Opinion | Family

When ‘You’re Pregnant’ Feels Like Bad News

How can the church help those who are grieving motherhood?
When ‘You’re Pregnant’ Feels Like Bad News
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In 2009, a mom calling herself Ann typed a secret confession on an online forum: “I am depressed. I hate being a mom. I also hate being a stay-at-home mom too!” The post has received over 2,400 comments, some added as recently as this year, ranking it as the highest viewed and commented confession on the site by far.

French author Corinne Maier echoed these sentiments in a recent essay for BBC Magazine. Parenthood left her “exhausted” and “bankrupt,” she says, and many readers agreed, writing in their own stories of regret over their decisions to have children.

These stories aren’t surprising, given that unintended pregnancies account for one-third of all children born in the United States. A secret confession like Ann’s could be anybody’s—even a Christian’s.

Reluctant motherhood

My own inauguration into motherhood was reluctant at best. Sitting on the bathroom floor in my Chicago apartment, I stared in shock at that fateful white stick. I never dreamed of being a mother, and certainly didn’t intend to become one under these circumstances: unmarried and unsettled, a recent college graduate with grandiose plans for the future.

A few years later, when I entered the church and encountered the redeeming love of Christ, I assumed that my initial struggles with motherhood were the result of life as an unbelieving single mother. Christian women welcomed children joyfully, it seemed; motherhood was one of the purest expressions of biblical womanhood. And to get to experience it alongside a husband? Magical.

Once I was married, I looked forward to a growing family and becoming a stay-at-home mom. But when I didn’t thrive in my new role, I panicked. Assaulted by the same fear and inadequacy I’d experienced as a single mother, I struggled to enjoy my children the way other smiling moms seemed to. We openly discussed our common burdens—sleepless nights and overflowing diapers—but I hid deeper struggles with motherhood like resentment, boredom, and resulting feelings of shame.

When my second daughter was just seven months old, I realized with devastation that I was pregnant again. Exhausted by a baby who wouldn’t accept a bottle or a full night’s sleep, I couldn’t imagine another pregnancy, much less another infant.

When I miscarried near the end of my first trimester, my grief was compounded with guilt for the surprising and unmistakable feeling that also lingered beneath the surface: relief.

Unintended pregnancies in the church

Reader responses to Ann’s confession reveal that parental regret resonates with some, and provokes a visceral reaction in others. If this is a taboo topic in broader culture, how much more so in the church?

The truth is that “unintended pregnancies” are not just restricted to the category of unwed mothers or a pro-choice culture. Married Christian women may find themselves pregnant before they intended—and may be unable to muster feelings of joy. Instead they may be gripped by regret, fear, frustration, and grief.

Rebekah Hannah, a counselor with The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling, points to what she calls the “motherhood culture” of the church. Motherhood is celebrated as a high and noble calling—what John Piper has described as one of the “central, core, dominant commitments of a woman’s life.” This culture is not inherently misguided, for motherhood is, indeed, a good gift from God. But this mindset can keep women who are reluctant to become mothers in hiding, privately grieving what they know should be received as God’s good gift.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, speaks often about unwed, unplanned pregnancies and encourages pastors to do the same so that the church is seen as a place these women can go without shame or stigma. But when it comes to married women in an unplanned pregnancy, Moore admits that it’s not a typical talking point, and wonders if it should be.

“A married woman who wasn’t expecting to be pregnant and has complicating factors in her life ... I think that there could be a possibility of a kind of shame that comes with not rejoicing over motherhood immediately. She may think if she goes forward and says, ‘Please pray for me because I’m really depressed that I’m pregnant,’ she may feel that the response of the church would be judgmental toward her,” Moore said in a telephone interview. He says pastors should talk more about how the church would respond to these women and train people so they are equipped when the situation arises.

Space to grieve

Silence about this sort of inner struggle can be costly. Unexpressed grief often manifests in anger, bitterness, depression, or anxiety, Hannah says. These issues then impact the already arduous task of raising children. Perhaps that’s why one sociological study finds that children resulting from unintended pregnancies “receive less attention and warmth from their parents than children whose births were planned.”

Encouraging transparency within the church about this sort of struggle is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to just admit regret and disappointment over parenthood. We need to get at the roots.

