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Christ in the Chaos: How the Gospel Changes Motherhood
Christ in the Chaos: How the Gospel Changes Motherhood
Kimm Crandall
Cruciform Press, 2013
128 pp., 9.99

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Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe
Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe
Sally Clarkson; Sarah Mae
Thomas Nelson, 2013
240 pp., 16.99

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Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning
Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning
Rebekah Lyons
Tyndale House Publishers, 2013
224 pp., 19.99

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Leslie Leyland Fields

Are Christian Mothers Human?

Three reports from the battlefield.

Do we really need to hear more about desperate depressed housewives? We do. Because the church is full of them. You just don't see them. Here is what you see: Every Sunday a youngish woman with a cutely dressed baby in her arms, holding a well-dressed toddler's hand and herding two other children ahead of her, in matching homemade dresses, will smile at you when she enters the church sanctuary. She'll engage in small talk with friends and glow over compliments about her baby's new outfit. She might teach Sunday school. After the service she'll go home to feed her family and guests a from-scratch Sunday dinner. Later in the week she'll greet women who come to her house for Bible study. But when no one is looking, here is what might be happening: "I lived in deep depression, denied God, struggled with eating issues, frequently cut and burned myself to deal with the pain, had marital problems … . All the while my girls wore pretty matching dresses while I homeschooled and led a Bible study." So writes Kimm Crandall in Christ in the Chaos: How the Gospel Changes Motherhood.

Nor would you see the scenario that opens Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe. Co-author Sarah Mae is in bed, knees to chest, blanket over her head, crying to God, "I can't be a mother today, Lord, I'm just too tired." And we find out why, though those who have children of any age already know: waking in the night multiple times, three children under four years old to care for during the day, the constant outpouring of energy, breaking up fights, disciplining, teaching. "It was breaking me," Mae writes. "I felt very alone, and very, very tired. Depression snuck up on me. There was a shell of a woman where I once was. My ideals, my hopes, my joy were snatched away before I had a chance to notice."

Rebekah Lyons' depression was invisible as well. In her memoir Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning, Lyons describes feeling herself drowning under the stress of a move with her husband Gabe and her three young children from the suburbs of Atlanta to New York City. As she attempted to maneuver her life as a stay-at-home mother in Manhattan with a Down syndrome child and two other young children, she was plowed over by increasingly debilitating panic attacks.

One of the reasons we write books—and read them—is to find our way through woods gone dark, which certainly includes houses gone to chaos, mothers who don't want to get out of bed. All three of these books feature middle-class Christian mothers of young children who lost their joy, their hope, and their way. They join a still-growing cadre of mothers-in-crisis books, a new sub-genre. The very week I am writing this, I am reviewing a proposal for yet another book for mothers defining the same tortured landscape and suggesting similar reforms.

Part of the angst is universal and inevitable. Raising children is, by nature, soul-tearing, exhausting, humbling work (and yes, joyous and enlivening as well), and it will always be so, but distinctive societal pressures have deepened the paralysis and anxiety so many are facing. The culture continues to move toward family fragmentation, eroding support from the extended family, making mothering more lonely. For those who do stay at home with their children, our societal values belittle sacrifice and family devotion.

These books both critique the status quo and offer suggestions for a better way forward. Their cultural critiques are noteworthy, but even more significant, they reveal an ongoing deep divide over the place and role of women, specifically mothers, that we've largely gone silent on. Blame the silence not on too much grace toward one another but on a widespread weariness with "The Mommy Wars" as endlessly rehashed in the media.

Most mothers will tell you the war is long over. In one sense they're right. Women of all stripes have moved away from verbal entanglement over issues related to mothers working outside the home. The economic realities of the Great Recession have eliminated much of the discourse in that arena (a full 40 percent of women now are the primary breadwinners for their family). But make no mistake: in the church, deep differences remain over the place and role of women with children at home. The arguments advanced by rival factions may be more nuanced and less inflammatory than in previous decades, thank goodness, but the divisions are real and are worth revisiting in these newest expressions. At heart is the question, Do women with children at home have legitimate, biblical callings and gifts outside the home? And I would add a question at the heart of that question: Are mothers, however desperate and depressed, human beings?

All three of the books under review begin by mapping similar terrain: the emotional, mental, and physical toll of caring for babies and young children, challenging a woman's fundamental sense of identity and purpose. All three describe as well the clash of expectations, the glowing Before Children dreams and the After Children realities. Sarah Mae was sure she was going to be the "fun pancake mom" who always wore lipstick; instead she was slobbing around in pajamas until afternoon sometimes, tired all the time, her house a disaster.

