Before I had children I worked full time. I had a job that required professional dress, some ability to organize things, a briefcase, and appointments. While I wasn't turning the medical community on its ear, I enjoyed what I did.
But I noticed one thing as I drove between appointments: moms were everywhere. I would notice them in their sweatpants pushing strollers and carrying babies. When I drove by parks, I would notice them pushing kids on swings and chasing squealing toddlers. When I stopped at McDonald's for lunch, I would see moms sitting together with their children, having what looked like very wonderful conversations with the older ones, and playing patty cake with the younger ones.
It stirred in me a longing that said, "I wish I could be doing that."
A transformation occurred in me with the birth of my children. I traded in that professional look for sweatpants. I found myself at the park with my children, looking at working women and thinking, I'd like to be doing that.
Motherhood is a dichotomy, a struggle between two opposing forces.
But the transformation went deeper than trading my business suit for a pair of sweatpants. There was something else going on when I had children. I knew my life had been invaded by God in a way in which I would never be the same. With the birth of each of my children, there emerged from within me this person I had never met, a person whom I liked very much this loving, caring, nurturing woman. And I watched her, amazed.
There was another transformation that occurred. Another person emerged who was not as attractive, who was frazzled and angry and impatient. And I was in amazement as I watched her. It was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde split, a creature that came out of me who was wonderful, and a creature that I didn't know.
In Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Jekyll and Hyde, he starts his story with this quote: "I stood already committed to the profound duplicity of life, that humankind is not truly one but two. And that these polar twins should be continuously struggling. One of these polar twins, who was the Mr. Hyde character, bore the stamp of the lower elements in my soul."
I found that there was a polarity in motherhood. In the transformation, a struggle emerged. For you, it might be something other than motherhood that brings this struggle to the forefront of your life. It might be an illness, a job, a relationship, stress.
Sheila Kissinger, a social anthropologist, writes in her book , Ourselves as Mothers: "Becoming a mother is a biological process, but it is also a social transformation, and one of the most dramatic and that a woman may experience. The home is supposed to be a haven of love and good feelings. Thus it comes as a great disappointment to many women when it proves not to be so for them. For home is also a place where the ugliest and most destructive emotions are experienced, where there is disturbing interpersonal conflict, and inside four walls these raw feelings are concentrated and mixed together as if in a pressure cooker. She hates what she has become. Happy as a woman may be to have a baby, and although she may enjoy being a mother, she must now pay the price of motherhood the total and virtual annihilation of self."
Lest you think you are alone in this struggle, the apostle Paul describes this internal struggle of the good and the evil in us. "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good." In other words, I need restrictions to keep my behavior in line. "As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it."
I think Paul was a mother. He hits the nail on the head. There is that constant struggle inside of me where a good person responds to my children, and then this creature I don't know comes out.
In Robert Louis Stevenson's work, Jekyll and Hyde, unfortunately, the darkness of Mr. Hyde's character overshadows the goodness of Dr. Jekyll. But let's look at the Jekyll character.
He was a good person. The book says that he was a physician, surrounded by good friends who hated to leave his dinner parties because he was so good to be around.
When I became a mother, I found a Jekyll inside of me. For the first time there was a person in my life whom I loved more than I loved myself. Before I had kids, something I struggled with, and still do perhaps, was my selfish tendencies. My life went on my schedule. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted. Now all of a sudden there was this other person in my life, and I didn't want to be selfish any more. Even though I was hungry, I wanted to feed her first; I was more concerned about her schedule, her sleep, what she would wear. I was doing unselfish things because I wanted to.
I was becoming a patient and kind, calm, reasonable, generous, thoughtful, loving person. I thought, This is a good thing, this person who is emerging. I loved being a mom.
There is another person who comes out sometimes when I am a mom, a person I don't know, and I want to say, "Who is she? What does she want? How can I make her go away?"
I remember one day in particular, although I'm not sure why it stands out in my mind because there were many days like this. I had a 3 year old, a 2, and an infant. I awoke to the fussy baby. He clung to me like a baby monkey hangs onto its mother and would not let me put him down.
