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Carla Barnhill

The Real Life of an At-Home Mother

Desperate housewives

If modern mothers ever had an enemy, it is June Cleaver. Perhaps more than anyone else in history, June created in us the idea that the good mother spends her day happily meeting the needs of her family. She cooks a hearty breakfast, keeps a tidy house, and welcomes her weary charges home each afternoon with a plate of warm cookies and a tender smile. We never see June complain or wish for a more fulfilling role. We never see her sigh when she finally gets a minute to sit down only to be interrupted by yet another request from the Beav. She certainly never asks Ward to watch the boys for a night because she wants to go out for some "mommy time." June is the superhuman mother who sets us all up for disappointment.

The cult of the family has hijacked June as its mascot and made her even more inimitable by adding the weight of a child's spiritual well-being to June's already heavy load. Christian mothers today are expected not only to polish and iron and fix and fuss but to plan creative family devotions, volunteer to teach Sunday school, homeschool the kids, and build a family life that models the very heart of God.

Part of what makes the stay-at-home conversation so loaded is that women themselves often have conflicting feelings about their choice. Even mothers who love being home have days when they wish they were somewhere else. Traci told me, "After my first son was born, I telecommuted for a few months. During that time God really changed my heart. I realized that I would rather sacrifice the career I loved than sacrifice those early years with my young child. This is not to say that staying home was an easy choice for me. I missed work so much that sometimes it physically hurt. It took me a long time to be able to say with conviction, 'I stay home,' and to feel good about it." My friend Anna said, "On the whole, I love being a mom. It has its frustrations, but I never doubt that I am happier doing this than I was at my desk job. Being a mom often is not very intellectually stimulating, but then my job was very seldom intellectually stimulating."

Certainly being home with our children can be deeply satisfying, and I don't mean to suggest that it is hard and frustrating all day, every day. But the beautiful part of motherhood gets talked about all the time, particularly in Christian literature. What doesn't get addressed often enough is that along with the wonder and delight of raising children come intense challenges that can leave women emotionally raw.

On the surface, our Christian culture has begun to acknowledge the difficulties of being a stay-at-home mother. A whole new crop of books on the Christian market caters to the stressed-out mother and encourages her to lean on God through this often-trying season of life. But those books never address the idea that perhaps being a stay-at-home mom is difficult for some women because we have heaped an impossible load of expectations on Christian mothers, expectations that are bound to be dashed.

Traci wrote, "When women head into motherhood thinking it's going to be all flowers and sunshine, they're setting themselves and their children up for disappointment. One of my friends, who planned to stay at home with her child, returned to work after less than a year because staying home didn't meet her expectations. How could it?"

The thinking in the cult of the family also assumes that every woman knows how to mother, that the care and nurturing of children is something that comes naturally to anyone with breasts. But Alana, the mother of two preschoolers, notes, "I don't feel I have natural skills and abilities as a mom. I take care of their physical needs and keep the house organized and running smoothly, but I don't always know how to relate to my kids. Some women are just really natural with kids?even kids who aren't their own. They can talk with them and know how to prevent or quiet their tantrums. They seem to enjoy playing with them. I envy their gifts with children."

The emotional and spiritual toll of stay-at-home mother-hood is tremendous. The stay-at-home moms I surveyed spoke of the loneliness, boredom, and depression that come with hanging around with kids for hours at a time and from the constant sense of not being up to the challenge of raising a human being. Anna wrote, "It can be very isolating being at home all day without any other adult interaction. I can usually handle it for a day or two at a time, but I have to make a point to get out of the house and see other people at least a couple of times a week, otherwise I start to feel kind of crazy." Alana says,

"I got blindsided by the responsibility, the emotional ties, the worry, the exhaustion, the discipline issues, and the day-to-day care of children. The reality for me is that motherhood is very draining and tiring and humbling. On a regular basis I feel like a failure as a mom. My walk with the Lord has suffered since I became a mom. Spending time with God feels like another obligation?just one more person wanting something from me."

Nora's two children are adults now, but she says, "One of the greatest frustrations of my early years of parenting was having to put my dreams on hold. It was humbling, boring, tiring, and lonely at times (actually a lot of the time). What most stimulated and satisfied me was often not possible to have in my life. It felt like a wilderness wandering time when I learned my hardest lessons about being a servant. I felt?and still do feel?incredibly insecure about entering my parenting journey. Even to this day I think it's God's grace that has allowed my kids to become the people they are."

These are the women sitting in our churches, the women who are doing their best with very little rest or support. These are the women we are telling to do more and to do it better. And we are killing them.

Spoiled Rotten Mothers

Sadly, so many of us hide our sense of disappointment and our discontent with our lives as stay-at-home mothers because we've been taught that this is the life God wants for us, that to want something more is selfish and worldly. We are afraid to admit that our lives aren't what we hoped for because to do so would be to reveal some deep moral flaw. That fear isn't irrational. Unfortunately, it gets reinforced on a regular basis.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, writer Debra Bendis reviewed four secular books on motherhood. Each of the books discussed the "hidden" side of motherhood; the stress, the loneliness, the fears, the superwoman complex, and so on. In her discussion of Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions, Bendis notes that Wolf is whiney and seems very caught up in her own life?a critique of the book I've seen in other places. But she then launches into a paragraph that left me gasping. She wrote,

While [young professionals] have been able to achieve much in a professional world, which supplies a social life as well as a career, they seem not to have developed the capacities for family life. They seem never to have learned about sewing, gardening, cooking or puttering?the "soft" activities that can make home a comfortable and welcome place instead of a prison of isolation. They may have prepared the occasional gourmet meal for 12, and can find the best price for a Club Med vacation, but they have never prepared three meals a day, or abandoned the gym for walks through the neighborhood. Without a habit of being at home, the mayhem of a toddler lunchtime or the tedium of a rainy day makes a day at work look like rescue?while home is only a punishment.1

I read this paragraph about six times to make sure I'd understood her correctly. And I kept thinking, Is she kidding? Does she honestly believe a mother's happiness rests in her sewing skills or that "puttering" is a cure for depression? Does she really think that moms who stay at home enjoy rainy-day tedium? Does she really think that stay-at-home moms run to Target once a week because they have to and not because they need to break up the day by getting out of the house and strapping their toddlers into a cart for a while?

Her assumption is that women who dare to be unhappy or less-than-fulfilled by making Easy Mac and reviewing spelling tests for days on end are spoiled princesses who miss their big-shot jobs and corner offices. While it's true that many stay-at-home moms, myself included, think back fondly on the working-girl perks of hour-long lunches and coworkers who notice when you get your hair cut, it's ludicrous to assume that holding down jobs before we became mothers somehow ruined our ability to be happy homemakers.

I think Bendis' statement is also inaccurate, at least as it relates to Christian women. Rather than puttering and gardening and cooking being the keys to our happiness, they are, for many women, the bane of our existence. If anything, we put too much emphasis on creating a perfect home complete with handmade centerpieces and memory books filled with theme stickers and cropped pictures of the kids at the beach. There is tremendous pressure to prove to the world that we are capable of caring for our families if only to show the secular culture that this is the life that comes from living obediently. To fail at this is to fail at God's plan.

Stay-at-home motherhood truly is a mission, one into which not all of us are led?those, for instance, who need constant support and opportunities for respite. Yes, there are many deeply fulfilling moments in the life of a stay-at-home mom; sitting across from my newly minted kindergartener is one I will never forget. But our days are often tedious, harrowing, and intensely frustrating. What we need from the church is not a set of unreasonable expectations but encouragement and prayer that God will keep giving us endless reserves of patience, compassion, wisdom, and love. We need other adults in our lives who are willing to listen when we need to vent, who will take the kids at the drop of a hat, and who will occasionally ask our opinion on something other than potty training. We need to know that we are free to listen to God's voice and follow God's leading?whether that is into our homes or into an office. We need to know that our efforts at parenting well are covered by God's rich grace and that, whether we stay at home or head to work, it is God, and God alone, who will fill our children with all that they need to love and serve in God's name.

