The Idolatry of Motherhood

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My two babies from a long ago vacation…

“Being a mother is the greatest thing a woman could do.” Kathie Lee Gifford uttered these words some 25 years ago to Regis Philbin, while I watched the tv with an older friend, who had a house filled with children. “I don’t think that’s always true,” I responded, but was quickly reprimanded by my friend. I responded by saying that it certainly was true for some women – perhaps many women – but not every woman. I decided (wisely, I thought) to let the subject drop.

I was not yet a mother, but knew I wanted to adopt children who needed homes. I had always wanted to be a mom one day, but didn’t feel the drive for pregnancy that many women experience. A graduate student at the time, preparing for a career, I also was not blind to the fact that professional mothers had much more challenging lives than professional fathers (and that unfortunately has not changed over the years). And even though I very much wanted to be a parent, I knew there were women who did not feel that calling in their lives.

Being a mom is a core part of who I am. Yet, not every woman is able to be a mom or is called to be one. This might be a choice, or imposed on a woman by circumstances. It also might be a woman who has biological children but is either unwilling or unable to be the parent a child deserves, offering support, love, and a home.

Yet, one thing remains true in our society. Being a mother is seen as the highest ideal for a woman in our society. Every little girl is expected to want children, and every newly wed woman is asked about the time plan for starting a family. New moms have to make choices about employment and child-care. Young women who aren’t even married wonder how they might balance children and a career one day, while that thought rarely crosses a young man’s mind.

And if a young woman doesn’t want children, or is not planning for them, disdain often is reigned down upon her. She is seen as selfish, uncaring, egocentric.

All this occurs because we have made motherhood an idol. It goes along with the ideals of placing women on a pedestal. Either women conform to the patriarchal notion as saints in the household, sacrificing all for their children, or they are knocked off the pedestal to be trampled by others’ judgments. Motherhood is a gift, not a requirement. For me personally, I wanted both my children. They are the most wonderful part of my life, but also sometimes the most challenging. I worry, celebrate, offer guidance and sometimes judgment, and have spent more time and money on them than I could count. As much as they fill my life with joy and love, I know that motherhood is an ongoing journey which has occasionally been smooth and other times been filled with rocks and potholes. I know I have failed miserably at times. The one consistent thing I can offer is my never-ending love to them.

Yet, choosing to be a mother does not make me a saint. It is simply part of my journey. As Mother’s Day approaches, I pray that our society will find better ways to honor mothers. We can see them as real human beings, who are fallible and have dreams and desires apart from their children. We can also honor women who have other callings in their lives, and do not have biological or legal children. Let us step away from thinking of them as less than because of their life circumstances or decisions. I know numerous women who have no legal children who have been instrumental in helping me rear my own, and in offering support to me when I often most needed it. I also feel I have a number of other “children” who are not legally related to me. Their presence in my life fills my heart.

Some Native American tribes pray to the Great Mother. A mother is someone who gives birth – and this might be a physical birth, but it also can be giving birth to love, hope, compassion, kindness, peace, and joy. For Mother’s Day, instead of focusing on a biological act, I hope we can focus on giving birth to these qualities in our society.

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The Lucky One

 

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Ava and I at the baby shower my church gave soon after bringing her home.

19 years ago today, a tiny little girl was born in Southern China. She was possibly premature, and circumstances were challenging at best. The mother was unable to keep her, even though I imagine she loved that baby as much as any of us do when we hold a newborn. She loved her enough to make certain she found a home until a couple from America could arrive to bring her to a new home. 9 months after that difficult day of birth, those new parents arrived to find an infant wearing a Hello Kitty bib and obviously well-loved by her caregivers. Baby Ava looked at her new parents with a puzzled face, trying to figure out this odd-looking couple. She received the devoted attention of her big brother, new grandparents, and many well-wishers with casual grace in the weeks that followed. She couldn’t have been loved more.

