It's not yet 6am, and I am ticking today's to-dos off the list. I add mayonnaise to the mental grocery list and feel life breathe hot on my neck. These past 11 years, I've given birth to five babies. Most days, the responsibilities heap like laundry and sit heavy on my chest while the sun sleeps.
Motherhood is hard work. It is a sacred calling as well. So I can appreciate Michelle Obama's recent remarks at the Democratic Convention. "My most important title is still 'mom-in-chief," declared the First Lady. I can also be made to agree with the woman who tweeted post-Convention that she longed "for the day when powerful women don't need to assure Americans that they're moms above all else."
With her claim as "Mom-in-Chief," the First Lady may have regrettably played into the hands of a society that demands performance reviews from its mothers. Although we do not agree on the standards to which we judge our public moms, it is true that we feel the presumptive imperative to do so. As discussed here on Her.meneutics, Marissa Mayer, new hired CEO of Yahoo!, was both hailed and criticized when she announced in July that her maternity leave would be a "few weeks long" and that she would "work throughout it." Ann-Marie Slaughter, with her Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," inspired simultaneous fury and applause when she admitted to having made professional concessions for her family's sake. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, mother of two, has made herself national hero—and villain—with her public entreaties for more women to fill leadership roles in the workplace. The commentary on Mayer, Slaughter, Sandberg, and Obama are only the most recent examples of how we publicly scrutinize our moms.
We've reached no truce in the Mommy Wars, which pit professional mothers against those who stay at home. But the question of appropriate work-life balance tends to obscure the more dangerous implications of the public conversation: By mounting lines of maternal self-defense, we're assuming the legitimacy of the de facto mom juries and implying that defense is itself a reasonable response.
First, the mom juries must be challenged. As Christians, we need to resist the impulse to judge. Even if we could decide on the universal criteria to which we could hold all moms—and we can't, apart from the general biblical mandate of love—we recognize that all such judgments would necessarily rely on external measurements, which God himself grants are misleading (1 Sam. 16:7). Raising children isn't raising chickens. You can count eggs, but you can't objectively measure a mother's performance. Within the church, we will agree that motherhood is sacred work, and we will want to inspire one another in our roles as mothers. However, it is to the Lord whom we must ultimately answer for our choices.
"Judge not lest you be judged" is an obvious enough truism. Less obvious is the trouble with one particularly popular line of maternal self-defense. Many mothers, especially in our culture of overparenting, subconsciously tout their performance according to the measure of their "selflessness." Katie Roiphe notes this trend in her much-discussed Financial Times article, "Disappearing Mothers." Roiphe notes the trend of moms using a photo of their child—instead of themselves—as their Facebook profile picture. In other words, women are disappearing from their own self-identity while their children take center stage.
This "selfless" disappearance into our maternal roles and responsibilities might initially appear Christian. We follow a crucified Jesus, who emptied himself of divine right in order to save us. What fault could we find with a mother who, following the example of Christ, surrenders her personal agenda, be it career ambitions or a night out with friends, for the good of her children?
But this is precisely the point: Selflessness, if motivated by a culture's fault-finding (and motivated by self-defense), may look less like gospel freedom and more like a calculus of performance. At least it has for me. Giving up what I've wanted for my children, I am often tempted to add maternal credits to my account. On the days when I wake early, skip my morning jog, and make pancakes, I deem myself a good mother. Conversely, when I rush late to school to pick up my children the very same day, having spent far too long revising this piece, I am forced to subtract debits from the maternal ledger.
The judgments may be true enough: it may be exemplary to get up early in order to make a healthy breakfast for my children. It may be also selfish to misuse my time to the detriment of my family. The assessments may themselves be sound, but the mechanics of the exercise are not. In this performance tally, I am losing sight that the gospel isn't about performance at all. It's about God's unearned love and unmerited grace for all sinners whose moral ledgers stand in judgment against them.
Am I Mom Enough? No, no, a thousand times no. The gospel reminds me that I am neither a good mother nor a good person—just a forgiven one. While I will endeavor to practice the divine art of self-sacrifice, both for the sake of my family and for the love of Jesus, I must also recognize that acts of selflessness will not propitiate the gods of public opinion, not even God himself.
The gospel tells me that Jesus himself has already done that—and this can be my only sufficient defense.
Jen Pollock Michel writes for Today in the Word, a monthly devotional published by Moody. She blogs at FindingMyPulse.com and has written for Her.meneutics about suicide.
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