Saturday’s Globe and Mail carried a feature article on the apparently changing notion of motherhood in society, the movement to shuck the haloed image of a sainted mother and finally accept the “good-enough mom.” But for all the optimism about sharing the parenting load and shedding the psychological burden of perfect parenting, I was left wondering: what then might equip a Mom to make the necessary sacrifices for raising children?
Let’s be honest – being a mom or dad is always a sacrificial act. The “motherhood trap” will always be experienced by people trying to make the needed sacrifices of parenthood but without the needed resources. And when that happens, parenthood shifts to being about you – your worth, reputation and identity now get wrapped up in your child. All those sacrifices better be worth something – a successful child, a popular, well-adjusted child or at least offspring daily grateful for all the sacrifices made!
The gospel tells us this is completely messed up. No doubt, traditional religions have made an idol of the family, nearly deifying motherhood. Christianity, in its truest, gospel sense (and not the focus on the family version) provides another way.
And here’s a lovely irony – the best way to understand how the gospel frees a mother from this unbearable burden of the perfect white-picket fence ideal (newly minted in the modern mother who happily juggles home and career) is by catching a hint of the role of singles in the Christian community.
Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes in his book A Community of Character that singles were a very important and legitimate part of the early Christian community, exceptional for the times. He notes that singles were legitimated because Christians understood that we now lived between the times, between the beginning of God’s reign and its full completion at the end of time. A single person, therefore, knew God had come in Jesus and looked forward to God coming again soon, and so could make a faith-filled, theologically informed choice to remain single. Hauerwas writes that “the ‘sacrifice’ made by singles was not [just in] ‘giving up sex’ but in giving up heirs. There could be no more radical act than that! This was a clear expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family but by the [kingdom of God and the] church …” (p. 190).
He continues, noting that in the early church both singleness and marriage witness to important facets of life in God’s Kingdom. “If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world.” (p. 191).
On Mothers Day, and for the rest of the year, give extended attention to this brilliant gospel wisdom. Our future, identity and worth are not guaranteed by a family or how well our children turn out, but by God and his action in this world. Since our future and identity are already guaranteed by what God has done in Jesus and is doing to this world, choosing to have and raise children is an intentional act of faith in a loving God who is intent on renewing all things. If this were not so, bringing children into an otherwise harsh and meaningless existence would be the height of cruelty.
The gospel’s beautiful and freeing Mother’s Day message is that children are not the hope of a parent, not trophies augmenting a picture perfect family – contra the dominant cultural parenting motif which leads to overbearing helicopter parents and tiger moms, trying to gain some vicarious achievement and acclaim through their kids. This means that it’s ok if your kid didn’t listen to Bach in the womb, started reading late, doesn’t like soccer, has few friends, is socially awkward and physically uncoordinated, missed getting into that elite school (that kindergarten which would’ve set your kid on the path to Harvard), blew the job interview, married poorly, and generally doesn’t measure up to someone else’s (or your own overly inflated) expectations. Those would all be hard for a parent but not devastating because how your child turns out is not a reflection of your worth or identity (that’s already sealed up in what Jesus has vicariously done for us on the cross).
Instead, children are emblems of faith in the God who selflessly gives himself to a broken and rebellious world, to a broken and rebellious you. And letting that conviction settle deep into your heart gives the needed resources to a Mom or Dad to selflessly and sacrificially serve their children, freeing them from the impossible demands on themselves to be the perfect parent and impossible expectations on their children.
So Mom, I’m probably not the kid you dreamed I might be, was never the obedient and helpful kid you needed me to be. But today I have become a grateful kid – for your faith that brought me into this world and for your continued sacrifice that daily brought me life.