I was twenty-nine years old, married for five years, when it felt like the right time for my husband and I to head down the path of potential parenthood.
“Let’s start a family,” we said, touting this familiar phrase often bantered about in Christian circles, as if the two of us did not qualify for family status.
And let’s face it, in the Baptist church I grew up in, we really didn’t. The moniker “family” was strictly reserved for couples who had children, usually biological but sometimes also adopted. Having kids and being a mother was lauded as the pinnacle of Christian witness. The Holy Grail of being a godly woman.
Struggles with Infertility
When our first child took a couple years to arrive on the scene, my journey to motherhood was accompanied by tears, monthly heartbreak, and anxiety-inducing appointments with the fertility specialist. And while the physiology and biology of conception, pregnancy, and delivery were a grueling challenge for two years for my husband and I, the spiritual trauma was something I was unprepared for. Incessant questions at church about when we were going to “start a family.” Comments about my career and whether I was willing to “surrender” my own goals in order to be a “good mother.”
I will never forget one backhanded comment I received at the home of friends whom we had been in Bible study with for a few years. When several of the couples in the group began having kids, a series on parenting was suggested. One of the new mothers pulled me aside and suggested that my husband and I perhaps find a new Bible study as the topic would be irrelevant to us since we were childless. “After all, what would you have to contribute?”
For mothers and fathers only.
You have nothing to contribute.
She had no idea how much her words pierced my soul. I fought back the tears and withheld the lashing out this Enneagram 8 was ready to unleash. We quit going to that Bible study group. But I never forgot how she made me feel.
The truth is that she was merely repeating the messages both she and I had been taught as children and young women growing up in the Western evangelical church: motherhood is the highest calling for all women who aspire to be godly followers of Christ. We had to want it, be good at it, sacrifice for it, and protect it at all costs. Women who were not mothers were missing out.
Is Motherhood the Ultimate Womanly Identity?
So where did all this madness about motherhood begin? Where did these limiting, narrowly framed messages to women come from? Why does the value and worthiness of womanhood hinge on our ability to reproduce and raise children? And how did our capacity to contribute to meaningful, spiritual community become tied to our socially constructed role as mothers?
Well, let’s talk about patriarchy first. Patriarchy is a cultural system of dominance whereby males hold power over females in social, familial, political, and spiritual realms. Here, patriarchally defined gender roles create dominant cultural norms that support the notions of what is expected and permitted in public and private spaces for males and females. As a result, men have held positions of unquestionable power in the church for centuries. Patriarchal teachings in the church have been so thoroughly blended into the Western lens of biblical interpretation that it’s as if they were biblical rather than cultural.
Think about the early church. The disciples and the early followers of Jesus were trying to figure out this thing called Christianity. They were transitioning from the paradigm of Levitical priesthood to all of us being justified and equipped to lead ourselves and others (1 Pet. 2:4–10). The tension to dismantle male headship and level the spiritual playing field between women and men was immense. This was an entirely new relational framework working against thousands of years of deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions.
And social constructs are not easily dismantled. On the one hand, they can make clear the necessary work that needs to be done to sustain the community: hunting, farming, building, and cooking, taking care of the children, education, governance, and taking care of the elders. Everyone had a role to play. In any given period throughout history, your geography, cultural traditions, and religious practices would shape and define what these roles would look like for you.
When a group of people, however, challenge the boundaries of the dominant social structures, there will always be pushback. Those who benefit from the status quo may feel threatened and push back since it is not in their best interest to re-evaluate the existing social norms. In a Western evangelical context, there are also women who will push back because they believe their secondary position is God-ordained because of how they read the Bible.
What Do the Bible and History Really Say About Motherhood?
When we separate the cultural norms from the prescriptive teachings in the Bible, you may be surprised to discover that the Old and New Testaments actually say very little about motherhood. When we start studying the lives of the women of the Bible, we encounter not one archetype but rather dozens of multi-faceted, complex women who defy any one social construct of what, how, or who a woman should be.
Sarah was harsh and unkind yet became a mature mother who gave birth to the nation of Israel (Gen. 20–21). Barren Hannah made a bargain with God, begging for a child due to unrelenting societal pressures and then surrendering him when he was still a very young boy to the priest Eli (1 Sam. 1). Deborah was a ruling judge and military hero (Judg. 4–5). Esther became the Jewish Queen who saved her people from annihilation at the hands of her husband, the Persian King (Esther).
The accounts of these and many other ancient women shatters their one-dimensional status solely as mothers. We don’t always know how they taught their children or what kind of home they kept. We may not know if they had their grandchildren over or if they went to church or the synagogue. And yes, while patriarchal social constructs in their time would have limited their participation in public and religious life, we should pause to consider what’s going on here.
Women have always been much more than merely icons of motherhood. Their unique stories and accomplishments are diverse, even unexpected. They demonstrated great sacrifice, strength, and resiliency. Their bodies were more than human incubators. They were fighters and healers, devoted immigrant daughters, prostituted women—misrepresented, misunderstood, and often misused. Yes, many were mothers, but their stories transcend this single narrowly confining narrative.
Toward A Nuanced Understanding of Womanhood
It’s time to stop elevating the role of mother above the other profound and abundant experiences of the diversely gifted women in our faith communities. Our daughters and sons are pushing back. The social constructs we created and subsequently enshrined as “biblical truth” about what it means to be a godly woman are being stripped away. And rightfully so.
Instead of separating our “people with kids” from our “people without kids,” let’s reimagine mutuality through a lens of learning alongside one another as radical, intergenerational hospitality. What if we believed that every person’s experience had something uniquely valuable to teach us? Could we make authentic, humble spaces for such connections to flourish?
That was my strategy as I invested twenty years in vocational ministry with children, young adults, and families. Even as I eventually had the great joy and ever-present angst of nurturing three humans into adulthood, in the midst of journeying through late-term child loss of two precious babies, I refused to accept patriarchy’s myth of motherhood as the ultimate womanly identity. I was determined to tell a different story about what it meant to be a woman of faith living a wholehearted life and flourishing in her unique identity.
Our definition of nurturing needed to expand to include more robust, inclusive practices. So I developed egalitarian leadership in my ministries, affirming and empowering all women, regardless of their status as mothers, respecting the diversity of their lived experiences and personal and professional priorities. I interpreted and taught familiar texts in a way that honored the multi-dimensional women we encounter there. And I encouraged and mentored young women to pursue higher education, read outside of their narrow evangelical contexts, and deepen their curiosity to own and practice their spiritual development.
My hope is that everyone I encountered in ministry now better understands that there has never been nor will there ever be one way to be a woman who flourishes and follows Jesus.
This article is from “Motherhood,” the Spring 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.