28 October 2015

Teacher, Stagehand, Coach

When I was in the Marine Corps I was a linguist. It’s a job that takes a lot of training, even at its most basic level, because you have to learn the language first in addition to everything else. Indeed the entire field in which I worked was one that required considerable training and technical knowledge. It took two years from the day I left home for boot camp to the day I finally finished all my training schools and arrived at my first real duty station. And, while all that training was important, I didn’t really learn my job until I was doing it on deployment in Iraq. I was probably in my best working condition around the time my second deployment was winding down and I was getting ready to finish out my time of service.

Which is kind of a pity, if you think about it. I was a well-trained operator and I was getting really good at my job, and then I was gone. (There’s a reason I had to sign up for a five-year enlistment instead of a four-year one).

All this to say, I have a distinct memory of one of the Sergeants or Staff NCOs saying something to me that I have never forgotten, despite having forgotten who it was that said it:

He said, “I would take one excellent teacher over a dozen excellent operators.”

I remembered feeling a little suspicious about this at the time because I felt as though I excelled in my field, and his comment seemed to make that unimportant. To make me unimportant, as a mere ‘do-er’ rather than a ‘teacher.’

But he was so very right, especially in that context. I still struggle with the pride that wants to be a center-stage do-er rather than the guide to help someone else do something, but I’m a mom now, so I am being forced to wrestle with this fact and this role.

The reason he wanted a good teacher over a good worker or specialist (and this applies regardless of profession) is because the teacher makes good workers. If you’re a skilled linguist, you do good work and then you finish your service, retire, or move on. Good teachers are a fountain that brings forth more and more people who are good at their job. Rather than being an excellent product, they are an excellence factory.

The other day my husband was telling me that a certain—very intense—military training course is now going to be stocked with the best-skilled in that field, whereas before they often sent their problem children to get them out of the way. They finally realized that if you send your ‘problem children’ to teach, you get poor results. Instead of amplified positive, you get amplified negative. Seems obvious, but it isn’t because you have to take a hit by sending your best away from the job.

The thing is, going to be a teacher isn’t what most of these guys want to do. It isn’t what I ever wanted to do. We want to be in the action, doing the work we trained to do…we want to be the product not the producer. Ironically, for a lot of these guys, being really good at what they do may bar them from getting to do it, because they need to train others to be like they are. And they probably don’t want to. They’d rather stay ‘in the field.’

Military setting aside, it’s what nearly all of us want to do. We don’t want to be on the sidelines coaching the game, we want to be in the game. It’s kind of a trope, isn’t it? The player gets injured or something bad happens, so he’s forced to teach instead of do, right? And everybody feels bad for him, even though he inspires everyone else towards success. There’s a definite loss there.  A sadness. A pain in giving up the thing you really wanted to do in order to help others do it.

Regarded differently, it’s a pain in giving up the spotlight. It’s the pain of humility.

Since becoming a mom I realized that I had bought into one of the worst and strangest cultural lies that we have: that being a mom is ‘mere.’ “She’s just a mom.” “Oh she was so talented, she could have done so much, but then she just had a bunch of kids instead.” “Wasted potential.” “Stereotypical soccer mom.” “1950’s Stepford wife.”

I just finished watching an episode of Gilmore Girls which shows a crop of look-alike, blonde, be-sweatered mean-moms antagonizing Lorelei for talking to their children about her teen pregnancy. It is repeatedly emphasized that Lorelei (our protagonist) can’t be bothered to remember their names, much less tell them apart. It is strongly implied that they are all narrow and dull, whereas Lorelei is the unique exception to this mom-rule.

Love the show, but Lorelei is a jerk sometimes!

We give lip-service to motherhood, and people appreciate their own moms, but at a deep level, there seems to be a fierce cultural dissatisfaction with this role of bringing children up in the way they should go. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s domestic (ah, how we’ve learned to fear that word. At least, I always have). There’s no glory, and the adventures, while not necessarily lacking, are confined to what you can do with a baby strapped to your back or toddling at your side.

I think our culture has such a strange duality about this: “Mothers are lovely and we are all so grateful for them. I wouldn’t want to be one—I have more important things to do with my life—but aren’t they quite nice to admire from a comfortable distance?”

Motherhood lacks so many things that we associate with importance and value: public recognition, financial gain, political influence, prestige, awards, titles, and the chance to ‘go down in history.’ And it has so many things we dislike: exhaustion, prosaicness, restrictions, a small sphere, and continual sacrifice. (Ask my mom, mother of 6 adult children: the job does not end when they leave the house. They call you. They ask your advice. They want you to come visit for a weekend and watch the baby so that you and your husband can run a half-marathon. Thanks mom and dad, by the way!)

I do know a number of women (now moms) who wanted to be moms since they were very little, and I deeply respect this and am grateful for them. They saw something in motherhood that I was too busy or self-centered to see. I wanted to be “great” in the eyes of our culture, heroic and adventurous, untethered and a little bit dangerous. I wanted to be, and be seen as, clever and strong and wild.

Like this.

Zoe Washburne, from Firefly. Battle-ready.

Or this.


 But wild is not usually the first word that jumps to one’s lips when thinking about being a mom. Shamefully, I have resented not being the image of myself that I cultivated and idolized. But, of course, that is the key word. Idol. And those things have to be smashed to pieces before we can really be anything at all.

Slowly (SO VERY SLOWLY) I am coming to understand what that fellow Marine said to me all that while ago. Someone may be a math genius. Someone else may have some world-changing skill. And that is wonderful and God-given, for certain. But if you’re a good teacher (one of the key facets of motherhood) and are bringing up godly, compassionate, hard-working, loving, strong, wise children, then what you have to offer is, by the grace of God, being amplified and scattered like seed on good ground.

I am indicted by two of my all-time favorite authors, both speaking of motherhood:

"The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only--and that is to support the ultimate career."
-C.S. Lewis

"Why be something to everyone when you can be everything to someone?"
-G.K. Chesterton

I see these quotes and nod with my head, and agree with my intellect, knowing how desperately grateful I am for my parents or for anyone who does the hard, quiet thing. But my pride bucks and kicks. My heart shrinks at the perceived “smallness” of the task, even though it isn’t small. It is hard to confess, but it isn’t what I wanted or imagined. It doesn’t look like all the guts and glory I planned for myself. I spoke about this in a recent post on dying to yourself, and I don’t know how many times or from how many angles I’ll have to preach it to myself before I really learn—really understand—what dying to yourself actually means.

There are so many ways God teaches this to us, but I must say that motherhood is an astoundingly rigorous and unique school for it. Thus I am a student of Christ, and a teacher of his children and--rather than imbibing the culture’s slow, subtle devaluing of it all--I need to open my eyes see that for the beautiful thing that it is.


  1. I just came across your blog while reading C.S. Lewis's 'Pilgrims Regress" and have been struggling with being just a mom and a substitute teacher. I too had some visions of glory for this life. I timed my graduation from college with the senior graduation of the last of my four children. I thought that I would be a welcomed teacher in the school district they attened and that I spent countless hours volulnteering in for over twenty years. Not so fast. They did not want anyone over fifty and my years of volunteering did nothing to enhance actually getting hired. I really did pray about being a teacher and thought that is what God wanted me to do. Needless to say I am "only" a mom afterall and now a grandma. It is wierd how even in Christian circles I am passed over without a job or career to validate my worth. I have so much more to learn about knowing God and His plans. I am very grateful that my children and their spouses walk with Him in varring degrees. From far in the past I do remember thinking 30 years ago: If I gained the affection and admiration of the whole world but dropped the ball raising my own children I would be the most miserable person on the planet. Self sacrifice and dying to self are not the popular philosophy of 2016 for sure. If I have loved others more than myself and have provided one or more of the steps of the ladder for them to climb then I have reached my goal. Now... as for the rest of the story; with joy I will wait on the Lord and try to obey what He has commanded. Thank you for your posts. They are an encouragement to me.

    1. Thank you so much! Now that I am a mom, I have such a deepened appreciation of my own mom, and all others out there. It is such hard, profound work! I am so thankful that this was an encouragement, and I hope and pray that many exciting opportunities await you, even if you can't see them yet. My mom also went to college around the time that my youngest brother graduated high school, and she too is determined to go out and work and serve and have adventures.