My friend Lynn and I sat on the couch in the family room, trying to enjoy a conversation and a cup of coffee while our boys, ages 15 months and 18 months, buzzed around us like fighter jets: dip, roll, crash, recover. ? prepare for takeoff again. My 3-year-old daughter was also on the floor, trying to build an elaborate block castle. Inevitably, one of the boys would make an emergency landing in the middle of a tower, and she'd shriek: "Mom! They're wrecking my stuff!"
"So we were planning to go to see Scot's folks this weekend. ? " I began. "Be careful!" I chided my son as he swooped dangerously close to my coffee cup.
"How long has it been since you. ? Don't touch that!" Lynn said as her son stood on tiptoe trying to reach one of Melanie's dolls that I had put up on a shelf.
We didn't know whether to laugh or cry over our attempt to talk to each other while refereeing squabbles and trying to keep the boys from spilling our coffee.
"Do you have quiet times?" she asked in confessional tone. "I mean, from the time he gets up until he goes to sleep, I don't have a minute to myself."
Lynn and I not only had kids the same age. We had guilt of the same kind, too. My sporadic quiet times with God were at the top of my guilt list.
What's on your guilt list? Not exercising enough, not eating right, not sticking to your family's budget, not having a clean-enough house, not being patient enough, not giving your husband or friends or parents or kids enough attention? Working moms may feel guilty for not being home, for putting their kids in day care. Moms at home may feel guilty for wishing they could get away from their kids for a while.
Since that conversation with Lynn, I've thought a lot about moms and guilt, and here's what I've realized: Guilt doesn't get me anywhere. Guilt does not make me a better person or a better mother. In fact, it hinders my growth. It doesn't inspire action, but rather, it inspires more guilt. I'm not talking about conviction over actual sin. That should inspire repentance. But guilt, at least as I define it, is feeling bad about things?many of which I can't control?without taking any steps to change them.
As far as I can tell, the only way to let go of guilt and grow toward God is to look at whom he created us to be, both as moms and as his children. To do that, there are three basic questions we have to ask ourselves.
Whom Am I Trying to Please?
My friend Teresa used to feel tremendous guilt because she puts her two preschoolers in childcare two days a week so she can work at a job she loves.
She ran into a lot of people who told her that "good Christian moms" stayed home with their children full time, except in cases of extreme financial hardship. But as Teresa thought about her gifts, her passions, her God-given desires, she realized God gave her a personality and temperament that needs more than motherhood to feel fulfilled. She wasn't just working for a paycheck, she found joy and fulfillment in her work.
"I need the outlet that work provides," she said. "But for a long time, I felt guilty because I was looking at other people's standards. Finally, I recognized that being at work two days a week made me a better mom the other five days."
If you work and feel guilty about leaving your kids, Teresa recommends asking yourself: "Whom am I trying to please?" Are you trying to please other people, or are you trying to please God, who wired you a certain way?
Instead of worrying about pleasing other people, Teresa began to focus on being the best mom and the best employee she could. She says that letting go of her guilt is an on-going process, and some days are better than others, but she knows she's a better mom when she concentrates on pleasing God and using the gifts he's given her.
What's Really Important to Me?
As I thought about my vague feelings of guilt, I realized that many of them stemmed from unrealistic expectations of not only other people, but myself.
When it comes to the person I think I should be, I tend to set the bar pretty high: a one hour daily quiet time of study and prayer; a perfectly clean house; homemade meals on the table, even on soccer practice nights; an exciting and romantic marriage; a loving and respectful relationship with my children built through quality- and quantity-time. I also try to volunteer at my church, exercise, and do some freelance writing. No wonder I felt like I couldn't live up to my ideals!
I couldn't do it all, so I decided to list two, maybe three priorities that were important to me and make sure those things got done. For me, time with God, quality- and quantity-time with my family, and writing are the essentials. Everything else is just gravy.
Since I'm not a very good housekeeper, a perfectly clean house was one expectation I quickly let go. My house has clutter and cobwebs. Most horizontal surfaces hold both dust and a few objects that don't belong there. But I read to my preschoolers every day. When it comes down to choosing between time with my kids and dusting, the kids win. That time with my children is immeasurably more fulfilling that a spotless house. (I do clean occasionally!)
I love to cook, so cooking a decent meal once or twice a week is a joy for me. But tonight, my husband was working, so my 5-year-old made French toast and I opened canned pears. And that's okay. You can't do it all, and once I realized that no one was expecting me to, I stopped feeling guilty every time I saw a dust bunny or served frozen pizza for dinner.
How Am I Measuring My Spiritual Growth?
When a company wants to see how it's doing against its competitors, it will benchmark other companies, comparing itself in productivity, employee benefits, quality management, etc. By benchmarking, they can measure their own progress and see where they are doing well and where they need to improve.
As a mother, I get mired in guilt and frustration when I use the wrong benchmarks to assess my spiritual growth.
We tend to think that the only way we can grow spiritually is to spend long hours in deep, quiet contemplation, or serve on a mission trip, or volunteer in the church office. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be more defeating to a mother who finds that taking care of her children feels like almost all she can do. Religious activity does not equal spiritual growth.
I realized I needed to look at my heart. Did my quiet time make me act more like Jesus, or less like him? Was I becoming more patient, more kind, more loving, more gentle? Was I letting God change me?
The guilt I felt over not getting in my self-prescribed hour every day was actually making me more easily frustrated and impatient. So I made a change. Now, instead of an hour of quiet time, I set aside 15 minutes in the morning to have coffee with Jesus while the kids watch a short video. I set the kids up with juice and cold cereal so they won't interrupt me. As I drink my coffee, I read a few verses from the Bible, and keep an open journal in front of me. Then I just pray, "Come, Lord Jesus." And I sit quietly. I imagine Jesus sitting with me, on the couch in winter, on the back deck in summer. Sometimes, I just sit and drink in the silence. Sometimes I write one sentence in my prayer journal, sometimes I fill a page with what feels like dictation from heaven. But I can usually attain, and many times exceed, my goal of 15 minutes with God. And from there, I can invite him to walk with me through the rest of my day.
On the days that I just can't get that 15 minutes in, I take a deep breath and remind myself that God is big, and he's got other ways of connecting with me. I have let go of feeling guilty about not having a quiet time and opened my eyes to seeing God in new ways.
For me, the most guilt-reducing revelation of all has been that being a parent, the very thing that so often keeps me from achieving my loftier goals, is bringing about more growth in me than anything else I could be doing with my time. The good news for guilt-laden mothers is that the grungy, seemingly insignificant work we do?cleaning up messes, wiping noses (and other body parts), preparing meals, dressing, changing, and bathing our kids?all of these things are ways to grow closer to God.
We are engaging fully in the discipline of service. If we can begin to view it as such, every little part of our days can be a way to connect with God. And all the parts of mothering that you love?like the way your little ones fly into your arms when you get home from work, or cuddling with a bedtime story, or drying your children's tears?not only bring you closer to your children, they please the heart of God.
God is not deducting points on some giant tally sheet in heaven because you missed your quiet time or your living room looks like Toys R Us. He's watching the way you trim the crusts off the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and cut it in triangles because that's how your toddler likes it. He's saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
When I get a glimpse of that truth, I can truly begin to let go of guilt.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.