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Multifaceted moms

Religion | Author Carla Barnhill says the church would serve mothers better by first treating them as children of God

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

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.

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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.

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