We cannot count on academics to study the most important realities in our lives (versus the latest academic fad). Motherhood is one of those important realities. Noble Laureate and University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman recently made this astounding observation, “[W]hat we don’t have—and to me, it’s an amazing deficiency—we don’t any good economic and social studies of the impact of a mother on the child’s outcome.” This lack of academic studies demonstrates that we (meaning academics) take for granted the contributions of mothers. Christian academics should be different.
Of course, it starts by recognizing and showing gratitude for the contributions of our own mothers. Today, I want to honor the contributions to my mother to my life (and I encourage other blog contributors to add their comments about their own mothers). Of course, I could expand upon her loving sacrifices and care in many dimensions, but I want to focus on her unique spiritual and intellectual contributions.
Growing up on a farm in Minnesota, she knew how to work (please don’t ask her about having to do chores—especially feeding the chickens). The work ethic she developed on the farm helped her pursue excellence (perhaps at time a bit too much in the eyes of all the men when it came to cleaning, especially before company). As a result, she pursued excellence as a mom as well. For example, her years honing her baking skills in 4H meant my friends always wanted to come to our house for her baked goods, and our family always enjoyed breakfasts and suppers together.
Her pursuit of excellence could have been a disaster spiritually, since she grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church that tended to emphasize rules and the end times. Yet, God graced our family by leading us to Colorado and a small Baptist church with a young Fuller Seminary grad who emphasized the importance of God’s love and grace as a motivation for the Christian life. My mother’s life changed as a result. Throughout my childhood, I saw her teach and model a loving, grace-filled, relationship with God. Many who know my mother testify that one thing that characterizes her is Christian joy and the beautiful radiance that comes with it.
Growing up during the time she did though, my mother did not enjoy the educational opportunities of women today. My grandfather paid for the college education of his two boys but my mother was not encouraged to attend college (something she still laments). Of course, the fact that her older sister (and oldest sibling in the family) married at eighteen perhaps meant my grandfather had not previously thought of breaking cultural patterns.
Despite not going to college, my mother became a voracious learner and reader. In fact, my mom passed along to me the assumption that a Christian should be a constant learner and intellectually curious. She continually sought to deepen her knowledge of the Bible and the world through various church Bible studies, outside reading and even a dream trip to Israel. To this day at 81, she is always reading daily from different types of literature (history, biography, spiritual life, etc.).
She imparted that hunger for learning in a variety of ways that nurtured my own intellectual growth. First, she constantly bought books and took my brother and me to both the local public and our church library. She also took us to museums and other learning opportunities.
Furthermore, she allowed me to read widely and was not scared of the possible negative influence of “secular” literature. Thus, I filled my reading hours not simply with a spiritually approved Christian cannon of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Pilgrim’s Progress, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew but also stories of war throughout history, Greek and Roman mythology, fantasy, science fiction, classics, Edger Allen Poe, James Bond (granted not exactly the best junior high boy fodder), Marvel comics (especially the Avengers and X-Men), and much more. Educationally, she did not narrow my choices; she expanded them.
Better still, she encouraged me to talk about my learning and to think about it through a Christian lens (more than I wanted to talk about it). As with any teenage boy, talking about the sermon, what you learned in Sunday School or what you learned while reading with your mom is rarely a favorite pastime. Yet, despite my (and my brother’s) less than enthusiastic responses to her constant ventures into these areas, she patiently led us to have intellectual discussions during our meals together. My mother first taught me what it meant to undertake Christ-animated learning.
When it came to teaching, my mother also had high expectations for learning and character development—something that I now appreciate as a professor. Throughout her life, she taught two and three year olds. Her biggest passion was to make sure two and three year olds received substantive biblical content in engaging and age appropriate ways, since she recognized that children at that age soak up everything. Parents often marveled at how much their kids learned in her classes. She also wanted to make sure young boys and girls were complimented for character (“I like how you shared that”) instead of external things often heard in church (“That’s a pretty dress”).
Finally, my mom illustrated what it means to make disciples. She constantly evangelized and mentored younger women of all social classes and backgrounds holistically. Despite her lack of college education, my mother poured her life into mentoring younger women, many of whom had advanced degrees. She recognized that the practical wisdom she had gathered and lived was not developed or bounded by academic degrees and that it can and should be passed along to younger Christian women. In many ways, I hope I can be as good a disciple-maker, intellectual guide, mentor and teacher as my mother was and continues to be.
Of course, these types of stories are vitally important, but I want to end with an academic alter call of sorts. Why have Protestant Evangelicals not been the leaders in the academic study of motherhood and its influence? Personal stories are great, but we need mixed methods research in this area to make a significant academic contribution. Oddly, when I think about the social science scholars of marital and family life that I know, most of them are Catholics. Granted, Catholics have a certain motivation. My former Ph.D. classmate Julie Hanlon Rubio, who studies family ethics, laughed when I asked her why she chose her field of study and said, “Protestants have all the good, popular marriage and family books because our leaders are all single men! We need Catholic scholarship on the family”
Protestants do have plenty of popular books. But where are young Protestant, men and women who are studying motherhood with scientific and social science expertise and theological acumen? Perhaps one day we will have multiple complex social science and economic studies of the impact of mothers produced by Christians. It is knowledge many of us already know from experience, but we still need the academic and not simply the Mother’s Day version of praising our mothers. Academically, we cannot and should not take our Mothers for granted. A new, fascinating science of motherhood is emerging. Will we be part of it?