Susanna Wesley used her apron. They say it was her way of disappearing into prayer. Her 11 children knew what an apron over Mom’s head meant: They better leave Mom alone.
I was thinking about Susanna the other day, this heroine of homeschool families and bustling households—the living, breathing Proverbs 31 woman—the ideal mother we all ought to emulate. All these years, I’ve marveled at how disciplined and selfless she must have been, to raise all those children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I despised her a little, if I’m honest, her successes highlighting my failures. This woman who lived and breathed to serve her family looks down on me with disgust as I pack my lunch and sneak out the door for work each morning, just as my children are rolling out of bed.
But the all-powerful Susanna pulled her apron over her head and put herself in timeout. She unashamedly announced her limitations, that apron teaching her children the most valuable lesson of all: Mom needed Jesus.
Despite how her story is told today, the fact of the matter is this: She couldn’t do it all.
This picture of a woman with an apron over her head has become more endearing than condemning in my mind. I think she really was praying under there, but finally considering her as the human she was, I can’t help but wonder if she also just wanted to eat some chocolate without having to share.
Experiencing the Pain of Birth
My first epidural only half worked. One side of my body was marked by a numbness that should have meant blissful labor, if it had extended to the other half. Instead, the pain was concentrated on my right side, sending me awkwardly writhing with every contraction. The nurse watched me with confusion and then rolled her eyes. “It just needs a few minutes. You won’t feel anything,” she said as she left the room.
It wasn’t the first moment I felt foolish during my first labor and delivery. A 22-year old single mom—a child birthing a child—I was certain the nurses debated whether this baby should go home with me. I obviously sounded like an idiot, and certainly looked terrified.
Though surrounded by my mom and sister, I felt alone. It seemed there was this body of knowledge I was supposed to already possess—the mythical maternal instinct, some manual I should have downloaded at birth that would give me an inherent ability to labor, deliver, and mother.
And yet, as those labor pains persisted, my only instinct was to run, except that the partial numbness kept me anchored to my bed.
My sister watched my face contort with the latest contraction. I had taken to biting my tongue, closing my eyes, and trying to hide the pain I wasn’t supposed to be feeling. This would be the first of many such experiences—of trying to ignore the pain and pretending everything was okay. After bringing my daughter home, it would take me days of feeling miserable before I returned to the doctor to discover I had an infection. “Don’t you feel terrible?” the doctor asked me. “What took you so long to come in?” If I wasn’t delirious from fever and sleep deprivation, I might have laughed. I just assumed this is what motherhood felt like.
“You shouldn’t feel anything,” my sister said. “Something’s wrong.” She marched out to get the nurse. I’m not sure if I felt relieved or annoyed at the time, thinking I could handle it, wishing the pain would stop. As I reflect on the memory now I see a metaphor ripe for the picking: How much of motherhood is just wishing someone would say, “That pain you feel? It’s real. I’ll go get help.”
I can’t remember how many more times they tried the epidural, but I never achieved that promised bliss. Only tingly legs and concentrated pain as they flopped me from one side to the other, shoving oxygen in my face and watching my baby’s heart rate with concern. No one ever told me what was wrong; they just told me to push.
Debunking the Lie of Maternal Instinct
“Maternal instinct” is one of the biggest lies we tell each other. Of course it depends on what we mean. If we’re talking about the newfound terror that accompanies motherhood, then I suppose there might be a shared maternal experience. Teacher and journalist Elizabeth Stone writes, “Making a decision to have a child … it is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,”(1) and, really, is there anything more terrifying than those walking hearts, so fragile and vulnerable, unaware of the pain that’s sure to come?
Or perhaps I can get on board with maternal instinct expressed in sudden protective rage. I might not have believed stories of mothers prying open the mouths of mountain lions or lifting cars off their children prior to motherhood, but now I don’t doubt they’re true.
I can acknowledge that there’s something that happens when you hold that vulnerable little person in your arms and realize they completely and utterly depend on you. That changes a person, though we must acknowledge a variety of factors that make even these “natural” feelings of love and bonding difficult to forge.
But journalist Jessica Valenti writes that we’re living in the age of the “expert mom.” And that means, “Maternal instinct isn’t just about mom love any more. It’s a built-in expectation that truly loving and committed mothers are the absolute authority on everything having to do with their children—down to the very last dirty diaper.”(2)
When I was pregnant with my first child, well-meaning people told me, “Don’t worry. God gave you this baby. You’ll know just what to do.” And I believed them. I clung to their confidence and tried to make it my own. Until I held that slimy, squishy baby in my arms and realized: I had no idea what to do.
The problem with the idea of maternal instinct is that it reinforces the lie that tells us we can do this on our own. You have everything you need! we assure ourselves and each other. But what about when we don’t?
One of those early weeks of motherhood, my daughter and I sat in the bedroom we shared in my parents’ house. She screamed, I bounced. She screamed more, I nursed. She screamed, I cried, and bounced some more. At one point, I laid my screaming baby down on my bed and crumbled to the floor. I didn’t know what to do. I was exhausted and helpless and felt so alone. I stared at the door, willing my mom to hear our cries, but she kept sleeping.
We persevered that night, just the two of us. Still awake in the early morning, I brought out my baby (who, admittedly, I didn’t particularly care for at that moment) as soon as I heard my mom. She extended her arms, eager to take her grandbaby, and I dissolved into sobs. I felt so much shame—shame that I couldn’t figure out what my baby needed, shame at the resentment burning in my heart, shame over my failures as a mother.
My mom held my daughter and hugged me and said what every mom needs to hear. Not, You’ve got this. She’s your baby. You’ll know just what to do.
No, she said: “Why didn’t you ask for help?”
Suffering As “Expert Mom”
The “expert mom” Valenti writes about exists in the church, too. Emily McGowin calls her the “Omnipotent Mother.” Christian women are “confronted with omnipotence as an internal and external ideal,” she writes. They are “considered to be omnipotent both in what they can accomplish and what influence they can exercise over their children in the long term. They are seeking to ‘do it all’ for their families, especially their children, and expected to be extraordinary mothers as a matter of course.”(3)
Despite my mom’s question in those early days, I internalized this ideal. I determined to be everything my children needed. Even if I didn’t come by it naturally, I would hustle to do it all, and hide when I wasn’t enough. I would not show my husband or children any weakness. They would know they could depend on me. Resolved, I resumed my silent suffering.
Meanwhile, I wilted under an unrelenting depression, growing more and more anxious about how I might be harming my children. I wanted them to see a strong woman—one clothed with strength and dignity, working with willing hands from morning till night. But instead, I turned on the TV for them and went back to bed.
Admitting the Mom-Child Needs Jesus
Psalm 103:13–14 says, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
When I first read those words, I saw myself reflected in God’s fatherhood. This is how I want to parent my children, I thought. I wanted to be patient with their weaknesses—to remember their childishness, to bear in love with the ways they need to learn and grow. If the Lord remembers they’re dust, I ought to remember too. I imagined my compassionate parenting pointing them to their compassionate Father.
But I had no compassion. “More, more, more!” my children demanded, and I resented their ingratitude. My whole life revolved around them, and yet it was never enough. Trying to draw from a well within me that had long been dry, I was constantly angry, on edge, and withdrawn.
I kept coming back to the psalm, crying out for mercy for my many failures. I begged God to make me compassionate, to teach me how to bear with my children’s weaknesses. But he didn’t. We all limped along—striving, yelling, pretending.
Until it finally struck me: I’m not the parent in this psalm—I’m the child. The weak and dusty one, desperate for the Lord’s compassion.
So I raised the white flag, pulling the proverbial apron over my head. And I began to teach my children what it took me far too long to figure out: Mom is human; Mom has limits; Mom needs Jesus.
Learning to Be Weak Together
I pray as I sit in the carpool lane. Today, I’ve rushed out of a meeting, hoping for no traffic. I arrive to be last in line. I wave at my kids, see their relief that they won’t be shuffled off to after care. I don’t pick up every day. My husband and I are learning the dance of grace and partnership, sharing the load. We’ve learned to ask for help—from each other, from the village surrounding us.
But today I wait in the carpool line. And while I wait, I pray. My heart is still frantic from the day, and I know I need strength for round two. I ask the Lord to give more grace, and I believe he will. I trust that the one who waters will herself be watered—that I don’t have to draw from a dry well, but instead am endlessly replenished by the one who offers living water.
I draw from that well as my children pile in. I am eager to listen to them unload the day as they shed their backpacks and lunchboxes, words and emotions. But the grace the Lord provides does not have to hide my own emotions. I don’t have to pretend to be strong. Instead, I remind them that I just got home, too. That I, too, have much to shed.
We each take a few minutes, and then meet at the table to share some tea, highs and lows, and a few deep breaths. There’s a new sweetness to this time. Though we sometimes share sadness and anger, frustration and worry, the table is not marred by guilt. I do not need to know it all, be it all, fix it all. Instead, I sit beside my children unashamed of my weakness. They know I cling to a compassionate Father who remembers that I’m dust.
Dusty mother that I am, I find compassion for my dusty children. Together we climb under the apron, sneak a little chocolate, remember we need Jesus.
2. Jessica Valenti, Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness (New York: Amazon Publishing, 2018), 40–41.
3. Emily Hunter McGowin, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 108–109.