It’s easy to pinpoint the day my entire life changed. Eight years ago I went into the hospital with my son safely contained in my body and left 72 hours later, carrying this ridiculously vulnerable and achingly beautiful new person in my arms.
Becoming a mother was the most significant transformation in my life. One day I was Julia, a Christian, a wife, a writer, and editor—not least a person who could take a shower or use the bathroom pretty much whenever she wanted.
Then I became a mom, and it felt like the world I had known was over, and a new one, one I was not fully prepared for, had begun. That sounds dramatic, I know, but it was the way I felt those first few weeks of motherhood.
We had a hard time, my new son and I, with the whole nursing thing. And as we staggered through those nighttime nursing and pumping and supplemental bottle feedings together, I found myself thinking with a sense of resigned desperation, This is what the next 18 years of my life will be like.
I loved my new son, but each minute felt so freshly challenging that the whole enterprise stretched out before me like an eternity. What felt so overwhelming was the all-encompassing nature of the job. There was no clocking out or heading home from motherhood; it was your round-the-clock vocation. Suddenly the most important thing about me—maybe the only significant thing about me—was that I was a mom.
It was a tremendous relief to realize that some of my struggles could be ascribed to a chemical depression caused by a medicine I’d been prescribed to increase my breast milk. Once I’d stopped taking it and my son and I had settled into more of a routine, motherhood and life in general felt a lot easier.
A Powerful Tool for Spiritual Formation
I also began to embrace my new identity. My feelings shifted from a longing for the pre-motherhood status quo to a deep appreciation for the great gift of being a parent. I even started to view motherhood as a powerful tool for spiritual formation. Taking care of my son had highlighted in blazing color all the ways in which I was weak: my selfishness, my laziness, my quickness to anger, my lack of patience, my impressive ability to feel sorry for myself. It was a gut-wrenching insight into grace—just how unlovable I could feel and yet still be assured I was loved by God. Yet it was also through motherhood that I began to glimpse the magnitude of God’s love for us. I grew to appreciate the joy and grace available in each messy moment of everyday living, and I discovered the abiding joy that comes from putting someone else’s happiness ahead of my own.
I realized that this difficult transformation had helped to make me into someone who was of necessity less selfish and more focused on others (at least one other in particular), someone who was maybe a little bit more like Jesus. For me, motherhood has been an illustration of what Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My power works best in your weakness.” And I welcome this continuing lesson in my life.
The Badge of Motherhood
These days I wear the badge of motherhood proudly. Many of my children’s friends refer to me as “Ben’s mom” or “Luke’s mom,” and I don’t even mind. My work-at-home uniform of gym clothes and a messy bun screams “mom,” as does my vehicle: the snack-strewn car seats in the back, the elementary school bumper sticker decorating the rear window, the soccer balls rolling around every time I make a turn. Even when the boys aren’t actually with me, it’s not too hard to peg me as a mom. I once sat down at a business meeting and reached in my bag for my laptop, only to pull out a thoughtfully curated collection of twigs.
When I was in the early, sticky, sleep-deprived throes of motherhood, when it still seemed like such a shocking change and I longed for life as it had been before, I was reassured by the thought that motherhood was only a season in my life. It wouldn’t always be so hard, people told me and I repeated to myself.
But now that I view motherhood more as a joy-filled privilege, the idea of it as only a season is less comforting than it is terrifying. Although, yes, much like Tina Fey’s character in the movie Date Night, I do occasionally fantasize about being alone in a hotel room drinking a Diet Sprite, I’ve now so firmly cemented my identity in motherhood, I have to ask myself, What will I be when this season is over?
My friend Karla told me of an identity crisis she recently suffered while shopping one day while her young son was in preschool. “I didn’t even know I was in a new norm until I went to the store and had this intense moment of anxiety because it was the first time I’d been in public without my son,” she said. “I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t know it was important to me until that moment.”
We can hardly be blamed for feeling that motherhood is the most significant thing about us. After all, for many of us, child care and mom-related duties take up the vast majority of our available hours.
Heather Havrilesky recently wrote in The New York Times, “The current culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time.” She bemoaned the way every other part of our identity is expected to be subsumed by our tremendous responsibilities and societal expectations as moms. In Christian circles, we sometimes send the message that motherhood is the only role for Christian women, with heartbreaking results.
More than a Mom
It’s important to remember just because I believe God called me to be a mom doesn’t mean God hasn’t called me to other roles. And just because God has shaped me through motherhood doesn’t mean God won’t and doesn’t shape me in other ways.
The most important thing about motherhood, after all, is what it has pointed to in my life: what it means to be a child of God, a disciple of Christ trying to do God’s work in the world.
It’s all too easy these days to turn motherhood itself into an idol, to let my role as a mother take over everything in my life until I’ve got nothing else left. So I’ve found I need to be especially alert to God calling me to other roles and places and tasks.
Doing this well requires some intentional times of quiet. And that presents a conundrum for many of us, our very roles as mothers often seeming to preclude being alone with God in the quiet. In fact, my sister tells me she knows she is too caught up in being a mom when she realizes she’s gone days without any quiet time for herself.
I’ve found my time alone with God often looks unconventional these days, certainly very different than my pre-motherhood time with God. Some of my best moments with God are in the car in the parking lot while one of my sons is at soccer practice and the other is asleep in the backseat. Or when I’m snuggling in bed or in the rocking chair with my younger son at naptime.
I urge you to pay attention to those times and places when you hear God most clearly and when you feel most free to speak to God. Cultivate them. Then you can plan for a conversation with God during your next shower or your kitchen prep time or whenever those moments come for you.
We also tend to forget we don’t have to be alone to listen to God. Maybe you hear God best in community Bible study. Or in shared days of silent contemplation, when you can help one another to follow through on your commitment to spend time with God. Karla tells me that is how she reminds herself of who she really is. “I need intentional days of quietude in order to be reminded that my identity is not wrapped up in anything,” she said. “To be alone in silence, in community, is my way to practice letting that go.”
Sometimes we need to hold our identity as mothers lightly, reminding ourselves that we are more, that motherhood is only one way of illuminating our true identity in Christ.
If things get really desperate, I always seek to see myself through God’s eyes. I am a mother, yes, but I am also someone who belongs to God, who is marked by baptism, saved by Christ, and a member of Christ’s body on earth, with all the responsibility that entails.
The most important thing about me—maybe the only significant thing about me—is that I am his.
Julia Roller is the author of Mom Seeks God, a book about connecting with God in the middle of the chaos of everyday life. She blogs over at JuliaRoller.com and loves to connect with readers on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. She lives with her husband, two sons, and miniature dachshund named Jane Austen in San Diego, California.