If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. (1 Peter 2:20B-25)
These lines from this coming Sunday’s second reading jumped out at me this week because this coming Sunday is also Mother’s Day. In the cultural imagination in the United States, this image of patient suffering for the good, of following in Christ’s footsteps of self-sacrifice, of giving of the self to the point of giving the self away for the sake of others is often equated with being a “good” mother. On a more personal level, these are also the images that I have held myself to over the past six years as I have parented my two sons; yet they are images with which I struggle mightily. On the one hand, it is hard to ignore the centrality of self-sacrificial love in the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Certainly patient suffering and giving the self away for the sake of others is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
On the other hand, I have begun to question the wisdom of holding up self-sacrifice as the quintessence of Christian love. This reflection has been spurred by the marked ambivalence I feel as I anticipate the addition of a third child to our family in a few months and the return to the intense care-giving that goes with having an infant. Certainly, I feel blessed that we will welcome a new person into our family, yet alongside this gratitude is no small amount of terror. As I have worked to understand this fear, I realize that a large part of it is related to the ideal of self-sacrifice to which I have held myself during my tenure as a part-time stay-at-home mother to my first two sons. Since I feel fortunate to be in a financial and career situation where I am able to be at home part-time, I keep quiet about how excruciatingly boring this has been at times and how isolated I feel, convincing myself that this is simply the price I have to pay for spending time with my children. Used to being “successful” in the professional realm, I project an image of a successful caretaker, not letting on to the constant questions about doing and being enough for my kids that plague me day in and day out. Another sacrifice for the greater good. Taken in by the idea that mothers are supposed to give everything of themselves to their children, I have ignored my own likes and dislikes and played chess with my three-year-old following the real rules and one-on-one football with my five-year-old, even though I despise these activities enough that I cannot make it through them unless I am accompanied by a pocket full of M & M’s (a sign of an eating disorder that I am just beginning to understand). At base, the trepidation associated with having a third child is grounded in a sense that if I keep sacrificing myself this way, I may completely lose myself and may never be able to get it back.
So how is a good Christian mother, who wants to walk in the footsteps of Jesus without losing herself, supposed to deal with the ideal of self-sacrifice? In her wonderful book Caretakers of Our Common House, Christian educator Carol Lakey Hess offers what I believe is an important proposal: change the ideal and put self-sacrifice in its proper place. Drawing on the work of theologians like Louis Janssens and Don Browning, she argues that rather than self-sacrifice being the essence of Christian love, “Mutuality and equal regard constitute both the essence of love and the ethical vision for community life” (p. 95). Equal regard includes regard for the self and regard for others. If we are called to treat others with respect because they are human beings, made in the image of God, then we are also called to extend the same respect to ourselves. The temptation of sin in a world where equal regard is the ideal is not only that we would operate with inordinate self-regard; it also is that we would operate with inordinate other-regard that risks sliding into unthinking giving that can harm ourselves. As Hess articulates, when mutuality and equal regard are the ideal, self-sacrifice still has a place; it becomes “the extra mile we must travel to help bring a situation of conflict and disharmony into mutuality again” (p. 95). Rather than being constitutive of a relationship, self-sacrifice can be a gracious catalyst for restoring relationships of mutuality, reciprocity, and respect. To bring it closer to home, self-sacrifice should not be the only way in which I relate to my children. More accurately, it is part of a larger vision of harmonious relationships in which all parties, including myself, are treated with respect.