Monday, April 13, 2009

The Quiet Work of Mothers I Know

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, I was in the Dallas area speaking for the Salvation Army's Youth Council, a state-wide youth retreat. Afterward, I visited with a long time friend of mine.

Erin and I reminisced about our childhood, the ease and convenience of Sunday school girl friends, how easy it was to get together every Sunday after church. We laughed over her son's antics and growing vocabulary and shared amazement at his young brilliance. For instance, he will point out something he likes, then wrap his chubby arms around his torso and hug himself and say "Hug!" to express his approval and delight in what he has just pointed out.

Erin and I talked about the difficulty and joy of growing up, taking responsibilities of cultivating young lives, young families, young non-profits.

Erin lives far from her family, her husband is currently working 70+ hours a week so childcare primarily falls into her lap. She shared with me how M.O.P.S. provides an oasis for her to get free childcare, community with other mothers and good teaching each week.

I watched her take time to let her son turn on and off and on and off and on and off a light because he loves lights magic power and she loves him. Not because she was particularly thrilled with another interruption or with the endless light flickering session. Here's a picture of us in her son's nursery. Erin had just finished changing his diaper.

When I took time to browse her library, I heard her talking through a book with her son. He is 1 1/2 and my friend is already commenting how she wonders if she'll have what it takes to keep teaching him.

To me, she's working wonders already in the 15 hours each day she pours herself into her son. Erin is pregnant with her second and she told me she's quite interested in how she'll do this with two. I have no doubts of her competency, her ability to be attentive and to love her children well.

Erin's work takes place without signage, no bill-board or website, no promotional page of quotes of people who've been grateful for her work. No one flies her out to do her work, instead Erin stays in one place, in one home, working deftly, magnificently behind the closed doors of her house. There is no audience, no honorarium she hopes to receive other than her son's chuckle and another eager series of lights going on and off and on and off. And perhaps a hug and kiss.

Erin's work is quiet work. It is work that goes largely unseen, except perhaps on Mothers Day or when her husband comes home after his 16 hour days. And yet, Erin does not buy into the idea that mothering is the only work that is valuable in her life. When her son naps or on her weekends, Erin runs an online company designed to assist other people who suffer from Crohns Disease. She whips up new recipes and posts commentary about how her doctor's morbid diagnosis became something she thwarted with a careful and healthy diet. For more see her site "No More Crohns".

In her resilience and no nonsense approach to living fully, using all she has to offer in her mothering and her business, Erin reminds me of another mother I know. Caryn Dahlstrand Rivandeniera who has written a book I've been longing to tell you about.

It's called Mama's Got a Fake I.D.: How to Reveal the Real You Behind all that Mom (Waterbook, Spring 2009). Now I know I've written some controversial posts about motherhood in the past, about how I do not believe God has sanctioned Stay at Home Motherhood (SAHM) any more than he has sanctioned Work Outside of the Home Motherhood (WOHM).

As a followup to those discussions, I want to point out Caryn, someone I recognize as superior in knowledge about moms, someone who agrees with me in part, but not in whole.

Let me share a few quotes I love and let those mothers in my audience decide if this book would be worth squeezing into their schedule:

First, her book is dedicated to her three children "To Henrik, Greta, and Fredrik. Mama loves you like absolute crazy" I loved that!

Second, she claims to be a traditional at-home mom, "In many ways I'm a traditional at-home mom: I'm there when the kids wake up, take naps, eat lunch, watch cartoons, drink their chocolate milk. I carpool; I cook dinner; I play games on the floor; I bake like a champ. " But . . .

"those things don't give others the complete picture of who God made me to be. Same thing with every other mom. God gives important gifts to women that have nothing to do with conceiving, birthing (or adopting) and nurturing children. We have God-given talents, passions, and interests that a mom badge just doesn't bring to the fore."

She goes on to talk about how church is very lonely for some moms, quoting testimonies from women who've written into the Christianity Today's blog called Women in Leadership, a blog Caryn serves as managing editor.

One woman writes, "In many churches they still try to push the June Cleaver prototype on women as the "biblical" model." When a sample group of mothers was asked to name the setting in which they struggle most to be known and to fit in as their real selves, the number one answer was "with other moms." Church was a close second. See Caryn's chapter 5, "How Moms are Left Homeless in God's House." Now clearly this isn't the experience of all mothers, it is certainly not the experience of my friend, Erin, who finds her M.O.P.S. group a wonderful source of hope. But Erin also had stories of other mommy groups that felt fake, frustrating and very high performance.

