This is the first part of a two-part series leading up to Mother's Day. The second post is here (and a third and fourth are forthcoming. Because, yeah, that's just how it worked out).
I have been wanting to write these words since before this blog was even a twinkle in my eye.
There is a lot of well meaning but unhelpful advice for new moms out there. Case in point, this post by John Piper, titled “Soul Care for Exhausted Young Mothers.”
I have not read much of Mr. Piper’s works, but his writing has been very influential in David’s life, so I owe him a measure of gratitude for this. What I write is not a critique of Mr. Piper in general, but simply this particular article. I have no idea if it is representative of his usual way of thinking and communicating, or not.
For context, a friend who had recently given birth texted the above post to a group of fellow moms I was a part of, not too long after Queen Bee was born. My friend said it had been very encouraging to her. I, however, found it to be the opposite.
For those of you who also find Mr. Piper’s article encouraging, I am so glad. What I’m writing here is not meant to take away from the encouragement you find in Mr. Piper’s words. Instead, what I’m writing is meant to offer encouragement to those who, like myself, feel that Mr. Piper’s words are simply adding to the burden we already struggle with. And to hopefully provide insight to Mr. Piper or those in a similar position as to why the words he used can be the opposite of encouraging.
This particular blog post will focus on some specific critiques of Mr. Piper’s article, as well as things I found actually encouraging. Next week, I will follow it up with some advice and resources that I hope will be more helpful for those who, like me, found Mr. Piper’s words more burdensome than uplifting.
Context for a Mother’s Question
We get a steady stream of questions from mothers of young kids, like this one from a listener named Beth. “Dear Pastor John, my husband and I are new parents to a two-month-old son. Caring for him has been joyful and exhausting. I can barely concentrate on anything I used to but need the Lord more than ever to sustain me. What counsel do you give to new mothers on continuing their walk with God?”John Piper
The exhaustion this new mom is experiencing (“I can barely concentrate on anything”) is not hyperbole. It is very real. When my kids were that young, there were times when I probably should not have been driving, I was so sleep deprived. And assuming her son is biological instead of adopted, she has just spent the last two months recovering from the equivalent of a major surgery, on top of sleepless nights. For comparison, triple bypass heart surgery recovery time is 6-12 weeks; delivering a child is 6-8 weeks recovery when there are no complications. And based on anecdotal evidence, I suspect minor to medium pregnancy complications are much more common than reported. (Ask me about the time my OB/GYN cleared me to return to work at 6-weeks postpartum in spite of my still recovering from a broken tailbone. I dare you. Or how my mother worked herself into a bout of pneumonia after I was born, because she didn’t take the doctor’s advice to rest.)
In addition to possible physical limitations, a new mother must also adjust to major constraints on her time, even when fully recovered physically from childbirth. Taking care of a newborn is extremely time consuming. They need to eat every 2-3 hours (even overnight), and each feeding is 20-30 minutes, so lets call that roughly 5 hours every day. (Budget extra time for cleaning bottles, if the baby is not nursing.) Diapers need to be changed roughly as often, and range in time from 5 minutes to 30 minutes (if there is a blowout that involves changing the baby’s clothes and the clothes/linens of whomever/whatever was holding the baby at the time). And some babies will fall asleep quite easily naturally, while others (through no fault of their own or their parents) take a lot longer. Taking care of a newborn is totally worth it, but totally hard. Many church nurseries won’t accept babies until they’re 8-weeks old. And daycares have a lower infant:teacher ratio than toddler:teacher ratio because of how much hands-on care newborns require. And all of this hands-on care requires time. Lots and lots and lots of time.
Taking care of a newborn also requires inordinate amounts of energy and effort, which can be even more difficult for the estimated 1 in 7 mothers who experience postpartum depression. Anything Mr. Piper says to Beth needs to take this into account, knowing the numbers of people his words will reach.
Let’s see if Mr. Piper empathizes with her situation.
I am not a mother, never have been, but I lived with one for 47 years. I still live with one, and I watched her be a young mother with five children: four of them born into the family, one carried into the family at eight weeks. And I do try to read my Bible with an eye to what is helpful for moms and dads and everybody else. So, here are a few pieces of counsel from experience and from the word. And they may not be the most important, but they are off my prayerful front burner.John Piper
I am glad to see that Mr. Piper acknowledges he’s never been in her exact situation. But he neglects to offer any sort of sympathy or empathy with the exhaustion she is feeling and with the very real and very practical difficulties in finding the time, let alone energy, to pursue devotions in any semblance of what they may have looked like before having a child. Hopefully this is a minor oversight.
