"Motherhood is not my highest calling."
That provocative headline from blogger Elizabeth Esther got my attention a few years ago, and a lengthy recent conversation with a guilt-ridden mom brought it to mind again. Esther observes that misplaced idealism robs motherhood of its joy:
This incredible weight of expectation places an almost impossible burden on mothers and non-mothers alike. When we artificially inflate the importance of motherhood, then average, everyday, good-enough mothers are always found lacking.
Who can measure up? "I'm done with all that," she wrote:
I’m beginning to think that what my children–and what the whole world!–needs is less mothers who are overprotective, hyper-involved, hanging-on-their-child’s-every-move. Maybe what our kids need are mothers who enjoy their lives and are happy.
Not that engaged mothering and happiness are mutually exclusive she hastens to add, but:
I do think I can do a better job at doing LESS and enjoying my life MORE.
If there is a “highest” calling, maybe it’s to enjoy this one, wild, precious life and by my happiness, bring joy to the heart of my Father.
I wouldn't want to toss out the notion that Christians, including Christian moms, should aim for that which is "higher, better, more perfect." The question is, what is the perfection we ought to be striving for as women?
Surely it is perfection in charity -- love of the Lord and of our neighbor -- wherever Providence places us, and with whatever family size or situation.
Often we seem to confuse perfection in charity with other perfections: in child discipline, in faith formation, in personal appearance, in home order and decor, in romantic feelings towards our spouse, in nutrition, in our kids’ academic, artistic and athletic achievement.
All of those things are human goods and important (some more than others) for personal and family flourishing, so we should pay some attention to them.
But "success" at any of them is to a large degree out of our control because the results require the cooperation of others who are free individuals. Elizabeth Esther is right: we make ourselves miserable if we expect perfection.
For example, you often hear moms with young kids say they make an extra effort to look pulled together while running errands so people won’t look down on stay-at-home moms. I wouldn’t want to forsake the charitable impulse behind that idea, but if we think the Future of Western Civilization depends upon Little Johnny never melting down in the middle of aisle 6, we're crazy.
Kids melt down even when Mom's done her utmost, and the world doesn't hang on it.
Moms melt down, too, occasionally. When they do, the world does not end, and neither do our families. Our kids learn from this that we're human and that in families we sin and make mistakes, but we also ask for and receive forgiveness and learn and improve.
I wonder what image of God we carry around with us when we're so hard on ourselves and others? We don't yell at babies for not yet being able to walk, or mock ten-year-olds because their childish play is, well, childish. Why do we think the Lord expects us to have answers for challenges we have not yet faced?
God is not merciless and arbitrary; he doesn't make our kids lose their faith as punishment for our not having breast-fed long enough, or for flying off the handle on a bad day, or for having had notions about discipline as a new mom that we laugh at three years or three kids later. Yes, there are boundaries and expectations, but he loves us and wants to help us meet them for our own happiness' sake; he's not lying in wait to pounce on our mistakes.
Nor do the proportions of these human goods have to be the same in every woman and every family. Columnist Elizabeth Foss once described each family as having its own "talent," its own culture of being together. It's okay to be the musical family and not the sports family and vice versa. Maybe you honor Sundays with a fancy dinner on fine china and good silver; or maybe you observe it with a touch-football game on the lawn and sandwiches on paper plates; maybe you go for some kind of outing and pass through the drive-through.
Fine. Find what you like doing together, what helps you relax and enjoy each other's company, and do that. It's possible to appreciate the beauty of what another family is doing and not be called to do it yourself, or not in the same way. Some families are gentle and orderly, some are boisterous and funny. Some things come easily, other things we have to stretch for, both as individuals and as families.
The point is, families grow into holy families and women grow into holy womanhood just the way kids grow into adulthood: gradually. There's a process of mastery underway, and a certain amount of trying things on and letting them go, of making mistakes and outgrowing them, is not only permitted, it's necessary.
Happiness is more healthy for our kids and more inviting to a watching world than perfection.
An earlier version of this column first appeared at Faith & Family blog.