Like most women, I changed profoundly when I became a mother. For starters, there emerged within me a person I had never met, a person I liked very much?a loving, caring, nurturing woman who thrived on providing for her little one. I watched her amazed.
But another person emerged who was not nearly as attractive. She was frazzled and angry and impatient. She snapped at her husband, lost her temper quickly and sometimes even resented losing the freedom she'd once had. And I watched her in amazement.
In his classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson begins with the doctor saying, "I stood already committed to the profound duplicity of life, that humankind is not truly one but two. And that these polar twins should be continuously struggling." Who would have guessed this same polarity exists in motherhood?
The apostle Paul describes this internal struggle between the good and the evil in us when he writes, "I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Rom. 7:21-23). Paul would have made a great mother.
Along with the after-effects of childbirth, the intense emotions equated with being a mother and the real tedium of raising children, these conflicting sides of motherhood are among women's best-kept secrets. Social Anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger writes in her book Ourselves as Mothers (Bantam), "The home is supposed to be a haven of love and good feelings. Thus it comes as a great disappointment to many women that it proves not to be so for them; for it is also a place where the ugliest and most destructive emotions are experienced, where there is disturbing interpersonal conflict. She hates what she has become. Happy as a woman may be to have a baby, and although she may enjoy being a mother, she must now pay the price of motherhood?the total and virtual annihilation of self."
Could This Be Me?
In Stevenson's story, the Jekyll character is a good person. He's a well-respected physician surrounded by good friends who hate to leave his dinner parties because he's so pleasant to be around.
The Jekyll side of motherhood is easy to find. For me, becoming a mom marked the first time there was a person in my life whom I loved more than myself. Before I had kids, I struggled with selfishness. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. But with the arrival of this other person, I didn't want to be selfish anymore. Even when I was hungry, I wanted to feed her first. Even when I craved sleep, her needs were more important. And I didn't really mind.
But as my first child grew older and I had two more children, my ability?and my interest?in selflessly giving to my children waned. I remember one day in particular. I had a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old, and an infant. I awoke to a fussy baby. He clung to me like a monkey hangs onto its mother and would not let me put him down.
Meanwhile my toddler was playing one of her favorite games, the one where she'd unroll the toilet paper and trail it through every room of the house. But that was only part of the game. Her favorite part was stopping in each room to take all the books off the shelves and tear their pages out. With a squalling baby in my arms, I couldn't possible catch up with her. And honestly, I didn't have it in me to deal with her if I had.
At the same time, my 3-year-old was begging me to play Candyland. I hate Candyland.
On top of that, a mound of dirty laundry threatened to suffocate us. There was no food in the house, and I had to go to the grocery store. At the grocery store, I had a baby clinging to me, a hyper toddler in the grocery cart and a 3-year-old running up and down the aisles, barely dodging the carts of innocent shoppers. To make matters worse, the grocery cart was so full I had to kick the pack of diapers down the aisle.
In the toilet paper section, I fought to hold back tears and to keep from running out. I stood there thinking, Look at me. What am I doing with my life?
Back at home, I unloaded the groceries, fixing lunch while the ice cream melted. Then I took the kids to the park, hoping to wear them out a little before rest time.
Now I know moms who can handle a day like this with unlimited patience and goodwill toward their children. But I am not one of those moms. By the time we returned from the park, I was a wreck. I hated myself. I hated my life. I hated my children. I put them in their rooms and shut the doors. Of course, none of them slept. I went into the garage, and I cried. I thought I was going to lose my mind.
The Mom in the Mirror
Discovering these two sides of myself shattered my illusions of who I was. I tried desperately to convince myself that my kids were doing this to me, or that maybe it was someone else's fault. This woman who seemed unable to manage caring for her family simply couldn't be me.
We all like to think we're good people. We read the paper or watch the evening news and think I'm not like those people. But after becoming a mother, I could no longer believe that. Looking back, I recognize that my tears in the garage were less about being frustrated with my children than about being frustrated with myself. It wasn't motherhood that was disillusioning, it was the recognition of my sinfulness. While I hadn't hurt my children, I felt a rage toward them that scared me. God was holding a mirror up to show me these two people who lived inside of me, to remind me that this Hyde character had been there all along. It just took three kids to bring it out.
I resolved to bring those two sides into balance. I thought I needed rest and time away and adult conversation. I did need those things, but more than those, I needed God.
My need for God was a desperate thing. I thought the only way I could connect with God was to approach him as I always had. Before I had children, that meant Bible study and prayer almost every morning. But I couldn't do that anymore. I could barely get myself out of bed and do the three-children thing.
Over time and with God's help I managed to set aside a few minutes each week for Bible study and prayer, but I also came to see that God was speaking to me in other ways. I felt God calming me, easing the stresses of my days as I began to notice the beauty of the world around me. When I shared tender moments with my children, I felt God giving me a reserve of love for them that could carry me through more challenging times. As a young mom, these reminders of God's help and love kept me connected to him in a season when otherwise I might have let him go.
Once I saw how much I needed God, I gradually began to see more of God. I turned to Scripture and found that all of the parenting images reveal more than instructions for raising children. They are pictures of God's love for us.
"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast," says Isaiah 49:15, "and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Is. 66:13). These verses speak of a mother's indescribable love for her children. Deep down, we all know that we will always do everything in our power to care for our children. More importantly, they tell of God's assurance that he will always be there, loving and transforming us, no matter how often Mommy Hyde rears her head.
Nancy Ortberg is a teaching pastor and co-director of assimilation in ministry services at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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