By Meg Foster
By a stroke of serendipity, I became pregnant around the same time that many of my college friends did. One of those friends had the idea to start a private group online in which we could share our struggles and joys of pregnancy and motherhood. We also expanded the group as more friends-of-friends became pregnant and had children.
While there were positive experiences in this group, more often than not most posts were about the minutia of modern motherhood—having a birth plan, whether or not to use cloth diapers, and to what degree we had changed our lives for our children. This is not what I had envisioned the group to be. It seemed like more of a competition than a community.
I began to notice that our private group was not the only place this happened. On social media and at any social gatherings where women of a certain age were, these people and conversations would appear with an attitude of thriving as a perfect parent while also tearing down every other struggling parent. This attitude encompasses the struggle of the modern young mother—to parent with perfection while destroying everyone else, including her own children. And in this age, when something becomes so ubiquitous, it must be given a name: it is a portmanteau of sanctimonious and mommy—sanctimommy.
The Struggle of Perfection
As a young modern mother, it is tempting to feel like I have enough resources and tools at my disposal to give my children a perfect childhood, or at least the appearance thereof. What a ridiculous idea! Has anyone ever truly had a perfect childhood? Yet in the age of the sanctimommy, it is so easy to think this is a realistic and achievable goal, one that it seems others are clearly doing . . . and doing well.
What evidence might I give myself of these magical childhood experiences? My knowledge came mostly from pictures and videos I viewed online and a few stories at social gatherings. Every time I scrolled past a young mother’s online life, I would see perfectly content children having perfectly planned activity times in perfectly decorated rooms.
I can think of one acquaintance of mine who has a fabulous parenting experience, or at least it looks that way online. However, I ran into her and her children at a restaurant with a playground (as parents of young children often frequent) and had the chance to talk to her. It turned out that our parenting experiences were very similar, and by that I mean that we both found parenting difficult. This surprised me. It was then that I realized that she never claimed to be a perfect parent. She happened to capture the best moments (with great lighting and filter choices, might I add) and to share them with others. I was the one who put the pressure on myself to live up to her perfect moments as if they were her everyday moments.
The Struggle of Making Children Idols
When I consider the struggles of young mothers of previous time periods, these modern struggles seem miniscule compared to a high likelihood of death during childbirth, high infant mortality rates, or the multitude of diseases which plagued children. Yes, modern struggles are insignificant comparatively, but there is a factor that cannot be ignored: the spiritual side of today’s young mothers’ struggle. Although there may not be physical consequences to these actions, the spiritual toll is grave.
The sanctimommy philosophy that plagues young mothers today takes commitment. To achieve perfect parenting, a mother must do more than simply parent her children. She must know them to the point of obsession. She must anticipate any flaws in her plans, anything that would not please her children. This behavior is nothing short of making an idol of her children.
She loses all identity other than motherhood, and that is certainly not what God has called her to be. She is not who she needs to be as a child of God; her focus is not on him. She is not who she needs to be as a person; she is dependent on her children as her identity. She is not who she needs to be as a wife; she cannot possibly give her spouse the care he deserves if she is so fixated on the parenting experience. Strangely enough, she is not who she needs to be as a mother; her obsession will set her children up for anything from a sense of entitlement to a desire to create the same environment. While all these are atrocities, the last one seems to be the most tragic.
The Struggle to Struggle
How does a young mother keep herself from falling into these modern traps of perfection and making idols out of her children? In both areas she must accept the struggle of struggle. These rigid ideas of complete attention to children and perfection in parenting are in opposition to the abundant life to which Christ has called his people.
She must make a genuine effort to not make her children idols. Odds are she will struggle with putting her children before God. To stave this off, she must evaluate her time, actions, and motives. Perhaps she will say to her children, “I can’t do that right now; I need to spend time with God.” What impact would that make on her children? This shows them that God is important and releases them from the burden of being their mother’s top priority at all times.
She must also accept that perfection is not the goal, parenting is. She must accept that she will mess up and when she does, there is grace for her. She must internalize the words in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” She must take comfort in the freedom of that statement; God knows she will struggle, and when her weakness shows through, God’s perfection is revealed. I know I would much rather my children see true perfection in God than my own flawed attempt at it any day.
Once a mother can rest in that counter-cultural notion, she must take action, not only to live out the idea of acceptable struggle but to encourage others to do so as well. She must minister to others by being an example of accepting her own imperfection and God’s perfection. When she hears another mother talk about how she can’t seem to keep her child on a sleeping schedule like everyone else, a simple, non-condemning, “It’s OK” type of comment can set both women free from those feelings of complete parental failure. Imagine the women who would be released from the tyranny of the current push of perfection and idolatry in parenting!
I truly believe that if young, modern, Christian mothers (myself included) can thwart the efforts of the sanctimommy philosophy, our counter-cultural efforts can be a great witness of Christ and his grace to our own demographic.
Meg Foster is a high school French, English, and theatre teacher in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and lives with her husband and children in Elk Park, North Carolina.