There I was at the local playgroup, talking to the mother of a bouncing baby. We were having a typical ho-hum conversation until she blurted out, “My son came from a sperm donor.”
I tried to hide my shock as I had never actually met someone who had done this. I have known many women who wanted to be moms more than anything else they could desire in life, and made great sacrifices to achieve this, but this method felt extreme to me. I wonder what her experience has been, compared to what she imagined when she was a child or even a young woman.
It got me thinking about the divide in motherhood between what is perceived, and what actually is. So I started asking around — friends with twins, friends with lots of kids, friends with kids with special needs — and processing my own experience, to articulate one of the most dramatic life changes one could ever desire.
In the room down the hall, my sweet baby is crying. I go pat her on the back in an attempt to settle her back to sleep. I hope that she doesn’t end up wanting more than that, since I have tried for three days to write this article, and I am finally getting an undistracted window of time to do it.
I didn’t pay any money to become a mom. I did it the old-fashioned way: got married, went on a honeymoon to Italy, and one year later, got lazy with contraception and came home with a “guest” clinging to my uterus. I discovered this one week before my husband said to me, “You should go back to school while we don’t have kids.” I was a little indifferent about being a mother. It seemed like the natural next step, not something that ached inside of me.
My first steps into motherhood were very different from my friend Michaela, who always wanted to be a mother. After getting married, she wanted a baby right away. Michaela had caught slippery brown babies in India while away on missions, and had worked as a doula here in Canada. She was a baby/birth junkie, waiting for her number to be called.
Both of us had a rough time with pregnancy, complete with excessive nausea, terrible joint and back pain, and the general feeling like everything was the polar opposite of a “glow.” Nevertheless, I still consider pregnancy the honeymoon.
You hear about a woman getting pregnant with her first baby, and it’s all giddiness and dreams. And then the baby arrives — what a shock to every sense! It’s all extremes: exciting, then boring; filled with surprises, and then monotonous. You have feelings of intense love and devotion, but at times, anger and frustration. I have found it very complex, even if my experience so far with two children has been pretty normal.
Adelle starts crying again. This time I put her at my breast to soothe her. While she is eating, I am initially irritated, but then I take the moment as a chance to pause and reflect on my writing.
Michaela was married for four years to the man of her dreams, and her longings for motherhood were fulfilled one painful, beautiful night: “Florence Marigold was born in the water after a completely complication-free labour and birth. It was blissful. She was chunky and beautiful and the little girl I always wanted,” says Michaela.
But then, the unexpected crash of her entire world happened four months later as, broken and tearful, she and her husband faced a reality that they did not expect. Florence was diagnosed with type one Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare genetic neuromuscular condition. Some children with this condition die young, because their weak muscles affect their defence against viruses and bacteria in the lungs.
Michaela chronicles her sometimes heart-wrenching journey on a well-read blog. “I am a mother in the thick of a battle,” she writes, “trudging through the trenches each day. I don’t fight for faith, I fight against fear. I don’t merely hope for miraculous outcomes, I believe in them. I can’t quite identify with mothers going through the normal stages of infant development, and I can’t identify with parents in the same boat as us (in fact I avoid them, right now). I am in exile . . . ”
Adelle’s crying again, but this time I let her “work it out”. This unfortunately wakes my older daughter. She stumbles out of her room wearing fuzzy striped pajamas, her golden curls frizzy from sleep. She shields her eyes from the light. I sigh as I notice her toddler-ness melting into childhood — these moments pass so quickly. She settles again after some water, and I go back to the baby.
Motherhood: the Seduction
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” — Luke 10:27
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” — 1 John 4:8
God designed us to be in relationship with Him and others. Our very nature propels us toward bonding in families and friendships. God inspired it, and we seek it. In society, this desire fuels novels, songs, movies and even video games assuring us that the quest for true love is the “happily ever after” our hearts are longing for.
