I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the joyful mother vs. the joyless mother. I’ve started several posts but I can’t seem to sort out my thoughts coherently. Or more accurately, there are too many components to the topic and they all get jumbled into a muddy mess.
So here I’m biting off a smaller chunk: the need to know yourself and your tendencies as you mother. A decent amount of press is giving to the importance of understanding your kids… studying them; knowing their love language; figuring out what makes them tick. And this is vitally important. But it’s just as important to pay sufficient attention to ourselves, our tendencies and needs, our energy level, and the state of our own souls as we mother. To know ourselves.
Last spring I ran across a book called The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett. If you’re like me, you’ve encountered a dozen personality tests since you took Psych 101 – or the equivalent – years ago. But this book was different. The Bennetts lay out the four basic temperaments that have been around since the fourth century BC when Hippocrates systemized them as medical theory, and they do so in a direct, God-focused way. When I read their three-page summary on the melancholic personality, I literally felt as though I were reading a bio someone had written about my husband. He read it and was equally awed; we both felt we understood him and his drives better as a result of the book’s insights.
Ever since I’ve been thinking about the unique ways that God made each of us. Of course on paper we know that we’re unique. We can describe ourselves to others – “I’m an extrovert” or “solitude fuels me” or “I’m pretty laid back.” But often we kind of ignore these realities when it comes to how we live, function, parent. We often charge right ahead with life choices we see those we admire making, or something inspiring we read about, or general assumptions vaguely based on biblical teaching. We often don’t bring our own personal realities, limitations, giftings, preferences, needs into the basic arenas of our lives.
But this will not do; we must know ourselves. God made us intentionally and uniquely; our lives are a gift from Him. Also we belong to Him and not ourselves. If we are steward the lives God’s given us, we must know what it is we’re stewarding. We must reflect and pray. Am I advocating navel-gazing? Certainly not. I’m advocating allowing God to shine His light on our hearts and minds, revealing our drives and desires and idols so that we may, through His grace and work, become the people He desires us to become. For how can we cultivate gifts that we don’t acknowledge? How can we lay down idols we have not recognized? How can God turn our weakness into His strength if we won’t acknowledge limitations or weaknesses? Where we don’t or won’t see ourselves as we are, we cannot allow God to bring us forth to freedom and full life in Christ.
And this has everything in the world to do with mothering. As I’ve pondered joyful vs. joyless mothering and read admired Christian bloggers (like Elizabeth and Andrea) writing about losing their joy, so much of it seems to boil down to losing the sense of self (the self God gave them) in the vast morass of meeting others’ needs. Of course serving, putting others first, and meeting needs is exactly what we signed up for when we became moms, so the lines are inevitably blurry. And thus the enemy has ample room to bring pressure, guilt, and lies like “of course you don’t feel joyful in such an intense season, so keep slogging through till the kids get older.”
It’s true that mothering young children is an intense, often thankless job that leaves us weary. It’s true that we will often feel frazzled and overwhelmed, sometimes daily or hourly. But it’s not true that joylessness is OK in this season. Burnout and depression are not from God no matter the season of life; this is not the life Christ died to give us. Freedom in Christ is the inheritance of every Christian, even overtired mothers of young children.
I am not, by the way, burned out and depressed. But I’ve been more stressed than God or I like, and I have noticed growing joylessness across months. And I’ve felt God calling me on it, and calling me to something different. The answer in my case is not, somewhat surprisingly, counting my blessings or trying harder or sucking it up more. The primary answer [and this is where knowing myself and praying through my situation is vital] is changing up some facets of our family life – our schedule, my workload, (the quantity of) my kid-free times of refreshment.
We must know and value our own souls as God does. If we fail to do so, we can actually – by our own efforts to be godly mothers – do violence to our own spirits and even, inadvertently, to our families. This doesn’t honor God. He isn’t pleased when His children are trodden upon, even when we ourselves are the ones doing the treading. We must steward our own joy level in conjunction with Christ – to honor God and for the sakes of our husbands, children, and ourselves.
A friend asked me: “Would your kids rather have an angry, burned-out mom who’s using good self-control to get through the day, or a joyful mom?” Great, ponder-worthy question. (I note I covered aspects of this topic 18 months ago when I was at a different place; this issue is an ongoing one probably throughout life and motherhood.)