Never lose sight, Beth, never lose sight of the fact that your walk with God is as essential for the good of your child as is your milk or the formula that you may be giving him. Children do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). If you lose your communion with God, you will lose not only a source of strength for the sake of parenting, but you will lose the very thing you want most to impart to this child.John Piper
With all due respect, the hyperbole of “your walk with God is as essential for the good of your child as is your milk or the formula” is simply not true. An infant will survive if his/her parent neglects to pray for them for two weeks. (Given the number of Christians I know who grew up in non-believing households, many will both survive and thrive even if their parents never pray for them.) Said child will not, however, survive if their parent neglects to feed them for two weeks. While this metaphor sounds nice as a literary device, I’m confused as to what Mr. Piper is hoping to accomplish with it in this situation.
Also, Mr. Piper slightly misquoted Matthew 4:4. Technically, Scripture states that “man” (or perhaps “mankind”) does not live by bread alone. Not children, specifically. And this verse is in the context of Jesus being tempted in the desert as an adult. Just saying. As much as I agree that children should ideally be raised in a home that is saturated in knowledge of Scripture, I think it’s a teeny bit of a stretch to apply this particular verse in a literal manner to a newborn.
And the original question only asked about help continuing a walk with God. Mr. Piper, however, has immediately jumped to the worst-case scenario: “If you lose your communion with God…” This induces fear and shame, not transparency and vulnerability. In what other context would I ask someone for advice on an aspect of parenting, and it’s normal for the other person to catastrophize? “You’re potty training your toddler? You can get him to pee in the toilet but not poop in the toilet? You’d better get this under control, or he will be wearing diapers for the rest of his life and be mocked on the playground and in the workplace and never get a decent job or a wife because he smells of poopy diapers and it will be all your fault.” See how silly that sounds? And how unlikely it makes me want to ask that person for advice in the future? Even though I may be genuinely struggling and in need of practical help?
Catastrophizing Instead of Help
And you want him to know God more than you want him to live. You want him to taste and see that God will be sufficient to meet all of his needs, including his needs for his own parenting. And if you lose God while parenting, the very thing you want to give him most you have lost. So, that is how important it is for you to fight for whatever it takes to maintain a sweet, growing, satisfying walk with your God.John Piper
“You want him to know God more than you want him to live.” Two things with this fist sentence. First, I am uncomfortable with Mr. Piper putting words in Beth’s mouth with “you want him to.” Maybe she secretly wants her son to live more than she wants him to know God. When her son is two months old. Because if he doesn’t survive past two months, how is she supposed to know whether or not he really knew God? Second, why the false dichotomy of “know God” or “live?” Why can’t Beth want both? What is Mr. Piper hoping to accomplish, here?
Third, it’s a little creepy that Mr. Piper talks about anything being more important to a helpless infant than simply being alive. The most important job for a newborn is to stay alive. That’s it. There’s a reason infant mortality rates are tracked so closely, and it’s because babies die so easily. Let’s remember here that Mr. Piper is speaking to the mother of a two-month-old baby. He’d rather the baby be dead than not “know God?” God has that baby’s entire lifetime to work. Not that this excuses the baby’s parents from helping build a foundation of faith. But there is no reason for such a sense of urgency in imparting the faith when a baby literally can’t understand anything beyond “I’m physically comfortable” and “I’m physically not comfortable.” Why is Mr. Piper adding this misplaced burden of urgency on a new mother’s shoulders?
Also, the words “maintain a sweet, growing, satisfying walk with your God” imply a standard that is simply not attainable. No relationship, with God or otherwise, is always an upward trajectory of sweet and growing and satisfying. All relationships, including with God, have their ups and downs and backs and forths (though hopefully the general trend is upward and onward when looked at over the broad context of months and years and decades). Mr. Piper does not acknowledge that the stress of caring for a newborn may simply be one of the down periods in an otherwise normal and healthy relationship, and that it will get better given enough time (and age-appropriate sleep training). Instead, presenting only the perfectionism of an ideal will again induce fear and anxiety, not peace and hope.
Mr. Piper Loses Sight of His Audience
Don’t let this little boy become a little emperor. I see far too many parents who are dominated by their children: out of control on airplanes, out of control in restaurants, out of control in the mall. All the trouble that these parents have spared themselves at home by not disciplining comes back on their own heads in public.
It will come back with a vengeance on their children’s heads later in life. Children are designed, intended by God to be submissive and to be obedient to their parents. They are not intended to dominate the house, dominate relationships, dominate when company comes over. And it is important for them to learn this early, because if they think they are the center of the world, it will be hard to break them of this destructive illusion later on.John Piper
Mr. Piper appears here to have lost sight of his audience. The original question was about continuing a walk with God while adjusting to life with an infant. Now Mr. Piper is talking about disciplining older children. It is true that children need to learn appropriate behavior. It is true that parents need to train children toward that appropriate behavior. It is true that all people, at some point, need to learn that they are not the center of the world. But what help is this knowledge to a new mother right now who is balancing the very real needs of her helpless infant with the very real needs of her soul?
Babies cry. That is how they were “designed” by God to communicate when they are hungry, tired, in pain, in need of reassurance that a caregiver is near, or in need of a diaper change. That is not selfish, or acting like “a little emperor.” No more than when I tell my husband, “I’m sorry, I really need to go to the bathroom before I pee my pants. Can we continue this conversation when I get back?”
And children are not “designed” to be submissive. If they were, there would be no need to “discipline” them, because they’d always automatically do what a caregiver told them to do. Children push boundaries. That is one of the ways God “designed” them to learn about the world, through curiosity and exploration. Does that make it harder for parents? Sure. It would be nice for both us and the others around us if children were always submissive and obedient. But your measure as a parent is not whether your children throw a temper tantrum in public. Your measure as a parent is how you then handle said temper tantrum.
This is important, so I am going to repeat it.
Your measure as a parent is not whether your children throw a temper tantrum in public. Your measure as a parent is how you then handle said temper tantrum. Do you become “out of control” yourself and react in anger and embarrassment? Or do you take charge of the situation and calmly enforce an age-appropriate boundary or consequence so your child will learn better behavior for next time?
Moving on to Some “Practical” Advice
Practically, that means that the child doesn’t so rule your schedule that you don’t have time for what you need to do for your own soul. He does not need your ever-present attention. You can show him lavish attention and provide him with all the affection and touch he needs without training him that you have to respond every time he has a peep in his crib.John Piper
While there is truth in this paragraph, that a child of any age “does not need your ever-present attention,” it is not balanced. The average child of two months is going to need an overwhelming amount of attention compared to a child of two years or five years or twelve years or twenty years. And it takes time, months and years and decades, to gradually train a child toward more independence. Given the years of experience Mr. Piper himself has in parenting, I am mildly surprised that he did not point this out as a reassurance to a new mom who is at the very beginning of this journey.
As a parent of a newborn your life is supposed to revolve around your infant. Because they are so much more helpless than you. As they grow and mature, it will be appropriate for parents and other adults to gradually disabuse them of the notion that the world revolves around them. But this is a very gradual process that doesn’t even really start until the toddler years. This is not a worry that an exhausted new mother needs added to her burden.
God loves us lavishly, and as part of that love he makes sure we know we are not the center of the universe. That is what love does. Let your child become secure not in your ever-present hovering, but in the certainty that you always return in love.John Piper
This I agree with, the last sentence in particular. I think this is a beautiful illustration of our relationship with God.
But, again, this is a process of learning that takes a long, long time. The mother of a two-month-old is barely beginning teaching this lesson to her child, and it will be a long while before it sinks in.
Turn all your practical mothering into worship. Make the food, change the diapers, push the stroller, “whatever you do, whether you eat or drink” — or play peek-a-boo with your baby — “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And that means, I think, practically, as you are doing it, all these things, hundreds of them:
1. Depend upon the sustaining, empowering, guiding grace of God.John Piper
2. Give thanks for all the blessings of this child and your strength to care for it.
3. Be amazed at the miracle that he is and what he is becoming, and turn your amazement into praise.
4. When you become irritable, confess it: the worship of confession. Confess it and honor God with your confession and your reception of his promised forgiveness. And constantly pray, pray, pray, pray for whatever you need. That is how you make your days an act of worship. And then there may not be in your mind such a huge gulf between tending to your child and tending to your soul.
