I Almost Gave Up on Mothering
Asking the question: "Is mothering worth the cost?"
by Bryna Destefani
“Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.”
- 1 Timothy 2:15 (NKJV)
When I was pregnant with my first child, I almost gave up on mothering.
Growing up, I had the highest opinion of the role of mother. As the youngest of four in a homeschooled family, I grew up immersed in the example of how a mother can create an atmosphere in which her children grow in character and virtue. I felt daily the power of my mother’s efforts and sacrifices to teach and support me as I developed. I wouldn’t want to meet the version of myself who never had my mother’s parenting. I looked forward to the day I might take my place in the proud tradition of strong mothers and raise children of my own. I truly believed that good mothering would save the world.
Yet, in high school, I watched grown children, who were raised in good homes by mothers who strove and sacrificed, turn away from how they were raised. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone turn their back on everything they had been raised to believe if they had been taught well? What had these mothers done wrong? Mothering increasingly seemed an insurmountable task. How could a mother ensure her children would choose the right way to live?
And then, while pregnant with my first child, I watched a sibling turn on our parents. They told our parents that they hadn’t done enough; our parents had made too many mistakes. They turned away from central principles by which we were raised. They rejected the gifts we had been given in my mother’s teaching and parenting.
As my son grew inside me, I watched as my mother’s sacrifices and years of dedication and work were disregarded and rejected, while her mistakes were highlighted and enlarged. If mothering will save the world, where were the results of my mother’s efforts?
Around the same time, my relationship with my in-laws was deteriorating at a rapid pace. As I grew in knowledge of my husband and in experience and understanding of his parents, it became clear that bad parents can still produce good hearted, well-meaning children. With all the struggles he has to overcome, all the flaws he must address within himself and his upbringing, my husband is still a better man than he was raised to be. I can see the best parts of my character planted in my childhood, but my husband’s virtues often developed in spite of the environment in which he grew. Once again, my assumptions about the impact of mothering were challenged.
Every day, for the last several weeks of my pregnancy, I drove to the local coffee shop, ate some chocolate chip banana bread, and wrestled with mothering. What was the point of all the suffering, all the sacrifice, all the work? Why devote yourself to mothering, no holding back? Such a high cost with no guaranteed return. Is that a lottery worth wagering your life on?
Yet, I hadn’t clearly identified the actual results of mothering. I was assuming the results of being a mother were the children themselves and the persons they became. However, if I believe that parents make their children in such a clear, one-to-one correlation, I am falling into the behavioristic theory that environmental input completely shapes a person into who they are. So, I pulled out my psychology textbooks and pulled up GoogleScholar.
Not only have I never believed the philosophy of radical behavioral psychology, scientific research stands opposed to the “only-nurture” side of the debate. To take a dramatic example, a New York Times article described research on the likelihood of abused children becoming abusers as adults. “Studies… now indicate that about one-third of people who are abused in childhood will become abusers themselves,” wrote Daniel Goleman. Yes, this is tragic. But he continues, “this is a lower percentage than many experts had expected.” Two thirds of abused children go against their environment.
Arnon Bentovim and Bryn Williams published another article in 1998 stating, “it is clear that the majority of children who are sexually abused do not become abusers. Moreover, we know that around half of all young abusers have not themselves been victims of abuse.” While how children are raised certainly affects the people into whom they grow up, it does not dictate or guarantee specific results.
My family is a microcosmic case study of how nurture alone, even loving as ours was, did not determine our fate. Of my siblings and myself, raised in the same environment with the same mother, some rejected our upbringing and others did not.
As a Christian, I believe each of us will stand before God one day and be called to answer for our life. My mother reminded us growing up that we will each be held accountable for our own actions and choices and not those of anyone else. No one to hide behind, no one to blame. It always brought to my mind Aslan’s reminder in The Horse and His Boy, “‘Child,' said the Lion, 'I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.’”
The results of mothering are the mothering itself. I do not judge my mother on the kind of people myself and my siblings become, but rather on the kind of mother she was. I know that my mother will not be held accountable for my life choices, and instead she will answer for how she mothered. I will answer for the person I became, the life I lived, the child I was to my parents. And I will answer for the mother I am.
And so, I gave birth to my son with a mixture of trembling awe at the task and reassured understanding of my responsibilities. I hope and pray to mother my son to the fullest of my ability, but not so that he can become who I hope and pray he becomes, who I know he is capable of becoming. I know that to have the impact on him that I wish for, we must have a partnership between us as parent and child. He must choose to be shaped by my best and have grace for my worst. We must rely together on our Lord. I have felt the beauty of such a partnership and seen the pain of its lack.
At the end of my days, I will stand alone, no children as proof or evidence of my ability as a mother, only my own choices. On the hard days of parenting, this terrifies me. Actually, it kind of terrifies me even on the good days.
Growing up, I truly believed that mothering would save the world. I know now the work of mothering is worth all the effort it requires. It might not save the world, but, I pray, it will save me.
(Painting by Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (A Goodnight Hug), 1880)