When Motherhood Feels Like Death

One of the great challenges of parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is the lack of a job description. Moms don’t keep normal business hours, because our children don’t. Moms don’t have workplace boundaries, because we live at work. The tasks are always there, waiting to be done. The children are always there, needing our attention, love, and training.

It’s a never-ending cycle of care.

The endless, nebulous work of motherhood inspired a recent New York Times article, “A Job Description for the Dumbest Job Ever.” In it, the author presents motherhood as a job description with lines like, “This position manages to be of the utmost importance and yet somehow also the least visible and/or respected in the entire organization,” and, “Although you will coordinate, plan and do almost everything, you should expect to crash face-first into bed every night feeling that you’ve accomplished basically nothing.”

Many mothers will recognize their daily tasks in this wry job description.

But the reaction to the article was mixed; some critiqued it for its supposedly low view of motherhood. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a plea from the heart. I saw it as an exercise in self-talk, the author’s attempt to convince herself that what she does as a mom really is important.

Maybe I related to it because I see myself in the description. I have four kids between the ages of 11 months and 5 years. I do a lot of serving. I do a lot of thankless work. I do a lot of things that seem to get me no return.

I often feel subhuman, lamenting to my husband just a few weeks ago that some days I don’t know why I try to get dressed in normal clothes or fix my hair. I even wrote a book on work in the home, partly to help myself see the glory in my daily tasks.

There’s not a lot of obvious glory in the job description for motherhood. And that’s okay.

Go Ahead. Call It Death.

Instead of hyping motherhood (or parenthood in general) to the point of perfection, we should be willing to call it what it is—a form of death. Jesus says we will have to give up something to gain something better (Matt. 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:24). And the work of parenting requires us to do just that. It’s dying so another can live.

From the moment of conception, your entire body is consumed so another human can live. Sleepless nights, nursing, and round-the-clock care consume those early months and years.

Later, death comes in the form of emotional death. Your children may not be sucking the life out of you physically, but the more you know them the more you love them—and the more they can rip your heart out with one bad decision (or a lifetime of bad decisions).

Motherhood is a call to death. You may find fulfillment in it, but it won’t come in the ways the world talks about fulfillment. Fulfillment in motherhood is found in following the way of the cross, in laying down your life so another may live.

Motherhood Is Humbling

The New York Times job description draws out something I’ve struggled with in recent months. In my pre-motherhood days, I glamorized the sacrifice it would take to bring children into the world and raise them. I even idolized it.

But now that I’m in the thick of it, most days I resent the sacrifice. I don’t like the service required of me. I know it’s better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). I believe Jesus’s words about losing my life in order to find it. But it really all feels like death most days. Sometimes it feels like I’m not finding anything, unless you count finding dried yogurt in my hair from breakfast.

When we glamorize the work of motherhood, using words like “highest calling,” “most fulfilling,” or “something you were made for,” we run the risk of misrepresenting a complex calling. Motherhood is joy mixed with sorrow, fruitfulness mixed with emptiness, life mixed with death.

We don’t need to go out and burst everyone’s bubble, but a healthy dose of biblical realism will serve mothers everywhere, especially those who end their days defeated by the tasks at hand.

In fact, motherhood is just one aspect of life in a broken world filled with such seeming contradictions. Whatever our work may be, we come up against the humbling reality of life in post-Genesis 3 world all the time.

Motherhood Is Painful

There is a reason why Scripture describes death as the pathway to life. In Romans 12:1 Paul says that because of all Christ has accomplished for us, there are implications—offer your body as a living sacrifice. Whatever path God calls us to, whether it’s motherhood, full-time ministry, work in the marketplace, or a combination of all three, we’re always to be offering our service as a sacrifice to the Lord.

He died for us, so we live for him—which often looks like death in the world’s eyes. We are giving up self-glory and instead allowing our lives to point to Christ, the one worthy of all glory and praise. It’s about him, not us.

He died for us, so we live for him—which often looks like death in the world’s eyes.

The truth is, I guess I always thought motherhood would feel better. But death doesn’t work that way. It costs something precious. The loss of life stings.

Motherhood Is Life-Giving

A couple years ago my husband led us in using 2 Corinthians 4:12 as a defining verse for our family. After describing all of the ways he is suffering for the Corinthian church, Paul says: “So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

When my kids’ needs require me to get up in the middle of the night again, or my infant son spits up on my new shirt and ruins it, or my morning plans to write for a couple of hours are thwarted by a kid waking up early, and a part of me dies with each thing, that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told us we had to die. Death is at work in me, so life can be at work in them.

Death is at work in me, so life can be at work in them.

To be clear, I can’t save my kids. My sacrifice is simply pointing them to the Savior who can save their souls. Yes, this sacrifice looks “dumb” to the world. It makes no sense to lose your life, to give up your aspirations, or to die for another. But it’s the way of the cross.

This is the surprising way God works in the world (Isa. 55:8–9; 1 Cor. 1:18): Christ died, so his people might live. We die so others may know him.

It might be a dumb job description, but God’s ways are upside-down like that.

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