Crandall decided beforehand that of all the models of motherhood available, she was going to be the "quiverfull, all-natural, homeschooling, dress-wearing, bread-baking, whole-foods-eating mother." After her house was full with four children, she realized she couldn't live up to her own standard, couldn't be "the kind of woman I honestly regarded as more godly than others." Her sense of failure sent her spiralling into several years of "terrible depression."

In the midst of a massive Thanksgiving Day parade with her three small children, unable to find her husband, Lyons had a near melt-down, one among many. Motherhood just wasn't supposed to be this hard.

All of this sounds painfully familiar. I was one of those women who anticipated the joy of creating a Christian home, and whose actual home fell far short of my expectations. We ALL expected to be sporty, always cheerful, pancake moms! And that our homes would fairly burst with joy, happy Bible songs, and cheerful busy children. And more than that, we all expected to be godly moms, that the process of motherhood would transform us magically into SuperGodlyWoman. Surprise! Children, beautiful blessings of God, furthered the fall in all of us.

Accelerating the fall, say all four authors, is a feminine proclivity toward perfectionism, a trait that doesn't abide well with gloriously messy children. And, if that load isn't enough to carry, they all identify as well a performance orientation that leads women to slip into the comparison trap. Other people's children are always smarter and better behaved than your own—and other mothers are always thinner, funnier, and far more spiritual than you. All recognize as well that women are poorly prepared for the rigors of motherhood. Abstract, faith-based ideals about the value of children and family collide with the deep exhaustion of motherhood, necessitating real physical help.

But the fall is harder for some than for others, and here the books diverge. Following the admonition in Titus, Desperate is structured as a series of letters between Sara Mae, a younger woman overwhelmed by the demands of mothering, and Sally Clarkson, a wise older woman whose four children are grown. In the view of the co-authors, motherhood is not simply an important role: it is the "best and most lasting work" women can do, Clarkson writes, with "vast consequences in the course and direction of history." Mae picks up the theme of raising children as one's central role in life on her blog, where she posts that "Parenting Is My Kingdom Work."

If a mother's work raising her children is, in fact, her primary contribution to the kingdom of God, every word and deed is fraught with eternal significance. Mae, reeling under the weight of that significance, seeks relief from Clarkson, who steadies Mae's panic with memories and advice from her own successful child-raising and homeschooling strategies. Clarkson's orientation is made clear in the dedication. The book is dedicated to her children, who are named, and then this:"You are the most profound story that I have ever written, the best work I have ever accomplished—the magnum opus of my life. You are the reason for this message that God has crafted in my soul … . You are my treasures."

Later she writes, "It is no wonder that our children are all musical, literary, passionate adventurers and artists. That is quintessentially who the Clarksons are." These words are not simple boasting on her part; her adult children validate her view of the home as the woman's "kingdom" over which she rules for the purpose of "crafting lives" for the glory of God.

In Clarkson and Mae's view, the primary problem with struggling mothers is not theological or ideological but practical. Mothers with young children simply need more help and support. They offer good-sense suggestions: starting a mothers' support group, en-listing help from older women, encouraging older women to "remember the tired years" and come alongside them to assuage the fatigue and loneliness. But among the genuinely helpful messages from Clarkson comes the implication that young women are simply not trying hard enough. She urges them, in effect, to work harder, to be not only parent and teacher but playmate to their children as well:

We have to lay down our pride and give up ourselves for our children. Play the game with them they want to play. Put away our books or computers, serve them, train them, encourage them, fill their souls with life. Play ponies with them on the floor. Choose to enter into the mundane with our children: playing ponies, doing crafts, getting wet socks in the snow … do these things so you can say "I was intentional. I was faithful; I chose my children."

All this is to be done "for the glory of God," but you may experience a further reward for investing your every moment into your children, Clarkson writes. You will not only experience "joy and fulfillment" but you will also "eventually find that you have developed your own best friends out of your own children, who have learned to love what you love." I am wondering if the artistic mother whose child grows up to be a mechanic or an accountant who is ambivalent about art will feel like a failure. This kind of "shaping," "subduing," and "ruling" requires women to be with their children 24/7.

Kimm Crandall in Christ in the Chaos writes from a parallel milieu. Early in the book she recalls confiding to a friend her fears and despair in mothering her young children. What Crandall got was parenting tips based on her friend's experience and a few Bible verses to motivate her to do better. Crandall writes, "So while honestly trying to help, she had only given this overwhelmed, guilt-stricken mom even more to do—a heavier burden when I could not even bear the first one." Crandall identifies the root issue as simply this: neither one of them understood the gospel. "We were two theologically clueless Christian women trying our best to earn favor in the eyes of God and man by living up to a standard that we were quite sure was the only true definition of an excellent godly mother."

