Unless you've been living in a bubble, you've probably heard about—if not watched—one of ABC television's breakout hits, the Sunday–night series, Desperate Housewives. In it, four suburbanites (and one prerequisite neighborhood floozy) live on upscale, picture–perfect Wisteria Lane. But things are not as perfect as they seem. One character in particular, "Bree," hides her turbulent emotions behind her perfectly coiffed, Martha Stewart–like image of the homemaker who dresses in a twin set and pearls, whips up gourmet meals, and drives her family nuts.
Although this television series' slick mix of sexual hijinks, intrigue, and comedy makes sweeping generalizations about women's roles, its popularity shows it strikes a nerve. Are there really lots of "desperate housewives"—or rather, "desperate moms"—out there?
Carla Barnhill, former editor of Christian Parenting Today and author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother (Baker Books), would say yes. Her experience as the mom of two, Emily and Isaac, and the experiences of the women she surveyed in 2003, led her to believe the weight of the perfectionist expectations Christian moms labor under is taking its toll.
"I was part of a series of nationwide Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) events and talked to lots of women there," says Barnhill. "A number of these moms talked about depression, even suicidal thoughts, and how they found help through their friendships with the other moms in their MOPS groups. I thought about what would have happened if these women hadn't had anyone to help them through these situations. I know at least one of them would have killed herself."
Moved by these woman—and the tragic story of Andrea Yates, the 37–year–old mentally ill Texas mother of five who in 2001 drowned her children one by one—Barnhill has been busy taking on the myth of the perfect Christian mother. In this exclusive CPT interview, Barnhill offers encouragement to fellow moms struggling to understand God's perspective on their role and their worth.
Christian Parenting Today: Have you ever felt like a "desperate mom"?
Carla: Sure! Being a mother is an exhilarating experience, one that has brought life to corners of my heart I didn't know were there. But sometimes parenting is so relentless, I don't feel as though I have the emotional or physical energy to keep going—like the time our daughter, Emily, kept waking us up at 3 a.m., wanting to sleep in our bed. There are plenty of times when I truly don't know if I'm handling a situation right.
As a mom, from the minute I open my eyes until the blessed moment I get to shut them again some 16 hours later, I'm on call. The responsibility never lets up. Motherhood comes with a tremendous cost. It's not just the lack of sleep or alone time. It's the unending burden of a role that has been undervalued and overly romanticized by our culture and the church.
CPT: What you mean by overly romanticized?
Carla: There's that evangelical version of Superwoman that's often used as an example of who a Christian woman ought to be. She's the mom who never looks frazzled, has well–behaved children, has a clean house, and makes the best casserole at the church potluck. She teaches Sunday school and plans lively family devotions. She never seems to doubt herself or her parenting abilities. She loves her life and never, ever dreams of running away from home. She's this ideal of who I think I should be—but I never measure up!
CPT: Where did this ideal come from?
Carla: Over the past 50 years, the evangelical church has made a big push to protect the family from what it sees as the secular culture's efforts to undermine it. Some of that's good—families need all the support they can get. But we've gone overboard, creating the idea that the well–being of our family should be our primary concern in life, even when it means neglecting the greater call of the gospel. I call that the "cult of the family"—and one of its biggest myths is that a good Christian mom is a stay–at–home mom. Other myths include the belief that moms love being moms all the time, that every woman should be a mother, that good moms are always patient and kind and loving, that the only way to truly be fulfilled is to have children.
CPT: A lot of women might agree with that.
Carla: My hope is that every mother feels content with where God's taken her. If a mom has that, she's where she should be.
But I'd also encourage those women to be on the lookout for moms who seem overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood. Women who feel good about their lives can offer strength and compassion to moms who desperately need it. They can provide childcare, prayer, even a cup of coffee and a listening ear to a mom who could use a caring friend. Of course, they also need to recognize that what makes them feel fulfilled might not work for someone else. We need to be careful about prescribing a way of life to other women. We need to help them follow the path God has for them, not the path we have for them.
I've had more than one fellow Christian criticize me when I worked outside the home—and not in a gentle, compassionate way. One woman told me I needed to quit my job and give it to a man who needed to support his family. She told me I needed to go back to the Bible to see what God had to say about working mothers. This woman knew nothing about my situation. She had no idea that at the time I was the one supporting my family while my husband did his student teaching. For this woman, there was only one way to be a Christian mother—and I was not it. But the reality is, the Bible doesn't tell us how to be a mother.
CPT: It doesn't?
Carla: No, it tells us a lot about how we are to live as God's people and how to treat others. But it doesn't prescribe only one way to discipline our children. It doesn't tell us if we should work or not. It doesn't say anything about homeschooling. It doesn't say we all need to be mothers or that those of us who are have to like it all the time. It doesn't say our children are the most important thing in the world.
