It was religion scholar Joseph Campbell who pulled back the curtain on more or less every book and movie in the Western canon. Campbell demonstrated the common shapes and themes of our great stories, from Star Wars to Great Expectations to Paddington Bear.
In Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” an unlikely suspect gets called on some sort of mission. After some equivocation, he agrees to the task, endures a series of setbacks, and ultimately achieves his goal. Along the way, the experience transforms him; he grows up and becomes a hero.
We see the same narrative at work in real life. It’s what we suspect when we hear that someone has survived cancer. It’s what we hope for in the face of tragedy. It’s the narrative that pops up on the evening news.
Yet I wonder how many young women realized they are also embarking on a hero’s journey when they become mothers.
Not just mothers with exceptional challenges—I’m talking about run-of-the-mill mothers with typical children, the soccer moms and stay-at-home moms and full-time working moms alike. Every one of them has the makings of a hero.
For a long time, I didn’t believe it. I had lived the dramatic version of the hero story. Our oldest daughter Penny was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after birth, and it took me a year to wrestle through my doubt and fear and sadness. And yes, I came out on the other side transformed, with a deeper appreciation of the gift of each human life and with a deeper recognition that intellect does not determine human value.
Then our son William was born, and a few years later his sister Marilee, and ordinary parenting posed challenges of its own. Moreover, the doubt and fear and sadness I experienced from parenting typical kids seemed shameful. After Penny’s birth, people brought meals and prayed for us and they understood if I didn’t return their phone calls or failed to show up at church on Sunday morning. With typical kids, no one was going to bring me a baked chicken just because my son wouldn’t sleep through the night. I worried no one would understand if I couldn’t manage to volunteer at preschool or reply to an email or meet a writing deadline.
But now that our kids are out of the early years of diapers and naptimes, out of the constant cycle of ear infections and throw-up bugs, out of car seats and high chairs and strollers—I see that the journey into typical motherhood offered its own narrative of change and growth, of breaking me apart, only to transform me yet again. It offered a call to sacrifice, even if it was simply a sacrifice of time and physical endurance. Sacrifice is always a form of hardship, and yet when it emerges out of love, it has the power to make us new.
In the beginning of my life as the mom of three, I tried to keep going as though nothing had changed. I tried to keep up my workout routine and volunteer activities. I tried to work for four scheduled hours every day. I tried to pray regularly and systematically. I tried to ignore the words I heard from older moms, that there were seasons of life, and perhaps this season of early childhood was a time for slowing down, for not trying so hard. I guess I saw slowing down as a sign of defeat, as anything but heroic, as the opposite of “leaning in” to the opportunities I had been given as an educated American with financial and marital stability. I guess I had a hard time believing that the gifts God was asking me to steward could be limited to these three kids.
I tried to hold on to it all—professional goals, physical and spiritual discipline, community participation. Finally, between snow days and sick days and sleepless nights, in the midst of the very ordinary demands of very ordinary parenting, I had to let go. It wasn’t the letting go of joyful release, of opening a handful of dandelion seeds and watching them glint and scatter in the wind with music playing in the background. It was the letting go of collapse, of buckling under the weight of it all and watching as everything crashed to the ground and bounced haphazardly around me. Still, once I had finally let go of all that trying, I found myself with my hands open.
The ordinary hardships that don’t make for a dramatic storyline—of changing wet sheets and watching yet another episode of Caillou with a sick kid, of listening to belabored piano practice and cajoling yet another hour of soccer playing—helped me understand the nature of love, the nature of grace.
In the Gospels, Jesus keeps insisting that his disciples turn to God as their Father. It’s not just the Lord’s Prayer—it’s in Jesus’ parables and his one-liners. This familial language shows up when he calls the bleeding woman “daughter” (Mark 5:34) and his disciples “little ones” as he sends them out to minister to others (Matt. 18). He wants his followers to understand God as their Father, and also understand themselves as little kids. He even makes the arresting statement: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Funnily enough, it’s having kids that’s helped me know myself as a child of God. When I couldn’t hold it all together, when I needed help in the midst of ordinary and tedious daily hardships, I began to understand God’s compassion and care for me: like a father who cheers for his child’s attempt to take her first step without any condemnation when she topples over; like a mother who says no out of love, not out of disappointment with the request; like a good parent whose love knows no bounds.
Every parent who loves a child with sacrificial love will be broken. And in the midst of that brokenness, we can be built back up, like the classic hero of Joseph Campbell’s journey, encountering one obstacle after another, doubting ourselves and the one who had commissioned us for this adventure, falling apart, and, ultimately, learning something entirely new about life and love, being made new along the way.
Amy Julia Becker is the author, most recently, of Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most (Zondervan, 2014). She lives in Western Connecticut with her husband and three children.
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