A Case Study

I have so many inspiring stay-at-home moms in my life that my next book might have to be a Christian mom's version of "Profiles in Courage." There's Jen, who is trained as an early childhood education specialist and sees her life as a stay-at-home mother of two preschoolers as her "lab." She says, "When I do go back to teaching, I'm going to have such a different perspective because I've learned so much from my children." There's Marci, who is writing her first novel during her toddler's nap times and strikes me as the most patient human being alive. And there's my sister-in-law, Libby, who is the master of balancing her kids' needs with her own. She is committed to her Bible study and her volunteer work at the school but equally committed to making sure her children get to experience everything from art classes to electric guitar lessons. Libby has figured out how to schedule time with her husband, time for herself, and time with friends without sacrificing her relationship with her children. She might spend her day on the go, but she is incredibly close to her three kids and they are growing into fantastic people.

For me, though, the most inspiring stay-at-home mom I know is my dear friend Jill. Jill, the mother of two preschoolers, is a strong Christian. To me, she captures the spirit of what stay-at-home mothering can look like when women are allowed to listen to God's voice, given permission to find ways to fill their souls with meaningful non-mothering activities, and empowered to use their gifts in the church and the community as well as in their families.

Jill used to work in advertising sales and was terrific at it. She moved up very quickly in every company she worked for. She loved meeting clients, pitching ideas, and closing the deal. Jill shared her faith with innumerable work contacts and built a reputation for being a wonderful, strong, accomplished woman with a stellar future.

However, when Jill became a mother, she didn't hesitate to step off her career track. She could have been the head of sales at a major city newspaper, but she wanted to be home. Her family income could easily be twice what it is, but she wanted to be home. She could be enjoying the thrill of the sale, the power of being an influential player in a big city, the sense of fulfillment that comes from doing something she's very good at, but she wanted to be home. She says, "If I were working, I'd have great feedback, would enjoy the money, would have more tolerance for the kids because of the break, but God has clearly said 'No' for right now. When the kids are in school, God may have a different plan, but today, he clearly guides me to be with my children."

Jill would also be the first to admit that being at home with children can be intensely challenging, that there are days she wonders what on earth she's doing trying to raise children. She told me, "I expected myself to be more patient, more understanding, to be able to set long- and short-term goals and have a plan for getting there with my children. Sometimes the days are very long. But I believe that my ministry first is to raise my children to have a love for God and to grow them in godly character, much of which is done through my relationship with Christ and my marriage."

While Jill has chosen to give up a job she loved for now, she has kept herself open to the new ways in which God can use her during her time as a stay-at-home mom. Jill has trained for and run several marathons (I don't know how she does it either!), time she uses for prayer and fellowship with another running mom.

Jill has also discovered a gift for teaching. She and her husband met another couple through his job, and the wife expressed an interest in Christianity. Jill offered to do a Bible study with the woman once a week to help her learn more about God. In time, the study grew to include a few other women. Now, Jill's Bible study includes three separate groups of women and three rooms of childcare to watch the twenty-five children who come with their mothers. Jill says, "I never would have initiated such administrative work, but God's grown me with the call, while still growing me as a leader."

What's interesting about Jill's involvement in running and in organizing the Bible study is that neither activity is directly connected to her children. But for Jill, devoting some of her time and energy to these pursuits teaches her children something valuable. She says, "I feel like both of these areas?the running (exercise) and the small groups (fellowship)?are good for my kids to witness and emulate themselves as they grow. I feel like I'm modeling a lifestyle, not just doing what I want."

Jill is happy because she is in the place God has led her, not because she has been forced to make a choice that doesn't fit her. She has kept herself open to the ways in which God can continue to use her many gifts both in her family and in her community. Her church has encouraged her desire to use her talents and passions to disciple others and has given her the freedom to explore all the ways God can use her. Jill has continued to listen carefully for God's voice to guide her as she moves forward in motherhood, with the belief that there will never be one and only one role for her as a child of God.

Carla Barnhill is the former editor of Christian Parenting Today magazine and the mother of three. She and her family live in Minnesota. This article is excerpted from her book The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women (Baker). Copyright 2004 by Carla Barnhill. Used by permission of Baker Books.

1. Debra Bendis, "Intruder in My Arms," The Christian Century, April 19, 2003, p. 31.

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