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Elrena Evans

Highest Calling

Raising children is the most important work we do for the Kingdom of God. Isn't it?

I was in the middle of an email to Leslie Leyland Fields, whose latest book is titled Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt, when I noticed it was quiet. Too quiet.

My not-quite-two-year-old son was napping peacefully, but I'd been working alongside a stream of chatter from my three-year-old daughter—and I noticed, all of a sudden, that her chatter had stopped. My fingers paused on the keys. Should I go and check up on her? Does "quiet" indicate "trouble?" Or do I assume she's all right for a few more minutes, and finish my email?

I voted to keep writing. When I was done I went in search of her, and found her sitting on the floor in the bathroom. She'd squirted out an entire tube of diaper rash ointment and smeared it all over her feet and legs—and, by extension, everything within about a six foot radius of where she was sitting.

"What on earth are you doing?" I asked.

She looked up at me, and extended a foot.

"So you can wash my feet," she said. "Like Jesus and Peter."

Like Jesus and Peter, indeed. I picked her up and washed her feet, a variant on the verse from John running through my head: Then, Lord, not just my feet but the floor, the sink, the tub, and the toilet as well! When I finished, I set her down and went back to turn off my computer, as my son had woken up from his nap in the meantime. I wasn't sure if the song I was humming as I went to pick him up was The Servant Song, or I Wanna Be Sedated.

Leslie Leyland Fields is no stranger to these moments that make up the journey we call parenting. A mother of six, Leyland Fields is also an educator, a commercial fisherwoman, and the author of five books—including Parenting Is Your Highest Calling. She opens her newest book with an idyllic scene: her husband and six children grouped around her, reading from the Scriptures, ending their day in prayer. "But if I'm honest," she writes, "I have to tell of other moments." She then goes on to paint an entirely different picture, children fighting, tempers flaring, chaos. On one particularly difficult day, Leyland Fields writes, a nagging series of questions kept running through her mind: "Why wasn't I a more joyful and loving mother? Why were my children so lacking? Why did I always feel like a failure? And how could I pray honestly about all this to God? He's never been a mother or a parent!"

Questions like these are all too familiar to parents, particularly mothers. In a Focus on the Family survey cited in the book, the most frequent comment made by poll responders who were mothers was "I'm a failure as a mother." Why is this? Leyland Fields tackles this question somewhat indirectly in her book, but the primary underpinning of her writing rests on her question about God's understanding of the parenting journey. "I realized," she writes, "that God did indeed know how it felt to be a parent. I mean know not because of his omniscience, but know, as in lived, experienced, felt. Know from the inside out. God knows how I feel as a parent because he himself is a parent."

Leyland Fields isn't just talking about God as our parent. As she points out, "Fully three-fourths of the Bible tells the story of God's fathering of the people of Israel, whom he tenderly called 'my firstborn son' (Exodus 4:22)." It is to this Old Testament record of God's parenting, then, that she turns to in order to refute nine parenting myths that are pervasive in our culture.

In a time when many feel the family is increasingly under attack, it becomes all too easy to elevate family above the status God intended—what Carla Barnhill referred to in her 2004 book The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women as "the cult of the family." But when we are led to believe that parenting is indeed our highest calling, where does this leave us when we feel like parenting failures? "None of us—no matter the depth of our faith, the extent of our research, or the number of nieces and nephews we have—truly knew all that would be required of us when our first child came through our doors," Leyland Fields writes. "No words, in fact, could ever ready a man and woman for the lifelong work of parenting." So when parents encounter the inevitable difficulties, we turn elsewhere for help, looking outside ourselves for guidance. The first place we look is the Bible. But what does the Bible actually have to say about raising children?

This is a question to which most Christian parents probably feel they already know the answer, but Leyland Fields challenges us to look beyond our preconceptions, beyond what many Christian parenting experts have interpreted from Scripture, and return to the heart of God's word ourselves—much as she did. It is through an in-depth examination of the character and actions of God as depicted in the Old Testament that Leyland Fields finds truths to counter the myths in her book.

Take, as an example, the first myth she tackles: "Having Children Makes You Happy and Fulfilled." This myth, she argues, is particularly pervasive among North American Christians. Women especially are taught to believe that motherhood will bring them fulfillment. "Early in my parenting," she writes, "I expected children to feel like a reward—like a hot fudge sundae after running a race, like a prize after finishing a difficult test. Instead, raising children feels much more like a marathon, like the difficult race itself!" Christian parents, Leyland Fields argues, tend to look to verses talking about children as a reward (Psalm 127:3-5) or a blessing (Psalm 113:9) and assume that the timbre of these verses is indicative of what the Scripture says about parenting as a whole. And that's not necessarily true. "As I have undertaken word searches and studies," Leyland Fields writes, "it now appears to me that little more in God's Word promises happiness along with children. The Bible does not exhort us toward children for the sake of our own fulfillment. In fact, we are given several stories of women whose hopes for happiness through their children led them astray."

She cites Sarah, mother of Isaac, who was not content to wait on God's timing for her promised child, so enraptured with the thought of a son that she ordered her servant Hagar to sleep with her husband Abraham. She cites Rachel, mother of Jacob and Benjamin, who was so desperate to be validated by bearing children that she called out to her husband Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!" (Genesis 30:1). And she devotes extensive space to the story of Manoah and his wife, Sampson's parents, who watched their promised child grow into a man who defied the Lord and ultimately died an early death. Through examination of stories like these, Leyland Fields comes to the conclusion that scripturally, the purpose of children is not to provide fulfillment for their parents. In fact, judging our "success" as parents based on our "wildly fluctuating" levels of fulfillment is wrong. Instead, we should be asking ourselves such question as "Am I parenting faithfully? Am I parenting consistently? Am I honoring God as I raise my children?"

Leyland Fields applies a similar test to the other myths she tackles in her book, finally crafting an ethos that is much less parent- and feeling-centered but more deeply rooted in the Scriptures, in the nature of God himself. The book is structured with Scripture readings at the end of each chapter, followed by a series of questions for reflection and discussion.

When asked what she hopes readers will take away from her book, Leyland Fields says, "I hope they first thing readers say is—what an awesome God we serve! Because that's really what this is about—seeing deeper into the heart of God and what he intends for us through parenting. There's an incredible sense of release and freedom … . [W]e can never achieve all that we want for our children, we can never fulfill all our children's needs, and the truth is, we were never meant to."

"In a culture than increasingly devalues children," Leyland Fields writes, "Christians fight to preserve biblical values of devotion to God and family … [but] ironically, pretending that parenting is easy diminishes the value of family. As truth seekers and truth speakers, we need to be honest about the cost of parenting." Honest about the costs, and honest about the calling itself—in Parenting Is Your Highest Calling, Leyland Fields is honest about both.

Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, published earlier this year by Rutgers University Press.

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