On the town
Mothering Beyond the Stereotypes
Actress Sarah Drew wants better conversations about culture and motherhood.

Friends—As a belated Mother's Day gift, I'm pleased to offer this conversation with Sarah Drew, an actress (and the leading lady for the recently released film Mom's Night Out). Her thoughts below on culture, calling, and parenting are sharp and pastorally relevant. Enjoy! - Paul

Paul: Let's start with the film. Did your role in Mom's Night Out connect with your experience as a mother?

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. I've struggled a lot in my life with feeling like a failure. I lived in a "prison of perfectionism," holding myself to a standard I couldn't possibly live up to. Then I became a mom, and all of a sudden there arose even more opportunities for failure.

I'm pretty sure the feeling of inadequacy is universal for moms. I've done a lot of work in my life, and have begun to let go of that need to be perfect, and I loved that my character in Moms' Night Out was going through the same thing. She starts out feeling like she's not enough, but by the end of the film, she feels free. She sees herself as a mess but a beautiful mess—God's masterpiece. And that's enough. I have to preach that message to myself on a daily basis.

Ok. Does that go against cultural or Christian stereotypes of motherhood?

It goes against both, actually. In making the film, we set out to tell an authentic story about some broken human Christians—Christians who don't have all the answers, Christians who actually have something to learn from non-Christians. This is precisely why I wanted to tell this story.

The stay-at-home mom has the terrifying, holy charge of raising up little eternal beings into people who will encounter the world either with kindness and grace, or with malice and indifference.

It's been interesting to see some negative responses to the film from both mainstream culture and Christian culture. Some mainstream critics find our story regressive because we are celebrating those women who choose to make rearing their children their life's work. The stay-at-home mom has the terrifying, holy charge of raising up little eternal beings into people who will encounter the world (and the people in it) either with kindness and grace, or with malice and indifference.

I cannot think of a more important job. And yet, our culture rolls our eyes at these women. Our culture says they've "given up" on doing anything with their lives. So yes, our film is absolutely counter-cultural. We hold up the stay at home mom and we say, "Your job is deeply important and we honor you."

But we are also going against some Christian stereotypes as well, because we are presenting these Christian families as flawed. My character, Ally, is stressed-out and unhappy. She doesn't have all the answers, because she's trying to do it all on her own. Someone from outside of the church is the one who ultimately shares a story with her that enables her to let go of the perfectionistic prison she has put herself in and to remember how unbelievably loved she is.

As a Christian woman in Hollywood, I cannot tell you how many times people from outside the church have spoken deep, healing truth into my life.

As a Christian woman in Hollywood, I cannot tell you how many times people from outside the church have spoken deep, healing truth into my life. It's happened so many times. It forces me to my knees and reminds me that we—all of us human beings—are in this thing together. We have so much to learn from one another.

People in the church often feel like they should have it all together. Because they have Jesus, they shouldn't feel stressed. Because they have Jesus, they should be the ones imparting wisdom to everyone else all the time. Because they have Jesus, they should never be unhappy. I'm here to tell you, that is a dangerous space to live in, because it's simply not possible. We are all human. We are all broken. We are all needy. Sometimes we are happier than other days. Some days we feel particularly spiritually alive and some days we feel totally spiritually dead. Throw motherhood into the mix, and the pressure to look like the right kind of Christian—who has it all together—will leave you in paralyzing despair. I know this because I've lived it.

Telling a story about a struggling Christian breaks some Christian stereotypes. Some Christians have found it refreshing and relatable. Some Christians are very uncomfortable with it.

Madeleine L'Engle said: "Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living." What has motherhood taught you about creativity and calling?

The greatest thing motherhood is teaching me is how to be present. This relates fundamentally to creativity and calling. My son is present at all times. He finds immeasurable delight in watching a leaf flutter around. That delight inspires him to run and catch the leaf, which turns into a game with rules that are constantly changing and expanding in his little mind.

It's very easy for me to get buried in my phone. To check emails and texts and my Twitter feed. To check the box office numbers for my movie or the ratings for my show. When I am not present in my life, I miss out on the beauty that is surrounding me. I forget to be grateful, and instead whine and complain about how things aren't going according to plan. Meanwhile, my son, who is fully present, is busy laughing with glee at the leaves he's chasing and at the game he has invented.

When I am not present in my life, I miss out on the beauty that is surrounding me.

When I connect to him and engage in the present, the other stuff becomes irrelevant. I really do understand why Jesus tells us to have faith "like a child." He wants us to be present, to take in the beauty around us, to remember that he is providing for us in this present moment just as he has in every moment before. My son doesn't have anxiety. He doesn't worry about when he will eat next. He doesn't care at all about box office numbers. He's just excited to be where I am and to have my attention.

In terms of creativity and my work as an actress, I'd also say that motherhood has dropped a depth of emotion into my soul that I had never before experienced. When my son was born, I experienced a love that I had never tasted before. It's different than love for my husband. It's different than love for God. It is its own thing that is impossible to describe. I think maybe it's a fearful love. All of a sudden you have this tiny person who you would absolutely lay your life down for without hesitation. You have a fear that the world won't love your child or care for your child the way you know he should be loved and cared for. You have a fear that something may happen to your child and the thought of that is so deeply devastating. This whole deepening of love has affected my calling as an actress and my creativity by opening a depth of emotion that I was never able to access before. I used to have to work hard to cry in emotional scenes. Now, I can cry easily on command because my heart is closer to the surface of my skin. I think motherhood does that to you. It makes you more vulnerable and also, somehow, more fearless.

The same thing has also made me a better actress. To play a scene authentically, you have to enter into that moment completely and be totally present. You have to listen to the other actor and respond and feel things as they are happening, moment to moment. When I'm not present in a scene, it feels like I'm a third party watching myself have a conversation, and the end product is never as rich or true as when I'm fully present. When I'm fully present in a scene, I'm not thinking about what happened before or what may happen later. I only exist in that one moment. Sometimes I feel like I'm more present in scenes than I am in my real life.

I keep coming back to this idea of being present, because I think it's the only way to live with any real freedom. I've trained to be present in scenes, which means that I know how to do it. And that enables me to be present with my son when I go home. It's a struggle to do all the time, for sure but when I do it, I'm so much more alive.

As a mom, what do you wish Christian or cultural leaders would see or acknowledge about your calling?

I would love the world to see motherhood as a deeply valuable and important calling. I would love for people to stop rolling their eyes at women who've chosen to be moms full time.

I would love Christian culture to let us off the hook. Let us be imperfect. Let us be needy. If we want to point the world to somebody or something, let's point them straight to Jesus, not to us. Let's acknowledge that we are human and that we have a lot to learn from the other humans walking this earth with us.

Speak to the moms reading this for a moment. What do they need to hear from a Hollywood actress?

This mom thing is crazy hard, and it's ok if you feel like tearing your hair out sometimes. So do I. We are all in this together. We are one global sisterhood trying to do the hardest job on the planet and more than anything, we need each other. Let's be vulnerable. Let's be fearless in the way we share how we are feeling. Let's tell each other when we are stressed or depressed. Let's ask each other for help. Let's build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Let's not make moms of "formula babies" feel less than moms of "breast milk babies."

Let's not roll our eyes at attachment parenting, family-bed, sleep training, or any other method. Let's not judge each other for making different choices. We are all in this together and we are all trying to take on the holy and terrifying charge of tiny people molding. We need each other. And we need to be real with each other. We are all warriors. We are all superheroes and we are not celebrated the way that we should be, so let's celebrate each other with grace and humility!

Paul Pastor is associate editor for Leadership Journal and PARSE.

May 15, 2014
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