Carla Barnhill's morning started in the middle of the night. Five months pregnant with her third child, Mrs. Barnhill was up and down from 2 o'clock on with the normal aches and discomforts and bladder needs of pregnant moms. At 6 a.m. her 3-year-old son Isaac climbed into bed with her; he wanted her to get up so they could play with his train set. By 7:15, daughter Emily was off to school, husband Jimmy was off to work, and she had 12 long hours of mom-time in front of her.
Moms can imagine how her day went. Play-doh; errand du jour to Target; there were snacks to be fixed, time-outs to be enforced, stories to be read. Not to mention the breakfast dishes. Not to mention that she might like to shower. Not to mention that she works as an editor part-time from home. Often that editing happens after 8 p.m., when the children are in bed, and she prays for a second (or third, or fourth) wind.
Until June, when she left to edit a line of books for Zondervan, Mrs. Barnhill was the editor of Christian Parenting Today magazine, and she's the new author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Rethinking Women's Spirituality.
Indeed, it was in large part her years at Christian Parenting Today that prompted her to write this book. Over and over, Mrs. Barnhill heard from mothers who felt just like she did-whether stay-at-home moms or busy corporate attorneys, whether homeschoolers or public schoolers, they loved being moms, but sometimes felt exhausted, confused, depressed. Most important, they often felt they weren't getting the support they needed from the church. "What I came to realize," she said, "was that though the church supported mothering, it didn't always support mothers. There's so much pressure in the church to be a good mom that often church, which should be the place we can be most honest about our brokenness and failings, becomes a place where we have to act like mothering is easy-a place where we have to act like the perfect mother."
It's no surprise, then, that this is not your ordinary Christian parenting guide. It's not a how-to. And, probably, you won't agree with everything Mrs. Barnhill has to say. (I didn't, at any rate.) But this is a book the church-not just moms, but the whole church-needs.
Here's what she has to say to the church: "We need to treat women like they're Christians first, and mothers second. We need to recognize that motherhood falls under the big umbrella of gospel living," she tells me. Little Isaac is playing in the corner with Legos, and she sips a rare cup of hot water (tea, and most other beverages besides milk, are out because they threaten to harm her unborn child; "Moms start sacrificing for their babies before they're even born," she notes wryly). "We are created to live kingdom life-lives that follow God in the way of Jesus Christ. Everything else we do in our lives falls under that authority-marriage, work, but also motherhood."
One of Mrs. Barnhill's most provocative questions is whether Christian moms sometimes become so absorbed serving their families that they fail to serve the larger kingdom of Christ. "Of course," she says, "we are called to serve our families, but we are also called to be salt and light to the rest of the world." She recalls several times this issue has come up in her own life-when her husband Jimmy, for example, wanted them to live in an inner-city neighborhood, she panicked that harm might come to her kids if they did so.
It's not that Mrs. Barnhill thinks the church is doing nothing right. "It is right for the church to be concerned about Christians as parents," she says. "Parenting is hard work, and it affects every other part of our lives."
But she argues in her book that the church has erred on the side of addressing women only as mothers. "The Bible studies for women are almost all centered on motherhood," she says. That means the church sometimes treats women "not as the multifaceted people that we are, but only as moms. What I need from the church is how to be a person of faith, not just how to discipline my kids."
The church, says Mrs. Barnhill, has desperately wanted to counter the secular culture's message that motherhood is not important. "The church's intentions are good," she says. "But sometimes the church discounts the fact that women are relational. When a woman has a child she's already inclined to pour herself into that child. She's inclined to do anything for that child. We don't need someone to tell us to do more." Women, in other words, don't need the church to tell them to work harder at their mothering-rather, moms need the church to be a place where they can be transparent about the emotional and spiritual toll that mothering, even for the best moms, often takes.
Indeed, The Myth of the Perfect Mother concludes with a very practical discussion of things the church could do better, such as giving women access to the full life of the church. That means encouraging women to live out their faith in the broader community, not just in their homes. Churches can do a better job of inviting women to participate in non-child-related ministries, including them in Bible studies and discipleship classes that have nothing to do with family life. "I don't necessarily need to attend another class on how to effectively discipline my children. I would grow just as much, as a Christian and a mother," says Mrs. Barnhill, "from attending a Bible study on Romans or a centering prayer retreat." Note to churches: Providing childcare at every church event, not just those events focused on parenting, can be a big sign that everyone is welcome.
Mrs. Barnhill also encourages churches to create opportunities for women at all stages of life to get to know one another. One of the great things about the church, after all, is that it provides a context for getting to know people who are demographically different from us; church is a place where we can remember that deep relationships are possible with people, even if all we have in common is the work Jesus Christ has done within us. "I have deeply appreciated the opportunities I've had at church to get to know other moms, and hear about their joys and struggles," she says. "But I also grow as a Christian and as a friend and a wife and a mother when I get to know women whose diaper-changing days are long, long in the past, or far away in the future."
Reporters, Mrs. Barnhill says, keep asking if her book is a feminist screed dressed in evangelical clothing. "This is a kingdom conversation, not a feminist conversation," she says. "It has nothing to do with 'empowering women.' It has to do with how the church can help all of us be the people of God, living into God's glorious kingdom, and living into the rich promises of the gospel."