Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The External Self

This goes out to all you moms out there ... but if you are not a mom, you might find that it talks about you, as well.

There's one thing I've heard a lot from moms in my life this week, and it's this: being a mom is hard. It's exhausting, sometimes disgusting, usually thankless, Saturdays now mean nothing special, and so-called "vacation" time just means even more work. You wouldn't trade it for anything, but sometimes you'd give anything to be footloose and fancy-free for just a day or two, enough to miss your kids.

I've heard that this week from moms of infants and from moms of teenagers; from stay-at-home moms and from moms who work full-time; from single moms and from moms whose husbands come home at 5:15 every day and from moms whose husbands work long hours and from moms whose husbands work even longer hours are even away from home for days or weeks at a time. We are in this together in that we have a common struggle, but one of the difficulties of this job is that it can feel so isolating - we can get together for playdates or to swap babysitting, and we can commiserate on Facebook; but fundamentally, our kids are our responsibility, and we are the ones who wipe the snotty noses and the poopy bottoms, who cook the meals and empty the dishwasher for the third time that day, who comfort and discipline (sometimes at the same time), and who maybe have a glass of wine by ourselves after a successful bedtime and breathe a deep sigh before collapsing into bed ourselves.

I see blog posts to this end being shared on Facebook nearly every week, so I suspect that this struggle isn't localized to Billings, MT. One of the things those blog posts do (and probably whole books, but ain't nobody got time for that, right?) is give us a relief valve by validating our struggle: it's okay to not love this all the time and even, at times, to wish we were somewhere else, doing something else. These you might call the "motherhood as struggle" posts, and they affirm the biblical truth of living in a fallen world. All three curses of Genesis 3 (pain in childbirth -- which extends from pregnancy through all child-rearing; frustration and futility in our daily labors; the cosmic struggle between good and evil) are our daily fare.

Other types of blog posts on the topic try to validate the work we are doing, the work that can feel so thankless and unrelenting and futile - the tidying up toys at night or cooking meals our kids won't eat or cleaning bathrooms of little boys who think they should pee standing up or folding clothes that the baby's going to throw everywhere as soon as they go into the basket or filling a glass of water that you know will soon be all over the floor. These are the "motherhood as calling" blog posts, and they affirm the biblical truth of vocation - God has called you to this work, and what you are doing has value in the eyes of God, even if we can't see it through our earthly eyes. "Be faithful in the little things," and "Whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God."

As I prayed for myself and for friends this morning instead of taking sick kids to Bible Study, I thought of another category, and it comes from a comment in a 7 1/2 year old essay about identity from Andre Seu in World Magazine that I refer to time and time again. She remarks, "Now when your lover leaves you and you have a strong sense of your value in Christ, it hurts a lot. When your lover leaves you and you have a shaky sense of your value in Christ, you suffer identity destruction."

I'm not talking about marital difficulties here, but about finding our value in Christ in every area of life. Not in what we do, but in who we are. There is a type of identity that we stay-at-home moms had before leaving the workforce, and it was so often based on what we did. An "external sense of self," if you will: we had the satisfaction of accomplishing tangible work, of getting positive performance reviews, of shutting the door at the office (or the metaphorical cubicle door) and going home knowing that we had been faithful with our daily tasks and would get a fresh start in the morning.

There is a tendency to translate that into our home life, which could have the terrifying effect of transforming us into tiger moms who aren't okay unless our children are involved in and excelling at everything, our homes are spotless, our kids perfectly behaved, we have dozens of Pinterest-worthy activities for our kids in the queue and homemade Pinterest-worthy treats for every special occasion. This is a ridiculous extreme, of course; but who among us hasn't wondered if our kid should also be involved in X (swimming lessons, gymnastics, Latin class) or if our efforts at home life are not the slightest bit inadequate?

So, to adapt the quote: "Now when you're stuck at home in an often-thankless and exhausting job, and you have a strong sense of your value in Christ, it can be really hard. When you're stuck at home in an often-thankless and exhausting job and you have a shaky sense of your value in Christ, you could suffer identity destruction."

I am indebted to Tim Keller for a sermon I can't even remember much of except that he helped me realize that efforts to feel "okay" about myself, whether from something I do (at work or at home), from relationships I have with kids or friends, from how I look or from how I feel, these are all fundamentally efforts at self-righteousness. We all have within us a sense of dis-ease about who we are, and we all make various efforts to help ourselves feel okay. "Okay" ultimately has to come from Christ, who says, "You are enough because I am enough for you; your doing is enough because I have already done enough for you." He has to be our "External Self." When I start to feel like a hollow looking to be filled, or a restless sense of needing something that I can't define (and I usually end up eating sweets to quell it or browsing the Internet mindlessly), this is a sign to me to remember my identity in Christ and to re-establish the basis of all my righteousness/"okay-ness" in him.

This takes a lifetime to work out in our lives, but motherhood definitely feels like boot camp. You mom out there: what you are doing is worthwhile. It's hard and it's okay to not love it all the time. God is teaching you to trust him and to rest in him, not just to get through another day of tantrums and snotty noses, but also to grow in living out the reality that he is your righteousness, he is your enough, both in what you do and in who you are.

No comments: