Her opening grabbed my attention. “Introduce yourself to the woman sitting next to you,” the speaker instructed from the lecturn. “But as you do,” she cautioned, “don’t tell her about your job or if you’re a homemaker, don’t tell her anything about your family or friends, and no mentioning hobbies or interests. Now go ahead.”
Predictably, the room remained silent for a some moments. Slowly the air began to fill with brief murmurs and utterances as this room of mothers—attendees at a weekend conference geared toward wives and mothers—awkwardly tried to explain to the stranger beside them who they were without any of the normal identifiers.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom.”
“I’m a doctor/analyst/vet tech/counselor/teacher.”
“I have two kids, a boy and a girl.”
“I like to swim, read, and go hiking in warm weather.”
“My husband and I love to travel.”
Without the ability to explain who we were in reference to what we did and who we spent our time with, this room full of women stood mostly quiet, tongues uncomfortably tied. If I’m not a mother/employee/entrepreneur/wife/animal lover, then who am I?
I have thought often of this moment, a few years back now, when I began to grapple with the idea of identity and how we, how I, define who I am. I agree with the premise that I am more than how I spend my time, more than the adjectives that describe me, more than the companion of those with whom I live and spend my time. But that still leaves a vacancy—a list of nots. I am not just. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother, but I am not just any one or even all of those things. I am tall, I am caucasian, I am a native Washingtonian, I am ticklish sometimes, I am intolerant of people eating bananas within my hearing distance, I am fond of dogs. But I am not just those things.
So who am I?
I think mothers struggle with this question a lot. Working moms, stay-at-home moms, moms on maternity leave and moms on summer break between years in the classroom. I think moms struggle to know who we are in relation to our motherhood. Because in today’s society motherhood has become an identity unto itself in so many ways. Culturally we have come to expect certain things of mothers, and when we find ourselves chafing against the confines of a mold that doesn’t quite fit we begin to question who we really are.
We set expectations of ourselves in order to fit the idea of motherhood we hold. But what happens when we don’t meet our own expectations? If I vow to be a mom who doesn’t yell, what happens the first time I lose it? If I’m a screen-free momma who gives in to a PBS binge, what does that say about me? If I vow to never let my baby cry it out, but one day I pretend I don’t hear the squalling over the monitor—who am I then? I think these questions haunt moms today, even as we smile and nod in agreement when a friend reminds us that we all have bad days. Yes, we do all have bad days, but seriously mine are the worst and mean the most terrible things about me. What mom hasn’t been there?
We are all aching for a place to root our identity. We all want to agree that if we mess up things really will be okay, but we struggle to believe it. We live in a culture that encourages us to take on our activities and our values as an identity, but doesn’t tell us how to cope when those activities and values prove to only make up a small part of us. None of us are only just. I can be a mom who believes strongly in the value of responding to my child’s cries. I can make it a consistent practice to go to my baby when she’s in distress and I can feel good about my commitment to parent in accordance with what I think is best. The difference between a mom who believes in responding to cries and a mom who responds to cries is subtle but powerful. The former is a woman with a strong conviction; the latter is a woman toying with identity. For the first woman this characteristic is informative. For the second it’s prescriptive.
We are more than the sum of our parts. We are more than our interests, our values, our thoughts, our loved ones’ loved one. For those who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ we are first and foremost daughters of the most High God, redeemed and loved beyond measure. For those who do not yet know this grace, the invitation is open and inclusion in the most secure identity—an identity found in the person and salvation of Jesus Christ—awaits. With such an identity there is no crisis when we fall short of the expectations we make for ourselves because we know we are forgiven and each new day brings His mercies anew. When we yell at our kids, use the iPad as a babysitter or sleep through those infant cries we do not fall apart because we are in Him, and in Him all things hold together. He holds us together. We are not subject to the whims of our willpower because in us dwells the power of He who raised Jesus from the dead. Our identity is not found in today’s failings. It is found in His eternal victory, in His eternal personhood and deity. Just as He is “I AM,” we are who we are because of Him. He is our life.
This brings me great comfort on the days I don’t live up to my own standards because it reminds me I am never the be all end all, even to my kids. He is. And because I am His, I can flounder today and still pick myself up tomorrow and make a new go of it. He allows me to be flawed yet inspires me to excel—a position of profound freedom.
Momma, you were never designed to be flawless by your own determination and who you are is not defined by how well you raise flawless children. Find your identity in Christ. Discover who you really are.