Motherhood changes you. How’s that for a bait and switch? But as much as I may be loathe to admit it when trying to stake out a fitting identity for myself and all us moms, having children shapes us in ways nothing else ever could. If the exhaustion, sickness, bulging belly, and peeing-while-sneezing of pregnancy or the anxiety- ridden, pressure-filled, stomach-tightening process of adoption doesn’t key you in to this, simply driving for the first time with your child in the car will prove it. As soon as you become a mom, you’re a changed woman.
My friend Carla Barnhill, who wrote one of the best books on motherhood ever, The Myth of the Perfect Mother, told me that when she became a mom, suddenly everyone else on the road became a maniac driver, fully devoted to ramming into her car. Of course, when she told me this, I was years away from having a child of my own, so I thought she was a complete psycho.
New Mom or Psycho?
I continued to think Carla was a psycho right up until the night my husband and I drove our precious new son, Henrik, home from the hospital. I did fine all the way through two towns before we got to ours. What a wuss, that Carla! I thought. Then I had my husband stop at the friendly neighborhood grocery/drug store so he could run in and pick up some things to make my stitched-together nether regions feel better. And that’s when I realized that I, too, was now a thorough going psycho.
As soon as Rafi disappeared from view, I noticed he hadn’t locked the driver-side door. And the keys were in the ignition. As I waited in the backseat with my new baby, panic struck. The people leaving the store, who just the week before would’ve looked like harmless, fun-loving teenagers, pleasant old men, kindly old ladies, key-jiggling dads, and parking-lot-scanning moms had morphed into gangs of carjackers casting a covetous look at a black SUV with a new mom and baby inside.
I felt completely helpless as I contemplated my predicament. I was trapped in the backseat by child-safety locks and the aforementioned stitches that prevented the sort of acrobatics needed to launch myself into the front seat. I wanted more than anything to swing my legs up and over and slide behind the wheel. Instead, I sat where I was with sweat pouring down my back. Even if I could have gotten behind the steering wheel, the strong post-delivery painkillers I had taken probably wouldn’t have enhanced the driving abilities needed to flee that danger den. There was no way I could get my child to safety without agonizing pain, bloodletting, and probable jail time.
You should have heardme praying in the backseat. Desperate prayersof one big psycho mom were rushing up to God, pleading for protection against wanton teenage carjackers and suspicious-looking blue-haired ladies. I hadn’t prayed that hard for anything since, well, two days earlier when I prayed, “Please, please, please Jesus, let this baby come out!”
God answered both of my prayers, of course. But I admit I’m still a bit psycho, and I figure as long as I have kids to care for and love, I’ll be forever changed. I’m good with that, because these changes aren’t for naught. Plus, the changes we undergo when we have children have everything to do with our identities. These changes shape us into the women God wants us to be.
Motherhood changes us in ways most of us never saw coming. (I could tell the story of me dunking my hand into a FULL toilet to recover a toy my daughter accidentally dropped during potty training, but I’ll spare you.) Sure, being a mom is just one part of who we are. And being labeled as “Mom” and nothing else takes a woman created in God’s image and reduces her to a role. But before we head in to the reasons why we got mislabeled and some of the problems it causes, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the ways motherhood enhances who we are, makes us more fascinating (yes, more!), and fills out our identities in wonderful ways we couldn’t have imagined.
Morphed by Motherhood
When I asked my “Big Mom Group” (the circle of women who shared stories for this book; the name is based on the group’s size, not the women’s!) how they’d been shaped and enriched by motherhood, they offered some terrific examples.What amazed me more than their stories, however, was how many of the themes overlapped. Let’s look at some.
Your heart expands
No offense to our parents, siblings, spouses, pets, or any other loved ones, but honestly, until you had a child did you know you were capable of this kind of love?
Someone once told me that loving my child would fire up corners of my heart I didn’t know were there. Was that ever the truth! Only a mom can know love that is this deep, penetrating, and desperate. This love makes us smile, laugh, cry, get angry, ache, and worry in ways we never knew we were capable of. This is the love that every woman in the Big Mom Group says is the best part of being a mom.
What’s amazing about this love is that it’s beyond feeling. It’s more like having these things etched into our souls. Let me illustrate: A month or so before my older son was born, my mom asked me an odd question.
“Caryn,” she said, “you haven’t ever felt unloved by me, have you?”
“No, of course not. Why?” I asked, bracing for some horrid words that would send me straight to the therapist's couch.
But instead she said, “Because it takes a bit. Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel that instant teary-eyed rush of love that some moms talk about. Just because you don’t feel it yourself right away doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
While I considered her a bit psycho for saying this, her words stayed with me. I became eternally grateful for them when I first held Henrik. While I was thrilled to have him in my arms, nursing away, and I knew immediately that I would machete anyone who tried to harm him, the “in love” feeling didn’t immediately overwhelm me. But after we got home from the hospital there was the moment I’ll never forget. Henrik stopped nursing momentarily and I looked down at him. Our eyes met in the darkness, he blinked, and I was a goner.That was it.The rush, the tears, my moment of complete love.
But, the psycho part of the love—the fear, protectiveness, and over-the-top readiness to take up arms to defend my child—came before the rush. I loved before I was in love. And I loved without having been loved first by my child. That’s deep. That’s a God kind of love, one that makes us more compassionate and understanding toward everyone.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I got an e-mail from a friend. As I read the opening paragraph, I smiled from ear to ear. She had gotten pregnant—unexpectedly and very happily. But the tone changed as I read on. Early ultrasounds revealed a problem with the pregnancy. She was told to prepare to miscarry. I was crying as she concluded her e-mail by sharing the story of her miscarriage and adding a call for prayer.
While my friend’s e-mail under any circumstances would have made me feel bad, before I had kids, I wouldn’t have cried after reading it. My heart just didn’t work that way back then. I was more black and white, practical. Honestly, I remember hearing of other people’s miscarriages and thinking, God knows what he’s doing. While God does know what he’s doing, I will never again be so unaffected by another mother’s loss.
Your eyes open
My next-door neighbor Kathryn told me one of her favorite things about being a mom is that now she sees the world differently. “With kids,” she says, “parades, the zoo, DisneyWorld, everything looks so different!”
How about it? For me, what used to be a regular walk through the neighborhood or down by the creek has, with kids, become an adventure, a time to discover, giggle, and goof off. I see things I never noticed before and pay attention to things I used to think didn’t matter.
But it’s not just in these physical sorts of things that our eyes are opened. We see the state of the world around us differently. Sort of a mom’s-eye view of the world. Suddenly, we see so clearly the agony of a broken world—a woman too poor and hungry to nourish her baby, the hurt of the unloved or orphaned child. And it’s hard not to react.
Shayne Moore, a blogger for GiftedForLeadership.com, felt this tug that led her to get involved with Bono's ONE Campaign. “Being amom certainly pressed me toward being socially minded and wanting to leave a better world to my children,” she writes. “And when it comes to the AIDS crisis, I couldn’t see myself turning my back and in twenty years have my kids ask me about it and the only response I would have was, ‘Oh, yeah. I think I remember hearing something about that…’”
So she did something. “The words of Scripture, ‘Be a voice for the voiceless,’ started to be a silent rhythm in my steps. In 2005 I traveled to Kenya with my church. While in Kenya I visited an HIV/AIDS clinic, and I watched as a woman left with some life-saving medication in her hands. Her small son trailed behind. I turned to the nurse next to me and asked where the medication came from. As the nurse told me, I realized the ARVs [antiretrovirals] came from the funding I, along with other Americans, had lobbied President Bush and Congress to support.
“I still smile as I think about that Kenyanmother. It’s true that some extraordinary things have happened through my involvement with the ONE Campaign, butmostly I’mthat ordinary stay-at-home-mom who’s now a voice for the voiceless.”2
Your perspective and priorities change
This is the one we all talk about—the move from self-centered to sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Right? No one likes to admit she was once self-centered.
Even though I totally was self-centered in the worst way, I won’t assume that about you.What I mean by “self-centered” is that the decisions of life were ours to make.Where we went to school, what job we pursued, the food we ate, the television programs we watched, where we went on vacation. Those life decisions were up to us (and our spouses, if applicable). This is not to say we were never considerate of others or mindful of the effects of our decisions, but you know what I’m talking about.
Then you have a child and your life is no longer your own.The sacrifice of motherhood shows up in a million ways. For some it means trading the city they love for a bland suburb where houses come with great backyards. For others it means trading jobs they love for ones that allow more time with their kids. For still others it means that weekly dance class gets pushed off or that garden doesn’t look as good as it once did.We’ve all given up at least one important thing so we can invest in our kids, and we’ve done it gladly—out of that psycho love.
Author and friend Carla Barnhill writes that her favorite part of being a mom was “watching another person become.”3 She’s right, huh? When your day’s agenda includes learning about and enjoying the people your children are becoming, itmakes sacrificing easy and rewarding—to a point, that is.
You find an outlet for something you do exceedingly well
A few years ago, my friend Ruth had a baby with Down syndrome. When I stopped her father-in-law at church to ask how Ruth and her new son were doing after he had some minor surgery, her father-in-law said: “You know, we knew Ruth was a great mom before. But wow, the way she’s dealing with all that has come at her is showing her true colors. And they’re beautiful.”
He was dead on.The challenges of mothering bring to the forefront skills, abilities, and strengths we had all along but hadn’t yet had an opportunity to use. And it’s not just the “mothering” gifts that get sharper, of course.Stephanie says, “I’m so much more well-rounded since becoming a mom!” And who isn’t? Think of all the stuff you’ve got to get good at in a hurry—things like first aid, nutrition, repairing broken things, storytelling, coaching, cheering. Go ahead, add to the list.
Writer and Big Mom Group member ValerieWeaver-Zercher says, “Motherhood has intensified my desire to write and has become much of what I write about these days. In that way, it’s been my greatest Muse ever, and I’m grateful for that.”
That gets a big ditto from me, by the way! Even if you’re not a writer, musician, or artist, just think how your creativity is ignited by motherhood. I was never much of a songwriter before kids (okay, so I made up a couple of tunes for my dogs), but my kids are familiar with all sorts of silly songs I’ve composed just for them. Because we have set other things aside for now, our gifts—the things we love and do well—become more important than ever. The mother of one of my son’s friends once played tennis competitively for a Big Ten school. Recently, she told me that she got back into competitive tennis because it was either that or “therapy.” She was laughing when she said it, and I’m happy to report that she’s better than ever—as a mom and tennis player.
You get to join the in-group
This is where things almost get spooky: Once you’re a mom, you understand things in whole new ways, and you connect with other moms in new ways. The spooky part is that it’s something like having your own language. Years ago, I wrote about a secret ministry that existed in my church’s narthex: the club of moms (and dads actually) who gather outside the sanctuary with their crying—and not-quite-ready-for-nursery—babies. While I’ve never been good at rolling out the welcome wagon at church (not a gift), when I’m out there with my baby and notice a new parent with a baby in arms, it’s second nature to go up to chat and get that wagon rolling.
There are things you don’t understand until you’re a mother. My neighbor Kathryn calls this the “kinship” of motherhood. That’s a great word. As different as we are, when we become moms we join a sort of maternity fraternity (sort of—but the rhyme is fun).
As a shy person who always feels awkward starting conversations with new people, I love that having kids always provides fodder for conversation. (The trouble comes when it becomes the only fodder for conversation!) And I love that motherhood connects us in a, well, familial way. I used to think this same thing when I’d see smokers congregated outside a building. Since I’m not a smoker, this will sound weird. But I
used to look at them and think, Must be nice to have something you all have in common right off the bat. Motherhood’s like that. Except that motherhood actually can extend your life.
But I digress. A little while back I got a call from the younger sister of one of my childhood best friends. She had a new baby who refused to sleep. To know me is to know I’ve had three babies—who wouldn’t sleep. I’m kind of the woman moms of sleepless babies call to commiserate with. So Suzy called, wanting to know if I had discovered any tricks of the trade or knew of any good books. (While I have not discovered any tricks, I am a fan of Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. You can read Henrik’s story on page 127!) But at the heart of the call was Suzy’s desire to hear from another mom who’d been there. To hear that she was doing okay. That she wasn’t a bad mom for not knowing how to get her child to sleep. She wanted the reassurance that it would get better, that her child would one day sleep, that one day she would sleep. And that in the end, it would all be okay.
That’s the sort of thing another mom can deliver best. That’s why we need one another and why the transformation into “one of the moms” is such a blessing.
Your faith gets a boost
Just before Christmas 2007, after getting a chill as I read Luke 2:34–35, I posted this on my blog:
I think feeling this [chill] deepened my understanding of the entire story of God’s redeeming love for us. From what it really meant and entailed for God to send his Son to save us to what it meant for Mary to bear and raise her boy, the Messiah, to what it means for me as a mother to raise my own boys and girl to grow to love and know that same Messiah.
While perhaps I was just dense in my reading of this passage before (and surely you don’t have to be a mom to catch the significance), this isn’t the only passage or instance I’ve noticed where my being a mom heightens my understanding of Scripture along with my understanding of (and questions for!) God.
While I expected motherhood to change me in many ways, getting to know God better by being a mom surprised me.4
I could go on and on about the ways watching my children grow, learn, and play has given me insight into the heart of God and taught me lessons, but instead I’ll share one I got from a woman who commented on this very post.
Being a mother taught me one of my most important lessons. After a particularly difficult morning with my seven-year-old daughter, I sat on the love seat, holding her while we both cried. She had been crying and demanding that she didn’t want to go to school. I had insisted that she would go.While I drove her to school, she complained the whole way. As we walked to her schoolroom, she loudly resisted the whole way. Her teacher, hearing the commotion, suggested that I let her stay home for the day.
As I held her while we cried, I lamented that she didn’t like school. I had loved school, loved reading and learning. I thought about all she would miss if she wasn’t a reader. As I cried with her and prayed, I realized that I was wanting my daughter to be more like me. I had to surrender that right to God and ask him to forgive me for expecting her to be like me instead of who she was.When I did, I realized that I needed to accept her just the way she was—the way God had made her, not a carbon copy of me. I realized that I really did love her just the way she was—uniquely Reese.
It was then that the truth that God loves me just the way I am made its journey from my head to my heart. In accepting my daughter just as she was, I received God’s unconditional acceptance and love for myself. My tears were no longer tears of disappointment or frustration but pure joy.5
Getting to the Point
Obviously this just scratches the surface of the changes we moms experience. We all know about the physical changes, the physiological changes (hormonal issues, depression, etc.), and the ways motherhood can actually make us worse people. (Before I had kids, I’m pretty sure I could get through the day without yelling at somebody!) But these changes are part of the wonder of being a mom—along with the joy of getting to love, nurture, and cheer on the best kids ever.
But what exactly am I getting at here? It’s more important than we realize to understand the changes we experience. Because by acknowledging the ways we change, we also acknowledge the ways we don’t. And as all-encompassing as the changes might seem, no matter how different you feel, you—the womanGodmade you to be—are still very much you.
In fact, now that I’ve been tossing around the word change, I’d actually like to offer up a more accurate term. Look at yourself a minute; look at who you really are: motherhood doesn’t change you as much as it refines you.
My neighbor Kathryn says, “Being a mom stretches, shapes, and molds you.” I like that too. Because when you’re refined, stretched, shaped, or molded, the core doesn’t change. The essential elements stay the same. It's true that the transformation is overwhelming because our perspectives, focus, and priorities change. It can seem that we’ve experienced a complete metamorphosis, leading us to feel like we’ve lost ourselves. Hence our identity crises and the sense of loneliness and isolation.
In reality, the changes of motherhood don’t make us less of who we are—but more. God refines us tomake us more of who he wants us to be.
The transformative process of motherhood is not unlike that of becoming a Christian (if you’re not one, I hope you can experience this someday!). The Bible is filled with language referring to God’s refining his people as helping them “become” (in the word of my friend Carla). Malachi 3:2 says, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Psalm 66:10 says, “You, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.”
In the next two verses we read how God’s people were refined: “You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.”
Now on a good day motherhood sounds nothing like this. But on a normal-to-bad one…? Maybe not somuch the fire and water, but feeling trapped, burdened, ridden on (literally) all sound like the hard work of raising kids.Most of the time, these refining experiences leave us feeling beat down and lost. But remember, this passage describes refinement and ends up in a place of abundance. That means more—not less.
The changes of motherhood make us more unique, more ourselves, more capable, more self-sacrificing, more loving, more confident, more understanding of God, more discerning, and more of the women God made us to be.
So how did everyone get so confused, thinking that motherhood stripped us of who we really are? How did we get mislabeled? After you stop and reflect on the questions for this chapter, let’s take a look at where it all went wrong—and how we can get it to be all right.
O Can you think of anything in life that has changed you as much as motherhood? If so, what is it?
O How has motherhood changed you the most—in both good ways and otherwise?
O How are you “more of who God made you to be” as a result of being a mom? (Think in terms of being more resourceful, confident, courageous, creative, compassionate, competent, and selfless.)
O Do you benefit from being in the “maternity fraternity”? If so, how has being one of the moms affected your life?
O In what ways has motherhood given you new insights into God’s character?