Christ in the Chaos: How the Gospel Changes Motherhood
Cruciform Press, 2013
128 pp., $9.99
Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe
Thomas Nelson, 2013
240 pp., $16.99
Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2013
224 pp., $19.99
Leslie Leyland Fields
Are Christian Mothers Human?
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: