On Empty Nests, Christian Mommy Guilt, and Misplaced Identity
By Jen Wilkens
Back-to-school time is always a tough transition, not just for kids but for moms. And I’m no exception. I’ve certainly been happy-sad sending them off, though, if I’m honest, the sad is currently winning the tug-of-war by a mile.
For the third time in three years, I left a piece of my heart in a dorm room at a giant university hours from home. There’s only one chickie left in the nest that used to hold four, and his traitorously giant feet are dangling over the side of it. In a short time our nest will be empty entirely.
I walked through last week with a tape in my head chanting, “I miss them I miss them I miss them.” I thought of life after that last baby leaves and could conjure up no vision for what would come next. Meaningless, meaningless. I did the only reasonable thing: I attempted to fill the hole in my heart with cookies—a lot of cookies. I overreacted to things that normally wouldn’t have bothered me. The internal ache hurt so deeply and caused so much distraction that I once again had to face the ultimate Christian mommy-guilt question: Do I love my kids too much?
But shouldn’t there be a way to give Jesus all the cookies without depriving our families as well?
Unsurprisingly, the question of where we find our identity is one of motive. A mom whose love of her kids is motivated by their achievements or behavior has identity issues. If she has to raise the perfect child in order to feel at peace about her worth, her identity is misplaced. By asking motherhood to be her savior, she reveals not that she loves her kids too much, but too little.
By asking motherhood to be her savior, she reveals not that she loves her kids too much, but too little.
By contrast, the mom who keeps her identity rooted in Christ does not set her love for (and service to) her kids in opposition to her love for (and service to) Christ. She understands that she doesn’t have to love her kids less to love Jesus more. Her love for her kids expresses her love for him. The two loves, intertwined, should be ever-deepening and ever-expanding. She doesn’t need to feel less love for her kids in order to feel more love for Jesus. Her motive for loving them is her love for Christ.
Earnest Christian mom, practice your love for your kids as an expression of your love for your Savior. Jesus taught that providing shelter for the shelterless, food for the hungry, and clothing for the naked are sacred acts. They’re also the hallmark activities of mothering. When we do them from the right motive for those in our homes, it’s as if we’ve done them for Christ himself (Matt. 25:31–45). Put another way, we don’t divide our cookies between Jesus and our kids. We take a plate of cookies Jesus has given to us and we give them to our kids. By giving them to our kids, ultimately, we give them back to him. We love because he first loved us.
The Christian mom doesn’t love Jesus instead of loving her children; she loves Jesus by loving her children. Our love for him should be displayed through our love for them. Though not the sole mechanism of expressing and displaying our love for Christ, it’s an important one, bearing compelling witness to the gospel. God’s tender care and fiercely protective love for his children is frequently illustrated through the metaphor of motherhood (Hosea 11:3–4; Deut. 32:11–12; Isa. 49:15; 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Matt. 23:37).
The Christian mom doesn’t love Jesus instead of loving her children; she loves Jesus by loving her children.
So don’t succumb to Christian mommy guilt if motherhood feels like your defining role. If it’s the good, disciple-making work God has ordained for you in this season, it should feel exactly so. I suspect Noah felt rather consumed with the work of building the ark. I suspect the apostle Paul felt rather consumed with the work of building the early church. When we work at any task as unto the Lord, it’s bound to define us during the season it inhabits. Motherhood is no exception. As a mom with an empty nest in sight, I anticipate the sorrow to come when this season ends, but I won’t bear shame for it. To transition painlessly and effortlessly to life after kids would be to diminish the significance of the sacred task I’ve undertaken for the past two decades of my life. I plan to grieve the season as it deserves, even as I trust that the next will be every bit as fruitful.
And if my grieving involves a few cookies, so be it.