While Johnny was clinging to me, my toddler was wreaking havoc. She had this game she liked to play with the toilet paper; she would unwind it and do designs in every room of the house. While she did that, she would take all of the books off the shelves and start tearing pages out of them.
While this was going on, my 3 year old was begging me to play Candyland. I hate Candyland. There was a mound of dirty laundry threatening to suffocate me. John walked out saying he had no clean underwear. There was no food in the house, and I had to go to the grocery store.
At the grocery store, I had a baby clinging to me, a toddler in the grocery cart, my other one running up and down the aisles; and the grocery cart was so full I had to kick the pad of diapers down the aisle.
In the toilet paper section, I fought to hold back the tears and to keep from running out. I stood there thinking, What am I doing with my life? Look at me.
Back at home, I unloaded the groceries, fixing lunch while the ice cream melted. Then I took the kids to the park before rest time. A park with three children is not fun. I kept counting, One two three. I came with three; I've got to leave with three.
By the time I got home and it was rest time I was a wreck. I hated myself. I hated my children. I hated my life. I put them in their rooms and shut the doors. Of course, none of them slept. And I went into the garage, and I cried. I don't know why. I just thought I was going to lose my mind.
I knew that that day at four o'clock everything in the house would look exactly like it did when John left at seven o'clock that morning. I felt like I was becoming an impatient, frazzled, rude, angry, frustrated mom; and I was splitting into two people.
Not all moms are like that. I know moms who are patient and kind toward their children almost all of the time. I admire them. I don't like them, but I admire them. That is not me.
I used to think that my kids were doing this to me, or maybe it was somebody else's fault. But God was holding a mirror up to show me these two people who lived inside of me, to remind me that this Hyde character had been there all along. I looked at these two faces, and I was left with a question: "What do I do with these two people?"
God uses the dichotomy of motherhood to shatter our illusions.
Let me walk you through four steps that have helped me, and are currently helping me deal with these two people who live inside of me. As God held up the mirror and I looked at this wonderful Jekyll and this hideous Hyde, the first thing that happened is that it shattered my illusions.
We like to think we're good people. We read the newspapers. We watch the ten o'clock news. We're not like those people. But for me, after becoming a mother, I can no longer hold onto that as truth. There is serious sin inside of me. I would like to say, "Oh, it's not that bad. All moms do it." While that may be true, not all moms want to do it. We want to be different.
A few months ago I called my friend Sue. I said, "As a result of books I've been reading and sermons I've been hearing and observations I've been making," and I approached this tentatively "I think I might struggle with anger with my kids." I'm not a screamer, and I don't hit. That may be what you struggle with. I struggle with that tone of voice that in a short time can communicate to kids, I'm busy. You are bothering me. What I am doing is more important, and I wish you would leave me alone.
I hoped Sue would say, "Gosh, we all do that. It's not a big deal, Nancy."
Her silence was deafening. After a couple of seconds, she said four words: "I can see that." Wow. That was a mirror to me. But as painful as that was to hear, in my ten years of being a mom, I have not changed so dramatically in my toning down the anger toward my children as I have when Sue said those words, because I saw it in myself and she saw it, and I didn't want that in my life.
A good person does not unleash anger on defenseless children. If you come over to my house and have a cup of juice, if you spill your juice I won't yell at you. But I do at my children. The horror of sin and the pain that it inflicts, the hurt, the brokenness the damage is sometimes irreparable.
A couple of weeks ago I did the "mom" thing. I had been, what I thought, was a good mom for the day. I rode bikes, read stories, and fixed meals. I patted myself on the back and thought, Okay. I'm done. It's six o'clock. It's my time. And this little voice from the basement called out, "Mom."
I did what most moms would do. I ignored it three or four times hoping he would forget it. It's worked before. But it didn't; he was persistent. I finally said, "What?" knowing I wasn't going to move.
"Come down in the basement. I want to show you something."
"Oh, Honey, I don't want to come down in the basement. You bring it up here."
"I can't bring it up here."
"Oh, sure you can. Just grab it and bring it up the stairs."
