My journey as a mother probably didn’t start the way it started for most women. I lost my first child during late pregnancy. As difficult as it was to go through that loss and as much as I’d never ask for that experience, it has taught me a great deal and shaped my particular mothering style. I’m not a perfect mom and I’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way. Recognizing those mistakes has helped to clarify what really matters and I’ve managed to stay focused on those things more over the years. My greatest regret is ever being tempted to think that my importance as a mother is as diminished as feminists and the culture try to convince us. Whenever I have allowed that to enter into my thoughts, I have stumbled and suffered needlessly. Luckily, I had a grandmother who would call me regularly just to remind me that I’m doing something incredibly important.

This is what I’ve learned over the course of my own personal journey of becoming a mother… As mothers, we shape souls. Think about that for just a moment. We shape souls. One of my all-time favorite writers is Edith Stein. She writes it this way, “a woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.” It follows then that if our souls as mothers allow other souls to unfold, then we literally shape souls. What an incredible high calling and responsibility we have as mothers.

Your Children are not Your Children

I learned this lesson the hardest way possible. I remember sitting in my pastor’s office with my husband crying as we just got the news that the baby that I was carrying, whom we already loved so much, would not survive birth. We were trying to make sense of it and we didn’t know how to move forward after such devastating news. Why would God give us a child only to take him away before he was even born? Why did we have to plan a funeral for our baby? I asked him these hard questions and I will never forget what he told us. He said that our son and all of our future children do not belong to us, they belong to God. We, as parents, are merely entrusted with raising them and then we must give them back to God. In my baby’s case, God was calling him home for reasons I probably won’t ever understand this side of Heaven. I will someday, but for now, I trust in His plan for my child and for me. With my living children, I must do my best to love them and raise them well and then they will go out into the world and be the people they are meant to be.  I have to trust and give them back to God, as well. This thread has been delicately woven into tapestry of the story of my motherhood.

In Essays on Women, Edith Stein wrote, “In order to develop to the highest level the humanity specific to husband and children, woman requires the attitude of selfless service. She cannot consider others as her property nor as means for her own purposes; on the contrary, she must consider others as gifts entrusted to her, and she can only do so when she also sees them as God’s creatures towards who she has a holy duty to fulfill.”

What does this “holy duty” look like, practically?

Be There

I didn’t know it, but I had been given the knowledge to fulfill this duty long before I became a mom.

In raising children, “nothing is more important than the attachment relationship,” says Alan Sroufe, Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology in the Institue of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Over a 35-year period, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption revealed that the quality of the early attachment between mother and child reverberated well into childhood, adolescence and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for. Attachment Theory tells us that our children need our physical and emotional presence especially in the first three years of life. Secure attachment occurs when a child’s needs are met through sensitive, responsive caregiving. Sroufe also found, “independence blooms naturally out of a secure attachment.” Mothers… to shape resilient, independent children you simply need to be there for them and respond with love. There are two critical periods when our children need us the most… the first three years of life and again during adolescence when a second period of vulnerability and rapid brain development occurs.

I have a BA in Psychology and it was during a Child Psychology course that I learned about Attachment Theory which also shaped my view on what I would prioritize once I had children. I wish more moms knew about this research. Before having kids, I also worked in an elementary school with a very wise teacher who told me this, “Faye, your children don’t need things, vacations or endless activities, they need you. They don’t need presents; they do need your presence.”

I’m so grateful that I was able to be there. It’s not lost on me how this is an impossible situation for some mothers, and I do think we have to do better in supporting mothers and family life.

Let Them Be Little

So often it seems like we are rushing children into the next stage of development before they are ready. It’s possible that people think that if we push children toward independence then, they will become more independent. Child development doesn’t work that way. For years I’ve heard that “kindergarten is the new first grade” and teachers’ expectations are unrealistically higher than they were just a decade ago. I wrote a paper on this in college. If a teacher has developmentally inappropriate expectations and forms a negative bias toward a student that doesn’t perform well, that can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. High expectations are good, as long as the child is able to live up to them. This is also the reason that a trend of holding children back a year took hold. Kindergarten used to be for learning how to play and socialize with others, now it’s for teaching kids to read. There are issues with the way teachers are teaching kids to read as well, but that’s a post for another day.

I’ve also noticed that parents are oddly labeling their 9–11-year-olds as teenagers on social media. Children seem to be giving up playing with toys and replacing them with tablets and phones at increasingly earlier ages. They also have become highly competitive. I’m not sure what is behind the push for kids to grow up so fast. Doesn’t childhood go by so quickly on its own? Maybe it’s easier for me to see from the vantage point of having older children, but I never understood the rush. Let them play… let them be little. Enjoy those soft sweet little voices and laughter.

With the relatively recent explosion of social media, we put something into the hands of children at ages that they are not developmentally ready to handle. Knowing what I know now about phones, the addictive nature of social media, and what content is so easily found there, I would have not allowed my older two have to social media when I did. My youngest is 12 and she is not allowed on social media yet. She spends a lot of time outside swinging in the backyard and playing with her pups when she’s home. She can still text and facetime friends, but navigating social media is a can of worms that most children aren’t ready for until they are at least 16. 12 is still not the new 16.

Discipline Is Love

We all know this, intrinsically, right? A child without boundaries and rules is a child that no one wants to play with, and adults don’t want around. That sounds harsh, but it’s true and we all know kids who behave in this way. It’s heartbreaking and not really their fault. Therefore, setting consistent boundaries, being firm with rules and fostering self-regulation is an act of love. When my kids were little, they knew the rules and what behavior is acceptable and what is not. By the time they were in elementary school all I had to do was start counting and they knew to check their behavior. Sometimes I didn’t even know what consequence I was going to impose if I got to three, but it didn’t matter, because I almost never got to three. They could self-regulate and that’s the goal when it comes to discipline.

It should go without saying, encouraging a child when you notice them making good choices, doing the right thing even when no one is watching or working really hard to achieve a goal is equally as important as discipline. We should always be encouraging the behaviors in our children that will make them a good friend and the kind of kids other adults enjoy having around. Personalities will vary by child, some kids may be more outgoing than others, but building good moral character is something that will benefit them for life no matter their personality.

Discipline and encouragement teach courage, loyalty, justice, respect, honesty, hope, love, forgiveness and mercy.

Be A Model

As mothers, we can show our children the value of a rightly ordered life. Love God first, love your neighbor as yourself. Your “neighbor” is your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your actual neighbors, etc. Love also means having the moral integrity that affirms another’s dignity. We don’t affirm behavior that goes against another’s dignity.

If you want your children to be kind and generous, make sure you are kind and generous with your time, talent and treasure. It you want them to be patient, be patient with them and with others.

If we want our children to understand modesty, we need to practice it ourselves.  We should be aware of the way we present ourselves to the world with our language and in the way we dress.

In our own behaviors and attitudes, we need to show our kids how we cherish and respect our spouses. We should show them that as husband and wife, dad and mom, we are a united team in our loving care for each other and in our care for them.

We should show our children how to make sacrifices for others, by making sacrifices ourselves. We show the value of good work, by working hard ourselves.

We must value others and foster real relationships over gaining material possessions.

We should listen intently to them when they are trying to tell us something important. Listening to them validates them as important and valuable.

We should apologize when we’ve made a mistake and we should forgive quickly.

A wise observation, “Most children hear what you say, some will even do what you say, but all children will do what you do.”

Give them Opportunities for Responsibility

When they were little, we used to play the “clean up game” before dinner so that everything was put away in its proper place and the home was clean and peaceful before we sat down for a meal together. That’s also so important, family dinners. We still sit down every night together for dinner with very few exceptions. It’s kind of a sacred time and I will rarely make an exception for an activity to interrupt our family dinners. Having a meal together is a responsibility in itself and a priceless, daily interaction.

Children can set the table, unload the dishwasher, feed the pets, take out the trash, clean their rooms and bathrooms etc. Encourage them to contribute to the household by doing what they can gives them a sense of belonging to a little mini community. My son went through a baking phase, he would make us banana bread and I saw how incredibly happy it made him to do something for the rest of us. Encouraging doing things for others is so important.

As they get older, it’s important for them to gain even more freedom and more responsibility. They can set their own schedules, drive themselves to and from school, make their own appointments, balance their own bank accounts etc. Now is also the time to allow them to make good decisions when it comes to social media. They want to be connected to their friends and that is important to them. Open communication around the use of technology, what is appropriate and not appropriate are conversations we need to be having.

Before you know it, by giving them more and more freedom and responsibility, they are ready to go out into the world and be well-adjusted and productive adults.

Understand your Sacred Responsibility

In our culture today, I see far too many mothers feeding into the hedonistic and childish idea that, as mothers, we should just do whatever it is that makes us “happy.” The idea is that if we are happy, we are better mothers. There is certainly truth to that, but I’d like to make the argument that the mere pursuit of happiness can’t be that which creates sustaining joy and meaning for your life as a mother. Happiness is absent in the face of a devastating diagnosis. In the midst of pain and suffering, happiness won’t and can’t save us. I’m thinking back to the loss of my child and remembering what a truly broken heart feels like. It wasn’t gaining happiness that saved me from despair. Instead, it was putting my faith not in myself, but in the God who loves me and understanding my sacred responsibility as a mother.

If we choose our own happiness first, then we are just following our latest self-indulgence and there is more to life than that. You have to make sacrifices, because if you choose to do one thing, you are inevitably sacrificing all of the other things you could have done. I could have gone to graduate school and have been an incredible psychologist or marriage and family therapist, but I chose to mother my children instead because it’s my duty and responsibility to do so… and I’m so happy that I did. Not because it indulges my ego, but because I can see the fruits of that sacrifice even if the world can’t.

The meaning and purpose that you find in life that sustains you through the good times and the bad is the voluntary adoption of your sacred responsibility. It’s the “holy duty” which Edith Stein talks about.  Within marriage and motherhood, we are shaping souls. I can’t begin to put into words how wonderful it feels when you look at the child that you’ve raised and see that they are ready to fly. I can promise you this, it is so much greater and more fulfilling than fleeting happiness.

Here are some resources that I love and highly recommend, and I’ve also linked resources throughout the post…

Edith Stein, Essays on Woman

Erica Komisar, Being There, Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters

Erica Komisar, Chicken Little, the Sky Isn’t Falling, Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety