Tuesday, September 16, 2008

motherhood Q&A: less children, more ministry?

One of the best things about leading a seminar on motherhood was the fantastic questions people asked. I thought I'd take one question at a time, and have a go at answering them. I'm no expert, so please add your thoughts to the comments!

Q1. Should I have less kids so I can do more ministry?

What a great question! And it's not just theoretical: I have met godly parents, whom I respect greatly, who stopped at 2 children partly so the mother could have more time for ministry.

It sounds godly, doesn't it? Far better than the usual reasons for having less children: because it's too much trouble, or too expensive, or will stop me achieving my goals, or because (my personal favourite) we'd have to buy one of those daggy Taragos (guilty as charged!). One woman told me she said to her husband she would only have more children if he bought her a Hummer.

But my initial (and very tentative) response to the question is "no" (tentative, because I know some godly couples may make this decision). There are many good reasons to have less children, some involving ministry. But if someone told me they were having less kids so they could do more ministry, I would gently probe to see if there were any unhelpful assumptions underlying this decision. Here's why:

  • The purpose of marriage includes children.
    We wouldn't (or we shouldn't) have no children for the sake of ministry, for children are one of the purposes of a godly marriage (Gen. 1:26-28, Mal. 2:15). So why would we have less children for this reason alone?

  • Motherhood is ministry of great significance.
    To have less children for the sake of ministry, may reveal that we think motherhood isn't ministry, or that it's a lesser ministry than the ministry we do outside the home. I'd give someone who thought like this Susan Maushart's The Mask of Motherhood to read, a secular book which shows why we think this way; or a Christian book like Carolyn Mahaney's Feminine Appeal, to inspire her to think about motherhood as ministry.

  • The early years of motherhood are only for a season.
    The day will come - sooner than you think! - when you will have time for ministry outside the home. It might feel like that day will never come. But this intense season is only for a short time: ask anyone with grown children! I know women often feel like their life is fast disappearing. But you have many more years of ministry ahead, God willing. And you will have so much more wisdom to offer people as you grow older.
  • Motherhood enriches your ministry to others.
    Motherhood opens up many opportunitities for ministry and mission - hospitality, ministry to school mums, mother's groups, etc. (see missional motherhood). There are also mums who value my advice because they know that I understand life with 4 children. And what about the growth in character and godliness which comes with the stresses and strains of raising a family? You can't put a price on that, or the depth it brings to your ministry long-term. And what about the ministry your children will one day do themselves?
Of course, having less children for the sake of ministry may be one factor among others. Having more children doesn't make you more godly, as if the ideal Christian family is a big one. There can be ungodly reasons for having more kids, such as the idolatry of family.

Here are some good reasons I've heard for having less kids:

  • The personality of the parents makes less children more suitable. Because the number of kids we have is a freedom issue, it's ok for personal preference, situation, past experience, age, financial resources, etc. to have a bearing on how many children we decide to have (of course, God may give us his own little surprises!).

  • Health or psychological issues are involved: there's a high likelihood of kidney failure or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, the mother suffers from high anxiety levels or severe post-natal depression, or there's a high risk of genetic abnormalities.

  • A severely disabled or autistic child is already demanding a high level of care.

  • Staying on the mission field may not be possible with more children, due to schooling and/or financial support issues.

  • Staying in a significant ministry may not be possible with more children, because of the unique demands it places on a family e.g. long absences for the father, a need for the mother to help provide income.
You'll notice that ministry is a factor in some of these decisions. But let's not undervalue the ministry of motherhood, or the richness motherhood can bring to our ministry outside the home, or the ministry our children will do as they grow.

One more comment: many women with babies, in the fog of sleep-deprivation and continual crying, say "never again". Wait. This isn't the time to decide how many children you'll have. When your child is older, and you're feeling human again, your husband and you will be able to make a considered decision.

What do you think? You'll no doubt have perspectives on this issue I haven't thought of!

images are from stock.xchng


Nicole said...

Well said Jean!! The only thing I would add is that we are often too quick to overlook the ministry we can do in our homes. Being a mum at home with kids provides so many new and exciting ministry opportunities!

Oh, and one more thing... I always said that my husband and I only had the personalities for 2 kids, but then God surprised us with our third, and I'm so glad He did!!

Jean said...

I hadn't thought of the opportunities for mission as a mother, Nic - thankyou for adding that.

And yes, God has many little surprises up his sleeve, doesn't he? Wonderful ones! And he knows what we are capable of, and gives us the grace for anything he requires of us.

BGSydneyside said...

Jean, Jean, Jean
An excellent post- but what's with the crack about the Tarago?
They are the coolest cars ever ;)

Jean said...

Nic, I've slipped your reason into point 4. Thanks for reminding me!

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post.
One reason I've often heard for not having more kids is because the family can't afford it.
Was there a particular reason you didn't include this one?
Thanks for your thoughts!

Jean said...

Well, it was there in the paragraph about less godly reasons for having less children - because it's too expensive. But I guess this could be a reason for Christian parents to have less children too - what do you think?

Mostly, though, I think, money won't be a good reason to have less children. We certainly find it harder to make ends meet with more children. But the kids are worth far more than the money they cost (well, that goes without saying, doesn't it?). It may mean going without some things, but that doesn't do us, or them, any harm.

What do other people think?

Louisa said...

Gosh. This was such a timely post for me! I have had a totally awful day and have literally just walked in after dinner with my husband where I said I was going off the idea of 4 kids because it meant that I would never have time to do anything else. I know wonderful women with 4 kids,they are great mothers and godly women but they just seem so busy and now that i have my own child I've got a greater appreciation for this. Your comment on this being a season is helfpul but I do wonder if you also have to decide where God is calling you to minister. I think having lots of kids is awesome for those who chose to do it but do you think that for some they may be better serving a community that already exists rather than a large family that they create? Hope that makes sense, love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and I still love my baby after this shocking day!!

Simone R. said...

This is a really tricky question. And I think it's one of those issues of christian freedom that many of us feel needlessly guilty about. It's a shame we have to keep count and compare ourselves to others around us. I sometimes think there would be value in all of us minding our own business and not counting the number of kids any family has - except our own, and only so we don't lose any! [I'm talking mostly about myself here. I often feel that I'm losing some kind of mothering contest because we only have 3 kids.]

Nicole said...

Where I live 3 kids is considered a large family!!

On this issue and others, I don't think that 'Christian freedom' is a reason not to have conversations and come to convictions about how we should live. The fact that the Bible has not given us a law to obey doesn't mean that it hasn't given us wisdom to learn.

Of course, it's important in having these conversations that they're not about competing with others and justifying ourselves, but about trying to help each other work out what we should do as we try to live out God's wisdom in our lives.

So I think it is dreadful to count kids if we're keeping score, but fantastic to count kids if we're counting blessings!

Jean said...

Louisa - funny you came home to that post!! I remember thinking similar things after 2 kids, and then 3 kids: that even though I had always wanted 4, I felt fulfilled as a mum, and could quite happily stop, and use my time for other things. I don't know what decision I would have made if I hadn't thought it would be good and fun for my kids to have lots of siblings, and above all, if my husband hadn't wanted a tribe. 4 kids is a small number to him! :)

On the issue of calling, see called to ministry. I agree with what Sandy says - that we probably shouldn't use the word "calling" for the divine impulse to a certain ministry. And if we're called to anything as mums, it's to our "calling" as mothers - if you use "calling" in the sense of career not divine impulse. Which isn't to say we shouldn't do other ministry or work. But if God has made us mothers, then motherhood is our primary "calling", in the sense of "career" (well, I guess it's actually our secondary "calling" or "career" if we're married, after the even more primary "calling" to love and serve our husband).

