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The Mother in Me

I learned how to be a "mom" to others, even though I didn't have children of my own.

It was the most dreaded day of the year.

Maybe I should just skip church and stay home under my covers. Pretend it's an ordinary day, I thought. Instead, my husband and I headed for church. Once seated in the back, rather than in my regular pew, I looked around at the other women who seemed to glow this morning. They wore corsages. I buttoned my raincoat, grateful for the morning drizzle that gave me an excuse to hide my uncorsaged dress. As long as nobody says anything, I thought, I'll be okay.

The music started with Bach. I studied my bulletin and almost believed I'd make it through the service until the pastor got to the microphone … "Happy Mother's Day!" he said to the congregation of proud moms. Happy Mother's Day.

For seven years I'd wanted children, prayed for children—but my womb wouldn't hold a child. Mother's Day marked the childless years for me, underscoring what felt like my failure to become a mom. My husband tried to help by giving me a corsage or volunteering to stay home with me. But we'd run out of ideas on how to survive the day.

In church, when all the mothers were asked to stand so we could pray for them, my pain came to a head. I knew women were standing who'd never wanted to become mothers. I'd heard other women complain regularly about the burdens of motherhood. Yet there they stood, and there I sat. Mother's Day hurt.

It was a week after a particularly grueling Mother's Day when I began finding a path through some of the pain of my childlessness. I'd been attending an inner-city church in Southside Chicago, where I taught a small Sunday school class of junior high students. One girl, Tanya, belonged to a gang and brought me to wit's end dozens of times during the year. That Sunday, I'd spent half our class time trying to get Tanya to stop punching the other girls.

Tanya didn't stay for church. But as she slipped out the back door, she called to me over her shoulder, "See you around, Mom!" She laughed and made her exit. But before she turned away, I caught her eye. She meant what she said. In some way, I was like a mother to that strong-willed girl who liked to act so tough.

That Sunday, God gave me a glimpse of an extraordinary calling: He could give me spiritual children. I could serve as a mother to a world full of people who need the love I have to give!

I started actively praying for children who needed someone to act like a mother to them. As soon as I opened my heart, my mind began filling with possibilities. There was one seventh-grade boy in my class who needed someone to talk to. He thought he should be able to date but his parents wouldn't allow it. All his friends had girlfriends. I didn't tell him anything his parents hadn't already said—but it helped him to hear it from someone else.

Another classmate, Rosa, only came to Sunday school class twice. But God urged me to pray for Rosa "like a mother" long after she left. Many mornings when I awoke, Rosa was the first thing on my mind. I prayed God would reveal himself to her, and that she would listen. I asked God to give her a Christian friend, a classmate to help her say no to temptations. I prayed for her school work, her teachers, her parents.

As I began to experience spiritual motherhood with the children in my Sunday school class, I prayed God would give me unconditional love for them. I soon realized that telling my Sunday school kids I loved them didn't go far enough. I had to show it. So I took them to the zoo. Sunday afternoons we played softball in the park. One girl started showing up before Wednesday night prayer meetings so I could help her with her math homework. Several times Tanya stopped coming to my class. Each time, I went looking for her at her home or at the school yard. And every time Tanya was amazed that I wanted her back.

I wasn't the only one caring as a mother in the small missions church in inner-city Chicago. I got to know Karen, who studied nights at a city college. Despite a busy schedule, she still found time to look out for Juanita, a thirteen year old living with a grandmother and eleven siblings. Karen made sure Juanita stayed in school and did her homework.

About the same time, Karen's mother took a ten-year-old girl under her wing. She bought the child school supplies and talked regularly to her about the Scriptures. Another woman in the church bought eyeglasses for a boy whose mother couldn't find the time or money to take him for an eye exam.

We may never realize this side of heaven the powerful impact we can have on someone else.

Mothers are doers—caring unselfishly in practical ways such as giving rides to church or school activities, helping with homework, or babysitting. Or it may show up in the form of hospitality—giving someone a place to stay.

Erin and her husband have no children of their own, but their home is the place high schoolers bring their friends when they want them to see a good, Christian couple, when they want them to hear the gospel, or when the teens themselves want someone to listen.

