My two-year-old gave herself a haircut yesterday. The first thing she said when I came in the room and found her with the scissors in her hands was, “It was too brown.” Then, feeling around for justification when she saw my wide open mouth, she changed that to, “It—it—it was too long.”
Eventually, she talked herself all the way from justification to admission of guilt (sort of): “I’m sorry mom—I—I probably shouldn’t have done that—that was my fault I guess.”
This week, she put about a quarter cup of baby powder in a bowlful of Cheerios, pulled all the buds off of my carefully preserved wedding bouquet, and used a stray tomato stake to punch about three dozen meticulous holes into a trash bag full of yard leaves sitting on the back porch.
I wouldn’t have minded all these things so much except there was another toddler in the house who was trying to see how much fussing she could fit into a 48-hour period. And to make matters much, much worse—the house has been a mess for five days. Throw in a bit of sleep deprivation and some rainy weather.
Viola! You have a martyr. Just not, I regret to say, the good kind.
“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others—you can always tell the others by their hunted expression,” wrote C.S. Lewis, delightfully, in The Screwtape Letters.
Don’t be that kind of martyr. Just remember that as a mother, you’re probably going to end up being one kind or the other. If you don’t lay down your life willingly, you’re probably still going to have it sucked out of you.
Suffering produces endurance… or a bad attitude
The interesting thing about any difficult situation is that the difficulty is not enough—by itself—to cause growth in us. For many people, in fact, difficulty produces two fists shaken at the sky. “Why does life have to be so hard?” barked my husband’s former coworker on a semi-daily basis. He lived a disgruntled life—and hard days seemed only to fuel his outrage.
“Suffering produces endurance,” says Paul (Rom. 5:3), but not for the enemies of God. And not always, in the short run, for friends of God. Sometimes suffering simply produces a bad attitude.
Motherhood is no picnic. I remember a point when I realized how difficult the young years of parenting might be, and I got excited because I thought, “I’m going to be so holy when this is all over!” Soon I realized, though, that constantly being called upon to serve other people is not enough to make one holier. These things can be done as an act of love, arising cheerfully out of the love we receive from God. But they can also be done as an act of resigned martyrdom, and not the good kind. Mothers can be models of selflessness in this world, or they can be “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching” models of Scrooge-level stinginess.
You’ll be called on to do all sorts of unpleasant things as a mother: get up in the middle of the night, wipe bottoms, be regularly bored, cook meals for people who don’t want to eat, do laundry for people who have never done laundry, clean bathrooms for people who aren’t aware they’ve been spilling pee on the floor. This is a kind of loss of life. Some days, you imagine all kinds of other things you might be doing: taking a bath alone, reading a book that doesn’t contain pictures of a puppy, walking through Target in blissful timeless oblivion, hiking, writing, traveling, brunching, or worshiping in peace and quiet.
The losses of motherhood are real, even if they sometimes seem a bit trivial. They are losses to the body, the mind, the wallet, and the calendar. They are losses of life.
But this doesn’t mean that to become a mother means an automatic dying of self. The self can rage on without pause throughout these losses—how many bitter, cynical, complaining, faithless mothers have we known? Motherhood means a loss of life, but there’s another key question that determines whether this loss will be any spiritual benefit to you:
Is your life being taken from you, or are you laying it down willingly?
Giving versus being stolen from
It’s a principal that plays out in every arena of life: there’s a big difference between giving something freely and having it taken from you by force. Think of the cheerfulness with which you spend money on Christmas presents for family members, and compare it to the feeling you get when you see the numbers on your tax return. Think of the enjoyment you find in reading a book for pleasure, and compare it to the way you approached book reports in middle school. Think of the lengths you’d go to in college to get together with a group of friends, and compare it to the way you dragged yourself to mandatory dorm meetings with the exact same group of people.
Doing something freely and without compulsion carries more value and brings more enjoyment to the doer.
In John 10, Jesus made a point to mention the mechanism by which he was going to die for the human race. He was not being strong-armed into his death, even though, in freely laying it down in his own authority, he was also obeying his Father’s will:
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (10:18).
A few chapters later, he uses this same language of laying down life, and issues a command to those who would follow him:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
As a follower of Christ, your directive is to lay down your life for those around you. Since you are a mother, the first circle around you consists of an assortment of young individuals. Every day when you wake, you have a decision to make—will you lose your life to the natural theft that comes with your job, or will you lay it down willingly as an act of love?
I’d like to say that motherhood is unique in this way—this forced decision between giving your life freely or having it taken from you—but actually this decision is sewn into the fabric of God’s world. It is the once-for-all decision that you made when you decided to be among Christ’s followers.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it,” Jesus told you (Mark 8:35). And when you gave up the ghost and allowed yourself to be counted among his followers, you were agreeing to live under this paradoxical system. He saved you. He took his seal of love and placed it on you. To follow in his wake, to come after him, you will have to deny yourself and take up your cross (Mark 8:34).
This paradox is built into the Christian life, and it is very externally apparent in the life of a mother. A mother’s job has many built in levels of loss. Many of them are unique to motherhood—the sacrifices to body and mind, particularly. The sacrifices to round-the-clock freedom. But these sacrifices can bring either misery or deep joy, depending on the spirit with which they are submitted to.
Submit to these losses in the Spirit—a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Tim.1:7)—and you will be able to reap the benefit that suffering has to offer. Even as a mother. Even when your sufferings amount to nothing more dire than a pile of hair on the couch or another interrupted rem cycle.
Lay your life down—lay it down or have it stolen from you, moment by joyless moment. Motherhood can make you the bad kind of martyr or the good kind. Be the good kind.