But I do agree, we are to serve our local and church community, not just create one!! As long as we put our family community first. But this doesn't necessarily mean creating a bigger family community - more kids doesn't = more godly. This decision will involve wisdom, depending on personality, preferences, situation, context, etc. The main thing, I think, is not to decide on less (or more) kids for ungodly reasons: because it's a lesser ministry, because we want to pursue money or self-fulfilment, or because (in the case of choosing to have more kids) we idolise family.

Jean said...

Simone, I agree, if the Bible doesn't tell us how many kids to have, this is a freedom and wisdom issue. But I think Nic's right, we also need to discuss real, everyday, wisdom issues in the light of the Bible, and work out what God's priorities are, and how this may affect our decisions.

And I agree it's a pity that people with less kids are sometimes made to feel guilty, or less godly, by Christians. Of course, it's the opposite for people with more kids: in the non-church community, we're made to feel like we're either saints or crazy, and we have to cope with plenty of disapproving looks!

Lucy said...

I just wanted to add a different thought ... giving birth is not the only way to increase the number of children in your family. Adoption and fostering are 2 great ways to add to your family esp if you have significant health issues in pregancy (like me!). Parenting non-biological kids also means that you're reaching out to the "mission field that's already there" (which was louisa's concern) although I have no prob. personally with creating my own mission field! I'm really excited about the ministry possibilities of being a mum - and what an amazing thought that christian families could teach, include and love children that they didn't give birth to, as well as their biological kids!

On the other hand, I agree with what Simone said... I don't think we should jump to conclusions about why other people have the no. of kids they do, or be quick to judge them for their motives (not that I think anyone here has done that).

I should add as a disclaimer that I only have 2 biological kids so I'm not holding myself up as an example here!

Simone R. said...

Jean and Nicole - Yes! Count kids as blessings, but not for any other reason - especially not to criticise families who have done differently to us, because there will always be factors that we don't know about that led them to make the decisions that they did (and some of them may be godly).

I think it's okay to stop having kids for financial and time reasons. The woman who wants 12 kids may not be able to keep food on the table for the 10 she already has. This is a sacrifice she may need to make to serve her current family. But there's a tricky line to draw regarding need and greed.

I agree with what you are saying about ministry. I think the desire to do 'ministry' should be assessed as the desire to do any other job would be addressed with regard to extra kidlets.

Cathy McKay said...

Thanks for throwing this "out there" Jean!

I really like "Married for God" by Christopher Ash, because he puts kids in the second chapter, not just as an accidental, unfortunate byproduct of marriage, but as a core part of serving God in it.

We often talk about ministry in abstract terms. When really, ministry is a concrete set of activities in relationships with real people. Lots and lots of these people will be mothers, or women who want to be mothers...

I think that as long as we (conservative evangelicals) elevate formal, programmed, paid, 'up front' ministry we will look at motherhood (and maybe even marriage) as tragic obstacles to ministry.

I think we are having feminist struggles but it a 'ministry' context.

Glad we are thinking about all this!

Sharon said...

My husband and I decided to stop at four for pretty much this exact reason. Not so much so that I could do some other, new ministry, but so that I could not be overwhelmed as I go about the ministry we were already preparing for. That is, my husband is a theological student studying with a view to becoming a minister in a church. Our fourth child was born in his first year of a three-year degree which he has almost completed. At the time we knew my body was just too tired to have another child straight away (I'd had four in three years) and if we waited we'd be having our fifth some time at the beginning of Jeff's first ministry placement, when we would be developing crucial new relationships with our congregation.

As his wife, I know that there will be times in the future when my husband will not be able to be at home at night because he's out making pastoral visits, leading Bible studies, leading services... and my primary ministry as his wife has to be to minister to him in love by keeping the family home running well, and loving our children. (Yes, I'm reading Feminine Appeal with the EQUIP book club.)

