Am I a good mom?
At the end of any given day, this is the question underlying almost all of my worrying, if I can get quiet enough to even hear my own heart.
Some nights I’m too busy cleaning up to hear it. I’m retracing the footsteps of four busy kids through my house to turn off lights, wipe up mysterious water spills (seriously, where does all the spilled water come from??), and put shoes and coats and socks and backpacks and books and toys and game pieces back in their places.
But on nights I’m feeling contemplative, I hear it. Why am I so obsessed with cleaning up? Do I think this is the standard by which I’ll be measured as a mother?
I know the job isn’t all about keeping house. But I am often tempted to make cleanliness the measure of my success as a mother. I know other moms get caught up in this temptation, too. I see moms caught up in health and safety, obsessing over car seats and the ingredient lists in the the food they serve. I see moms caught up in fulfilling their child’s potential, shuffling their kids from one pricey class or sports team to the next. Is everyone wondering what I’m wondering at the end of the day: Does this make me a good mom?
It has become more popular recently to talk about being a bad mom–joking about failures and toasting our mediocrity. But by calling out our “mom failures”, we’re still implicitly reinforcing that such a thing as a “good” mom exists. Even as we call ourselves “bad” moms, we show that we agree there are standards for a “good” mom, whether we feel like we’re meeting them or not.
The job description of a mom isn’t very clear, and we all tend to join tribes of people who can offer us some assurance that we’re doing at least some things right.
I’ve been mothering long enough to realize that all of my best efforts at keeping my house clean are pretty meaningless. No matter how hard I work, I can’t prevent tomorrow’s messes. Surely, this toil cannot be the meaning of motherhood.
Putting my hope in keeping my kids safe and healthy is another option, but of course there are so many unseen dangers that could hurt my children regardless of how many organic fruits I fed them. (I don’t buy organic fruit, in case you’re wondering.) So then what? What happens if my kids get hurt or sick? Do I blame myself for not being a good enough mom to prevent such things? God forbid I pretend to have more control than I do and ultimately end up crushed under the weight of that pressure.
I could put my hope in how my kids will turn out as adults, pushing towards an ideal of future success that requires good grades and abundant extra-curriculars to help my children lead meaningful, successful, and prosperous lives. But how do I know that my efforts will get them there? Would I simply be asking my kids to bear the weight of too-high expectations?
“I have seen everything that is done underneath the sun, and behold, everything is vanity and a striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). All of these approaches to motherhood put too much pressure on me and my kids, and invest too much hope in outcomes we can’t guarantee. If good moms keep their children safe, then what hope does that offer to a mom whose child is born with an illness or experiences a devastating accident? If good moms enrich their child’s education, then what hope does that offer to a mom whose child experiences educational challenges?
I need a philosophy of parenting that applies to all parents in all circumstances. I need a way to measure my “goodness” as a mom that helps me gauge how I am doing on a day-to-day basis but doesn’t burden me with pressure I can’t handle. Whenever I need to adjust my expectations or manage my frustration, I find myself turning back to Ecclesiastes again. This depressing little essay that declares everything meaningless and vain also restores my sense of purpose. The work assigned to me is not an opportunity to prove myself or to gain status. I have to find joy in the work itself. “I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).
That means being a good mom comes down to one thing: I need to enjoy my children. So instead of asking “Am I a good mom?” I am learning to ask “Am I enjoying my children?”
- Enjoying my children means I am seeing the good in my kids. I can recognize those features that are unique to each child. I can delight in the capabilities of each child and respond with thankfulness for their talents. I’m not looking at them to measure whether or not they meet my expectations. I’m seeing each child for who he or she is and delighting in what God made each child to be.
- Enjoying my children means I am not seeing my kids as obstacles that come between me and some “better” version of my life. They are not interruptions in a grand epic story, starring me. If I’m enjoying my kids, I’m seeing them as a delightful new direction for the story. Meeting their needs is the most pressing demand for a very short while. I’m trusting that new opportunities might open up when they grow older, but this is the role in which God has cast me for now. I trust his direction more than my own. “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
- Enjoying my children means I am able to say “This is the day that the Lord has made” (Psalm 118:24). I’m not worrying about tomorrow or fretting about yesterday. I’m living in the present moment, glad for what I have and trusting God that I will have what I need tomorrow.
- Enjoying my children means seeing my kids from the proper vantage point. When I’m not enjoying my children, some of the time it is because I am too bound up with them. I’m concerned with how their behavior reflects on me. I fret over their work ethic or table manners because I want outsiders to think I’ve taught them well. I worry about their report cards because I want the teachers to think I am capable of helping them succeed. I want them to reflect to others how intelligent or capable I am, thereby glorifying MY image to the world. When I’m enjoying them, I’m able to celebrate the way that God has crafted them to bring glory to HIM because they bear His image.
If I am enjoying my kids, I know when to stop with the housework, stop pushing their achievements, stop nit-picking their behavior. When I’m enjoying my kids, it means I’m loving them.
When I’m enjoying my kids, I don’t have to call myself a “bad” mom on the nights when I serve chicken nuggets. I don’t have to worry about how my parenting compares to those around me. I don’t have to follow all the latest books, as if everything in my kids’ lives depended on my efforts. When I’m enjoying my kids, I am showing thankfulness to the God who gave them to me. These are good gifts, I say to God, and I receive them with gladness.
If I’m enjoying my kids, I’m not tempted to try to prove my abilities as a mother. My focus isn’t on me. My focus is on my kids, finding delight in their personalities and the invitations they offer me to play or read or engage in conversation.
If enjoying your kids sounds like an easy way to be a good mother, trust me when I say it isn’t. My kids are not always enjoyable. They can be selfish and messy. They can be difficult. To enjoy them even in those moments when they are not enjoyable requires some character traits I don’t have on my own. I need more of the fruit of the Spirit: I need kindness. I need gentleness. I need patience. I need self-control. That’s not the kind of fruit that grows naturally. To be a good mother invites me to remember that I, too, need grace so I will be more generous in offering grace to my children. To be a good mother reminds me that I, too, was loved by Jesus before I was lovable, so I can love those who aren’t always easy to love. I am still thinking through the implications of how to respond when I find I am NOT enjoying my kids. I hope to write about that soon.
In many ways, to be a good mother is a courageous act of persistence. A good mom is the one who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can say to her kids, day in and day out: I will be here, looking for ways to love you and offer you grace.
I enjoy you because you’re mine.