I’m still thinking about the current wars over parenting. (See previous post.) I’m thinking that another reason I’m relieved to be at the sidelines now is that I remember the pressure to be a good mother. I don’t mean good as in good enough, but good as in nearly perfect. There was no end of experts, advice-givers, and subtly critical other parents (to whom we subtly returned the favour) around us. We were in thrall of, or resisting, our own upbringings. There was also the stern voice of the inner critic, and the noisy voices of children who didn’t necessarily want to be raised our way. We were influenced by all these “best answers” coming at us from every direction; how could we not have been?
I suspect it’s still this way. But here’s the point I want to make, and perhaps it’s still true too: some of the biggest pressure on parents came from within the church.
When we were starting out, James Dobson was just coming into his ascendancy in the evangelical subculture of which our denomination was a part. I think I learned some helpful things from him, until his right wing agenda accelerated, that is, and I found myself less in tune with his approach. But whether Dobson or others, the church took on the mission of “saving the family.” In the process, it almost scared us into believing that a successful family was life’s great goal. It was easy then to get into a sentimental, self-absorbed circling about family matters.
And the place that might have freed us from pressure was just as likely to pile it on. (I’m not taking shots at our particular congregation, where we have many wonderful friends, but referring to the broader church culture which touched us all.) How irritating it was to hear, for example, “God couldn’t be everywhere at once, so he made mothers” trotted out as encouragement. There may be an element of truth in it, sure, some version of being “little Christs,” but mostly it’s nonsense. God is God, and I’m just a mom. — Oh, and a disciple.
Without denying the difficulties of broken or dysfunctional families, we need to keep parenting in its proper theological perspective. For countless people in our society, the ideal of family bliss is not a dream but a crushing weight of impossibility. (It’s a burden too heavy even for “good” families.) Furthermore, there are configurations of all kinds within which decent parenting can happen; the Bible doesn’t actually prescribe the kind of family conservatives have adopted as a plumbline. Last – but most importantly – we have, as Christians, a radically different “family” to call our home, whose potential for affirmation and belonging and blessing surpasses even that of biological families.
Back in the mid-80s, I recall being stunned by a small interchange in Luke 11 which somehow I hadn’t paid attention to before. There, in the middle of the Teacher’s brilliant discourse, came a cry from the audience. “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” It was a woman’s voice, and surely, I thought as I heard it, she had spoken well. What a privilege indeed, birthing and raising this remarkable man!
And how did the Teacher respond? Almost harshly, it seems. Completely ignoring the opportunity to put in a good word for moms and all their toil and sacrifice, etc. etc., he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
A hard saying this, but it braced and re-aligned me then, and continues to do so now. There are further startling words: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21) and “If anyone comes to me; and does not hate his own father and mother and…children…he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
To be sure, Jesus never denigrated women or mothers, or second-placed children. Dozens of texts could be summoned to show how vast and generous his love, how kind his response to people who came to him with their parental sorrows and concerns. But by the gospel, we’re disciples first, and mothers or fathers or children or brothers or sisters or whatever else we are, second. By the gospel, the family of Jesus comprises disciples and is therefore completely unconventional. This is the truth about parenting we should keep “fighting” for in the church.