“I’m a mother, not a martyr.”
That’s what I found myself thinking as I sat in church on Mother’s Day, listening to the usual ‘mother appreciation’ homily.
This was a special Mother’s Day for me. It was the first time my “Happy Mother’s Day!” greetings to my mom friends were answered with “Happy Mother’s Day!” right back. And it took a little getting used to, to be honest My husband was the first to startle me by saying it. When we got in the car to go to church, he looked at me with a funny little smirk on his face, paused a moment, and chirped “Happy Mother’s Day!”
I stared at him blankly for about 5 seconds before the reality that Mother’s Day is now MY day too, finally sunk in.
What started as a short-term foster placement back in December is looking like it will quite possibly turn into an adoption. The little guy I thought I only had a few weeks to love on and pray over may be mine forever. God’s plan is full of surprises!
So there I sat, almost 6 months into motherhood, listening as mothers were lauded from the pulpit, praised for their selfless sacrifice and ceaseless, exhausting-yet-holy labor. But rather than being encouraged per se, I found myself sitting there with my head metaphorically cocked to one side, and thinking, “Hold on a second. I’m a mother, not a martyr.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing the sweet elder of my church who was expressing his deep appreciation for the mothers in our congregation. Nor do I think it’s bad to recognize the real work and sacrifice that goes into parenthood. I’m sure there were many mothers sitting in the room who needed to hear exactly what he was saying. Mothers who were blessed and made to feel seen, loved, and appreciated.
What struck me as I listened to him was how oddly martyr-like the narrative of motherhood is, both inside and outside the church these days. On one side of the spectrum I see women who look at motherhood as a burden they don’t care to shoulder. Who say things like “I don’t like kids” or “I don’t want to give up my freedom.” They look around at the motherhood messages we are inundated with, and hear about sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, frustration, tediousness, and a near constant drain of all their time, energy, and resources, to the point that basic hygiene starts feeling like luxury. With some justification, they conclude, “Why the heck would I do that to myself?”
On the other end of the spectrum, a large section of the conservative Christian culture pushes back and loudly extols motherhood, praising it’s sacrifices, encouraging women to push through the exhausting struggle, and to bolster themselves with the knowledge that they are doing holy work, raising eternal souls, etc, etc. Some even go so far as to call motherhood “God’s highest calling for women” (which is scripturally problematic, just sayin’) and frown on any kind of hesitancy on a woman’s part. A sort of unspoken message of “How could you dare shy away from doing this great work God has given you?” can get woven into the conversations, and some even conclude that since “God says children are a blessing”, it is wrong to try to limit the number or choose the spacing of your kids in any way for any reason. (I used to be in this camp myself). I’ve known women who, based on all this input, began to feel guilty for being intimidated, nervous, or overwhelmed about motherhood. They feel terrified by this marathon of endless work and sacrifice, but are afraid to say so for fear they’ll be judged for not rejoicing in this “great calling” God had given them.
Have you noticed the common thread running through all of this, though?
Motherhood = Martyrdom.
Both sides of the spectrum seem to agree motherhood is exhausting, draining, and often frustrating. Both sides agree it’s a lifestyle of constant sacrifice, giving up your personal desires, dreams, and needs for the sake of this mammoth task. It’s really only their conclusions that are different. One side says. “Nope. Not for me.” and the other says, “I will accept this overwhelming job because it’s holy and important.”
Here’s the question though. Is motherhood supposed to be a living martyrdom?
Of course, all Christians are called to present our bodies to God as a “living sacrifice.”(Rom 12:1) We’re called to esteem others as more important than ourselves,(Phil 2:3) deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily,(Luk 9:23) etc. But I’m not talking about the life that ALL Christians are called to live. After all, nobody gives homilies extolling the sacrificial life of Christian college students or single Christian businessmen, as a rule. Yet all those scripture passages should apply to them too, right? What I’m trying to say is, why does it seem like motherhood is so much MORE of a ‘martyrdom’ than the Christian life in general? Was it designed to be this way? Has it always been this way? Does it HAVE to be this way?
