So, let’s get this straight. You two were the mistakes?” My twin sons looked quizzically at their high school teacher, who was joking good-naturedly. He explained that he, too, was a caboose child, born years after his older siblings. “Did your parents give you the talk yet, about how a surprise is different from a mistake?”
Sixteen years ago, our three children were all nearly school-age, and I was planning a return to graduate school. We gave away the crib, the car seat, and the baby gear. But plans are malleable in the hands of God, and it wasn’t six months that I was pregnant again—with twins.
There are no “mistakes” in God’s kingdom economy. Still, the “surprise” took some getting used to. Five children were a spectacle, especially in the aisles of Costco. Yet now the long days have become short years. Our “surprises” have grown into leg hair, survived braces, and attended their first high school homecoming dance. To say that my heart grows heavy counting the time remaining with them is to understate the grief entirely.
For the last 22 years, motherhood has been so many things for me. A limit. A lasting vulnerability. But also, a gift. I’d like to argue for choosing motherhood—as it’s possible.
A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll published this spring showed an alarmingly precipitous decline in certain “traditional” American values. According to the research, over the span of four short years, Americans cherish patriotism, having children, religion, and community involvement less than they once did. (Professional pollster Patrick Ruffini noted it was likely the 2019 numbers had been inflated by “social desirability bias.” Respondents’ answers might not have represented reality as much as the perception they wanted to construct.)
Here’s what we do know: the birth rate in the United States is declining. It’s often assumed this decline represents our waning desire for children, but researchers from the University of North Carolina and The Ohio State University disagree. Their data indicates that Americans between the ages of 20–24 want as many children as desired historically. However, it does seem people today are putting off the task of raising children—and as they do, the ideal number of children shrinks.
The postponement of parenthood may be owed to a variety of different factors. “There is not a lot of support for parents in the US, and young adults face a lot of challenges—student loan debt, the high cost of housing, job insecurity—that may lead them to delay, or maybe even give up on, having children,” said Karen Benjamin Guzzo, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Population Center.
The anxieties about parenthood today are real: economic uncertainties, ecological crisis, fears of inadequacy for such a consequential task. Whether evangelicals have shared these fears isn’t clear, but in recent years, evangelicals have joined the broader culture in having fewer children and having them later.
I don’t believe the good life is littered with diapers and juice boxes. Participation in the kingdom of God is fully enjoyed by the married and unmarried, the childless and child-full. Still, it’s worth saying to young married women (while engaging the modern calculus about adding to their family): “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” (Ps. 127:3).
In my conversative evangelical upbringing, it was a cultural assumption that I would marry and have children. Though it wasn’t my parents’ sentiment, I heard others in our church context talk about marriage and motherhood as the highest callings a Christian woman might undertake (never mind how many that left out). As a high school junior, I was sent “on scholarship” by another church family to attend a Bill Gothard seminar. Among other extrabiblical principles he preached, Gothard argued it was inadvisable for mothers to work outside the home.
I was never won over to the most fundamentalist views of women’s roles. Still, as a young mother, it was constantly impressed upon me that the task of raising my children required all the devotion I could muster. I attended a year-long church parenting class taught by a woman who admitted, on the first day, that her husband had forbidden her to attend medical school. When the subject of working outside of the home came up late in the year, she proposed a simple method for discerning whether our lives were in proper balance: did we know how much milk was in the fridge?
Now I can confidently say these messages about motherhood were unhelpful. Wrong.
Motherhood has never been the sole measure of my life. Still, I want to call this part of my life good, especially in a culture where children are often perceived as threats to professional ambition, as financial liabilities, as environmental recklessness. I want to say to women today: if it’s possible, risk on this. It will be worth it.
I confess that when my children were younger, I struggled to see beyond the constraints that children imposed upon my life. As a writer, I was reminded, over and over, about the successful creatives who limited their exposure to interruption by limiting the number of children they had, if they had any at all.
But to do it over again, I would have cherished those noisy days more. I would have noticed that my children were the ones who made it possible for me to write. It was they who baptized me into the concrete world of wonder, they who helped me pay closer attention to a world “shining like shook foil.” As a mother, I lost one kind of life and gained another in its stead.
Recently, when I was studying Psalm 1, I was reminded of how little I cultivated a countercultural version of the good life when I was in my twenties and thirties. The psalm pictures the flourishing human life as a healthy tree: “Whatever it produces thrives.” According to the commentary in the Jewish Study Bible, it’s explained that “living to a ripe old age and having many children is the biblical idea of a successful life.”
Maybe ripe old age is what you need to fully appreciate this ancient wisdom.
I have written less and less about motherhood over the years. When my children were much younger, it felt as if motherhood were happening to me and my body alone. Now I can see we’ve been in this together, that along with my husband, I have helped build the history they now inhabit.
I have not been the mother I prayed and planned to be. I suppose no mother is. Like everyone, I return again and again to the grace available to me in Jesus Christ: to the one who writes redemption stories with all our lived rough drafts.
“Grace,” writes James K.A. Smith in How to Inhabit Time, “is overcoming. Not undoing. Not effacing. Not regretful, but overcoming.” Smith reminds us that God’s eternal work is accomplished in history and in time.
My mistakes as a mother couldn’t have been prevented—because wisdom can’t be had all at once. To be sure, part of the wisdom I lacked early on was appreciation, both for the formation I would gain as a mother and for the children I would raise and enjoy.
“There is something scandalous,” Smith continues, “about the way God takes up this contingency in our lives—all of it, even the heartbreak and sorrow, the evil and injustice—and forges it into this singular life that is mine, that is me.” Grace turns surprises into serendipities, mistakes into gifts. It makes me me, makes my children them.
I am more than a mother—and yet never less.
Jen Pollock Michel is a podcast host, speaker, and author of five books, including In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022).