“Give me children or I will die!” she cried.
She was fed up watching her sister birth baby after baby, meanwhile her womb remained empty. It was one thing to share her husband with her sister—it was another to watch her live out her ache to bear children.
“Am I in the place of God,” Jacob, her husband snapped back, “who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
She fought back tears and gritted her teeth. She had only one choice if she wanted children. “Here is my servant Bilhah,” she said, “go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her.
If you’ve read the book of Genesis, this story may sound familiar. Genesis 30 recounts this story of Rachel’s resolve to have children, one way or another.
Many women who fight to have children are often filled with joy when that longing is finally filled. But Rachel’s life remained one marred by bitterness, discontent, and want. She had won the love of Jacob—he loved her more than her sister who he was deceived into marrying—but now she wanted children. Her sister was given children, but she was not. Rachel saw motherhood as her only source of joy, to the point that death was better than being childless.
In order to get the children she wanted, she handed her servant over to Jacob to be his wife and bear children for her. She became so desperate that she sold her husband to her sister for the night in order to get mandrakes from her, a plant she believed could strengthen her fertility.
Finally, God gave Rachel the son she so desperately wanted. But what was her response? It wasn’t the rejoicing you see in many mothers. As she embraced this new life she declared, “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:24).
Rachel was not content in God, and she didn’t trust him to not withhold any good thing from her (Psalm 84:11). Rather than being satisfied in God, she constantly sought more. She was willing to do whatever it took to get this idol she so desired. But even when she received it, it wasn’t good enough.
Rachel found her identity in something we still do today: Motherhood. Whether we are mothers already or desiring to be mothers, we too at times find fulfillment and joy in becoming moms. We place our hope in being the best mom and strive to outdo one another in mothering (just look at the mommy wars on social media). Or perhaps while waiting to be married, we watch the mothers around us and wish we could find a husband so we could fill our arms with a baby too. Or maybe we are married but God has shut our womb.
Before becoming pregnant with Levi, I struggled watching other women around me become pregnant. I saw the way their children hugged them and looked up at them and longed to have that as well. I saw them cuddling their newborn babes and craved to have my arms full as well. I gritted my teeth as I listened to them complain about their children or the pains of pregnancy. I wanted that—I wished I could makes those complaints. But at the time, my husband and I weren’t in a place to have children of our own. I despised the place God had placed us. I remember scrolling through Facebook and seeing a pregnancy announcement from a couple I went to school with. “They haven’t even been married a year!” I yelled.
I wanted to be a mother because I wanted purpose. At the time, we were living in a cabin caged in by trees, on a dirt road in the middle of Nowhereland next to an abandoned church. While my husband worked all day, I was trapped inside this tiny cabin with a fickle internet connection doing school work and house work that seemed to have nothing to show for itself. I wanted something to give me purpose. I wanted to hear little giggles to bring a smile to my face. In a way, I was a modern day Rachel. I believed purpose and joy were found in becoming a mother.
Now that I have my first child, my identity feels lost in the duties of motherhood. Some days I look in the mirror and only see a haggard housekeeper with a screaming baby attached to her hip. Sins I didn’t know were so pervasive in my heart have surfaced. The things I loved to do, the things I believed made me who I was, receive possibly a fifth of my day. My identity felt lost in diapers. The place where I once sought identity had become a thief of it.
Lore Wilbert wrote on identity and marriage, and I think her thoughts apply to motherhood as well:
“I came into marriage believing it takes two whole people to make it work, and I still believe this is true. But that belief has to die the moment you say ‘I do,’ and I did not know that. I thought, having worked so hard in my singleness to be a whole person, I would get to keep that whole person in marriage. I liked the whole person I was. I liked the time I had. I liked my financial flexibility. I liked my independence. I liked my autonomy. I liked my friends. I liked my personality. I liked me. I worked hard to be independent, secure, faithful, well-liked, a friend to many, thought-full, deep, and more. I liked that person. And I liked the person my husband was, a minister to many hurting men, faithful friend, financially secure, a home-owner, well-regarded in the city gates. Someone who stayed up with me way past our self-imposed curfew because we had so much to say. I liked us. Two whole people, come to one another in wholeness […] Marriage, I am learning, is less about becoming more of who you are, or all of who you are, or your truest self, and more about becoming less of who you are. And that hurts.”
Motherhood, I am learning, consists of a lot of dying of self and dying to self, to the point that I don’t always recognize myself. Things like marriage and motherhood do change us; they grow us into new people, and as our responsibilities within that role change (new mom, mom to toddler, mom to teen, empty-nester, etc.) so does our personality and how we identify ourselves.
That hopeless state of lostness and sadness over the loss of ourselves arrives when we entangle our identity far too tightly in those roles—when we find our entire selves in them rather than them being an aspect of us and find all our joy and purpose in them. Those roles are always shifting, and they are a means by which we are sanctified, but they do not make us whole.
So who are we entirely?
We are women made in the image of God, being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ. We are daughters of God. We are servants of the King. We are mere mirrors reflecting the glory of the Saviour as we image him. I belong to Jesus as one bought by his righteous blood. I am a mere piece of the body of the bride of Christ. I am a recipient of undeserved grace. I am sinful, yet righteous in Christ. On those days of motherhood, when hot tears burn my eyes, my arms ache from carrying a babe, when I only had five minutes to myself because his nap was cut short, when writing and exercise get tossed in the back closet for later, this is where my hope and joy needs to be found.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert, "The Strange Math of Marriage," Sayable, September 26, 2016, , accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.sayable.net/blog/2016/09/the-strange-math-of-marriage?rq=marriage math.