Given that I am struggling under our present "load" of children, we didn't see how we could in all conscience have the fifth and sixth children our hearts had been set upon, because then we would not be acting lovingly to the children we currently have. One quote that helped me work this out said that "there's no point in having more arrows in your quiver if you are too busy with the other arrows to shoot them at the prize."

So we have chosen a "smaller" family size in order to effectively minister in the fields God has already given to us. It was a very important decision because it did not mean I didn't trust God to support me in my trials, rather it meant we knew when to stop making our own trials worse! (Digging ourselves deeper, I believe the expression goes.)

Another happy Tarago co-owner,
~ Sharon J

Jean said...

Helpful point re non-birth children, Lucy; good point re the difference between "need and greed", Simone; very insightful points re evangelicals and feminism, Cathy; what an encouraging story, Sharon! :)

I am appreciating all your interesting comments, thanks everyone.

Mom Of Es said...

I really enjoyed this post, as we are currently trying to decide if we should try for another child. I do have a question, though. If a family is living month to month on the resources they currently have, couldn't it be a wise decision to refrain from adding another child to the family? This is the situation for our family. My husband works two full time jobs and one part time job. We have two children, and I watch one other child. We are homeschooling. If we choose to have another child, there is a great possibility that I would have to go to work, put the kids in daycare/public school, and quit all of my church ministry. We so strongly believe in homeschooling, that it breaks my heart to think of having to send my children off to school. :-) Are those valid and godly reasons to not have another child? Could it be a wise and godly choice to wait until a family has better financial resources? And just because I know lots of people will probably say that we could just cut back on what we spend now, please know that there is literally nothing we could cut out of our spending.

Liz said...

I certainly don't mean this as something to condemn others, but as another point to consider...

Who says we get to choose how many babies we have and when? The Bible ALWAYS speaks of children as blessings, and barrenness as undesirable. It talks about God opening and closing wombs.

I am not saying that we should all do as much as possible to have as many babies as God, and our bodies, will allow. I am not saying that all semblance of common sense should fly out the window. However, God is good and He is wise. If He blesses our family with another child, I am certain He will bless us with the means to support that child, through hand-me-down clothes, increased patience for me, etc.

I'm a young mum with three young children (all below school age). My oldest would be of school age next year but we are homeschooling. We live in a two bedroom unit. God has provided for us in many ways - we have a large living area in our unit and a sporting field across the road, He has blessed us in many many ways. Life is very crazy sometimes but I would do it all over again, if I had to, for my kids.

I'm told that the only child you regret is the one you never had.

Jean said...

Dear mother of es,

Yes, they could well be wise, "valid and godly reasons to not have another child". It sounds like your husband is already stretched covering the jobs he has. And the things you mention, which would have to change, are things which would have a major impact on you, your family, and your church ministry, all really important things. But it also sounds like you long to have another child! So it's really hard, isn't it? I feel for you.

The only things I can think of are:
- pray for wisdom;
- find work which you can fit in around the family - one more child isn't that much more money, is it, so you wouldn't have to work full-time - could you work from home or a day a week?;
- one more thing: is it necessarily much more expensive having another child if you are homeschooling? What extra expenses are you thinking of? I assume you've done the sums.

I hesitate to give this kind of advice on the internet rather than in person, over a cup of coffee, discussing all the ins and outs! So take all this as very, very tentative advice.

I will pray for you: that's probably the most helpful thing I can do. God bless.

Jean said...

Well, I've opened a kettle of worms with this one, haven't I? Sometimes discussions can go in unexpected directions!

I wrote this post not to say “have lots of kids”, but to say “undervaluing motherhood as ministry is not a good reason for having less kids”. In other words, I wrote it to raise the value of motherhood as ministry in our eyes, even if it involves a whole tribe of demanding children! But I don't think having more kids is necessarily godlier.