The longer I’ve thought about this issue, the more I’ve realized it can’t be covered in just one post. There is so much to unpack here as I compare the historical and biblical ideals of motherhood to what we consider a “good mother” today. From support systems, to family size, to modern homeschooling methods and societal expectations, there are many things about today’s motherhood that are vastly different from the experiences of mothers throughout history (including those in the pages of scripture.) And I think some of those differences DO make motherhood objectively more draining today than it was in the past. I’m hoping to do a couple of follow-up posts examining that side of the coin more closely.
In the meantime though, there’s one aspect of this that I want to address right away. And that is simply this: How we think and speak about motherhood changes how we experience it.
Mindset Matters. A LOT.
For sure, our experience of motherhood is strongly influenced by many outside factors we can’t control, but it’s amazing how much our lives are also shaped by how we think and talk about what we are experiencing. My sister gave me an excellent real-life example of this the other day. We were chatting about EC (Elimination Communication, i.e. infant potty training). She did this with her first baby, and is now attempting it with baby number 2 (while also wrangling a toddler! More power to ya, Sis). She said something that made a huge impression on me:
“With my first baby, I viewed every miss [i.e. baby goes in diaper instead of potty] as a failure. But this time around I view every catch as a victory!”
Such a simple mindset shift, and yet it has made her second EC journey far more joyful and “successful feeling”. Even though she is probably ‘missing’ just as often (or maybe more often, since her focus is split between two kids now), she feels MORE successful at the end of the day. Not because her external experience is different, but because she consciously changed her internal focus. At the end of the day she is counting up victories, not failures.
We truly do have a choice here. When you think over your day, or experience it in the moment, you can CHOOSE what you focus on. As you talk to your friends, you can choose to emphasize the diaper blowouts, the toddler messes, the interrupted naps, the tantrums, etc. OR, you can choose to focus on the way you felt when your baby smiled in delight to see you when she woke, the way your toddler eagerly brought you the flowers he found outside, or how special it was to watch your daughter experience fireflies for the first time.
In Philippians 4, Paul urged his readers to chose wisely what they let their minds dwell on. He said “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”(Phl 4:8)
I think Paul understood that what we choose to think about not only shapes who we are, but how we perceive the experiences we have. If we are focused on the good things, the bad things won’t seem like such a big deal. For instance, if you’re rejoicing over how much fun your toddler is having in the rain, the fact that he is getting his pants muddy won’t be your focus. But the reverse is also true. If you’re dwelling on how annoying doing extra laundry is, you won’t be able to appreciate the pure, childhood joy that fills that mud-puddle moment.
The Good Stuff is just as ‘Real’ as the Hard Stuff
Not only does the way we think about motherhood matter, so does the way we speak about it.
Often we excuse constantly talking about the negative in our lives by saying, “I’m just being real with people.” But since when did the hard parts of our life become more “real” than the joyful parts? What are we communicating with that expression?
I think we can subtly (and unintentionally) express the idea that REAL life is a long, difficult slog, punctuated by a few joyful high points here and there.
But is that really a biblical view of life in Christ? Let’s not forget that the same holy Scriptures that mention taking up our cross daily, dying to ourselves, and being a living sacrifice, also tell us that Jesus came to give us life in abundance,(Jhn 10:10) that His yoke is easy and His burden is light,(Mat 11:30) and that if we remain in Christ’s love our joy will be FULL!(Jhn 15:11)
I don’t know about you, but I rather doubt that when Jesus spoke of fullness of joy and abundant life He had in mind an occasional glimmer of joy to give us a short breather between the constant frustration and exhaustion of “real” living.
How we talk about motherhood MATTERS. Not only for our own benefit, but also because it changes how others see and experience it too. We can quite literally change the world with our words. Our friends (with and without kids) are subconsciously shaping their view of motherhood based on how we are talking about it, and as we already discussed, how they view motherhood shapes the way they experience it and what they focus on.
Why is it that when mom friends get together they feel more comfortable comparing notes on how hard everything is, rather than rejoicing together over the delightful parts of raising children? Why do we swap stories about the latest catastrophes, blow-outs, and near-mental-breakdowns, rather than sharing our favorite things our children did today or the delight we take in holding and snuggling our tiny babies?