Some assume that sinful desires keep women from joyfully embracing motherhood. Grief may, in fact, be rooted in selfishness, prioritizing comfort, or buying into the lie that children are burdens instead of blessings—all ideas that are antithetical to the gospel and keep us from trusting the God who gives and takes away (Job 1:21). In terms of these desires, encouraging honesty doesn’t mean overlooking sin, but rather humbly and gently calling each other to repentance.

But we also must acknowledge that there is usually more at play. The broader cultural narrative tells women, “Changing the world is more important than changing nappies.” The church often counters by championing motherhood’s inherent value—for its potential to mirror Christ’s humility and sacrificial service, and for its investment in God’s kingdom through raising the next generation. While these ideas are certainly true, motherhood also often requires a woman to give up, delay, or modify a career or other ambitions, and it can be difficult to find a compassionate voice in the struggle.

Inviting a woman to honestly face the losses that accompany motherhood—the unexpected upheaval of her identity, her body, her dreams, her energy, her time—and honestly share them with God and others doesn’t diminish the value of her calling as a mother. We need to repent of the selfishness that may be exposed by our struggle, yes, but we also need to grieve even good things we desire that God has chosen to delay or withhold. This grief is both biblical and necessary.

Moore points out that women may be grieving motherhood because of complicating factors in their lives, such as an unsupportive marriage or concern over financial resources. Encouraging transparency allows the church to compassionately come alongside these women and offer tangible support.

There may also be a need to grieve the effects of sin and suffering that can inhibit a woman’s excitement about motherhood, such as emotional or psychological wounds from childhood abuse or neglect, or baggage from past sin, like abortion. Counseling and other supportive resources can help women working through shame and other effects of past experiences with the goal of moving toward the freedom and wholeness found in Christ.

The way forward

One day I stood in the kitchen with a friend who said, “I love everything about being a mother.” While I smiled at the time, I knew I didn’t feel that way. For a long time, I fought to share her sentiment by focusing on the high value of motherhood, but this effort failed to breathe life into the often menial and exhausting task of raising three children. I’ve learned that while thinking of motherhood as a “high calling” certainly speaks to my desire to be somebody, it also overlooks the real problems that keep me from flourishing where God has placed me. Perhaps this is because hope is not found in the calling itself; it’s found in the God who calls.

The way forward, then, is through repentance and grief. We lay our hearts bare before God, confessing both our sin and our sadness (even the sadness we shouldn’t have). As we do, we’re reminded of his sufficient grace for our failures, of his perfect power in our weakness, and of his abundant compassion for our humanity (2 Cor. 12:9, Ps. 103:13–14).

If we're not grieving honestly, we're not trusting God fully, Hannah claims. “If a baby is unwanted, then something else is wanted,” she observes. “When you grieve over the loss of something you wanted, it really is about working out your trust in God. Is he truly sovereign and also kind, gentle, perfect in purpose and love? If so, he then knows best. … Holy grieving should be the process of engaging with the Great Comforter.”

Grieving fully before God leads to greater transparency with others. When I started to be more honest about my struggles with motherhood—my disappointment and resentment as I laid down my dreams, my boredom and frustration in the midst of monotony, my guilt over wanting to do something else—I realized that I was less alone than I thought. Even women who initially embrace motherhood wholeheartedly still have struggles to some degree.

For some of us, motherhood may always be a struggle. Repentance, grief, faith, and obedience make up a cyclical dance that may span a lifetime. But as we honestly engage God, our Redeemer and Comforter, our perspective is renewed and we find strength for the journey. Over time, God’s grace causes us to be grateful even for the challenges and sacrifices of motherhood. Our inadequacy teaches us to rely not on ourselves but on God (2 Cor. 1:9). We cling to the hope that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in all things to accomplish our good and God’s glory (Rom. 8:11, 28–30). The children we feared turn out to be blessings given from the hand of a good and wise Father (Ps. 127:3). What may have begun with reluctance and continued with some turbulence can also become a source of great joy and growth.

Kendra Dahl is a writer, wife and mom of three. She is an editor and contributor for Gospel Taboo and has spent the last year serving as the women's discipleship director in her local church. Learn more at KendraDahl.com.

May
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