The Essential Mother

II Timothy 1: 1-10

Being a mother has certainly changed from what it was for my mother. I was reminded of this by an essay written by Sandra Tsing Loh in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly. The story began with the simple wish that their daughter attend kindergarten. It seems she and her husband had moved into an affordable house in California, only to discover that 76 percent of the children in the local school were learning English as a second language.

The answer — a private school. “But upon learning that tuition at name L.A. private schools was $14,000 to $26,000 a year, and learning that tuition in parochial schools was half of that my husband and I — recalling that we have two kids to spring for — dropped our Left Coast Democratic leanings and immediately found God. Any God would do. We weren’t picky.

“Here was a glossy Baptist flyer showing happy children: ‘Picture your child attending a school where every subject is taught from a Biblical perspective!’ Here was a Catholic one, with a photo of the Pope- for whom I experienced a stab of affection, thinking, ‘People put down the Pope, but he has actually made some pretty good points. Can’t remember what they are, but look at the tuition – $4,500!’

“We eventually settled on the middlebrow Lutherans and their middlebrow Luther Hall, considered not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings, which I like to think describes our middlebrow 1998 mini-van family as well — “Not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings.” I felt the pressure releasing. The kindergarten had openings; we were applying in time; and the only thing standing between us and an acceptance letter was a twenty-minute evaluation.

“Said evaluation was a sleepy one-on-one with a teacher involving simple questions, which I thought my daughter handled with ease. But just days later word came that Luther Hall thought my daughter had flunked the test, not developmentally ready for kindergarten. ‘Intermittent eye contact.’ ‘Not focused.’ ‘Attention seemed to wander.’”

What has happened to mother and mothering in our highly individualistic, competitive culture? Has she perhaps succumbed to a view of mothering as a task involving professional management of another life under the guidance and tutelage of experts, where failure ever lurks around the corner? Failure to find appropriate schools and tutors, stimulation and training, could mean consignment to the nether regions of class rank. Failure to praise and appreciate properly could mean the development of low self-esteem. Failure not only to encourage, but provide sufficient play dates with proper friends could mean retarded social development and loss of future connections.

Judith Warner has a book out entitled Perfect Madness, in which she insists that America is full of relatively privileged mothers suffering a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret. She dubs today’s problem that has no name, “The Mommy Mystique,” a gauzy tissue of beliefs that tell us “we are the luckiest women in the world— the freest with the most choices, the broadest horizons, the best luck, and the most wealth. And we have the knowledge and know-how to make informed decisions that will guarantee the successful course of our children’s lives. It tells us that if we choose badly our children will fall prey to countless dangers — from insecure attachment to drugs to kidnapping to a third rate college. And if this happens, if our children stray from the path toward happiness and success, we will have no one but ourselves to blame. Because to point fingers at society, to look beyond ourselves, is to shirk personal responsibility. To admit that we cannot do everything ourselves, that indeed we need help — and help on a large, systematic scale — is tantamount to admitting personal failure. Comforted by the Mommy Mystique, we are convinced that every decision we make, every detail we control, is incredibly important.”

What is missing in this bleak picture of mother? What a different world than the one in which I grew up. For that matter the one in which the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “my dear son. Night and day I thank God whom I serve as did my ancestors. I remember your sincere faith, a faith which first lived in your grandmother Lois, and in your mother Eunice, and I am confident now lives in you.”

Ancestors and son, grandmother and mother, all references to ties pretty fundamental in life, ties that speak of the importance of community to our lives and the lives of our children. And clearly community means relationships that are more than casual, episodic, convenient, self-serving. Community is about relationships both inherited and covenanted, indigenous to life, made up of unconditional obligation over time. The kind of community young couples pledge to create on Saturday afternoons here in front of mothers and grandmothers. The kind of community the Pilgrims tried to weld together over the generations. You can read the covenant as you leave by the southwest door. The kind of covenant community our founding fathers went for as they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. The kind of community this church has tried to be for the last hundred and thirteen years.

Community is people and place we stick with, not particularly because it is romantic and fun and economical or emotionally rewarding, but because it is life. Without it we do not mature and endure. I ran across this recently. “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it will always be yours. If it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with. But…if it just sits in your living room, messes up your stuff, eats your food, uses your telephone, takes your money, and doesn’t appear to realize that you actually set it free in the first place, you either married it or gave birth to it.”So community is people and place who are our history and hope and home.

And half of our troubles in this hour of history, especially when it comes to the raising of our children and grandchildren, are the lack of such community of obligation and commitment, of honor and mutual support. We are increasingly a nation of individual egos running around trying desperately to do it all by ourselves, cut off from extended family, inherited wisdom, the support and guidance of the community of faith.

A group concerned with community writes, “Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and overlapping communities to which all of us belong. Nor can any community, family, church, neighborhood, long survive unless its members dedicate some of their attention, energy, and resources to shared projects.”

