Running the Marathon of Motherhood

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“Your kids will grow up in the blink of an eye.”

“Don’t worry, this season will end and things will get easier.”

“Just love them unconditionally! That’s all you need to know.”

I’ve heard these clichés often over the last 21 years of being a mom. A few weeks ago I sat beside my husband in Jameson Hall, UCT, at the graduation of our eldest daughter, Jessie. It was a blast from the past, with memories of my own graduation in the same hall 27 years beforehand. It felt like yesterday that I was a carefree student posing for photos in my cap and gown, brimming with excitement for the future– A future in which only three people featured– Me, Myself and I. Three years later I got married and admitted as an attorney. Life continued as usual, with perhaps a slight modification to my expectations of the future– now featuring Me, Myself, I, and My Husband as the main characters.

jess grad

But four years after tying the knot, on the coldest day of 1996, I brought home my adorable, but screaming, insatiable, colicky baby girl from the hospital, and this was the event that turned my life upside down. Motherhood changed my narrative irrevocably. By 2003 I was the mom of three daughters and a son, lost in the thick forest of nappies, naps, feeding, taxi driving and daily routines that were determined by my four children. My vision for the future was impaired by sleep deprivation and mom-brain, which remained unabated for at least a decade. The actors in my life narrative did not feature Me, Myself or I. In fact, these characters were nowhere to be seen in the cast. I wondered if the old Me would ever return to the set.

The truth is that it is hard to keep perspective when you are a mom in the trenches of raising small children. But through the lens of my own daughters (now aged 21, 16 and 14) and my son (aged 19), I look back at the last two decades and have clarity about two things:

First, I trusted in God too little as a mother, and second, I underestimated the power of small but important things done day after day, year after year over a long period of time. 

Here are some insights from hindsight to share with a younger Christian woman in the turbulent ocean of motherhood. I hope that they will anchor you, so that you do not become a prisoner of the tide.

You are raising your children for eternity, not just for bedtime or an “easier” season when they are older.

Keep looking into the eyes of your children and know that God loves these little people deeply and has entrusted them specifically to you to lead them to Himself. He has not made a mistake in making you the mother of your children, and Jesus invited all children to come to him. They are your ‘homegroup’, your mission field and your closest community. They are the lambs you feed first, as you have been appointed as their shepherd. They are the first targets of Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, (starting at home) “teaching them to observe all that I have taught you”.  If we are Christ-followers and believe the truth of the Gospel, this is one job we have to do diligently. I have learned over the years that I cannot force my children to love the Lord, but I know that to be winsome and credible, we need to have a living, intimate relationship with Jesus ourselves. Children smell hypocrisy a mile off, and the Gospel is primarily caught, not taught. Early on in my mothering, I read God’s command to the people of Israel and felt its weight as a mother:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

I have plastered sticky notes with verses and reminders all over my house, but over the long haul this passage has been my rudder more than any other. Think of it like this: Loving the Lord our God with our heart, soul and might is intricately connected with the act of taking God’s words into our own hearts and passing them down to our children, day in and day out, like a baton in a relay.

Loving God and obeying his design for parenting cannot be separated.  

As God’s covenant people, Christian moms have more to talk of with our children than the Israelites, because we live after Jesus and the New Testament. We not only have God’s precepts and wisdom for living from the Old Testament, but also the Gospel which gives flesh and bone to these principles of truth. If you have ever objected to being your child’s teacher, God’s Word takes issue with that! Every mom is a teacher and we cannot leave this task to school or any other person, no matter how much we have on our plate. Your work as a mom is done line upon line, precept upon precept, over a long period of time– it is never instant or once off.  It is strange how, at the time, I thought none of my children were listening to me reading Leading Little Ones to God or The Child’s Story Bible or Little Pilgrim’s Progress— sometimes we nodded off before the end of our devotion! But today they all remember the time we spent reading books, memorising Scriptures, praying together and going to Bible Tots. The Holy Spirit did not allow his Word to come back empty and by God’s grace all of our children have soft hearts towards the Lord, although this was not always so. Small family habits, rituals and casual conversations over many years do not have the power to save our children, but they are like the careful laying down of paper, twigs and firelighters in a hearth, ready for the Holy Spirit to light the match and breathe life and warmth into cold hearts.

You are in this for the long haul!