At my own church, the youth pastor and his wife have no children of their own, but they are like parents to dozens of kids. They have a God-given capacity to love and relate to teens, some of whom barely speak to their own parents. One teenager says, "When they ask me how I'm doing, they really want to know. Most people just want you to say fine. I always feel they actually care how I'm doing. So I tell them."

In some cases, we might see the effect we have on another's life. But in others, we may never realize this side of heaven the powerful impact we can have on someone by being like a mother to him or her.

That's the case with Margaret, a widow, who showed unconditional love for her neighbor, eight-year-old Steven, one of the least lovable kids in the neighborhood. He and his mother had lived in a commune for more than a year. Steven never knew his father. Already he'd learned the art of lying. Some days Steven responded to Margaret's love, coming over unannounced to rake her leaves or bring her the morning paper. Other days, he made fun of "the old lady" behind her back. But every day, Margaret showed Steven she was glad to see him. She cut out newspaper articles about his class at school, field trips they had taken, subjects she knew interested him. She asked for a picture of him. Margaret invited Steven and his mother for dinner. And she prayed for both of them.

When Steven and his mother moved away, Margaret grieved. But she knew she'd played an important role in Steven's life. She tried to keep in touch through cards and letters, but eventually lost contact with them. Yet to this day, she hasn't stopped praying for Steven and his mother.

Like Steven, Peg is a woman who, as a young rebellious child, benefited from a spiritual surrogate mom. Now sixtysomething, Peg lights up when she talks about Mrs. Kowaski. "For as long as I could remember, Mrs. K. lived next door alone," she says. "Her home was a second home to all of us kids in the neighborhood. We didn't go there for the Bible stories she'd tell us. We went for cookies. But we knew her and trusted her as a mother. To this day, I believe God used her prayers to bring me to Christ. I went the long way around—through alcohol and back. I wish Mrs. Kowaski hadn't died before I made it 'back.' But someday, I'll tell her about it in heaven."

Spiritual mothering doesn't have to be limited to young children. For example, a college friend of mine was known as "Mom" by four sophomores. Only two years their senior, she had been instrumental in leading them to Christ. She nurtured them and became their spiritual mother. Age doesn't have to be a limiting factor in spiritual motherhood.

Another friend, Janice, talks about a time when she needed a mother. Her husband left her with three small children and no money. She couldn't make the rent and didn't know where to turn. That's when her aunt stepped in, acting like a mother to her.

"Aunt Ruth, who lived a few miles from me, took me in with all three kids," Janice says. "She listened to me, but never asked about things I didn't want to talk about."

I can't name a person who stands out as being a surrogate mother to me, but several women have offered unselfish care when I needed it most. During one of my toughest seasons of life, my friend Laurie checked on me every day and simply did whatever she saw needed doing—laundry, work on my car, grocery shopping. She'd drop by with salad and fruit to make sure I was eating well. Other women have been around at just the right time, with just the right word of advice or encouragement.

When we long for children but don't have them, a vacuum can develop deep inside us. I believe it's God who gives us the desire for children, the desire for motherhood. Where else would we get a yearning to serve, to love unconditionally, to give unselfish care?

Since God gave us the longing, only God can fill it. God may eventually give you biological children. That's up to him. But right now, this minute, we can allow him to fill that vacuum with spiritual children. We can answer God's call for spiritual motherhood, a powerful and fulfilling role in its own right.

This Mother's Day I'll rejoice, as I have for a number of years now, in my two adopted daughters and my stepson. I'm now legally one of the standing moms in church on Mother's Day. But I pray that I never forget the pain of those past Mother's Days or the high calling God challenged me to.

The call to be like a mother to others hasn't ended because I now have children. There are enough people out there who can use a spiritual mother. As great as the joy of motherhood is, there is another joy not to be missed. John wrote, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children [spiritual children] are walking in the truth" (3 John 4). Don't miss the joys of spiritual motherhood!

Dandi Daley Mackall is author of Kids Are Still Saying the Darndest Things , more than 20 books for adults, and more than 100 books for children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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