And I think that grandmother and mother do sense this somewhere in their souls, unless and until they are sold a bill of goods by certain of the experts. They know it because they have or have had children and know you can’t just walk away from them without betraying your very being and mother especially knows that she and her children do not well survive outside of some network of obligation where others also help, promise to be there for her and her kids so that they can get encouragement and affirmation, vaccination and education. The Lone Ranger does not need anyone. Mom does.

So the call of mother is the call to life in community. And it is no accident that the Biblical faith is about the creation and maintenance of just such community. Even the words are written not to isolated individuals, but about their personal needs and desires. The scriptures created that community, and are written to that community, reminding them that they are community by the gift and grace of God.

So a thoroughly intergenerational community includes the grandparents and kids, the ancestors and those yet unborn because it is community through time, of past and future generations. The Biblical faith holds that God is at work in human history to restore us all to the kind of Kingdom of peace and justice, beauty and joy, which is real life for his human family. But that work of God is our work as well and it is always thirty years from extinction, not to mention our own social security and peace in the streets. Unless each generation takes as its most serious obligation and task, the birthing and nurture of another generation, both our individual and communal survival is in grave jeopardy. So mother, at her best, is the central defender of the community of continuity and future without which we do not survive.

So real community takes the kids into account, recognizes that a central and driving concern of all its members must be the nurture along with mother of another generation to carry on. Mark the words of Paul to Timothy for a moment. They are certainly about
community, obligation and covenant. “My son, I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. I long to see you…” “I am grateful to God —whom I worship as my fathers did, relying on the power of God who saved us and called us all with a holy calling.” Mother needs from us company in her calling.

My mother most surely knew this and made sure that we were there. I grew up within a complex matrix of relationships within which my parents and I, along with my sister, lived, that included grandparents, aunts and uncles, visited often tight knit and long time social groupings, Sunday School teachers, pastors, scout leaders who all helped and supported her in her attempt to raise a son.

There is community and then there is the simple but essential role that the confidence of mother plays. Confidence, con fide from the Latin, “with faith.” “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”

Incredible worlds, really. In a culture where women were little more than property, Paul applauds two of them for their faith and the reality that it is their faith that has become the faith of Timothy. In a crazy mixed-up world where the Madonnas and the managers get the pats and the pay, this most fundamental role needs constant reaffirmation from us all, fathers and brothers, and sisters, and citizens and friends. The issue is not what else she does with her time. The issue is that she, perhaps more than any one else, sustains faith in God and thus in herself and her children. Why? Because anxiety is the worst enemy of both mother and children in the struggle toward maturity.

Note those final words, “relying with me on the power of God.” Mother, no less than the rest of us, can do her job well only in the faith that she does not do it alone. God is intimately present in the process, working growth and maturity in our children. It is not all up to us. It does not call for perfection in our parenting. Perfect parents would be a curse in any event. Can you imagine living with a perfect parent? It calls only for confidence. Confidence that with God we are doing a good enough job. Nurturing the next generation requires whole-hearted commitment to a process which we cannot control but can only trust.

In that she died two weeks ago, it is appropriate that I pay tribute to my mother. And as I reflect on her and what she did for me it has come to me again and again in these days that, most of all, she was remarkably lacking in anxiety about me. She had anxieties but not about me. She didn’t read all the bookish advice on child rearing, I guess, and so didn’t know all the horrible mistakes she could make. She simply trusted me to God and in so doing, gave me the confidence that I could make the necessary choices and commitments that my life required. The faith that was in Stella and Bea and therefore in me.

Polly Berends, a mother, writes wise words. “Ultimately, it is life itself that raises children spiritually. As parents we can’t give them spiritual maturity, or spare them the ups and downs that develop it, but we can prepare the way. As we travel part way with our children, it is best to look at them, not as do-it-yourself projects at which we can succeed or fail, but as fellow travelers in a mutual journey of spiritual awakening.

What helps them most along their way is seeing how we respond when we stumble or lose our way. “One of my sons had trouble learning to ride a bike. I’d run alongside; he’d pedal. But as soon as I’d let go, he’d give up. After days of futile practice, when we were both defeated and I was exhausted, it finally occurred to me to become prayerful. I recognized the fear of hurt and failure that I was bringing to the task, my over-protectiveness, and the notion that somehow his life and everything in it depended on me. I realized that he couldn’t let go of me until I let go of him. ‘Too much mother!’ I thought. At once a fresh idea came to me. To my son (and myself) I said, ‘Do you really believe that of all the children on earth, God picked you out to be the one who can’t ride a bike?’ Startled recognition flashed in his eyes. I went inside. He went off and rode his bike.”

So rest yourself, mother, and join her father, grandmother, grandfather, in the confidence that, at whatever age and whatever may come, the children are finally in the hands of a loving God. And as from your trust, they too learn to trust, they will grow strong and hopeful and free.