Crandall recognized that in her particular evangelical subculture, the root of the crisis in motherhood was not inattention or selfishness but poor theology. Like Clarkson and Mae, once she had children, she dropped everything else and built her identity upon her mothering. Jesus was still her "ticket in," yet she was ruled by stronger forces: her "incessant need" for approval from others, her own performance-driven efforts to be judged a godly mother.

But a serious study of the gospel and the grace of Christ eventually freed her from her good-mother-works addiction. Christ has already done it all, she reminds her readers. It's not her performance as a mother or a churchgoer that earns her Father's affections; "Christ has already performed perfectly on my behalf." She challenges her readers: "Does your ultimate worth depend on how you enact your motherhood?" Such a value system, defining worth simply in "the fact that I bore children," led to her own depression and, she suggests, to others' as well.

Crandall extrapolates from the gospel helpful prescriptions to heal the crippling culture of Christian mothering: that we lay down our masks, that we boast about our weaknesses to one another instead of our successes, that we quit the "try harder" and "do better" pep talks we give to one another. She sums up her advice this way: "Acknowledge your weakness, abide in Christ and start breaking down the culture of self-righteousness." While she stops short of suggesting that women develop other callings, gifts, or interests to enrich the experience of motherhood or to diffuse its pressures, she goes a long way toward unseating motherhood from its narrow, impossible throne.

Lyons' book, Freefall to Fly, takes us in a different direction. With her husband, Gabe, Lyons is co-founder of Q Ideas, a nonprofit organization that "helps Christian leaders winsomely engage culture. "The "found" to her "lost" is her discovery of calling and purpose in addition to her home. As a thirtysomething woman raised in the church, she questions the always-at-home model of Christian motherhood that she unquestioningly absorbed as she was growing up:

I'd never felt encouraged to pursue anything else besides becoming a loving wife and caring mother. Like many other women, I had a predetermined life path. After walking the aisle, I should take the short road to motherhood. After that, my journey would be a cul-de-sac of caregiving in the home. To pursue any other path was second class, less than ideal. And as I've learned through talking with Christian women of different ages across the country, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Her story is intensely personal—at times uncomfortably so—but like the other two books, hers is intended as a call to action, which we begin to discern when she moves from her own experience to the statistics on women and depression. One in four women takes antidepressants, she tells us, twice as many as men. Can it be because many women are living frustrated, child-cloistered lives? The turning point for Lyons comes at a weekend seminar on calling, when her own simmering desire to minister to women in need is identified and finally articulated.

Lyons' approach, like Clarkson and Mae's, is largely experiential and light on theology. While there is plenty to critique about this book, Lyons signals an important way forward for women in the trenches of motherhood. She identifies the same patterns of isolation, fear, and competitive comparison explored in Desperate and Christ in the Chaos, and she encourages the formation of support communities, but these communities have a different focus than the ones suggested by the other authors: "What if communities of women began empowering each other to discover their gifts?" Lyons asks, gifts to be used fearlessly "for the rescue of others"—"others" meaning other than your own children. And one further step: that the family itself, rather than being the sole focus of women's service, could support and assist her in serving others.

While some readers may be astounded that women still need urging and affirmation to develop their gifts both inside and outside the home, they do. They need it desperately. Such a message in no way lessens the value of the family; in fact, it enlarges the value of the family beyond the walls of our own homes to encompass concern for other homes and families.

For women with young children at home, adding other work to their overloaded lives, even when it's called ministry, isn't always possible, but the larger point must not be lost. When women define themselves solely by the fact that they bore children, they will indeed become depressed and desperate. When we are no longer women or human beings, but mothers first and always, we lose in so many ways. We are losing ourselves in our children's lives rather than in Christ's life. We lose our truest identity as children of God, as the redeemed and rescued, as citizens of the city of God, as joint heirs with Christ, as members of Christ's body, as the ones for whom Christ gave his life.

While I hate war as much or more than others, it's time we re-engaged in "The Mommy Wars." Not because it's fun, but because it matters deeply. The desperate housewife saga going on largely invisibly in churches and neighborhoods near you will not abate until we more closely evaluate our theology, our praxis, and the messages we send to women of all ages. If our children's eternal destiny and the fate and direction of history rests on mothers' shoulders, then women and men both will continue to compare and judge each woman's enactments of her motherhood. Such behaviors are contrary to the gospel of Christ. Such a narrow prescription precludes as well the development of women's myriad talents given for the strengthening of the church and its witness in the world. Mothers are full human beings. They're our neighbors. Let's all work at loving them better.

Leslie Leyland Fields is author of "Parenting Is Your Highest Calling": And 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt (Waterbrook).

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