Caryn's book serves as a good reminder that some women want to be known beyond their mom label. But many churches tell women that they are mothers first, barely whispering that they are made in God's image in other ways as well. If a woman bucks this they can easily be named selfish, career-demanding, poorly suited for mothering adequately (as I have been told). But Caryn points out, "Is it selfish to want to be known more fully? I think something else is at work, and it is this: Christian women often earn an A-plus in self-condemnation while completely missing the class on honesty and transparency."

Then she gives this zinger: "God created us to bear his image in all of life, not just in one area." She marks out the ways God reveals himself to us, so many, complicated, zany, dramatic, vibrant, loud and quiet ways. God makes himself known. We, Caryn argues, need to make ourselve known, too.

"I love being a mom, but I hate being ID'd as one . . . when being a mom looms so large that it obscures everything else God made me to be, other people are not seeing the real me . . ."

Then she comments on the selfishness accusation:

"We also need to clear away any nagging feelings that our concern with our identities is somehow selfish and lacking in godliness. This isn't true . . . Scripture shows us that getting to know ourselves and making ourselves known has its foundation in God's self-revelation."

He's a one of a kind God and he made us one of a kind people. I've written elsewhere about how hard female friendships are for women. Perhaps this is due in part to the diffuculty women have in discovering themselves. As Caryn puts it, "Any authentic relationships is based, in part, on a clear understanding of a person's true identity."

With that Caryn launches into discovering the you that God created you to be with chapters like "Being a Mom Makes you Much MORE" and Seven Tips for Discovering the Real You. In reading I found a story that reminded me very much of my own story of losing our first child in an early miscarriage (p. 14).

It was the first time I read of someone else calling me a mother. When I called Caryn and asked if this story was based on mine, she said, "Oh that's totally you, I remember thinking how you have a mother's heart when I read your blog posts on your experience. You were so fierce in the ways you wanted to protect your child. That's the heart of a mother, Jonalyn." It affirmed something in me that I've longed to hear.

She goes on to explain "How Moms Keep Losing Their I.D.'s (and why we need them back!)" including "How Designer Women Got a Generic Label", "Why God Cares About Who You Are" with a tremendously transparent story of how she was rebuked for sharing her passion for helping women understand their identities with this response,

"Remember, Caryn, God gave you these kids for a reason. You've got to stop worrying about you. You can do that later. You need to worry about them now."

Caryn points out, accurately to my mind, that so many Christian women cannot understand how a mother could love her children like crazy and still want to do more than devote herself to them 24/7. How much freedom are we allowing in the church for alternative models? As Caryn puts it "in our zeal to honor moms, we tend to dishonor women." She challenges us to refuse to sneer at moms who do things differently than we do for "if we sneer at moms who don't fit our view of what a mom is or does, we sneer at Jesus."

One of the most valuable sections of Caryn's book are her Seven Secrets to Finding Your Real I.D. with tips like "Getting over the Guilt" and a guide to "Interview Yourself" with pages of open ended questions to discover who you really are and why "find your identity in Christ" can be both helpful and non-helpful. Throughout, Caryn relies on Scripture to make her case. One of my favorite moments was when she cited Matt 5:13-16 from The Message, "You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept . . . By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God." She gives mothers ways to tell others about who they are. She recommends when pepole ask moms about what they do that they respond, "I'm a mom and ______ (gardener, antiwar activist, lawyer, writer, preschool volunteer, runner, etc)." This reminds the non-moms of the world that being a mom doesn't preclude you from having other gifts and interests.

Some tips I took away from Caryn's book are her humor, she is so accessible with her fun stories of the joy and frustration of being a mom. I also loved her tips about how to approach moms. She said that there was a time when moms were considered INTERESTING in their own right, such as the Proverbs 31 woman who didn't try to hide her accomplishments, even from her own kids. She recommend asking mothers, "Tell me about yourself" rather than "Tell me about your kids." She asks moms to ask themselves, "What makes me feel like I'm firing on all cylinders?" and feel free to answer that with something other than motherhood. Caryn is an fantastic blogger (The Mommy Revolution), author, editor and a woman I count a dear friend. She's also a terrific mom.

And this leads me back to my friend Erin. I love watching Erin mother her son, it brings out a tenderness and attentiveness in her I haven't seen. She formed a young person who is a laugh out loud fun person to be with (as you can see us clowning around in the pic). But Erin's motherhood adds to the unique person I already love, the zany, movie-making, dramatic, witty, enterpreneurial, persistent loyal treasure I value for so many reasons.

Here's to the quiet work of moms I know both with their children and in the unique ways God has gifted them. Thanks for being a mom and a _______.

Thank you for showing the world more of what God is like!


Heidi said...