But those of us that are married know that although marriage is incredibly special, it is disappointing in its ability to fill the deepest part of us (no matter how many couple shots you post on Facebook). In fact, it can even create more longings than it fulfills. The romance bubble quickly bursts as we wrestle through issues like selfishness, lust, anger, and control. So the quest for deeply satisfying love continues, and it most naturally leads us into parenthood. This is where life gets tricky. It is so satisfying how much these precious little people need us and want us that for some parents, the love longings are temporarily fulfilled.
When I facilitated parenting programs for the Boys & Girls Club, we had totally normal, well-meaning parents come in scratching their heads in confusion. The glass house they built from the unconditional love and acceptance they were receiving from their child was crashing around them in adolescence, and they were starting to get really hurt. For some parents, it isn’t until their children leave the house that they realize they built their whole lives around being parents, and they start hurting. In either case, the hurt was reminding them of a longing from times past that has never been truly satisfied.
Anything that we look to fulfill that emptiness inside us that isn’t Jesus is an idol, and idols have a nasty way of looking like “the real thing” for a time, only to leave us bleeding, without any idea of what happened to us.
There is satisfaction and surprise in motherhood that reveal to us the joy that can be found in God. But with the same level of intensity, motherhood also has emptiness and struggles that offer a strong reminder of our desperate need for God.
The house is quiet again as I begin to write, but an old enemy is starting to sneak its way into my mind: guilt. Guilt doesn’t have much room when it comes in, because anxiety has been lurking there for most of the day. They play well together, guilt and anxiety; they question all the decisions I make, and they undermine my contentment.
Motherhood: the Projection
I have a friend who, as a new mom, has really wrestled with her new life with a baby. She recently went to a workshop on the phases of motherhood; she said that she walked away thinking, “I’m not depressed, I am not a bad mommy, I am normal — hooray!”
This might seem like no big deal, but to a mom, that is a really big deal. It was a similar feeling that moms around the world felt when they read an article in the Huffington Post called “Why You’re Never Failing as a Mother” by Amy Morrison. Expletives aside, she offers a huge internal sigh of relief for those that “feel overwhelmed by motherhood. Not in a dangerous way, just in a, ‘I totally suck and I don’t know how I’m supposed to manage all this’ kind of way.”
The nutshell is that we have so many more demands on us parenting in this age than in ages past. If we let ourselves recognize it, we will see that we are really doing much better than we think.
“Feeling like you also need to keep on top of scrapbooking, weight loss, up-cycled onesies, handprints, crock pot meals, car seat recalls, sleeping patterns, poo consistency, pro-biotic supplements, swimming lessons, electromagnetic fields in your home and television exposure is like trying to knit on a rollercoaster — it’s hard,” wrote Morrison.
It’s a scary place, the culture of motherhood that we live in. It’s full of mixed messages of what successful mothering means. It looks so easy to do it “all”. People post a small sliver of their life, and it looks like everyone is doing “it” better than you.
Take, for instance, my friend Natasha. She is in really good physical shape, blogs as a profession, has a successful Etsy business, and homeschools her twin boys.
Natasha assures me that where she is now did not come without struggle, and even failure. She was a very successful career woman when her marriage almost failed, and other circumstances in life became rocky and unbalanced. She reflects that, “the worst part was realizing that the happiness I thought I had while climbing the corporate ladder was just a cheap interpretation of the real happiness that comes from adopting God’s priorities as your own.”
After making a huge shift in her priorities, she still had to work hard at all aspects of life. She blogged for years with very few rewards, and nearly quit more than once. Natasha’s finally got her priorities of God, family, and passions in order. She has found a good rhythm for life, but it has humility as an essential foundation. Although she has it together, she sometimes second guesses her decisions. “I still battle to be back in the power suit, or to pursue my passions over God’s call to build my home life.”
Motherhood: the Reconciliation
Being a mother is the desire of most little girls because it is a very important role. “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world” is a powerful quote illustrating the significance of motherhood. Great leaders do not find their inspirational beginnings in a college or career. Whether positive or negative, their childhood is the single most influential stage of life. God’s call on a woman to be a mother is not only a great responsibility, but a great privilege.
“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” — Psalm 127:3
“A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” — John 16:21
As I learned from my friend Natasha, passion in priorities before prioritizing passions helped her discover the glory of God in motherhood. My friend Dot has a son with severe autism, three other children, and baby number five due in a few weeks. She found her momentum during her third pregnancy when she began being creative and productive. Her first few years of motherhood were quite different; she felt depressed, lazy, and dissatisfied. Now she feels God’s blessing on her to be productive in her home, and she is not only blessed by her creative outlets (that she does together with her children), but she feels that creativity is key to survival. She also preaches against the dangers of comparison. She and her husband are finding their own unique way through parenthood (including giving their children legendary names: Asher Thrasher, Mercie Danger, Captain Friday, Link Nighthawk, and the soon to appear Flora Nightingale), not looking to the right or the left, but up to the Father to lead them.
Michaela is finding reconciliation with the challenges of motherhood by learning to let go. “I have to be more than a mother.” She writes, “My identity, my purpose, my hope, my joy, all these things must be found in Christ, not my daughter. I have to nourish my marriage, take care of my thought life and I must spend time in the presence of the Lord. If I don’t, I won’t have the strength to continue. That’s the reality and I’m thankful for it. Without it, I could coast through motherhood, and easily place it on a pedestal above myself, my marriage, and my God.”
My personal journey led me to my knees in prayer, begging God to show me how to find joy in my experience, instead of what I battled daily: fear, anxiety, stress, fatigue, insecurity, etc.
God responded with some very clear points I needed to address. First of all, His holiness was demanding my repentance for placing my children, my comfort and my sleep before Him. My days are so busy and tiring, I have to bring Him into it or I am helpless. He showed me this in love and asked me to look at all the things that were working, not all the things that weren’t. I started to meditate on all that I was grateful for, that God was already doing: singing and dancing with my kids to praise songs, praying before bed, talking about God to friends, feeling His pleasure and delight as I cuddled and loved my kids. I started asking for support to get time with God instead of sleep — and sometimes I didn’t have the mental energy to read the Word, so I would just listen to a sermon. At night, I started singing my children to sleep with songs that spoke of His love and goodness, and teaching my daughter (and myself) memory verses.
The next point He brought up to me was to honour the Sabbath. What an amazing experience that has been! I start 5 p.m. Saturday until 5 p.m. Sunday. Not only does this work for our schedule, the rules are also simple — focus on anything that is family and devotional. I instantly saw the blessing in it. I didn’t feel driven by an endless task list, and I didn’t resent my husband for relaxing while I was run off my feet. I had so much quality time with my kids, and I felt at peace while doing it. At the end of the Sabbath, my house was pretty trashed, but I felt God’s blessing as I got things together . . . and it happened quickly! I have learned a couple of lessons of what not to do — like running little errands because I had the time, or getting on the computer — all these things distracted from the goals of the Sabbath. God established a day of rest during the creation of the world, and I felt strongly that in honouring it, I was participating in a divine, restorative blessing.
Reconciling the reality of motherhood with any pre-conceived, idyllic notions of motherhood is essential to being able to freely appreciate the blessings interwoven with challenges. However motherhood came upon you: adoption, frozen specimen, fertility treatments, by accident, planned; happy or sad, it will absolutely change your life. The decision we all make is whether or not we will allow God to use it to continue His work in us to be dependent on Him, and to know Him more intimately.
Adelle has awoken a third time. My tiredness feels heavy on me as I drag my body to the room to try to settle her again. Patting doesn’t work, so I put her to my breast once again, but she is not interested — she just wants to be held. I allow that to fill my heart with love and satisfaction. She is cozied into my arms when I start to reflect on my writing, and then beyond that to my old life. Before children, I was independent, generally well-rested, and consistently comfortable. I long for those things quite desperately at times. But in order to have that all back again, the way it was, it means losing the most precious gift God has ever given me to learn about life and love: my children.
Photos by Lizzette Miller for Converge magazine