This information is mostly helpful and encouraging, particularly the last sentence. Tending to one’s child and tending to one’s soul do not need to be mutually exclusive and can often be done in tanden, and it takes time and practice to nurture an attitude and mindset that lives this way.
My one caveat to finding this information helpful is the phrase “confess” your irritability. To people who grew up in a culture, family, or church that shamed all negative emotions to an unhealthy degree, “confess” holds a very negative connotations. This is, admittedly, a very gray area. But having a “negative” emotion does not always translate into “sinful” behavior that needs formal repentance and confession, in my opinion. (For further reading, see Peter and/or Geri Scazzero’s works Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, The Emotionally Healthy Church, or The Emotionally Healthy Woman.) Perhaps I am nitpicking (though I have written before on the importance of precision of language for professional communicators such as Mr. Piper), but I think a more appropriate word here would be to “acknowledge” one’s irritation, to then be able to deal with it in a productive manner.
And, while I’m nitpicking, this is the second time Mr. Piper has quoted scripture and the second time he has taken it out of context. This particular section of 1 Corinthians is talking more about the believer’s freedom from legalism, and not so much finding the presence of God in the daily grind. (I agree there are verses that can support the idea of finding the presence of God in the daily grind. I just don’t think I Corinthians 10:31 in the proper context is one of them.) Is this a normal habit of Mr. Piper’s?
The Role of the Church
Stay in church and be involved with other people. Beware of withdrawing into solitude with the child. You need other people. The Bible makes that plain, especially in 1 Corinthians 12. And that need doesn’t go away just because children come into the house. So, strap that baby on and be out and doing with other people — especially be in worship and be in fellowship around God’s word.
I can remember 44 years ago with our first child born in Germany. As soon as we brought that chubby little beached whale home and tried to learn how to be parents, as soon as we got him home, we went straight to our Friday night small group meeting which we did every Friday night while we are in Germany.John Piper
I suspect David will see where I am going with this one…
Yes, being involved with other people is good and we should not completely withdraw into solitude. (Though I would point out that solitude, just like community, can also be a spiritual discipline.) But, more importantly, we need to be self-aware enough to realize whether a particular community is life-giving or life-draining. It is ok to say “not now” to meetings or communities that are draining when your energy needs to be preserved for caring for your infant, yourself, and the rest of your immediate family (in no particular order). And continue to say “yes” to communities that fill your cup. There is only so much of you to go around. It is ok to set boundaries to preserve yourself for higher priorities, particularly if you are an introvert.
David and I were in a small group when each of the Bs was born, a different group at a different church each time. While we genuinely cared for and enjoyed the company of the individuals in the groups, in many ways these groups were more draining than sustaining.
In the first instance, we were hosting a brand new small group at a small church. The burden of hosting (cleaning both before and after) and preparing a meal every week for people who may or may not actually show up led to a case of burn out over the course of almost a year. We actually hosted a meeting the day after bringing Miss Bee home from the hospital. And then handed the group a key and told them to lock up behind themselves when they were done, because the advice nurse had just told us over the phone to take our lethargic Miss Bee to the emergency room. “And if she stops breathing on the way here, pull over and call 911” are the words no parent of a newborn should have to hear. (See note above about the most important job of a newborn being simply to stay alive.) And the church should never have assumed that we would be hosting with an infant who was only days old.
In the second instance, the group met late in the evening and often ran late, which meant I was not getting to bed until 11pm and then getting up exhausted at 4 or 5 am when the baby woke up for the morning (in addition to getting up for 1-2 night feedings). I spent the rest of the next day physically “recovering” from small group, I imagine in ways similar to how one “recovers” the next day from an evening of binge drinking. But doing it while caring for an infant and a toddler. I don’t think this is healthy.
And this whole taking verses out of context is getting to be a little ridiculous. 1 Corinthians 12 is all about spiritual gifts, the need for different spiritual gifts within a body of believers, and the importance of not elevating certain gifts over others. It is most emphatically not about the “dangers” of withdrawing into solitude for an individual when that individual’s life is going through a major upheaval. (Again, I think it’s good for believers to regularly be around other believers. But Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for 40 days. A little bit of solitude during an exhausting period of one’s life is not the boogeyman Mr. Piper is making it out to be.)