Maybe it’s intended as humility, to show that we don’t “have it all together.” After all, if one friend shares a hard thing that happened, it feels awkward and maybe prideful to respond by sharing a great moment we had that day. So instead, we share the hard thing WE experienced, and next thing you know it becomes a race to the bottom. I can remember, pre-children, sitting in a group of moms as they all shared their frustrations and thinking “Sheesh. Do I really want to do this thing?” I’m sure none of those women were intending to give me that feeling, but that’s what happened. What if, instead, they had sat there swapping stories about the delights of motherhood and sharing each other’s joy? How would that have changed the way I felt walking away from the conversation?
Now please here me. I’m not saying it’s wrong to share our struggles or help bear one another’s burdens. But that doesn’t have to be the only thing we talk about, does it? And perhaps, when one of us is sinking into the the Slough of Despond (as Bunyan called it), it would be better to find a way to pull her out and point her to the light again, instead of just sympathetically joining her in the hole to wallow together and crack sad jokes about how stuck we all are.
Because here’s the thing. If we expect motherhood to be hard, exhausting, and miserable, that’s what we’re going to end up experiencing and passing on to others. We’ll focus on all the hard and miserable parts, and not take as much notice of the joys. Also, if we find ourselves in an exhausting, miserable rut, instead of recognizing that rut as something we might be able climb out of, we’ll just say to ourselves. “Oh well, this is how it’s supposed to be. I’ll just have to grin and bear it ’till the kids grow up.” We’ll live defeated instead of taking a step back to reexamine our parenting style, our schedules, our expectations, or all three, and finding what needs to change so things won’t be so stressful.
My point it, if we make “hard and exhausting” the standard expectation, that’s what we’re going to get. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s Sing a New Song
The psalms speak often about singing new songs to the Lord, celebrating, and communicating to others all the blessings and glory and wonder that are found in Him. I think we need to tune our instruments to a new song about motherhood too. Both for our own benefit and the benefit of those who are listening.
Before I became a mother, I had heard a LOT about motherhood. Plenty of people, both in real life and on social media, communicated how hard it was. I’d heard all about the sleep deprivation and tediously repetitive tasks. How my personal hygiene would be sacrificed and I’d have to learn to live in messy buns and 3-day-old yoga pants and be ok with kids following me into the bathroom every time I went.
I also had plenty of people tell me how holy motherhood was. How valuable and Christlike it was to lay my life down in the service of raising up eternal souls, how nothing else I could create or pour my time into would have such a long-term impact.
Hard and holy, I’d heard it all. All the advice, all the struggles, all the speeches about how meaningful it was. And yet, motherhood still surprised me. In a mind-blowing breath-taking, wild, wonderful way, it completely knocked me silly.
Because there were so many things that no one ever told me. Things I wish I would have heard a little more about. So much joy and laughter and overflowing delight. I’m only 6 months in, and I’m sure there is plenty of hard stuff I haven’t experienced yet, but I also know there’s got to so much amazing stuff I haven’t experienced yet either. I’m EXCITED to continue this journey. And I want other moms to be too.
So if you’re expecting to become a mom soon, or even if you already are one, I want to share with you a few of the things I wish I’d known…
No one mentioned how I’d hold my babe in silent midnight hours
Feel exhaustion melt like magic, leaving only space to marvel
As I stared into a tiny trusting face so close to mine
No one warned me that his sunshine smile would steal my breath each morning
Throbbing joy so strong I worry I may burst my heart in two
No one said I’d stand by watching him explore a dandelion
Knowing nothing else could thrill me more than living in that moment
Seeing wonder in this world again by watching through his eyes
No one spoke of sheer delight that bubbles up like liquid laughter
Overflowing into puddles where I jump and splash and dance
No one told me how my tears would fall on little, sleeping fingers
As I sat there overwhelmed with awe and raised my eyes to whisper
“God, I never understood how much you loved me until now.”
No one mentioned how my words would stretch and struggle to describe it
Failing still to fully capture love this deep and joy this bold
….Or how a child can open doors to scatter sunbeams on your soul