I was under the false impression that mom’s work would be done in a decade but nothing could be further from the truth. Talking about God to your children really hots up when they become teenagers and young adults! High school and university are breeding grounds for postmodern thinking which says that truth is what we feel, and only unintelligent, unscientific people have faith in a supernatural creator. Moms need to be around to talk to their older kids about how God’s purposes relate to evolution, science, transgenderism, marriage, sex, relationships, pornography, work, philosophy and psychology. Our children need to become thinkers, as opposed to robots who process information and accept ideas without thinking through their implications for all of life. Our four children are always being challenged by fellow students and teachers at school and university, by movies, TV and social media. Moms need to be on our toes, so that our teenage children can respectfully give a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15).  Here are some resources I have found helpful in equipping my children to answer the Questions Christians hope no one will ask. Apologetics videos and debates, you tube and podcasts are powerful tools to use with teenagers. Make sure your older children get to RZIM events on South African campuses and churches. Like us, our children need a firm rudder so they are not prisoners of the tide. Extended family, the Church, home group and Christian friends are great allies in leading our children to the Lord, so stay connected to the body of Christ.

The monumental task of mothering is God’s work.

Every day as a mother is a never-to-be-repeated moment in time– a trust from God our Father. Mothering is God’s work as much as any other career or vocation. In Genesis 1 and 2 we are told that God made men and women in his own image, to be fruitful and multiply, and to rule and reign over his Creation. This is not just about giving birth! As image bearers, we are called to create order from chaos like God did at Creation; to be fruitful in our work and to govern and bring order to our sphere of influence, which is our homes for much of our lives. If you are a mom who feels your work is futile, endless, meaningless and insignificant; if you are seeking God’s purpose for your life and His design for your work; if you are looking for a way to serve in ministry, this perspective on motherhood is radical: Motherhood is your primary work and ministry for many years.

It is easy to get bogged down in the moment instead of living with the end in mind. There is a subtle message in our culture whispering that moms are supposed to tolerate their children until they are more civilised and that school will teach them to behave. Since the roots of a child’s moral and character development are established between 18 months and 11 years old, this is a dangerous lie. Put another way, a mother’s work will have by far the greatest impact on the character of her adult children than any other influence. The worst advice I ever received as a mom was to ignore my child’s bad behaviour, and the best advice was from an author called Kevin Leman who has written a number of excellent books on parenting and marriage, including the sensible Parenting your Powerful Child. The bottom line is: character flaws in your child will be entrenched rather than diminished as they grow older, unless you step in with loving correction and training.

There is nothing futile or meaningless about endless cycles of wiping up messes, feeding and cleaning children, comforting them when they are sick or hurting, helping them with homework, speaking kindly, correcting and discipling, talking to them about how to deal with temptation and welcoming strangers in your home. God sees this unseen work and it is good in his eyes. Whether you are a working or stay-at-home mom, a widow or single mom, a mom in children’s ministry or a woman who looks after other people’s children, be assured that your contribution is not related to  financial rewards or approval.

Paid or unpaid, recognised or unappreciated, your undercover boss is always Jesus.

You are Jesus’ image-bearer, his hands, feet and mouthpiece, and Jesus says your work is good. Your mothering matters. It is service to the King of Kings. It is a contribution to your family and society. When you feel distracted or FOMO, or when you want to throw in the towel, remember Nehemiah’s reply when Sanballat tried to divert him, “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down!” (Nehemiah 6:3)

Harness the strength of surrender!

Moms need to learn to raise the white flag of surrender instead of believing the myth that we are in control. There is strength in surrender. We tend to overthink, overanalyse, worry too much and fret about things we can’t control. Peace will only come through the surrender of these things to the Father who loves us and cares for the details and uncertainties of life this side of heaven. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is our greatest example of surrender. She exchanged her vision of the future as a devout Jewish wife and mother for crazy obedience to God’s plan. She embraced all the weaknesses, struggles and anguish of raising the Messiah and watching him die on a cross. She agreed to be all that God intended her to be even at great cost to her own expectations, and God honoured and favoured her. (Luke 1:30)

Surrender to rest and restoration.

We sometimes confuse busyness with fruitfulness, refusing to take care of our own needs until we hit the wall. That isn’t smart because the whole pack of cards goes down when mom goes down. Find what you love doing– what restores your energy– and do it often. For me, being in the sun and running in nature fills up my cup so that I can live with joy and contentment. Without the soul food of prayer, God’s Word and connection with the people I love and trust, I quickly get depleted. Take time to prepare and eat nutritious food and allow yourself to lie down for a long deep sleep when you feel weary. Neglect the warning signals of your body at your peril! This is not a sprint. A long marathon always includes walking and resting along the route.

