Debunking the Ideal-Mother Identity

What do people think of me?

Our attempt to shape the answer to that question can control our lives. It’s often there in the home furnishings we choose, the table we set, and the planter we place on the patio. It can be there in the car we drive, the books we read, and the places we choose for vacation. By means of our clothes, our weight, our gym routine, and the interior of our home, we are so easily driven by a craving for an acceptable answer to that question, “What do people think of me?”

For many of us, the question flows beneath the surface of our thoughts like an undercurrent. It’s so constant that we aren’t even aware of its pull. And if it’s there, it’s bound to impact the way we parent. In the decisions we make for our kids—the schools they attend and the summer camps, the clothes they wear and the friends they bring home—that relentless undercurrent might be flowing somewhere beneath our very genuine mama-bear love. And it so easily rises to the surface in angry words, shame, and impatience.

Self-conscious parenting can begin even before our children are born. As our baby grows within us, we seek advice and do research on how to be the best possible mother. We note what other moms do and how they do it, setting standards for our mothering techniques along the way. Our goal is to distinguish not only good from bad, but better from best. Sometimes, though, we wind up not only wanting to be the ideal mom but yearning to be known as that mom.

One young mother was devastated when her plans for natural, at-home childbirth were thwarted by complications late in the pregnancy. Two years later she continued to agonize. She viewed herself as a failure for succumbing to a medically supervised, hospital delivery. She couldn’t see that hadn’t failed her child, who’d been born healthy and continues to thrive today. And she hadn’t failed her Lord, who nowhere in scripture mandates a particular method of childbirth. She had failed herself in not living up to what had become standard practice among the young moms in her circle.

When it comes to self-conscious motherhood, the method and means of childbirth is just the beginning. There’s also the pressure to make baby food from scratch and to use only cloth diapers. Of course, it’s love that drives many moms to make these choices, but there are equally as many who choose them because they seem to fit an ideal-mother identity. These moms can’t see that they are driven more by self-created standards than by love, and in time all the joy goes out of it.

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If we are self-conscious mothers, that undercurrent will continue to tug at us when decisions are made about schooling. We set out to make informed, careful choices about where and how to educate our kids, and in the process we gather opinions from more experienced parents. Along the way, though, we can forget that what matters is those parents’ views on education, not their view of us. There are many discouraged homeschooling mothers whose dark emotions have less to do with a sense of inadequacy or burnout as with the reason chosen for homeschooling in the first place—the perceived expectations of others. These discouraged moms chose homeschooling, but other good (perhaps better) options for their particular family structure were pulled down in the undertow of, “What will people think?”

If we live self-conscious lives, we harm those we love most and mar our witness of Christ. And trying to live out an ideal-mother identity makes us critical toward mothers whose parenting choices differ from ours. We silently (or not so silently) judge rather than come alongside them to encourage their efforts to love their children. It seems counterintuitive, but joy and genuine love result not from being thought well of but by thinking less of ourselves altogether.

As Christ followers, we can toss the What do people think of me? question out the window. That’s because we are called to ask a different question: What do people think of Christ? When we are driven by a concern for how people perceive him, we can live free from the bondage of what people think of us. One of the most amazing aspects of being united to Christ by faith is that he actually becomes our identity:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

As we begin to grasp this truth more deeply, we will enjoy the freedom of self-forgetfulness. And this newfound freedom will open our eyes to see how that ideal-mother image we’ve sought so hard to live out and project to others has actually shamed other moms and crushed them with the weight of their own inadequacy.

Surely love fuels our desire to be an ideal mom, but love is lacking in the desire to be known as that mom. We can forget all that, because our identity is in Christ, and in him, we have no reason to fear our weaknesses. After all, those weaknesses are the very place where his strength is most powerfully at work. Because that’s true, we can admit our inadequacies and failures and ask for help when we need it. And as we open our hearts and lives, we become a resource of God’s grace and encouragement to the struggling mothers all around us.


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Lydia Brownback (MAR, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the author of several books and a speaker at women’s conferences around the world. Lydia previously served as writer in residence for Alistair Begg and as producer of The Bible Study Hour radio program with James Montgomery Boice.