I grew up in what I suppose was the first generation of American women who were expected, as a group, to care deeply about the jobs they would choose: to invest not only time and effort, but emotion and commitment in them, and to do so throughout the greater part of their lives. College-educated women had a special duty to strike out from the example of previous generations by “using” that education, rather than “wasting” it on child care. We were expected to find interesting, challenging things to do in our professional lives, and we were not expected to jettison those lives because of the unreasonable and unnecessary sacrifices past generations had exacted from their womenfolk.

My generation watched reruns of 1950s television series, and saw models of stagnating women marking time before the Feminist Revolution. And the sixties were still close enough to us to make a revolution in women’s feelings, instincts, and expectations seem entirely possible. Babies were nice, yes, but motherhood was mostly defined by what you were giving up for it. The seventies’ feminist mentors repudiated what they saw as drastic self-abnegation, and so of course they had to argue that such self-abnegation was unnecessary. Men were to share more of our burdens; the government and private corporations were to help out with baby care and the like. Women would be happier, psychologically healthier; and our children would doubtless benefit from our contentment.

I do not wish to debate career versus family or day care versus home care. Neither will I explore the economic necessities that make the word choice seem like a cruel joke to many hard-pressed families. What I mean to do is to see how my own experience dovetails with the traditional Christian teaching on the importance of the family, self-giving, and the like.

Good, Old-Fashioned Instinct

I was 28 when I married, and knew I wanted to have children and be their full-time mother. Two things strike me about these desires. First, the Christian teaching that celebrates not only the bearing of new life, but also the guidance of a human soul, seemed almost irrelevant to my wish to have children. So did my private opinions about the duties of parents. I just wanted children, and wanted to be what they call a “primary caretaker.” I did not have to worry through the pros and cons. I did not feel self-sacrificial. Doubtless the faith in which I was reared helped counteract the contrary advice of my culture, and helped overcome the secular world’s prestige problem with motherhood. Still, much of my thinking—or feeling—boiled down to good, old-fashioned maternal instinct.

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The second thing that struck me—and indeed, made me feel an unnatural child of my age—was my lack of regret at leaving the nine-to-five world for perhaps many years. I was book editor of the Wall Street Journal at the time. It was an important, in some ways influential, job. But I waged no internal battles over the decision, and apart from the sadness of leaving good working companions and a settled routine, felt only anticipation of the future.

That is not the whole of it. What I had been doing seemed, however interesting, less important as well as less appealing than what I was about to do. I understood that other people saw things differently, but a baby—a human being—made a newspaper seem like small potatoes. Sometimes I felt defensive when I looked at what I was doing from the careerist’s perspective, but that did not change my own perspective.

These two points—the apparent sufficiency of maternal instinct to combat the spirit of the times in my own case, and my uncomplicated lack of regret about leaving the work force—made me wonder about the role of Christianity in these family issues. What was the relationship between maternal instinct and a religious view of life? If I had been reluctant to relinquish career for family, I hope I would have come to the same decisions about my priorities and responsibilities to my children. But would Christianity have simply provided a religious equivalent or reinforcement for maternal instinct? Or does the Christian faith add a whole new dimension to the understanding of family life? What does a Christian view of the family have to teach us about the family of man?

Tyranny Over One

Let me stop to consider the reaction of other people to my decision to leave work after Peter’s birth. Most were happy for me, a few were envious in a good-natured way, some could not understand why I would prefer such a choice, and others, while understanding my reasons, thought I was making a great sacrifice. These last two groups of people thought I was exchanging a larger world for a smaller one, great responsibilities for ones more petty or limited, influence over large numbers of people for an extended tyranny over one. Some thought the love I would feel for my baby would “make up for” the sacrifices; others didn’t. But both groups of people were assuming, as it is so easy for any of us to do, that the many are more important than the few because they are many, and that love for a spouse or a child or a parent or brother or friend emotionally blinds us to this arithmetical truth.

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But Christianity teaches a deeper, bigger truth about the individual and also about love. Christianity teaches us that each soul is uniquely valuable because it has been loved into existence by God. The destiny of each soul is supremely important, because God himself is seeing that destiny in his eternal present. It is not a greater thing to sacrifice one’s life for a nation of people rather than one person; in either case, the sacrifice is noble or ever allowable only because the mortal lift of an immortal soul is being surrendered for the mortal life of another immortal soul.

I felt I was going to a greater thing when I left the Wall Street Journal to care for my son, because I was setting out to give more, more intensely, to a single human soul than I had been able to give for the millions of souls mildly affected by the book reviews I prepared for publication.

Don’t think I am denigrating paid labor. Work is one way of serving God and man; fortunate people find their jobs interesting and satisfying as well But family life seems a special bonus, a chance for average people to venture almost frighteningly close to God and other human beings. That is the Christian view of marriage as well as the Christian view of parenthood; in each case, men and women are given the opportunity to cooperate with God through a unique union with another person. So I saw approaching motherhood almost sacramentally. It was, after all, the natural result of the vows my husband and I had exchanged at our marriage ceremony.

That must be one reason why frustrated ambition did not sour or undermine my leavetaking of the nine-to-five life. I truly felt I was headed for the more ambitious and demanding task, and this had nothing to do with romanticism about what life with a baby or toddler would be like.

The incidentals of motherhood—like the incidentals of any job—may often be tedious, repetitive, frustrating, seemingly thankless, and sometimes nerve-racking. But the essence is truly sublime, for the essence of motherhood is the acceptance of God’s offer to share in the creation and development of another human being. The question was not whether the job was good enough for me, but whether I was good enough for the job.

