The Goodness of God’s Design
Motherhood is Life
I recently rewatched “Saving Private Ryan” for what must have been the 10th time. Saving Private Ryan tells the story of a young man whose three brothers were killed in combat in WWII. Private Ryan was the only brother to survive D Day. When military officials realized this, they dispatched a special regiment of eight soldiers to track him down, somewhere in France, to retrieve him and bring him home.
Saving Private Ryan is a masculine movie. It’s all about brotherhood, war, duty, honor. But when I watched the movie this time, however, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before—mothers. Many of these young men, who were fighting for their lives on another continent, were thinking about their mothers back home. In a particularly disturbing scene, a soldier lies on a beach in Normandy, clutching his bloody stomach that had been blown open, crying out “mama!” while he died.
The mission to save Private Ryan was deemed urgent because the military command wanted to spare his mother the overwhelming grief of losing her last remaining son. One scene depicts the awful moment just before she learned the news that she’d lost her other three sons. She is standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes as she notices a military vehicle approach. A man dressed in a military uniform exits the front passenger side of the vehicle, turns toward the back door of the car and opens it. A chaplain steps out. She knew immediately. She falls to her knees in grief, knowing that she’d lost one of her sons. Surely her mind is racing with questions. “Which son? How did he die?” But the audience knows the situation is much worse. She’d lost three of her sons in one day, and the fourth was still missing.
Scenes like this show the power of motherhood. When strong, young men in war are in the throes of death, their hearts are naturally drawn to the safety, comfort, and love of home. They long for the woman who gave them life. Mothers embody everything they hope for in dangerous times. War is death. Motherhood is life.
The World’s View of Motherhood
Many young women feel the need to suppress their maternal instincts because they’ve been culturally conditioned to devalue motherhood. They’ve grown up watching shows and hearing stories celebrating how “girls can do anything boys can do.” A friend once noticed a poster in a school highlighting girl’s potential in a series of pictures associated with different careers. One was a doctor, another was a business executive, a third was an astronaut. Of all these images inspiring young girls about what they could become in life, none of them depicted mothers.
During a small group discussion with some Christian friends, one young woman sheepishly admitted that what she most wanted out of life was to be a wife and a mother. She was hesitant to acknowledge this, because she felt that this was somehow aiming below her potential, wasting her gifts, and settling for second best. All her life, she’d heard about how exciting a career can be, but she’d heard relatively little celebrating the fact that she can create and nurture new life. In pop culture, pregnancy is depicted as a hurdle to overcome. But the testimony of scripture is that children are a blessing and motherhood is a glorious vocation (Ps 127:3-5). This is not to say that women should not get an education or have a job. For our purposes here, it’s simply a matter of priority. Motherhood is highly valued in Scripture but devalued in modern culture.
Motherhood has never been an easy calling ever since it came under the curse of sin (Gen 3:16). Nevertheless, throughout history, societies have always valued motherhood as a social good to preserve and nurture civilization. As the industrial revolution radically changed the household, some feminist thinkers began arguing that the traditional household was outdated, oppressive to women, and needed to be changed. It was holding women back, enslaving them to their husbands and children. But women could be liberated from this bondage by seeking careers outside the home the way men did. They assumed that women could be more free, more fulfilled, and more valued in the marketplace than in the home.
Even though most Christian women would quickly recognize the error of this thinking, the basic assumptions and desires of feminism can nevertheless seep into our unconscious minds, training us to devalue the vocation of motherhood. Women are being subtly conditioned to believe that the marketplace is immanently desirable—where true happiness and fulfillment can be found. Motherhood is a secondary endeavor if a woman chooses to succumb to her own biology. Homemaking should rarely be the top vocational choice, unless she’s going for a trendy, boutique, trad wife flex. This thinking is ungodly. Nevertheless, the feminine nature has a way of asserting itself. It cannot be so easily denied. Women are naturally and instinctively inclined to make homes.