Hi Jonalyn,

I enjoyed this account of your time spent with Erin the other day. Beautifully expressed! I visited her today, so I know what you're talking about firsthand. :-)

I have found that being a mom took a lot more of my time when my kids were younger, and consumed more of my energy and thoughts. However, as they get older, and become more self-reliant, I am able to focus on other things, including discovery of who I am in Christ. We've all been given a special destiny by God, and part of mine is raising my kids. But God is so big, and creative, that I know He has much, much more for me.

Fiona L Cooper said...

Hey Jonalyn!

Thank you for this. I read recently (in "Courage and Calling" by Gordon T Smith) that every single one of us has a vocation given us by God. It's a lifelong calling that will surely develop and mature as we grow older, but it's always part of us... what struck me forcefully in the book was that he said that motherhood is not a vocation in this sense, unless you are called to foster-care for life, as it were. This is because the duties of a full-time mother will end when the children leave home.

I had never thought of that, but it ties in so neatly with what you are saying, that a stay-at-home mom is not only a mother, but also...

Your blog actually helps me feel a little more gratitude to God for my singleness. Is that weird? Let me explain:

I often struggle with being single, in this society that is so geared towards couples and families. Sometimes I reach a state of peace about it, because it's clearly God's will for this time in my life, but much of the time I feel somewhat disappointed at everything I'm missing out on.

I can see, from what you write, that there are many, many mothers who have given themselves so fully to their mothering role that they become subsumed by it, and don't feel validated as people in their own right. I know my own mother experienced this so I can see how easy it would be to fall into that trap.

So I, as a 30-something single, am a bit more grateful to God for this time in my life, unencumbered by husband or children, when I can grow to know myself fully and explore and develop my gifts and skills without hindrance. It is, in fact, a privilege rarely recognised. I keep feeling I ought to spread the word a bit more, to all those lonely singles out there. It can be a good thing, really!!! I wrote about it here when I was feeling generally more positive on the subject!

So thanks!

Charlotte said...

Great review! I loved this book, too. And, now it looks like I need to get my hands on a copy of your book. Also looking forward to reading your thoughts here on your blog...

Laura said...

I've really struggled with all of this as I became a mom four years ago. For me, the struggle was in letting go of what I was identified as outside of being a mom and being perfectly content with just being known as, both to my children and to everyone else, as a mom.

My daughter has some significant behavioral and medical special needs that have prevented me from doing almost anything outside of my home, or outside of simply being a mother 24/7. I have had to learn to rest in setting aside anything else that I am or can do aside from mothering for this season. I don't know how long it will last, but this is where God has me.

While I think He does create all of us with more than a single purpose or vision, I do believe He calls some women to simply be solely, only mothers for a variety of reasons.

Finding where I fit in to a group of women, based on these circumstances (I'm not "just" a mother, but then, that's all I am right now) is very difficult.

Jonalyn Fincher said...

Thank you... this is good to know about the seasons of motherhood.

I love your point about the due date so to speak of being a mother full time. This is a good point about motherhood not being (for most) a vocation.

As far as singleness, this is something other readers have commented on and how difficult it is when much of the church focuses more on the biological family. I want to recommend any unmarried reader to check out Fiona's blog on singleness (see click above in her comment). She also recommends these 2 books on singleness:
Al Hsu "The Single Issue" (Known in the US as "Singles at the Crossroads")
Rob Bell "Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality."

Thank you, Fiona!

Marti said...

Hi Jonalyn! This part of your post really struck me:

"Caryn's book serves as a good reminder that some women want to be known beyond their mom label. But many churches tell women that they are mothers first, barely whispering that they are made in God's image in other ways as well. ...Christian women often earn an A-plus in self-condemnation while completely missing the class on honesty and transparency."

I go to a medium-sized church where it's pretty easy for anyone to look around and say, "Most of these people are not like me. Therefore I'm not sure I fit in." There's just not a whole lot of any one "category" of people. In a bigger church, you might go to the group for people just like you and find common ground more quickly, in a smaller church, you would not expect a big group of people just like you - you'd work a little harder to find common ground. Medium is a bit harder; I think people feel let down in "the church." Consumer mentality I guess.

I would have though, though, that if anyone KNEW the church was for people like them it would be the young moms: since there are more women than men in the church, and from sermons and whatnot one would get the message that their primary identity, their core relationships, are those at home. If the whole focus on family thing is going to resonate with anyone, I'd think it would be with the moms.

But I hadn't thought of it the way you - and Caryn - have, that this could itself be restricting. Aren't we all more alike than we are different - all human - and more ourselves than we are representatives of a subset of people?

Anonymous said...

Thanks jonalyn, this is good! From a mom who wants to be that and so much more!

Danielle Doan