Few things betray what I really believe about God like mothering—possibly because we often parent our children in the way we believe God parents us. It’s a thin place between not only us and the Spirit, but also between the theology we think we believe and what we actually believe.
Perhaps that is why so many of us struggle with our expectations of perfection for ourselves and for our children. Somehow, we’ve picked up the idea God expects perfection from us and is waiting for us to mess up so he can bring his full wrath down upon us. Sometimes it’s because of how we ourselves were parented or because of what we were taught about the nature and character of God, so we behave as if God is petty or vindictive, punishing, and exacting. We are as hard on our children as we believe God is on us. It’s difficult to let go of the lies when they’re ingrained into our minds and our hearts, manifesting in our behaviors.
Perfectionism is a strong temptation when it comes to mothering—not only in the impossible standards for ourselves but even in our attitude toward our children—possibly because we want to be assured there is a “right” way to mother. We want to believe if we do things the right way, we will have good kids, win at this mothering thing, and have a desired outcome. We also want to believe if our children are perfect, it means we did something right and good—and, therefore, we ourselves are right and good.
And when it comes to something as dear to our hearts as parenting our children, born in the deep places of our souls, these lies can take over until we’ve lost not only our own experience of God’s grace but also the hearts of our children to our fears.
Mothering On Our Walk With God
The truth about mothering is the same as it is about walking with Jesus. Rules and regulations, boundary markers and legalism, and one-size-fits-all only serve a dead religion. It’s lost the soul. Jesus led us away from a performance-based perfectionism or law-keeping in our relationship with God, demonstrating and living into a vital life he characterized in John 15 as “life in the vine.” In The Message, the words of Jesus are rendered like this: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing.”
This is such a different teaching, isn’t it? Our life is lived in a relationship intimate and organic. It is such a far cry from structuring our lives around laws. So much of what we consider “rules” or “standards” for a life of holiness before God are actually the simple fruit that comes from abiding in the vine and walking in the way. We don’t try to be more loving, we simply love. We don’t try to force ourselves into behavior modification, but instead the Spirit births the transformation. It bears such a similarity with our desires as mothers. We don’t want marionettes of behavior, simply meeting the bare minimums to stay out of trouble. Most of our mothering comes down to being Spirit-led, walking in trust and faith, rooted in what we know about the nature and character of our God. In that case, our relationships with our children are often born of that life-giving relationship, resulting in a heart connection and true transformation.
As e.e. cummings wrote, it takes a lot of courage to grow up and turn out to be exactly who you are. I have found one of the great joys of parenting is witnessing these small people grow up and turn out to be themselves, in all the dizzying complexity of wholeness.
Grace vs. Fear
When I look at the women around me who have raised the sorts of kids I want to raise myself—kids who have come alive to the kingdom of God and their purpose in it—I realize something. The kids themselves are all unique, which I love—their personalities, their giftings, their work, their passions, their temperaments. There’s not a cookie-cutter kid in the bunch. And the families and circumstances that raised them are equally unique, which I also love. In fact, some of those mothers have flat-out told me each kid required a different sort of parenting, sometimes on a situation-by-situation basis, with great amounts of prayer and faith. But the one thing these mothers whom I see as my examples have in common is this: the absence of fear-based, perfection-driven mothering.
Perfectionism is rooted in our fears, isn’t it? We fear we aren’t enough. We fear our children won’t meet their full potential. We fear letting our own parents, or church, or even God down. We fear wrecking our kids. We fear we aren’t worthy or valuable. So we end up parenting out of our worst fears for our children—and ourselves—instead of our best hopes. We end up defaulting to perfectionism because we are so deeply afraid of the alternative. We fear if we aren’t perfect or if our children aren’t perfect that everything will be ruined. In fact, Dr. Tim Kimmel, who wrote an excellent book called Grace-Based Parenting, flat-out says it: “Fear is a great way to wreck your kids.” I’d also argue it’s a great way to wreck a mama.
Of course, there are moments in our children’s lives that bear close scrutiny because they indicate a heart issue. Though it’s important to have high standards and expectations for our children, being grace-based instead of fear-based means we know how to lead and discipline out of our hopes instead of our fears, and we never lose sight of the Spirit and the big picture of grace as we mother. When we look to how God parents us or how God is revealed to us in Scripture, particularly in the life and teachings of Jesus who came to show us all the ways we had mischaracterized and misrepresented our Father, we see how this is lived so beautifully.
“Grace does not exclude obedience, respect, boundaries, or discipline, but it does determine the climate in which these important parts of parenting are carried out,” Kimmel writes in Grace-Based Parenting. “You may be weird and quirky, but God loves you through his grace with all of your weirdness and quirkiness. You may feel extremely inadequate and fragile in key areas of your life, but God comes alongside you in those very areas of weakness and carries you through with his grace. You may be frustrated, hurt, and even angry with God, but his grace allows you to candidly, confidently, and boldly approach his ‘throne of grace.’ His grace is there for you when you fail, when you fall, and when you make huge mistakes.”
In the beginning, before we know better perhaps, the voice of God often sounds like the voices of our parents. It would be nice if we created a wide path to follow straight to the truth of God’s nature and character, of his all-encompassing love and grace, instead of an unattainable height of perfectionism, a fear of failure, or never quite measuring up. In the beginning, until my tinies know better, I hope the voice of God breathes in my words and my life before them: loved-loved-loved-loved-loved thumping out a rhythm of belonging right into the ventricles of their core beliefs about the nature and character of God. And I pray I can offer myself that same grace, to mother out of my best hopes instead of my worst fears.
Sarah Bessey is the author of Jesus Feminist, a disarming and beautiful invitation to the kingdom of God waiting on the other side of the church’s gender debates. She is an award-winning blogger at SarahBessey.com, an editor at A Deeper Story, a contributor for SheLoves Magazine, and a passionate advocate for global women’s justice issues. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and their three tinies.