The Feminine Design
I have pastored many women through infertility struggles and have personally seen how devastating this trial can be. For these women, their missing motherhood can feel like a personal failure. Why is missing motherhood such an emotional weight for so many women? Because it’s their design. Motherhood is the goal (or telos) of the feminine design. Women are physiologically oriented towards it. A woman’s menstrual cycle is a monthly reminder that her womb was designed to bear life, and her breasts were designed to feed and nurture life. This astoundingly powerful ability to create life should be affirmed and celebrated, not minimized or dismissed.
The Scriptures present motherhood as one of the greatest blessings a woman could receive. Similarly, a barren womb was one of the greatest trials she could endure. Womanhood cannot be properly understood apart from her potential for motherhood. It is the unique design of her body. When God created Eve, he was not merely solving a loneliness problem, but a reproduction problem. She was God’s answer to man’s inability to fill the earth on his own. This is why Adam named her “Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20). God gave him much more than a wife. He gave him a potential mother.
A common word Scripture uses to describe motherhood is “fruitfulness” (Gen 1:28). This word appears in the Bible over 200 times, covering a range of interrelated meanings from gardening to sexuality. Fruitfulness is multiplication. Just as the Garden of Eden was meant to grow, expand, and multiply to cover the earth, Eve was meant to be fruitful and grow, like a garden. Women are uniquely equipped to multiply and amplify things. A woman’s body can take a single sperm from a man and knit together a new human being from it. Just as her name suggests, Eve truly did become the mother of all living, giving birth to the whole human race. This feminine ability goes beyond physical childbearing. Femininity represents the ability to expand what is received. As author Rebekah Merkle put it, “When God gave Eve to Adam, he was handing Adam an amplifier… Adam is the single acorn sitting on the driveway which, no matter how hard he tries, remains an acorn. Eve is the fertile soil which takes all the potential that resides in that acorn and turns it into a tree, which produces millions more acorns and millions more trees.”
The Vocation of Motherhood
Women are natural homemakers. Marriage is all about making a home, and wives will naturally devote themselves to it. The question is not whether she’ll do it, but to what degree she’ll prioritize it. Every household will need its cabinets stocked with groceries, meals prepared, and laundry washed. Beyond this, the children will need to be fed, nurtured, clothed, disciplined, and educated. Typically, the mother takes the lead in handling these chores. She may do them all herself, or she may outsource some or all of them to others. For example, a well-trained and qualified nanny can be hired to come into the home and perform all these tasks. A nanny may be a better cook, better housekeeper, and better teacher of the kids. This being the case, why not hire them to do as much as possible? Some families see this as the wisest option, since, after all, the nanny is the professional. She’s the expert. But homes need more than domestic expertise; they need a mother’s presence.
Nancy Pearcey observed a trend that began to emerge around childcare literature around the 1870’s. She noticed that most of it was written by child study “experts” who were trained in psychology. This led to a professionalization of motherhood, which left ordinary mothers feeling ill-equipped to raise their own children because they lacked sophisticated training. “Of course,” Pearcey writes, “to treat mothering as a profession is eventually to invite the conclusion, ‘let professionals do it.’ With the growth of early childhood education and the childcare industry in our own day, increasing numbers of parents seem to be reaching precisely that conclusion.” Motherhood cannot be professionalized. No matter how well trained someone is in early childhood psychology, there is no substitute for a mother’s attention and love.
The temptation in the modern world is to separate biological motherhood from the vocation of homemaking. In other words, motherhood is simply the biological fact of bearing and nurturing a child, whereas homemaking is a list of disembodied chores that can be outsourced with little consequence. But since motherhood encompasses the whole domestic realm, motherhood cannot be so easily abstracted from homemaking. A homemaker doesn’t merely do the domestic chores, she creates a loving environment for her people, serving her husband and the children that came from her body. This is not to say that the mother must do all the work, because that’s not how households operate. It is good that modern tools have made household work easier. But at the same time, much of what makes a house a home is the fact that a mother is personally invested in the particulars. She’s there. She’s invested. She’s making decisions.
