Editor’s Note: Prof. Ndethiu’s post is part of a series of blog posts on the recently published book: Power Women: Stories of Faith, Motherhood, and the Academy. You can find previous posts here, here, here, and here.
Motherhood is a profound gift. I was immensely privileged to have the most wonderful biological mother, and then I was shattered when she died. I’ve also been loved more deeply and widely than most by women who chose to mother me. I’ve learned that this divine gift, while indeed biological, reaches beyond bloodlines and genetics. The gift can be witnessed as nurturing, caring, intentional, protective and abiding. There is both tender comfort and fierce strength characteristic of motherhood, recognizable when one interfaces with it. It is important to name these dimensions of motherhood because the gift can extend beyond the bounds of women who bear children.
As the eldest daughter in her family, my mother took custody of her two youngest sisters when they were orphaned in their early childhood. She began a tradition where every Sunday after church the whole family would gather at our home for lunch, occasionally with a friend joining us. I never thought much of this ritual until my mother was no longer with us, and we all felt lost. We could no longer gather in her home, we had to start planning lunch menus, and the sense of rest had dissipated. She taught us Sabbath rest in rhythms of laughter, delicious food, and sacred pause. Mary Ndethiu, with her full-time professional career, nurtured her family and friends. My mother’s work was multidimensional, with a gift that blessed strangers and kin.
While considering the timing of my doctoral studies, I was overtly advised that I ought to prioritize family life before turning thirty. The person giving this advice was a well-intentioned staff member within the Christian academy who probably considered the advice a gesture of kindness. Their reasoning stemmed from the limiting perspective that age was a pivotal crux—a crucial point for a woman’s family life decisions, and consequently, choosing to pursue higher education would close the door to my chances of being a mother. I chose the doctoral path with somber awareness of these sociological implications but remained additionally resistant to the reductive thinking that women must choose between these two options. Motherhood and a professional career should not be incompatible. Since motherhood is essential for life, it should be normative for professional careers. There is a social responsibility to recognize mothers and motherhood with high esteem.
The contributing authors in Power Women offer vital perspectives to the concept of motherhood in professional spheres, specifically in the Christian academy. Mothers who choose professional careers within the Christian academy should not have to fragment their callings; instead, the academy needs to grow an integral view of professional careers. The unique ethos of academic rigor coupled with spiritual nurture in the Christian academy requires motherhood. The attentiveness to students’ wellbeing; the steadfast instruction, the discipline to maintain pace; the innovation of pedagogy through research and praxis are all skills that are evident in a mother’s daily life with her children. This is an integral calling. Mothers are multifaceted and essential to the work of integration in the Christian academy.
As a woman who has no children, I do not bear the title of “mother.” The title is a sacred gift, an honorable calling. Although I am not a mother, yet I mother through nurturing people. Coming to terms with my gifts of nurture that reflect motherhood was liberating. It shattered the binary thinking that limited my life’s options to either family life or a professional career. I could offer this gift to elementary children in classrooms when they had fallen behind and needed steady support to achieve their academic milestones. I could offer help to mothers of young children to have some time to themselves with the assurance that their little ones would be cared for. Gradually, I realized that even college students appreciated the dynamics of mothering through encouragement, consistency, care, and instruction.
This observation among young adults, who are markedly in a stage of differentiation, gave me pause to consider the social needs around motherhood. When does one not need a mother? My childhood pastor once publicly stated that one is never old enough to be ready for the death of their mother. He directed these words to me with the prefix that he had presided over my mother’s burial and was only beginning to understand that devastating loss. He touched his gray, balding head and said that even his mature years could not have prepared him for the desolation of grief because there is no one like a mother. Since Scripture often ties life and death hand-in-hand, I use this example to illustrate the centrality of motherhood to our wellbeing throughout our lifespan.
It is necessary to describe motherhood so that we can recognize the gift in the Christian academic context. This effort is important so that we can, first, appreciate the multifaceted roles among scholars who bear the title “mother;” second, foster the gift among those who do not bear this title; third, grieve when those who bear the title do not uphold the calling; fourth, perceive the divinity of our God’s sacred nurture, and finally, for those of us who have accepted the calling to teach: in other words, to recognize that motherhood is indispensable for the integration of faith and learning within the Christian academy.