"I can't, Mom, it's too heavy."
"Johnny, I really don't want to come down the stairs right now. I'll see it later."
"I need you to see it now."
By this time the anger started, and I went to the top of the stairs. I said, "Johnny, I do not want to come downstairs. I will do it later."
"I really want you to see it now, Mom."
I stormed down the stairs, and I said, "What do you want? I am busy."
His little face turned around, and he had big tears in his eyes. Behind him was a screen of our old computer and in huge block letters it said, "I love Mom."
I had a chance to connect with my child, and I blew it. I inflicted pain instead. I don't like that, and I want that out of my life.
God holds the mirror up. The gift of the mirror is this: it causes me to see I am wrong, I need to change, and in order to change, I need God.
God uses motherhood to show us we need him.
After our illusions are shattered, then what? The next step was that I began to see how much I needed God. It was a desperate thing. I would hear my children talk to each other using unkind words that I recognized as my own. Inside I would die a little. And it would drive me to God: "Fix me. Make me less angry, less critical, less impatient. Make me more like you, because I like the results when I inflict kindness on my children. I like what it does to their souls when I'm like you."
There would be some mornings I would wake up and I'd think , Okay. Today I'm going to be more patient. But it wasn't resolve I needed. It was God. I thought I needed rest, time away, and adult conversation and I did need those things. But more than those, I needed God.
God uses motherhood to reveal his character.
After I saw how much I needed God, a third thing happened: I saw God. Robert Louis Stevenson says that the Hyde character in his book bore the stamp of the lower elements of his soul. Jekyll, on the other hand, bore the stamp of God. This person coming out of me, this person I saw, reflected who God was. All of the parenting images in Scripture I realized as I loved my children with this overwhelming love that's how God loves me.
There's a verse in the Bible that says, "As a mother nurses her newborn at her breast, so God is like that with you." He could never forget you. It goes on to say that as a mother comforts her child, so God will comfort you. As I love my children, I am getting a glimpse of how God loves me. I had not known it to that depth before.
We can relearn God's character.
The last step on my journey, and where I spend much of my days, is this. Because my illusions have been shattered, and I realize how much I need God, and I have seen his face, I am now on a journey through motherhood to relearn who God is, because I've gotten at least parts of it wrong.
I was raised in an alcoholic family. When things went along too well for too long, I could expect the rug to get pulled out. That's how I saw God. Through mothering, one thing God has shown me is that he's not like that.
I needed to learn who God was afresh. My problem was that when I needed him the most I was in touch with him the least. I thought that the only way I could connect with God was if I approached him like I always had. Before I had children, that was Bible study and prayer almost every morning.
I couldn't do that any more. I could barely get myself out of bed and do the thing. I needed something different for this time in my life.
As I looked through Scripture, I realized that God approaches and reveals himself in many different ways.
I would still put Bible study and prayer at the top of my list, but I had to let times count when I would read a sentence in a book and it would connect me with God. I had to let nature count, when I was outside and amazed at how beautiful it was. I would watch my children, and be reminded of how God loves me, and count that as a connection to God. This was, as a young mom, what kept me connected to God in a season where otherwise I would have let him go.
Just when you think you've got God figured out, he goes outside the lines; he meets you in a hundred different ways. And he does something amazing by telling you that he loves you even with that Hyde creature living inside of you. God is interested in redeeming that creature and changing it.
If you're honest, you can say that Hyde lives in you. I know Hyde lives in me. But the good news is that Jekyll lives there, too. And I celebrate that person who is like God.
God is still using the Jekyll and Hyde of motherhood to transform me, and I'm ten years into the mothering thing. I have to say I still feel like my life is on hold, and that's frustrating. When I'm done today, I'll put my sweatpants on and go back to being a mom and hope that my children will see more of Jekyll than they do of Hyde, because God is transforming me. But I am seeing his face because of being a mom. It is my prayer for you, as it is for myself, that we will see more of Jekyll and less of Hyde.
Nancy Ortberg is a teaching pastor and of assimilation in ministry services at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.