My great grandmother taught my mother to sew when she was a little girl. It’s a skill that she has been able to use her whole life. She’d go to the fabric store and choose fabrics, colors, and patterns she wanted, with matching thread, and bring them home to make clothes. When I was about four years old, she made my dad and me matching suits. I still have the suit. When my firstborn son was about the same age, he wore it too. My mom could have saved a lot of time and energy by just going to the store and picking out two suits for my dad and me to wear, but it wouldn’t have meant anything to us. It would just be clothes. But my mother made these suits, and in so doing, she created something that has lasted in my memory for decades. I don’t remember any other stitch of clothing from my childhood, but I remember that suit.
Pictured: Michael Clary, Paul Clary, Melisa (Clary) Davenport
As my mom has gotten older, she stopped making clothes, but she kept her skills sharp with quilting. One year for Christmas, she gave each of her three children a quilt that she had made. I wasn’t expecting that. She had spent several months working on them, practically night and day. They were intricately detailed, stitched by hand, and incredibly beautiful. She later shared with me a picture of her sitting on a couch between her mother and grandmother. Three generations of mothers, sitting together, each with a quilt on their laps and a needle and thread in their hands. The quilt my mother gave me was not just a fancy blanket. It was a treasure because it was a labor of love. I wouldn’t trade that quilt for anything.
Pictured: My Grandmother, Ethel; Bonnie, my mother; and Mary, my great grandmother
While much work of the home can be outsourced, or simplified by modern technologies, the mother’s presence is the one thing that can never be outsourced or replaced. Homes don’t need expertise. They need presence. Even a mother’s imperfections are cherished because they’re her imperfections. She is the home. A woman is replaceable in any other area of life, but she is irreplaceable in her home. It’s her domain. She animates it with her presence. A home bereft of a mother’s presence quickly becomes merely a house people live in.
Unlike other vocations, the vocation of motherhood is an embodied reality. It cannot be reduced to a set of household chores. It is a way of being that most fully represents her life-giving feminine nature. Further, the homeward orientation of women is not an imposition of a patriarchal society, but rather a design feature of her own body. For example, when a woman conceives a child, her own body immediately becomes a home. During gestation, the child cannot survive apart from the sustenance of her body. He and his mother are one. At this stage, “mother” and “home” are the same thing. When he is born into the world, “home” is wherever mother is. He is comforted in her arms and nourished at her breast. A baby in the earliest developmental stages cannot distinguish himself from her. The recognition that he is a distinct person apart from his mother is a process that develops slowly over time.
A house is not the same thing as a home. Your address is where your house is, but your home is where your people are. You may live in many houses during your lifetime, but it’s the people living with you that make them homes. For most people as they grow up and move away, “home” is uniquely associated with mother. Just as God originally designed her body to be a home to create and nourish new life, she continues to embody the meaning of home. Home is not a place where everything is perfect, it’s simply where mother is.
As a wife becomes a mother, she is like a human tree of life, bearing fruit within her own body and bringing life into the world. Giving life is her defining function, not only in bearing children, but in her life-giving presence wherever she goes. For these reasons, the home is the mother’s primary domain. She is the life-giving heart of the household. This is why most people love a “home cooked” meal. A home cooked meal is special not only because of the people it is enjoyed with, but often because it was prepared by a loving mother.
Of course, a mother cannot do everything, nor should she work alone. Homemaking is a cooperative project pursued by the husband and wife together. A well-managed household will maximize the mother’s presence with her people. Even though the father is head over his household, the home is the mother’s domain more than anywhere else. A mother’s presence is at its life-giving peak when she is fully available to her people, especially her children. A mother’s absence from the home carries a great cost.
Preparing for Motherhood
With the modern world’s devaluing of motherhood, it falls to the church to continue upholding the priority of motherhood for Christian women. Our society celebrates what women accomplish in their careers more than what they accomplish as mothers. Pop culture promotes the idea that society is better off when mothers have careers and leave the childrearing up to “the experts.” These cultural messages shape our social imagination more powerfully than we realize. Through TV shows, books, movies, commercials, social media, and just about any other kind of media we can imagine, the world shapes how young women perceive their purpose in life and their value as women. From their youth, girls are conditioned to find their value in the marketplace, though she has to deny her maternal instincts in the process. They learn to seek affirmation in just about anything except motherhood. Motherhood is regarded as an incidental feature of womanhood, perhaps an optional add-on to a life where fulfillment is found somewhere else. In such an environment, a career feels more important than changing diapers and singing nursery rhymes. The sacrifices of motherhood cannot compete with the perceived fulfillment of an exciting career. All this stands against the eternal testimony of Scripture, which regards motherhood as a higher, more noble, and more glorious calling.
