There’s a saying among mothers that never fails to bring me down: “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.”
To the extent that this describes emotional enmeshment between mother and child, we as moms need to separate from our daughter’s failed tryout and our son’s broken heart. Overidentification isn’t helpful or healthy for mother or child. We won’t be able to help them through the pain if we feel it as deeply as they do.
And yet there is a permanent connection between a mother and her child, as visceral and profound as humans can experience. God describes this bond to Eve before she ever even becomes a mother:
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you will bring forth children.” (Genesis 3:16)
Nancy Guthrie writes as a mother who knows: “There is no epidural powerful enough to overcome the pain that is connected not only to birthing but also to being a sinner raising a sinful child in this sin-cursed world.”
We parents are sinners.
If there was ever anything I wanted to do well, it’s love my children. Never have I been more motivated to goodness, more earnestly desiring wisdom, more eager to love from a pure heart, than with my three sons.
And yet I am still so stubbornly imperfect. When my kids were babies, I gloomily craved sleep and mourned the loss of my pre-motherhood “freedom.” When my kids were toddlers, I chafed and grew irritable with long days at home with little people. When my kids were school aged, I nagged and fussed and trained them for performance and perfectionism without even realizing what I was doing. When my kids were in high school, I doubted God’s goodness and fell into prayerlessness because I did not see Him answering my prayers in my way according to my timeline. Now that they are emerging adults, I still want to control their lives, still have the delusion that I am even qualified to do so.
Facing my sins and inadequacies as a mother humbles me and this is God’s good sanctifying work, but it hurts.
We are raising sinful people.
Sin distorts a child’s view of his parents’ care for him. A mom I know experienced this firsthand. Her son had played baseball from tee-ball through high school. For all those years, his mom had attended nearly every game, driven to numerous out-of-state travel ball tournaments, paid for outrageously expensive batting lessons, and stayed up late nights scrubbing his baseball pants white as snow for 8 am games. Years later in a counseling session with her son, who had become depressed in college, this mom heard for the first time that somehow he “never felt supported” in his pursuit of baseball.
No matter what we give our kids, we cannot control how they receive what we give them. Our heavenly Father parents us perfectly as we misunderstand, disobey, and reject His work in our lives all the time. We cannot be surprised when our kids act just like we do.
Our children live in a sinful world.
Mothers suffer with their children, alongside their children, because of their children. Nothing drives me to my knees like being a mother. But Jesus always meets me there and lifts my head to see Him more clearly. And when I begin to see Him at work in our lives, the joy and the hope I feel makes every sorrow easier to bear.
Jesus knows what mothering feels like.
During the last week of His life, Jesus deliberately identifies with the longing of mothers who watch their children suffer: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How long would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23: 37). The image of a mother hen separated from her chicks by sin is at once instinctive and maternal, powerfully conveying the depths of Jesus’ grief over the lost. The unmistakable yearning in his voice is the yearning of every mother who longs to draw a wayward child close. Jesus understands how deeply a mother wants to protect her children. He knows what it feels like to have His love rejected by the very ones He loves most.
Jesus lost His life in order to bring forth new life for us and in us. Hours before his death, he told His disciples of the labor He would endure now that His hour had come, but He promised them great joy that would wipe away the pain: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again…” (John 16: 20-22)
He is the Savior we mothers need; He is the Savior our children need, the Savior we can never be for them.
Paul knew the pain of mothering too.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (4:19).
Paul experiences something like what a mother feels. The pain the Galatians cause him only increases his tenderness towards them. They are his “dear children.” Mother-love compels us to press closer in affection to the ones we disciple, especially when they suffer. When our children struggle, we only love them more. This increases our suffering, but it also increases our love.
Note, too, that the pain of childbirth is intense – anguish, Paul says – and ongoing. Like Paul, moms know what it is to labor for our kids again and again and again. Our hope in Him gives us courage to persevere, because there is a glorious end goal of that labor, “Christ formed in you.”
The fondest hope and deepest prayer of a Christian mother is exactly this: Christ formed in her child. And mothers will joyfully suffer whatever God requires of us to help bring forth Christ in our sons and daughters.
Think about what you may have endured in adopting, in conceiving, in pregnancy, in childbirth. Waiting, praying, yearning, laboring to hold a child in your arms. We mothers fought for the privilege to continue to fight for a child. To battle spiritual forces of darkness on our knees. To wrestle our fleshly desires for comfort, ease, a good night’s sleep.
We fight, rustling through the pages of our Bibles. We bite our tongues until they are nearly bloody, waiting on the Holy Spirit to give a word of life to speak. We let them go and let them stumble and let them fail. We hug and soothe and comfort and encourage when our own hearts are breaking. “In pain you will bring forth children…”
This is hard and holy work. Yet we find unspeakable joy in the suffering, because Jesus invites us to partner with Him to see Him formed in our children.
And in the process, Christ is formed in us too.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be…
Be sure to read our Mother’s day article from Monday here and check back with us on Friday!