Just a few comments:

- yes, children are a blessing, and a normal part of Christian marriage - but this doesn't mean it's necessarily godlier to have more;
- we are in the immensely unusual and privileged position in the place and time we live in, to have some control over how many children we have;
- I don't think there's anything wrong, or anything which needs justifying, in having more or less children, even as a matter of personal preference (e.g. “I had 2 kids in my family, I always wanted more kids, so I’m having 4”), or because of "need rather than greed" financial reasons (thanks Simone for that helpful distinction);
- there are ungodly reasons for having more children (e.g. the self-absorbed worship of family life) as well as for having less (e.g. self-fulfilment, greed);
- the main reason I brought up this issue was not because I thought we should all have more children, but because I was concerned about how, as Christian women, we are tempted to devalue motherhood.

I am planning to gather some of these thoughts, and some of your contributions, into a follow-up post soon. Thanks for commenting!

Louisa said...

Yes, I was wondering if this was your most commented-on post so far? Certainly generating some interesting discussion! I happened to be speaking with a Christian friend today and this issue came up (unrelated to the post but it soon became relevant!) My friend who would like 3-4 kids and is in ministry & also a minister's wife was relaying a conversation she'd had with friend. This friend had said that in her opinion any more than 2 kids made ministry (outside the home/family) a no-go.

It got me thinking that the decision about how many kids you have and ministry and your life in general has to be linked in part to your personality. Some people for a whole host of reasons will be better suited to having a large family and ministering effectively to said family and their community than others will be. Surely this should be a consideration?

Also, there was a point made earlier that part of your ministry as a mum will be to those people you meed through your kids - via school, sport etc... Obviously the more kids you have the more people you meet however there's also a limit to the number of people you can 'fit' in your life and ministry and though you would meet more people you may also have less time to minister to them and to be effective at what you are doing.

Finally, I also wonder if by having lots of kids you may limit your own capacity to minister to others (after all there are only so many hours in the day) BUT you do raise up kids who, God willing, will seek to serve and share Jesus with those around them. It's a multiplication ministry of sorts!!

As a Mum of 4 you have a very effective ministry going on here and you don't even have to leave the house to do it!!

Ok. Think that's all from me for now...

Jean said...

"This friend had said that in her opinion any more than 2 kids made ministry (outside the home/family) a no-go." As a mother of 4 kids under 10, who blogs most days, has mentored at least 1 person most years, and teaches a couple of seminars each year, mostly without damaging my responsibilities to my family ;), I think you can assure your friend that there are no rules about the number of children we have, and outside ministry. And I am definitely not a high energy person, even if it sounds like it. Although there were a few years I did nothing at all outside the home: I had to accept this as necessary with 3-4 very young children. But it didn't last long.

I totally agree with everything you said - do you want to write some more?! Yes, how many kids / outside ministry you can manage depends on personality; yes, the more kids you have, the trickier it is to minister to all the mums in your orbit - but if your kids go to the same school, each child can increase the number of links to each person; yes, raising children is long-term multiplication ministry.

But I think one of the ways children learn to love and serve those outside the home is by watching you do it. It would be a pity if someone was so "Tit. 2:3-5" - loving husband and children, busy at home - that there was no "1 Tim. 5:9-10 / Prov. 31" - hospitality, service, good deeds, helping the poor - in the mix (although there will be years with babies when little service outside the home can happen). This is what I mean when I talk about "idolatry" of family: the view that raising our family is the sum total of our service and evangelism, and we don't need to do anything more active. Hey, there's another post in there somewhere ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing my question, Jean! I kind of forgot I had left a comment and only remembered when I was looking at your blog today...

I think God is reforming my view of motherhood at the moment. There are some weeds of selfishness in this area of my heart that need removing. I'm starting to get excited about just how important the ministry of motherhood is!

Thanks for your continued thoughts on this!

Jean said...

It's exciting to see God working in the hearts of so many women - including a mum I spoke to at church the other day - helping us to rejoice in the ministry of motherhood.