Even before he was born, my son interfered with my participation at church. The exhaustion of pregnancy sent me to bed at the same time as evening services began, and when I signed up to provide soup for the Lenten suppers, I had to send the food via my husband so that I could lie down. Since then, my little guy has steadily devoured ever more of my time and resources.
Not only am I prevented from volunteering for numerous roles that I might otherwise be well fitted for, but on the average Sunday morning I don’t even hear the whole sermon, because a small person is jumping up and down on my lap or bursting into tears when he is not allowed to bite the hymnal.
Yet motherhood has given me an opportunity to serve my neighbor, in and out of church, in new ways. The more obvious benefit is the instant connection to other mothers. I am able to go on playdates, chit-chat, form friendships, and offer an example of Christian living to women with whom I might not otherwise have as much in common. The shining, fresh, obvious humanity of babies breaks down barriers of race, socioeconomic status, and culture, and people are eager to interact with my smiling child. Babies are awesome that way.
Another way in which my son enables me to serve others is much more complex. In today’s culture, we sometimes think of children as a hobby or a lifestyle choice, as if trying to achieve the picture-perfect family was analogous to a love of golf or trying to become an artist. This makes child-rearing sound a bit selfish, especially if it absorbs the time that could otherwise be devoted to serving people outside of one’s own home. Children, however, are not extensions of ourselves and our desires. They are not cute little accessories that we pick up exactly three-and-a-half years into marriage.
Lately, I have been noticing a slew of online articles that say roughly, “Why didn’t anyone warn me that motherhood is a miserable job?” or arguing that society needs to acknowledge that motherhood is not for everyone, instead of “pressuring” women to hide the fact that they hate being moms. I think that these writers reflect the shock experienced by some parents when they realize that parenthood is at odds with our dominant cultural values. TV reality shows tell us to follow our dreams, but our insatiable children absorb the energy that would make those dreams possible. Disney tells us to trust our hearts, but our children’s needs and problems teach us that our hearts don’t always have the answers (and don’t always feel very loving). Culture everywhere says to pursue our own happiness, but child-rearing requires that we sacrifice our happiness for the good of others. Even the church sometimes seems to suggest that true spirituality lies in outreach programs that clash with the bedtimes of our kiddos.
These disadvantages of family life are actually good things. Children are not an overly absorbing hobby. They are people. They are the church. They are our neighbors. They are among those whose God-given role is to give us opportunities to serve the weak and the poor, the ugly and the tired, the temper-tantrum-throwing, poopy-diapered little fiends who take and take without a word of thanks. In doing so, we are brought face-to-face with own weakness, poverty, ugliness, and weary inadequacy. There we fall to our knees, again and again, and are shown the incredible mercy of our God.
Like many other members of the church, it is the vocation of children to provide us an opportunity to teach and serve. They fill this role in a special way. When we adults are allowed to choose our own ministry opportunities and match our perceived talents to the correct committee, we are sometimes able to maintain illusions about our own worthiness, intelligence, dedication, and shiny-haloed righteousness. Kids destroy that. We don’t pick them and their personalities; God does. That is part of the beauty of family. In his book Heretics (Hendrickson, 2007), G. K. Chesterton says that when we select our own companions, we live a more narrow life because we will inevitably pick out people like ourselves. When instead we must coexist with whoever happens to belong to our small town, our clan, or our family, we are forced into a broadening experience that reflects true reality. This teaches us, as Chesterton writes, “the fact that life, if it be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves.”
My son is a baptized member of the church, and I have the opportunity to serve him both by caring for his physical needs and by ensuring that he hears the word of God. When I wipe down his grimy highchair for the one-millionth time in a single day (my kid has a ravenous appetite), I am doing as spiritual a work as if I were leading the choir, because it is an act that comes from the faith that God gives me. When I teach him to fold his hands for bedtime prayer, this too is service to a member of the church. When I gently (but firmly) correct his effort to pull my hair during prayer times, this is yet another opportunity to care for the body of Christ.
Of course, motherhood is not given to everyone, and it is not our job to compare various roles within the church and to declare that one or another is more “useful” or more holy. Instead, it is our task to receive the vocations we have been given, whatever they might be, and rejoice in the opportunity to be the masks through which God works. In this act we follow a long line of biblical figures. Despite their excuses and resistance, their kicking and screaming and other weaknesses, God used them. I pray that in his mercy he will work also through me.