Published May 12, 2023
The woman credited with founding our contemporary Mother’s Day was single and childless throughout her life. Anna Jarvis was a grateful daughter who launched the early 20th-century movement to observe the second Sunday of May in honor of mothers’ love and service. As we mark Mother’s Day, regardless of our own maternal status, we do well to honor and emulate these self-sacrificial ideals in the mothers we know, rather than simply idealizing the state of motherhood.
That’s especially true as marriage and motherhood have proven more elusive than many women would like. Rates of marriage and childbirth have declined in recent decades. Women are marrying later and having children later. The median age of first marriage for women has risen to age 28, compared to just under 21 in 1970. Birthrates among teens and early twenty-somethings have declined since 1990, while increasing for women in their 30s and early 40s.
Most young women still want to get married and be mothers. But those hopes may end up being deferred, at least for a time. Over the last several decades, women have not had as many children as they desired, and childlessness is increasing.
While analysts debate the factors behind these aggregate statistics, individual women face choices about how to navigate the gap between reality and their expectations when it comes to marriage and motherhood. Young women need a sense of direction, criteria for decision-making, and a basis for contentment. They need a grounding more stable than shifting cultural trends or the personal preferences of the family and friends around them. Christian teaching about callings can provide these navigational tools.
A steady sense of direction in life comes from recognizing we are designed to love and serve our Creator. Glorifying God is the overarching purpose and highest calling through all the seasons of life, whether or not a husband and children come along as hoped. Motherhood is indeed a special calling unique to women, and one that requires particular priority in the lives of those who have children. But to make motherhood the highest purpose of life is to confuse it with a woman’s first call to glorify God. We pursue that highest calling on a daily basis in the context of our relationships and responsibilities, using the gifts and opportunities we have been given. These make up the multiple personal callings that vary through a lifetime, even as our first call remains fixed.
Taking regular inventory of how best to steward our relationships, responsibilities, gifts, and opportunities in light of that north star shapes sound decision-making habits. Educational and career choices for women have multiplied in recent decades, yet the criteria for making decisions have become less clear. The simple fact of having many choices is not so empowering as the capacity to choose well among them. Choosing well means deciding for the right reasons. The best reasons can be traced back to loving and serving God and those around us through the use of our gifts and opportunities.
Contentment is living purposefully and hopefully even while particular longings remain unfulfilled. That is especially challenging when the desire for motherhood is met for others but not for us. Such comparisons become pointless, however, when we recognize that God is drawing each of us to himself on a specific path of His design. Contentment begins with trusting Him as architect of the path, even if our knowledge of the route is limited. Contentment grows along that path by making the most of what we have been given—our particular relationships, responsibilities, gifts and opportunities—to the glory of God and to the loving service of those around us.
We honor the love and service of mothers when we reflect these same ideals in our own lives. Whether or not our callings currently include motherhood, it is in the context of these personal callings that we carry out loving service. Merely idealizing the state of motherhood, on the other hand, does justice neither to the heart of maternal virtue, nor to our own responsibility to steward our callings well by finding purpose and contentment here and now.
Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.