I recently attended a high school ceremony recognizing inductees to the National Honor Society. As each student crossed the stage, the announcer mentioned the student’s name, expected destination for college, and career aspirations. Most of these students were girls, and nearly all of them were planning to enter demanding fields that will require long hours to succeed. Motherhood was not mentioned. None of these young women saw it as a worthy place to utilize their gifts. But why would they unless the culture-shaping institutions that form their hearts uphold it? Most likely, few of them have given much thought to motherhood at all. Motherhood is an abstraction, something that may or may not happen one day in a future she cannot entirely foresee or control. Her preparation for the future is almost entirely oriented around a future career, not her future children. For many of them, they will spend their twenties preparing for and entering a career that will demand the best of their thirties.
The church is the best place to tell women a different story. I know a young, married woman who manages a multi-million-dollar budget for a prominent, Fortune 500 company. She is a high-achieving woman with extraordinary talent and intellect. She was quickly climbing the corporate ladder, fast tracking her way to an executive suite. But everything changed when she became a mother. She was surprised by how much holding an infant in her arms changed her. Her maternal instincts activated and her priorities realigned. At this point, all she wanted was to take care of her daughter. She told me that once she became a mother, all she could think about was singing songs to her and being with her. Shortly thereafter, when her second child was born, she could no longer resist the impulse to stay home with her children. Against her employer’s pleas for her to stay, she walked away from it all to focus her energies on her home where she was irreplaceable.
One of the best things pastors and churches can do is to help young women prepare for motherhood before they become mothers. This is what happened with Drew and Ellen, a couple that came to me for premarital counseling. In one of our sessions, we talked about their future and how they would prepare themselves. Ellen, being very successful in her field, was making far more money than Drew was. She was obviously very confident and capable. She had the characteristics any employer would want. So I asked her what she wanted. What did she hope for in marriage? In life? Given the successful career she’d built for herself, I was surprised by her answer.
Some years prior, her parents had been profiled in the New York Times Weekend Edition. Her dad and mom represented “the changing landscape of America’s workforce.” Her father had lost his job when his company downsized just about the same time her mother’s career was beginning to blossom. She became the breadwinner, and her father struggled to adjust. After telling me this story of her parents, Ellen said, “I don’t want that to be my life.” “Well, what do you want?,” I asked her. She said what she most wanted was to be a wife and mother. I caught Drew’s eye at that moment. It seemed he was surprised by her answer as well. She was somewhat hesitant, perhaps even embarrassed, to admit that this was her true ambition. Drew was delighted, because her desire summoned in him a sense of his duty as her future husband. If this is what she wanted, he would do everything within his power to give it to her. Within a few months, he’d found a different job with higher pay, and they committed to build their lifestyle around his income. It doesn’t always work out this way, but I’m glad it did in this case. They now have two children that she happily raises from her home.
We do not live in a perfect world. Every household will make decisions based on their life circumstances, and Christians should avoid being overly prescriptive about matters that are truly secondary. God is honored when Christians prayerfully consider how to best pursue their God given priorities. Even though motherhood is diminished in the world, the church can uphold its glory and dignity. In Titus 2, Paul calls on the older women of the church to be the champions of motherhood and homemaking for the younger women—“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3-5). Don’t miss that last line, “that the word of God may not be reviled.” Women who highly esteem motherhood and homemaking are upholding the Word of God. With their lives, they are proclaiming a countercultural message that says, “God’s word is true. Motherhood is glorious.”
NOTE: This essay was adapted from Michael Clary’s forthcoming book, God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality, due out in Summer 2023.
Image Credit: Unsplash