As do many mothers, I recall the early days with my babies with great fondness and moist eyes. I had waited so long for this little girl to arrive in my life, and the days were more joyful than I could have imagined. So many others – friends and strangers – seemed happy for us as well. Yet, one sentence kept being repeated. “She is such a lucky little girl.” Even in China, people would approach us with the only English they knew, which was “Lucky girl.” I never wanted to receive such words about my daughter. Sometime in 8th grade, I realized I wanted to adopt, especially trans-racially. That was back when I was toying with going to the far reaches of Africa and translating the Bible for my life’s work. That desire faded within a year, but the idea of adopting children did not. I knew there were countless children who needed homes, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to have birth children. (And I know there are many women who feel this biological need, and I certainly do not wish to downplay that. I’m just made differently.) It never felt to me like I was doing a child a favor – I just thought of this as the way I wanted to arrange my family. My teenage musings had me surrounded by 4 or 5 children, all adopted from around the world. I can’t tell you the envy I felt for Angelina Jolie when she began to live out my dream.

I always knew I was the lucky one – not my baby girl. God had gifted me with the most incredible child – not perfect; no child is – but just perfect for our family. When people wanted to compliment me on the decision to adopt, I always responding by telling them I was truly the lucky one. Both my children are such complete gifts, the best things in my life. I offer untold thanks for them each and every day.

Every family is centered around the concept of hospitality. We welcome new persons into our inner circle, whether by choice or by blood. We choose to offer the most intimate part of ourselves, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. We support them in the difficult days, and let them comfort us when our tough times come around. Ava and I have comforted each other when the tears came, and laughed far more often than that.

She is a gift, and on her birth day each year, I give thanks to the petite Chinese woman who offered this precious child for our family.

Perfect Parenting

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My baby girl turned 18 a couple days ago. I wasn’t with her that momentous birth day – a tiny Chinese woman was – a woman who, for whatever reasons, knew she couldn’t keep this precious baby and so made certain the local orphanage would have her so that a nice family could adopt her. I give thanks for that unknown woman’s gift every year. I do distinctly recall the birth day of my other child, and the entire 20+ hours of labor and delivery without drugs. The women who told me that you forget all the pain once you see that little baby must have had epidurals.

Parenting is always an interesting action. For me, it’s been thought-provoking and intriguing to rear one birth and one adopted child. The ridiculous questions I have received about loving a birth child more than an adopted one I have found tiresome and irritating. Can some people really think that small? I know the answer is unfortunately yes, but parenting in these circumstances is so much more compelling than such petty questions.

We live in a society where parenting centers around perfection. An accomplished mother is one who raises the perfect child – the little one whose smiling face fills the facebook pages and instagram accounts, who always has great adventures, whose pictures are filled with the best friends, who is showered with awards and accolades, who is destined to be the greatest success. Isn’t that the mark of a perfect parent? Yet, recent information about college suicide highlights that many students use social media as a way to mask their pain and depression. Parents who beam about the public image of their children are often stunned and surprised that the face does not reflect their child’s reality.

I know I’m not a perfect mother. No one is a perfect parent. There is no perfect individual on the planet. We owe it to our children to be authentic. If we hope they can live with integrity, then we need to model what that means. It does not mean treating a child like one’s best friend, revealing all the minutiae of our feelings and emotions. It does mean sharing honestly, in an age appropriate manner, about the realities of life and what it means to live each day. As much as we might want our children to think we are superheroes, with facebook enviable lives, we need to admit when we make mistakes and when we are wrong. We need to let them know that sometimes life is hard – we can’t always pay the bills, we are betrayed by friends, we have moments of despair. Yet, it is even more important to help them know that whenever we encounter these things, we can pick ourselves back up (usually with the help of our loyal friends), dust off the dirt, and take one step at a time towards the future.

Those smiling faces of the children and young adults on social media need to know that whatever happens, it’s not the end of the world. People aren’t perfect, and we all have difficulties in our lives. Yet, there is a tomorrow.

I know I’m an imperfect mother, and I know my children are not perfect either. They are perfectly wonderful, but one of my goals has always been to help them celebrate their strengths and find ways to work on their weaknesses. I’m thankful for all the years we’ve journeyed together, and hopeful that we can share many more in the future.

Growing Up

945470_10100669394490121_1719016664_nMy mom always said it wasn’t your own birthday that got to you – it was your kids’ birthdays. My little baby boy turned 21 last week. I had a birthday a couple weeks before that, and it really didn’t seem to faze me one way or the other – but looking at the young male adult before me was something different. Like most parents, it seemed just the other day that he was a wild-haired, bright-eyed, rosy cheeked little toddler exploring anything and everything within reach. And now he’s officially an adult. Yes, he still has a little more than a year of college left, and I will do whatever I can to be a support in the coming years as he tries to establish himself, but he is officially an adult.

The next day I had lunch with a former college student of mine. I have been a college minister for almost 17 years, and catching up with former students is one of the true joys in my life. This incredible young woman is in her first year of navigating life beyond college. We discussed how things were and her plans for the future. It’s a truly exciting, but also nerve-wracking, time in one’s life.

As I thought about these two people for whom I care so much making the transition to adulthood, I remembered one of the best known verses of the Bible, found in 1 Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” This letter is written to a community that is terribly divided and fighting over a wide variety of things, both big and small. In many ways, they are acting like immature children. The letter reminds them that when we try to live in God’s Spirit, we grow up. We firmly place childish behavior in the past, and learn to live as mature sisters and brothers.

Now, my brother and I still like to pester each other, even though we are decidedly middle-aged. Sisters and brothers are still sisters and brothers, even when they are adults. They are different. They view the world differently. They engage with others in different manners. They are their own independent people. Yet, no matter how they might differ, a true sister or brother will always be there for the other. While growing up, I could pick on my little brother, but woe be to anyone else who decided to do that.

Growing up doesn’t suddenly mean we have all the answers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences with each other – sometimes very deep divisions. It doesn’t mean that we live in a world of rainbows and happily ever after. It does mean we are mature enough to meet the challenges of the world, and to engage with others in a respectful manner. It’s great to see my son, and my former student, put the childish things of the world behind them, and firmly grasp the things of adulthood. I become so frustrated and discouraged when societal and political leaders act like children and refuse to find ways to work together. One wonders if anything productive can ever come out of our nation’s Capitol anymore. I hope and pray that our church, and our society – both so badly divided and so often childish – can follow the example of the children who are becoming adults in today’s world. And a little child shall lead them.

Raising a Feminist – #HeForShe

with my son atop Beech Mountain

with my son atop Beech Mountain

Every parent has goals for her child. We plan, we dream, we hope. We all know that each child is unique, and there are so many things that parents can’t control. Yet, we know that we provide the core environment. The earliest messages our child receives will stay with her in some form or another, for better, for worse.

I have two fantastic kids. One of my goals has been for them to treat each and every person in a respectful and egalitarian manner. I definitely want my kids to be feminists, and one child in particular received this message on a continual basis. And that child is my son – not my daughter. I always knew that my little white male child could do so very much to change the world for the better. Female feminists can only do so much unless male allies join with them to create systems, societies, and cultural values which treat women and men equally. I have always been thrilled when my son railed against injustice and inequality. As a young boy, he not only began to realize that not all moms were ministers, but his eyes were also opened to the fact that many faith communities would not allow women to be religious leaders at all. During summer employment, he has often had a female contemporary as his supervisor, yet has continually had to steer people to speak to his female supervisor when they assumed he was in charge due to his gender. I am so proud of the young male feminist in my household.

Intelligent young British actor, Emma Watson, was named a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador a few months ago, and addressed the UN a week ago concerning gender politics. She strongly claimed the word feminist, and initiated the #HeForShe campaign. She spoke eloquently about the need for men to claim feminism and to take action combatting inequality.

Since the speech, Watson has since joined a long-line of self-proclaimed feminists who have dealt with backlash. Nasty twitter comments, a threat of leaked personal photos, and even comments about her attire while addressing the UN (which was both professional and stylish) have emerged.

Cultural misogyny is rampant today. The media has finally begun to highlight the NFL’s lackadaisical treatment of its stars who assault and abuse women. Sexual assault on college campuses is finally receiving the attention it deserves. In areas of professional sports and frat boy culture which suggests women are only important as decorative ornaments or means for a man’s pleasure, it’s vital that real men stand up and speak out strongly against these assumptions. Women are created in the image of God. They should be treated with respect, dignity, and an open mind which never limits who they are called to be.

My teenage daughter asked me if I had seen Emma Watson’s speech. I responded in the affirmative, and we talked about the content for a while. I asked her, “Do you call yourself a feminist?” She gave me the look of incredulity that teenage girls own, and responded, “What else would I be?” I’m thrilled that both my kids – a young woman and a young man – would respond to that question in the same way.