood involves a similar aspect of teaching/learning, as parents and children share life together.
It is daunting to disciple my children, especially because we spend so much time together. Putting on a good front isn’t an option when you are “on duty” all the time. That’s why, as a mother, I seek discipleship in my own life.
Sociologist Brené Brown is the author of a fabulous book called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. In the section on parenting, she writes, “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting….the question isn’t so much ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is: ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’”
I find this deeply convicting. I can’t expect my kids to listen to what I say if they don’t also see me living in a way consistent with my expressed beliefs. For example, I want my daughter to grow up with a healthy appreciation for her body, and I try to model the same attitude about my own. I want my kids to choose nourishing foods but also enjoy occasional treats, and I try to model a balanced approach to eating. I want my kids to love Jesus most of all—and that means I need to live a life that is sold out for Him.
My love for my kids spurs me to pursue holiness. Like the apostle Paul, “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”1 I love how Jen Wilkin worded it in this blog post titled “Dear Moms, Jesus Wants You to Run”: “In matters of legalism, rest – yes – but in matters of holiness, run. Run like your hair is on fire. Because this good work of loving God and loving others is a race for the fit and the fleet, particularly if you’re a mom.”
When I imagine the “adult that I want my child[ren] to grow up to be,” I can think of many positive character traits. An important one is the ability to recognize and admit personal sin and accept one’s neediness.
That is difficult to do. For me, parenting is a beautiful crucible, forcing me to face unpleasant truths about myself. Interactions with my children force me to face my selfishness and impatience on a daily basis.
But as a result, my kids and I practice giving and receiving grace. It is difficult to say “I’m sorry,”—for me and for them—but so very worth it. I’ve been amazed at how quick my kids are to forgive me for harsh words when I acknowledge my sin. They, too, are learning to apologize when they have wronged another.
I stumble, but I press on. Any progress I make is because of God’s grace. Though effort is required on my part, even the ability to make the effort is because of grace. Paul wrote about this paradox in Philippians 2:12 and 13: “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling [i.e. this takes real effort on our part!], for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” [i.e. God enables us to make the effort!] The paradox shouldn’t surprise Christ-followers; paradox is a hallmark of the Christian life. I can’t pursue holiness on my own.
I am learning that the pursuit of holiness need not be heavy or burdensome. It is definitely a privilege and a responsibility, something to take seriously. But it can either come from a place of angst or from a place of deep joy. Words from Richard Rohr helpfully illustrate the difference: “There are two entirely different forms of religion: one believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change! The first is the most common; the second follows upon an experience of personal Indwelling and personal love. Ideas inform us, but love forms us—in an intrinsic and lasting way.”
One of the best things I can do as a mother is to show compassion to myself and exercise my role as mom from a place of worthiness. To quote Brené Brown again (in Daring Greatly), “If we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgement in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection—the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives—can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.”
This journey of motherhood is an unpredictable one. I can’t direct or control how my children will turn out. But I can take responsibility for my own growth in grace. I can be faithful in my role as a mom. I can trust that the Spirit is at work in my children’s hearts, and that God loves them even more than I do. Though the discipleship of motherhood is not easy, it is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.