Gladly spent

I was reading a poem recently by Gwen Harwood that went like this:

In the Park

She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by—too late

to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice,” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God…”

They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”

(Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems, Penguin, Camberwell, 2001, p. 27.)

Harwood is not a Christian, and when I first read the poem, I was offended by the blackness of its view of motherhood. I love being a mum, and I believe the Bible when it says that children are a blessing from the Lord. A big part of me wants to protest against a view like this and scream out, “It’s not like that at all!”

And yet, as I reflect on my experience as a mother, I find myself admitting (somewhat guiltily!) that I do often feel a little like the mother in the poem—‘eaten alive’ by the demands of caring for a household of young children. (I write this at the end of a day of catastrophic gastric disturbances amongst the junior members of the family …)

So what do I do with this apparent contradiction between what the Bible tells me—that children are a blessing—and what experience (at least on days like today!) tells me? The bottom line, of course, is that I have to be willing to side with what God says in the Bible, whatever my experience may tell me. But maybe, in this case, the contradiction is more apparent than real.

The verses that came to mind as I pondered this question and talked it over with my husband were Paul’s words in 2 Cor 12:14-15. He’s not directly speaking about parenting, of course; he’s using parenting as an analogy for his ‘parental’ relationship with the Corinthians. But in the course of discussing that relationship, his assumptions about what it is to be a parent are revealing: “Children”, he writes, “are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls …”.

What are the implications of what Paul is saying here for how I should view my life as a mother of young kids? On the one hand, Paul’s words are a reminder and a confirmation that being a parent does involve ‘spending and being spent’ for your kids. It is foolishness to pretend otherwise. To say with the Bible that children are a blessing is not to say that they are a convenience or an accessory or a lifestyle enhancement; you’re meant to feel ‘spent’ at the end of the day!

But at the same time, Paul’s words challenge me to find joy in the drudgery: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls”. Maybe there’s a clue here about the shape of what ‘blessing’ looks like in God’s world. Perhaps the departing ex-boyfriend in the poem knows less about “the grace of God” than he thinks he does! And if anyone ought to understand that, surely it’s the followers of the one who taught (and showed) that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”

8 thoughts on “Gladly spent

  1. But we also have to avoid the mother martyr sydnrome. 

    We can so identify ourselves as mother (or father or pastor…) that we are unable to draw boundaries.  If our kids must attend every sport and educational and cultural opportunity.  If they must have their every whim, then I will be consumed serving those mini-gods.

    We must never neglect our other relationships (especially the marriage) and our other interests.  Sure there are weeks where the gastro hits and no one gets any sleep.  But there are also times when you can read Tolstoy while the kids play in the park.  Listen to an opera while the baby sleeps.  Shuffle the kids’ routines so Mum and Dad can have a candlelit dinner and a canoodle.

    Motherhood (Fatherhood) is a joy and a blessing, a responsibility and an effort, but it’s not the only joful responsibility in your life.

  2. I would like to share an insight on finding joy in drudgery.  On the long weekend the wife & I packed up our 2 year old and went on our first camping trip as a family.  On the wettest and windiest night we were away Josh threw up all over himself and his bedding at 1.30am.  Off through the howling wind and torrential rain I trudged to the laundry, where the lights didn’t work.

    So up to my elbows rinsing sheets, teddy bear an PJs, in the middle of the night, in a dark caravan park laundry, during a storm, dripping wet myself, I was pondering Philippians 4:4 (as you do) where Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  So I was thinking, how can I delight in Jesus in this situation?  Ah, by serving my wife and child that God has provided in a humble manner, and being content in this. 

    So, happy with this little epiphany, I made my way back to the tent to be greeted by “While you were out he was sick again, this time on our bed”.  Righto, pass me the sheets and “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”.

  3. Hi Nicole

    Thanks for your post. Good stuff.

    I don’t know if you or other readers have noticed this, but I hear it often enough to disturb me. It happens towards the end of school holidays, when preachers or leaders in church talk about how the kids have been on holidays, but then they make some remark which implies and assumes that all the parents (especially mums) will be very glad when the kids go back to school.

    It always seemed strange to my wife, because she loved having the kids around in the holidays and was sorry when they went back to school.

    Seems to me that saying this sort of thing in church is not really encouraging the sort of attitude you are outlining—even if at times having the kids home with you saying “I’m bored” every 15 minutes or terrorizing the dog does get a little wearying.


  4. Thanks Nicole – great post.  I certainly identify both with the ‘eaten alive’ and the ‘blessing’ parts.  It’s such a paradox, but an everyday part of life that all at once, one of the the hardest parts of my life is also one of the best parts. 

    Galatians 6:9 comes to mind “Let us not become weary of doing good”.  So does Colin Buchanan’s song “Press On, Mums”.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful post Nic. I like the poem and your comments.  The points you make about mothers could just as easily be made about fathers.  While I suspect that only a mother could have the same sense as the mother in the poem of being ‘eaten alive’ by her children, fathers too can suffer from the same tendency to allow the struggles of life to turn themselves inward and to forget that children are a gift and a blessing.  Looking at this positively is what is hard for people in this age when we want everything in our wealthy western nation – bright attractive children, good jobs, material wealth, big houses etc. Children can far too easily become the ‘next thing’ to do in life.  The Bible’s picture of the value of children is so much richer. The Old Testament picture is of children as part of our inheritance, evidence of God’s covenant and his faithfulness to us. Proverbs 17:6 is helpful, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged”. And in Psalm 127:4 we have the reminder that “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth”. Children are part of God’s plan for his people, a demonstration of his grace and kindness towards us, a way in which he both blesses and fulfils his covenant promises. The Jewish nation was more clearly focussed on children as evidence of God’s blessing and promise.  Perhaps that was easier in an agrarian society; one in which God’s covenant to Abraham was such a fundamental part of their tradition, belief and hope.

  6. Thanks, Nicole, for sharing honestly from your experiences as a mum.  I’m sure you’ve described the experience of many!  As Bec so aptly puts it, raising children can be one the hardest as well as one of the best parts of our lives as parents.

    Having said that, Ian, I will admit to being a mother who often felt relieved when holidays were over – and then felt guilty for feeling relieved!

    Having now confessed, may I share three things that really helped me to gain a godly perspective on this emotional ambivalence:

    1) spending time with Christian mothers who were a little further along the track than me.  I could see that there really was life after the stage my kids were in, and that I could relax and enjoy the present;

    2) learning how my personality and life circumstances had a direct bearing on my experience of motherhood.  I love my children deeply, but as a profound introvert, I need time ALONE to recharge – soldiering on when my emotional resources are exhausted helps no-one.  From the time our kids were little, my husband has worked long hours and travelled extensively, and our extended family has lived a long way away, so I have had to accept the limitations of my situation, work around them and remember not to feel guilty when I desperately need some personal space;

    and 3) most importantly, understanding my role as a mum, in the context of God’s plan.  I am so thankful to God for showing me how, over twenty years, he has been using my children to help me grow to become more like the Lord Jesus.  And as I have grown in him through the good times and the difficult, so I have been enabled to trust him more and more for my children’s futures.  (I heartily recommend “Sacred Parenting” by Gary L Thomas (Zondervan, 2004) which explores this concept.)

    Nicole, keep raising the hard questions – it’s good to talk them over.

  7. Hi everyone

    Thanks for all the thoughts, balancing comments and personal anecdotes.  I especially enjoyed the camping trip story!


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