Mar 3, 2015

Should We "Raise Our Daughters to be Mothers?"

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

The modern American educational system, both formal and informal, does not focus on preparing girls to be mothers. The general idea seems to be that as long as women wait until an appropriate, stable time in life to begin their families, they will be able to parent by instinct (sharpened, of course, by a few parenting books and internet forums). Motherhood, says our culture, is the sort of thing that will come naturally once an individual chooses to embrace it.

However, I’ve also noticed a slew of articles lately that focus on the shock that motherhood poses to many women. For these ladies, the role of mommy turns out to be far harder, less fulfilling, and more overwhelming than they bargained for. An article in The Atlantic suggests that many middle-class mothers would opt not to have kids if they were granted a “do-over” in life. Their biggest complaint, apparently, is that the role is so consuming as to devour their very identity: they cannot be the person they want to be while also being “mom.” Elsewhere I have heard writers argue that perhaps our high rates of postpartum depression (generally cited as affecting one mother in four) are exacerbated by the fact that modern women find themselves caught in a role that is different, and harder, than they expected. 

Quite simply, many women who give birth have no idea what they are getting into. They do not know what it is like to spend day after day as caretaker to a helpless human being with no apparent control over his bodily fluids. They are unaccustomed to devoting themselves to tasks that are “never done” and that bring no external validation (no grades, no raises, no commendations from the boss). They have little experience in constantly sacrificing their own hobbies, desires, and needs for someone who doesn’t say thank you (in fact, cultural values have conditioned them to assume that such sacrifice is a bad thing and a loss of self). I would argue that, in addition, they are handed a cultural ideal of parenting that is so child-centered as to be unhealthy (for instance, there is pressure to prioritize children’s happiness over the well-being of the parents’ marriage). In an era in which even time-outs are sometimes considered too punitive (on the theory that children ought not to be forced to obey), they also have few real tools with which to train their naturally self-centered little offspring into pleasant, considerate human beings whom they can enjoy being around.

The transition to motherhood was surely different in the days when, because of large families and relatively early marriages, many young women went straight from helping to care for younger siblings to caring for their own babies. The task of choosing a parenting philosophy was undoubtedly less fraught when mothers simply repeated the mores of their culture as demonstrated by mothers, aunts, and older sisters. Modern life has brought us many advantages; but in this area our ancestresses perhaps had it easier.

I wonder if we, as Lutheran parents, should be intentionally providing our children with training and preparation for the vocation of parenthood. After all, our theological beliefs teach that children are a blessing and that, in the natural created order, most individuals will and should find a spouse and bring up children. We see many of the challenges of parenthood as a blessed opportunity for service to others rather than a loss of self. Of course we must teach our children to view marriage, identity, family, and children in a Biblically-informed way, but should we be going farther than that? Should we be making sure that they have been pooped on by at least a few infants?

I would say yes. As the people responsible for our kids’ education, we should be preparing them not just to succeed in the workplace, but also to to care for others in their homes. At the same time, there are some reactionary traps that we should avoid.

Talk About Grace

Some women find motherhood challenging because they are accustomed to a fairly self-centered life, but others struggle because they are trying to achieve the impossible: they think that they are supposed to be the perfect mother. Naturally, with this kind of a goal, self-doubt and guilt are as common as onesies and carpools. Modern moms wouldn’t be so polarized about their parenting choices if they did not feel pressure to prove themselves, to validate themselves, to show themselves and others that they are good moms. The mental games of modern motherhood can be exhausting.

It is important that our children understand what it means to live under the Gospel and not the Law. They need to understand that we fall to our knees in daily repentance not just for “spiritual” sins, but for our domestic failings as well. Christ died for those, too. We also have an opportunity to model a way of life in which the members of a family ask for and receive forgiveness from each other. Acknowledging our own frailty reminds our children that being a “good” mother is not about being perfect (as Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone”).

Avoid the Bubble

Some people really do live in a peer bubble that temporarily shields them from realities like birth, disease, and death. Taught to focus on their own achievements, they have no way to measure their self-worth when they can no longer achieve in measurable ways. It is our job to help our kids understand the broadness and diversity of real life. Real life includes living alongside the very young, the old, the handicapped, and the weak. Real life involves bodily fluids, death, the laughter of babies, the inconvenience of waiting for others who can’t keep up, and all kinds of sacrifices and loss of self.

I want my children to spend time changing diapers. If I have to borrow (i.e., babysit) other people’s babies to give them this opportunity, than that’s what I’ll do. I want my kids to experience giving up a basketball game or other youth-centered activity in order to, say, help serve dinner for the needy. I want them to spend a lot of their playtime in mixed-age settings instead of with peers. It may seem to other parents that I am asking my kids to give up a little of their care-free childhood, but I’ve noticed that kids who are allowed to be truly useful, needed, and generous are usually happier and better-adjusted.

Speak Intentionally About Motherhood

My mom is a very open and transparent person, and when I was young, she spoke freely about why she made various parenting choices. As parents, we have the opportunity to talk to our kids about parenting. Right in the natural flow of life, we can teach them practical skills such as how to soothe an infant. We can explain why it is important that we don’t allow kids to say cruel things to each other. Even more importantly, we can model attitudes. We can share why, as moms, we think it is worthwhile to stay at home with our kids (or, for working moms, why we choose to spend most weekends with our family instead of heading to the spa or the mall alone). We can express the truth that motherhood is a lot of hard work and yet is a blessing from God. We can convey the idea that motherhood is a good thing and worth looking forward to.

And Yet . . . . .

It is also important not to be so reactionary that we over-emphasize the value of motherhood. I know women who were raised to believe that being a wife and mother is the only godly, valid life work for a woman. Unfortunately, many of these women, unable to find a husband, are still waiting (in their thirties or beyond) for their life’s work to begin. Their parents meant well but forgot that God does not promise all women the blessing of husbands or the gift of children. Scripture tells us that marriage was created by God and that children are a blessing, but it also says that unmarried women have a unique opportunity to serve God. The medieval church went a bit overboard in praise of celibacy, but the modern church may have swung to the opposite extreme. We don’t provide much cultural room for those individuals who do not, or perhaps do not even wish to, marry.

Our goal, I think, should not be to raise our daughters as future mothers so much as to teach them how to serve and to sacrifice, and how to see the beauty in those who are unlovely. We want them to understand that their value comes not from their own achievements, but from Christ’s. We want them to be able to laugh at themselves and endure a bit of baby poop on their blouse. This is the kind of woman who is prepared, as much as anyone can be, to serve others through whatever vocations that God gives her.


Anna writes as often as she can. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Thank you for writing this. So many great points here! And that image cracks me up!

  2. Just yesterday a friend told me of her co-worker's comments, that she couldn't wait to get through with being pregnant/mother of little kids so she could get back to her own life. I felt so sorry for her that she didn't seem to see the value in becoming something new, something different, somebody who was truly needed. I think an understanding of vocation would help people like this so much to be happier with their lives.

    1. It's true enough that not all of us enjoy each stage of family life as much as other stages (some of us really are "baby people," while others are at their absolute best with kids in that six-eight-year-old range, etc.), but yes, it is sad when a person isn't able to enjoy the (sometimes hard-to-see) blessings of each stage. I agree with you that an understanding of vocation is incredibly liberating here.

  3. Excellent, Anna. I enjoyed your Federalist piece, too. Keep up the writing.


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