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Why We Love

What makes most parents “good enough” for the job, what helps them pierce through to the essence of it often enough not to be vanquished by the difficulties of the incidentals, is love—the love God offers when he offers us a child. Some people refuse that love, or they lose it, or they are so messed up that they cannot accept it. But most parents depend on it, and they find it dependable.

And it is here that the Christian faith can teach us something very important about parenthood and God’s love for all. For many people misinterpret maternal—and paternal—love, even as they and their children depend on it, and so they fail to draw on its full power to teach us about the human family.

Sometimes parents delude themselves into thinking they love their children because those children are specially brilliant or charming or talented or beautiful. But while all of us tend to dwell on our children’s strong points, and downplay their faults, the strong points are not “why” we love them, and the bad points almost never kill that love.

The more common misunderstanding about parental love takes the other extreme. Through a displaced false modesty, many parents will say to themselves: “My child isn’t really special, but my love makes me think he is.” This makes love a well-intentioned deceiver, telling us lies for our own good. The lying love is supposed to help both parent and child: It enables the parent to love the child enough to get through all the irksomeness and pain parenthood guarantees, and it allows the child to be loved, however unworthy he or she may be.

Although most children are not “special” as this kind of parent means the term, I think this interpretation of a deceitful parental love is wrong, too. It assumes the love is ordinarily earned or deserved, and it ignores the precious source of a parent’s love.

All love is from God, but a parent’s love for his children seems, in some respects, especially godlike, because it begins when a baby is completely dependent and incapable of proving he deserves love. God gives us this love (to call it instinct does not change where it comes from, what it is, and how it works) so that we can be good parents, but he sends us no set of blinders to our children’s faults. Instead, he sends a special vision: Insofar as human beings are capable of doing so, parents share God’s loving vision. However imponderable it may be, we know that God created the race in love, and that love astonishingly continued even after mankind’s fall from grace. Parenthood offers most of us the best chance we will have to forgive 70 times 7 times lovingly, because we can see something of what God sees when he looks at them.

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A Duty And A Gift

So are our children deserving or undeserving of our love? They are as deserving as we are—or as anyone else is, for that matter. They are worthy of love because God has loved them first. And we are capable of loving, because God has loved us—all of us—first. One of the most striking and dislocating quotations from the New Testament is John’s definition of love: “Not that we loved God but that he loved us.” Love is not only a duty we owe God and neighbor, but a gift from God to humanity—even if we never return that gift. What else can we do but scramble unsuccessfully to keep us with God?

For parents, such scrambling is a fact of life. We love our children intensely, unconditionally, and that is God’s doing. But our performance is another matter. We get tired and frustrated, lose our sense of balance, and give in to resentments, possessiveness, and ambitious daydreaming. We blow our chance to live up to the godlike nature of our love.

Sometimes, since the birth of my son Peter almost two years ago, I mourn the disappearance of the nicer person I once was. If motherhood has called up reserves of generosity, patience, and disinterestedness I never knew myself capable of, it has also given birth too often to shrewishness, ill temper, and the instincts of a spoilsport. (All the noes you have to say as a mother have their effect: Sometimes no petrifies into an automatic response.)

But both the good and the bad effects of what they call “mothering” are signs of the enormous growing and stretching the role calls for. There are times when I can feel the enormous love for my child pouring through me—and there are times when my weariness, resentment, and the like are actually holding off or blocking the love that pushes to be let through. In other words, the great goal or challenge of motherhood is to learn to love your child as much and as well as you do in fact love him—as much and as well as God has let you love him.

What a tremendous undertaking! Unfortunately for the spiritually lazy, though, this is only the first lesson to be drawn from the Christian understanding of motherhood and the family.

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A mother’s successes—the times we sympathize and take time to understand, and temporarily put aside our own needs without resentment—are mostly the work of the love or maternal instinct or whatever you wish to call it that God has instilled in us. They owe all too little to general virtue, as we can see by looking at how unsuccessfully we often love those not bound to us by ties of blood or marriage. Loving, caring and self-sacrificing mothers can be cold, suspicious, and ungenerous to those outside the warm circle of family and friends. They can expect the worst from other people, and hand on those expectations to their children. In doing so they draw sharp boundaries between Us and Them.

But these are boundaries God does not want us to draw, or at least not in that way. Of course human beings are made to form special ties and develop local patriotisms. But God loves everyone as we love our children (only he is much better at it). God sees everyone as we, at our best, see our children. He is not blind to our faults, but loves the sinner, and rejoices in the good we are capable of. We are so made that only the greatest saints, perhaps, can approach everyone with something like this love. But all of us are called to try, and all of us should at least recognize our failures as failures to obey that new commandment Jesus gave us: “That you love one another as I have loved you.”

Such a vision of what godlike love can be, combined with such repeated failures to live up to the promise of that love, can sometimes make motherhood seem the most frustrating and even humiliating of vocations. But the hard truths that motherhood (and fatherhood) can teach us about ourselves are matched by the almost ecstatic experience of loving freely, beautifully, and almost effortlessly, on those occasions when our aspirations meet our performance. Such experiences can draw us nearer to God, if we remember the source of our love, and such experiences can draw us nearer to God’s other children, if we do not ignore or shrink away from the commandment our loving Father gives us: to love one another as he has loved us.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is a contributing editor to the Human Life Review. This article was adapted from her address to the second annual Women for Faith and Family meeting.

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