God has chosen suffering as the avenue for perfecting His children. Let us not deny our children this grace.
--Edward L. Vardy
Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13 NIV). I can think of no one for whom I would give up my life more quickly than my child. A mother's love is fierce, loyal, protective, and self-sacrificing.
When my children were babies, I sometimes had nightmares about our family car being swept off a bridge, our house being broken into, or my child falling off a cliff on a family hike. Always in those dreams, I would be bravely and frantically fighting to save the babies and the littlest ones. My oldest daughter, Ashley, has told me that she, too, has experienced those frightening dreams and imaginings now that she is a mother. I believe it is a universal instinct among mothers to protect and rescue our children. We know intuitively and experientially that our children need us. Truly their survival depends on us.
Based on extensive studies he conducted over many years, psychoanalyst John Bowlby wrote about the importance of the mother-child bond in his book Attachment. He wrote, "The young child's hunger for his mother's love and presence is as great as his hunger for food." And by contrast, he went on to add, "Her loss or absence inevitably generates a powerful sense of loss and anger."
God asked this question through the prophet Isaiah: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" (Isaiah 49:15a NIV). The obvious answer is no. It is unusual for a mother not to feel great love for the child she has birthed. God made women with a capacity to love our children with unending devotion.
But beyond the initial love affair a mother often feels for her newborns, beyond the heroic rescuing of her children from physical danger, what is it that keeps a mother lovingly devoted to her children for a lifetime? The knowledge that they will leave her someday and will need to make it on their own is what keeps a mother focused. She needs the ability to see into the future—to envision the finish line—because she knows it's up to her to prepare them for that life of independence. A mother knows from her own experience that the difficulties and insecurities of childhood will not last forever. A wise mother also knows that present difficulties, though unpleasant, are often the classroom for building character.
Love is essential
Love is not a feeling. If love were only and always a feeling, then there have been and still are many days when I do not love my children. When our kids were at home, daily life was not an easy road for me. It seemed something always kept me from operating at full capacity each day. I have battled allergies all of my life, with some days and seasons being worse than others. During my childbearing years, I was either tired from pregnancy or tired from nursing newborns at odd hours of the night and keeping up with the others. I think Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon Johnson, was speaking to me when she said, "Sometimes the greatest bravery of all is simply to get up in the morning and go about your business." On those hard-to-get-up mornings, I liked thinking I was brave in at least one area of my life.
And then, just as it seemed that I was reaching a place of respite with my youngest two in school, my older children had morphed into teenagers who wanted to stay up late at night to talk, to party, and to just hang with friends. Truly, it seems there is no rest for the weary mother. Motherhood is, as my husband has said, a season that begins but never ends.
Loving our children is not always natural, nor is it always easy. But it is absolutely essential. Mothers must love their children. A mother's constant love becomes the bedrock of security for her children. Before they leave home, there will be many times in their lives when it will seem to them that no one else loves them. Though they might wish for someone else's love, their mother's love will provide a North Star of security and hope in the midst of difficult days.
A favorite prayer (that I have prayed far more often than I ever imagined I would) goes like this:
Lord, help me to love my children as You do. Help me to see them as You do, to understand their needs as You do, to feel what they are feeling as You do. I cannot love my children as they need to be loved on my own. My children need Your love. I ask You to love my children through me.
I prayed this prayer most often when my kids were teenagers—that they might not ever experience even a hint of rejection, disdain, or indifference from their mother.
Our family's test of love
The most poignant example of this in our family was when our son Samuel was in junior high school, a universally difficult time of love for most children. At age 14, Samuel was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy, which had been slowly making itself evident in his body for two or three years. Over the next two years, he went from being a top-ranked tennis player and general all-around good athlete to a boy who was not able to run at all. His personality, which had always been delightful, playful, happy, and confident, changed to one of discouragement, anger, and hopelessness. Academics had never been his forte, but it didn't matter because he had athletics as a balance and an outlet. Now with his greatest strength suddenly changed to a weakness and a potentially life-altering one, school became a misery.
In the family, everyone grieved with him and wanted to help and be supportive. But no one grieved as my husband and I did. We understood the loss and felt its long-term implications better than anyone. His siblings had compassion, but only to a certain level, and only for so long.
As the process unfolded and reality sank in on us all, it seemed that life was going on for everyone but Samuel. And frankly, for the next two to three years, he was not very easy for people to like, let alone love. I often thought at the time that there was no one else on the planet who loved him but his dad and me. His teachers only saw the misbehavior and lack of achievement. His friends, in their own adolescent insecurities, only saw the kid who couldn't play basketball or baseball. His siblings usually only saw the brother who picked on them, or was mean to them, or who got Mom's and Dad's attention because of doctor visits.
Now, years later, we can look back and see how God has been at work in all our lives, but especially our son's. His light-hearted, life-of-the-party personality has returned. He learned to use his disability to get people to laugh when he walked up on stage to emcee a discipleship meeting for college students. He turned his love for tennis into a hard-to-beat ping-pong game. He taught himself to play the guitar and discovered an interest in leading worship music. But best of all is the greater tenderness to the Lord and to people that grew, and I believe will continue to grow, because of the things he suffered.
As we love our children, we must also remember that the Bible clearly teaches that "all who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12 NKJV). In the midst of sufferings and trials, our children need our constant love and encouragement. They may need to borrow our faith and lean on our hope. But they don't always need us to rescue them and take away the distress. The thing that we want to fix may be the very thing God wants to use in their lives to build character and faith, which is what will last after we are gone.
Yes, a mother must love. She gives that love in spite of her child's rebellion, in spite of her child's unresponsiveness, in spite of her own circumstances. And there are a thousand other "in spite ofs" that a mother must face in her lifetime as a mother. In them, she must find the ability to continue to love her child with the love that God gives.
A mother's relationship with her child begins with love, continues with love, and ends one day on earth with love. God's plan is for His children to know deep, abiding, unending love from at least one human being in their life, and that person is Mother.
Adapted with permission from A Mother's Legacy, by Barbara Rainey and Ashley Escue, © 2000. All rights reserved.
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