Surrender to repentance.

My children have been a test of my faith because being a mom has often brought me to my knees in desperation! They have extracted fears and insecurities I never knew I had, including some dark and difficult things– a temper, need for approval, self pity, self indulgence, self righteousness– to mention just the tip of the iceberg. Be sure of this, moms: You will sin and your children will sin, over and over again. I am convinced that we have been put in our homes to show, in a personal and sometimes painful way, what it means to live in a humble state of confession, repentance and forgiveness.  The hardest script to learn is: “I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me!” Yet, these nine words are potent and necessary for our children to hear and learn to say often for the sake of their own relationships.

Surrender to prayer.

You will never convert your children or control their free will. But the Holy Spirit can draw your children to himself, awaken their hearts to God’s love, and open their eyes to understand the Gospel. He alone can win them over. This is why we need to to surrender in prayer every day. I have seen the miraculous fruit of nagging God on my children’s behalf over and over again and I am convinced that the earnest prayers of a believing mom are powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

Surrender to dependence.

You will never find the strength, wisdom, joy and patience required for the mom-journey in yourself or your gifts, but God promises to supply all your needs, day by day, like manna in the desert. You will never be given a week’s supply, only a day. Self sufficiency is a useless crutch for a mom, so surrender it once and for all.

“Restlessness and impatience change nothing except our peace and joy. Peace does not dwell in outward things, but in the heart prepared to wait trustfully and quietly on Him who has all things safely in His hands.” Elisabeth Elliot.

Surrender to the Saviour.

You will never find ultimate satisfaction in your children or a human relationship. Do trust in Jesus and rest in him alone, in every season of motherhood, from crib to empty nest and beyond. Model to your children what trust means in practical everyday life. Otherwise, the world will lead them to believe that friends, a partner, blessings, wealth, achievements or popularity will satisfy them.

Surrender your expectations.

You will never be the ideal mom and will never raise the perfect child. You risk losing your child’s heart when you disapprove of him/her as a human being or act like you’ve got it all together.

Teach your children to make the best of whatever crumbs they find in their hands, instead of always searching for a feast of false expectations.

May all of us respond to God’s vision for our lives with the surrender of Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Surrender your hurts.

Surrender your anxiety and failures, fears, regrets, doubts, pain and sickness to Jesus, and practice this as a family, so that your children witness Christ’s redemptive power and comfort in this messy business of life. You will never escape hardships in your family and sometimes will be hit by wave after wave of disappointment or anguish. But there is hope: Disappointments are God-appointments for the Christian family. My own experience is that in suffering we either run towards Jesus or away from Him. We either experience firsthand that nothing can separate us from the love of God, or we stagger in our own strength under the unbearable weight of pain. The choice is ours, and we bring our children along with us.

Finally, bless your family!

Family rituals are powerful and moms can make these happen.

Get your family together regularly to thank God for his provision and bless each member verbally, including your husband. It may feel unnatural at first, but soon your children will bask in the sense of identity and unity they gain from being part of a family that serves the Lord, stands together and depends on His grace. It is so easy for us to criticise and shame our children or dishonour our husbands as we rush to meet the demands of school and work, but blessing family members aloud is a lifetime gift that costs us nothing. Simple words like “I’m proud of your perseverance,” “You handled that setback incredibly well this week,” “Thank you for being an amazing husband” are soothing for the soul.

We have a formal ‘blessing’ dinner on Saturday evenings to remind ourselves of God’s  provision and to honour and encourage our children. It is modelled on Shabbat which Jewish families celebrate on Friday evenings to prepare for the Sabbath. Pete leads the service, in which each family member participates, and then we enjoy a special dinner together. The explicit blessing of this dinner has enriched us all greatly.

Happy Mother’s day!

Moms, my prayer is that you will know that every day is Mother’s Day! Each new morning is a unique opportunity to bless and bring life to your home. You have been given an epic marathon to run, which morphs and meanders over the years, but never  gets less challenging or less significant. Don’t waste a single day on needless fretting, nor underestimate the longterm power of small habits, repeated day after day, in love.

“Let your eyes look straight ahead. Fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet. And take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or left.” (Proverbs 4:25-27)

P.S. As for “Me, Myself and I“, the characters that got lost in motherhood– don’t worry about surrendering them! They may leave the cast for a while, but you will find your true self again and it will be a better version of the “me” you left behind. Jesus himself promised that if we want to save our life we will lose it, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)