Would it surprise you to know that, some days, a lot of days, I feel as if I am failing at life?
I know. I’m only just in my 30s and I have so many things to be thankful for, things that others my age might be only dreaming of having. A husband, two kids, a home that we own (even though we technically own pretty much just the chimney stack and owe the bank for the rest), a degree from a prestigious university.
I also believe in and trust a God who gives, and gives, and gives, and demands nothing, and made the world, and made me, and is good, and has planned all of history and all of future.
So why this feeling of failure? Or is it discontentment? Or both?
And when I meet new people, and they ask me what I do, why do I respond as I do?
‘I’m just a mum.’
Just a mum.
Why just? Where does this downtrodden tone spring from? And why does it make me feel so sad?
The thing is, I have been wondering recently about the world outside motherhood. It’s four and a half years since our amazing daughter burst into our lives. Four and a half years since I became ‘just’ a mum. What else is there?
So I’ve been trying to put my finger on what this feeling is. First I started wondering if maybe… I’m a little bored? I don’t think that’s the name for it though, because I adore my children and we have lots of fun together and their father and I have consciously and continually decided that having a parent at home full-time is the best thing for our children and our family.
So maybe… I feel boring? I’m like a girl at a party who has nothing to say that anyone wants to hear because, well, I’m just a mum.
Or maybe… I feel oppressed? Not by my children but by all the peripheral things that go with being a stay-at-home mum. Preschool runs. Toddler groups. The same and same and same shallow conversations with other parents at said school and toddler group. Isn’t there more?
Or maybe… I have dreams? My own dreams, which have been buried and forgotten and unfulfilled. Dreams of creative endeavours. Dreams of success. Dreams of being admired.
Not long ago, one of my friends posted this on her Facebook profile, and it floored me:
Shoutout to the world’s best in laws. They pray for me and my family daily. They want [my daughter] every chance they can get. They travel to visit us at any opportunity, to make living [overseas] easier. They build my confidence daily by praising me for being a stay at home mom. I really don’t know where I would be without these loving people.
I was bowled over. These people sound amazing. And so different to anyone I’ve ever encountered. Being praised for being a stay-at-home mum? Far more often the questions I hear from people are, ‘So when are you going back to work?’ and ‘So what are your plans for work in the future?’
Sometimes, it truly feels that no-one admires a stay-at-home mum. We are the silent, the forgotten, the obscure.
I even recently found myself asking my husband, ‘Does it bother you that I’m a nothing?’
A nothing. I feel like a nothing.
I wonder whether I could have broken out of the rut of boring jobs that deadened my soul in the years after graduation and been something. Been someone. Whether I could have taken the plunge and dived into the creative world and made things, beautiful things, for people to enjoy.
Instead, I became a mum, and whilst I delight and rejoice in that identity, there has been sacrifice.
Those desires, those dreams, they are still real. And this grappling and battling with God over this discontentment, this feeling of failure, it is also real. There is a real sense in which my dreams have been laid waste on the altar of motherhood.
There’s another element to this story. That my apparent failure to amount to anything, anyone, is compounded by my failure to do well at the thing I am supposed to be doing.
Daily I fail at being the patient, kind, attentive, communicative, godly, wise, compassionate, outward-looking, hospitable, fun, thoughtful mum that I would like to be. My failures as a mum? Humiliating my children. Being too brisk with my words. Thoughtlessness. Saying no when I could easily say yes. Prizing my convenience over their curiosity. Not hiding from them that I find children’s stories and games just a little boring after a while… My failures are many.
And yet… in this ongoing battle within myself and with God, there are silvery threads of hope and light to be caught and held.
What lessons am I finding in the embers of this unease, this sadness, this disappointment? What is He teaching me?
That He is sufficient. Yes, these worldly desires are real, and won’t be lightly or easily set aside… yet they are an aside. The real thing, the genuine thing, is knowing God, knowing His love, and sharing it.
That my identity in Christ. I am not my mistakes, my failures, my wrongs. I am righteous, because of Him. My value is not found in my achievements. Christ achieved it all: ‘It is finished.’
That repentance is crucial. Turning from an old, self-worshipping life to a new, God-worshipping life, where forgiveness is asked for and received and fellowship is restored because God makes us righteous (Matthew 3 and 4). Acknowledging the truth about who God is. And idols. Peeling away the idols. Whatever we desire more than God, dethrones God. ‘If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand firm at all’ (Isaiah 7:9).
That there is healing for broken hearts.The woman in Matthew 9:18-22 who believed she would be healed if she just touched Jesus’ cloak – what did he say to her? Your righteous acts have made you well? No. ‘Your faith has made you well.’ Our faith allows God’s healing into our hearts. Not because of our holiness, but because of His love.
That humility is the hallmark of a full life. See in Matthew 19 and 20, the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children, not to those who have a semblance of holiness but are wedded to riches not to God; God welcomes everyone to his kingdom and in his kingdom the greatest are the ones who serve – and he heals two blind beggars, to reinforce the lesson that those with worldly status are brought low, those without status are exalted. C.S. Lewis wrote that humility ‘is not thinking less of myself but thinking of myself less.’ I find this lesson particularly painful. What about my needs? My dreams? It is so hard to put my own desires aside to help these little ones flourish, and I do it so badly, and I feel it so insignificant. But He has been reminding me all over the place – I keep seeing it wherever I look – that ‘You are doing something great with your life – when you’re doing all the small things with His Great love.’ What fanfares are needed for a life like that?
Will this feeling of failure, of disappointment, of discontentment just disappear with the wind? No. I will keep on failing, and feeling like a failure. I will keep on looking to the left and to the right for meaning and fulfilment even though I know the true source of those things is at my fingertips. I will wonder about those unfulfilled dreams, those broken ambitions. Idols will rise up…
But I will come back to Christ. To the God who authors this whole cosmic existence, who made me, who made my children and made us for a time such as this.
In his final speech as President of the United States, Barack Obama said to his daughters: ‘Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.’
If the president can say that his proudest achievement is being a dad, perhaps I can become proud of being just a mum, because this is the work God has given me to do, and because in Christ I am so much more.