The Bible isn't a collection of caveats; it's the story of God and God's people. We need to look at how our lives blend with the ongoing story of God's work in the world. God seems less concerned about the details—our marital status, whether we have children, the kind of work we do—than with our efforts to be faithful in all life brings to us. When we get hung up on the details of who's doing what, we end up missing out on the bigger picture.
CPT: So what's the "bigger picture" of motherhood?
Carla: It's that we're being shaped alongside our children. God's at work in us, whether we're at the office or in the kitchen. God's at work in our children, whether they're at the school down the road or the school in the living room. We need to make our parenting decisions based on prayer and listening to God's leading. When we do, motherhood becomes a practice of spiritual formation through which God is active and present. And that's when the real joy, beauty, and mystery of motherhood shine through.
When I was editor of Christian Parenting Today, I heard from so many readers about their struggles with their children. Women wrote these heart–wrenching letters about their sense of failure and their belief they weren't able to be the mom they thought they should be. They felt so alone and ashamed of not having all the answers. I just wanted to write back and say, "Oh honey, you're doing just fine! We all feel that way."
That's what happens when this incredibly complex relationship is condensed into a formula that's supposed to work for every woman and child. Constant pressure to live up to unrealistic ideals can lead women to serious problems like depression. This is one of the many reasons why we need to start being realistic about motherhood. The church needs to be the place where we can drop the veneer of perfection and be vulnerable with each other.
CPT: Have you struggled with depression?
Carla: Yes—but you'd never guess I was depressed. I got out of bed every morning to care for my children. My house was reasonably clean. I didn't sit around crying in a darkened room or leave my kids unattended while I slept away the afternoon.
There are a lot of moms like I was who go through their days with the veneer of having their act together, while inside they know they're barely managing to get through till bedtime.
I've found depression isn't always about not being able to function; it can be a response to the loss of an ideal about the life we thought we'd live. When we grow up with this image of ourselves as a loving, perfect mother, and then move into the reality of how challenging motherhood is, we run headlong into the loss of who we thought we could be.
CPT: Did that happen for you?
Carla: Yes, when my first child was 18 months old. I took Emily with me when I taught a class at a Bible camp where I'd worked during college. I wanted to spend time with some of my friends who were on staff, but Emily needed her afternoon nap and was in bed by 8 p.m., so my role as mom trumped my time lying out at the beach or sitting around the campfire. That was when I realized I'd lost something in becoming a mother. It didn't make me love my daughter any less, but it did make me aware of how different my life had become.
CPT: How has motherhood changed you?
Carla: I'm more tenderhearted now. When I see a mom in the grocery store struggling to manage her kids, I know she's trying. When I hear a news story about some criminal, I know that guy was once someone's little boy. I think it's helped me be a more gracious person, to try to see people as God's children.
On a spiritual level, motherhood has brought me face–to–face with some of my false perceptions of God. When Emily was born, I realized I didn't trust God to keep her safe. I felt so vulnerable, as though I finally had something so precious that if God really wanted to punish me, taking her way would be the way to do it. Now I realize trusting God doesn't mean nothing bad will ever happen to my children, but that God's walking with me in my parenting and will sustain me no matter what.
CPT: So what does myth–free motherhood look like?
Carla: It's recognizing motherhood is just one of the ways God shapes us. It isn't about how our kids turn out; it's about being open to God. When we think about motherhood as a practice of spiritual formation, it releases us from the notion there's one way to mother. After all, we know there's more than one way to pray, to find fellowship, and to serve.
Thinking of motherhood as a practice also allows women to find God in the midst of living with difficult children, rebellious children, a broken marriage, or the work/family balancing act. God's active and present in each of these challenges.
As a mom, I need to think about why I make the parenting decisions I make. Am I following God's lead, or am I letting our Christian culture push me toward something that doesn't feel right? Am I doing what my gut tells me is right for each of my children, or am I following some prescribed path because I want people to think I'm a good Christian mom?
God gave us our instincts, and we need to trust them. If we sense our kids are fine in public school, then we can be confident God is there with them. If we don't feel good about spanking, then we can be confident God will help us find other ways to discipline our children. We really can trust God to be bigger than one method of raising children, even when that method's framed in Christian ideology.
CPT: Can we measure our success as a mom?
Carla: Honestly, our focus should be on living faithfully in everything we do: in our parenting, our marriage, our friendships, and our work. And lives of faith always include failure, because we're works in progress. Every parent on the planet makes mistakes, so instead of beating ourselves up for all the ways we aren't perfect, we can seek God in our failures and allow him to redeem them in our lives and in the lives of our children.
The only real failure in motherhood is to close ourselves off to what God's doing in our lives, to focus so intently on our children that we miss the opportunities for growth and formation God has set all around us.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine. Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.