Flat-out Dangerous Advice
It was our lifeline, because our church life wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be. But we had a small group. So, we would get there early in the evening. The baby would have already eaten or we would feed him there while everybody else was eating. Then, when it was time to study and pray, we would lay him down, tummy down, on a double bed, put a pillow on four sides of him, pat his bottom, walk out of the room, and leave him there for the next three hours.John Piper
This is really awkward, I’m sorry. I’m sincerely glad this worked for Mr. Piper and his wife, and realize they were probably following the advice of their pediatrician at the time, but the medical community since then has realized that it’s safer for infants to sleep on their backs, on a firm surface like a crib mattress, and without pillows or crib bumpers. It’s been like this for nearly 30 years. Just saying.
Why did no one in the process of recording, editing, and posting this “interview” on a website with 3.5+ million monthly users stop and say something? That strikes me as fairly negligent.
Also, I’m thinking back to Mr. Piper’s earlier advice, “Let your child become secure not in your ever-present hovering, but in the certainty that you always return in love.” If you leave a two-month-old alone for three hours without responding within a few minutes if the baby starts crying (as is implied by the words Mr. Piper uses, “leave him there for the next three hours”), the baby will learn the opposite of “you always return in love” because their brains aren’t mature enough to handle this. Done too frequently, this type of neglect results in life-long challenges for children. Yet Mr. Piper doesn’t put any qualifiers around his advice to take into account a child’s age, or to be available to respond should the baby wake and not be able to sooth itself back to sleep quickly.
Also, it is not clear, but hopefully Mr. Piper here is being descriptive instead of proscriptive. Some infants can fall asleep (and stay asleep) anywhere and anytime. Others cannot. And this is not your “fault” as a parent. We believe in an infinitely creative God. Is it any wonder that he would make some infants good sleepers and some good wakers?
Wrapping it Up with More Advice
Negotiate with your husband to take turns in getting up in the middle of the night. He should know you need sleep as much as he does. God’s ideal for child-rearing is two parents. There is a reason for that. So, tell your husband that I said he should help you.John Piper
I am glad to see Mr. Piper encouraging the involvement of both parents, even in the early years of child-rearing. Even if an infant is exclusively nursing, a father can handle the diaper change part of a night feeding while the mother handles the actual feeding part, to help share the load. Mr. Piper only mentioned night wakings, but a father can take turns to do day-time diaper changes, change a baby’s clothes, wash the baby, carry the baby when the whole family goes on an outing, or sooth the baby to sleep as ways to start building a relationship with his child and establishing trust with his newborn that he as a father is also capable of meeting his child’s needs. In the process, this sharing of the load has the added benefit of giving the mother more time and physical and mental energy to devote to her relationship with God.
Or to shower.
And that leads me to the last thing I want to say. Read Bible-saturated books. And the most Bible-saturated book is the Bible. But read others as well, maybe audiobooks while you are working. And the reason is this: The book of Proverbs begins, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). Your responsibility is to pour glorious, wonderful teaching about God and his ways and his world into the mind of this little child. So, don’t fail the child by failing to read and grow in what you need to teach him about God and about life.John Piper
Two things in particular that I like about this advice. First, I love reading, so of course I’m going to applaud whenever anyone recommends it. Second, I like that Mr. Piper emphasizes reading the Bible in particular, because I think it should be a priority over other books by Christian authors. (Not saying the Bible should be the only thing people are reading, just that it should be the focus if their time and energy is limited.)
But I think it would have been helpful if Mr. Piper had shown or encouraged a little more creativity, here. While he does make a nod to audio books, there are so many other ways someone can be “in the Word.”
More on that in next week’s post.
A Missing Scripture
Mr. Piper peppered his advice with a few Bible verses. But as I wrap up this post, I’m realizing that he left out an important one. Scripture talks in several places about parenting, as Mr. Piper notes. Scripture also addresses a specific word this mother used to describe herself – “exhausted.”
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30
More on this in next week’s post, too.
Part 2 of this series, “Better Advice for Exhausted New Moms,” will be forthcoming next week.