On Blessed Messes and the New Law of Mothering Ineptitude

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend in popular women’s theology (ie “mom […]

Sarah Condon / 3.19.14

shabby-chic-cookiesOver the past few years I’ve noticed a trend in popular women’s theology (ie “mom blogs” and playground conversations) that goes something like this: My life is such a mess. Isn’t it great that I own that?

The trend isn’t just out there. I was taken aback recently when I found myself chastising a lawyer friend of mine for posting photos of the homemade valentines she crafted for her 4 year old son’s class. I wrote something along the lines of, “Can’t you keep the standards low for working mothers? Come on!” I can be easily overwhelmed by the charge of being a young working mother. In fact, I can be easily beleaguered by the job of being a mother on a Saturday morning. And I needed some reassurance that my friend didn’t have it all together either. Instead of giving her a “Way to Go, Lawyer Mom!” high five, I needed her to fail with me, in whatever way I had chosen to define motherhood failure.

Certainly, there is an epidemic of “enoughness” that plagues us regardless of gender. I can’t speak to where and how men encounter it. For women the conversation around motherhood competency barrages our newsfeeds and soccer fields alike. And it’s judgmental and tough. Questions about enough vegetables, academic rigor, and quality time often lead us from one anxious moment to the next. It can all feel like too much. And so we need to know that there is some valor in being the messy mom. Otherwise, we might have to face our mess head-on, and who wants to do that? And I think that’s the real concern here.

What is it about being the “messy mom” that has become so appealing? On a surface level, it’s just easier. We can throw our hands up in the air proclaiming in artsy purple marker “God bless this mess!” as we endure another graceless Bible Study on Proverbs 31:10-31. A theology of a “blessed mess” allows us to hide the very real jealousy, anger, and unresolved hurt that often lies behind the front of a failed Pintrest project. In a world where we are called in two profoundly different directions with the same horrible questions about “having it all” that our mothers unsuccessful answered, it is just easier to wave a banner of ineptitude and watch another episode of Housewives.


What about husbands? Yes, most of us have husbands and yes, they do help with the domestic duties. For me, though, as previous posts suggest, husband-related pushback is largely a red herring. This is not primarily a discussion about marriage. This is a conversation about us. About women. About motherhood. About how we think God views us and thus how we view ourselves. Do we think God loves us as sinners because he loves our sin? Do we really believe he is as excited about our ‘mess’ as we sometimes appear to be? I know that seems like a preposterous question. But it is worth asking. There is an identity to be found in our sin one upmanship, a justification in our blessed mess: “Oh, you forgot Susie’s lunch money? Well, little Thomas hasn’t had a bath in a week.” Isn’t being messy fun?

Well, if by messy you mean sinful and if by fun you mean fun, then no. Its not. Sometimes I feel like the world of motherhood blogs encourages me to stay in my sin, to hold it up and even flaunt it. Somehow in the narratives about our alleged failures and attempts at perfection we are encouraged to be (dare I say?) proud of our shortcomings. And while it can feel like we’re being “really honest about who we are,” I keep asking myself if that is actually true. I actually do not like when my house is a total wreck. I don’t find any freedom in “owning” that. And not because I feel bad about it. I just like knowing where my socks are.

oct-15-danny-torrance-the-shining__bigThe Good News in all of this, of course, is that God does love us anyway. And that happens first. That happens before we handle our sin. So I’m not worried about God’s love here. What I am worried about, and weary of, is all the language about how great it is that we fail regularly at Pintrest projects or crock pot recipes – trivialities which may indicate petty inabilities, but not our more serious sin.

When I loosely regard my sin, or worse yet, when I name things that are not at all sinful as such, I lose sight of my redemption. In a world where motherly strife and failure seems to revolve around mindless guilt, I wonder if we are hiding something much deeper and covering it up with our own shiny “mess.” Are we dealing with our own addictions or anxious tendencies? Do we address our fellow mothers with honesty and compassion? Or would that make us face ourselves in a way that might undo the “blessed mess” façade? In other words, is our own sin too real for us?

Hear me clearly here, I am not advocating for the other extreme. I’m not convinced that the answer lies in some fresh or further spiritualizing of womanhood. In fact, I’m not sure that God cares about my domestic prowess, one way or the other. Does a sense of my redemption make me vacuum more often? No. But it grounds me in an identity that does not depend on me. My identity in Christ cannot be measured in my tasks or failure to do them, but only in the freedom making realization that my failure has been recognized and converted into new life.

I had a great therapist several years back that talked about how the details of our story matter less than how we tell our story. Meaning that how you interpret your life matters more than the day to day tasks of it. I wonder what kind of damage we inflict on ourselves when our story (consciously or not) ends with sin and mess. What happens when we end on our redemption?


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13 responses to “On Blessed Messes and the New Law of Mothering Ineptitude”

  1. Rob says:

    Great and thought-provoking post. Is there a difference between “owning” (reveling in? glorifying?) one’s messiness and simply acknowledging that having one’s work and home life in seemingly perfect balance isn’t a path to salvation/enlightenment?

    I think the “blessed mess” thing is kind of a facade, a sort of strange look-at-how-awesome-the-messiness-of-my-domestic-life-makes-me, while subtly hiding my shame. Just as having an immaculate home-life might be masking a hidden ugliness. As you kind of suggest, there’s an insidiousness to many of these “mom blogs” as you call them. I’m struck by how your post reminds me of the dangers of comparing oneself to others. I think motherhood in the western world is an unfortunate lightening rod for that. (As an aside, mockingbird seems to be rather keen on Brene Brown’s work, and she has a lot of good things to say about the dangers of comparison).

    My wife and I don’t exactly like the way our house looks most of the time. But with two kids and both of us working full time, our house isn’t exactly pristine. Notably, we often plan dinner parties so that we have to clean and tidy. We have on occasion let the state of our house get the better of us, which has resulted in either one or more of us despairing about ourselves as spouses and/or parents. Or we take it out on each other and even our kids. Often when we begin to lament the state of the kitchen or the toys strewn about the living room, we quip, “Well, people do live here.” I think we also try to practice mindfulness: we try to empathically understand that each of us work long and sometimes strange hours and that each of us do a lot of good things for our family (and that maybe when we come home we don’t want to spend the several hours between dinner and bedtime cleaning the house). We also try to be mindful that our struggle with “the messiness” is far from unique.

    I think your post points out to me something troubling about how we not only compare ourselves to others, but how we use others to justify ourselves (again, I think the western views on motherhood is a huge and unfortunate lightening rod). One minute it’s how someone who “has it all together” makes my life look like a wreck (or the other way around). The next minute it’s “look at how much that person’s ‘owning’ of the messiness” makes me look like a terrible, uptight perfectionist.

    I guess I just don’t want the dust that has been accumulating on our bedroom ceiling fan to convict me. At least not of anything beyond simply needing to do some dusting. And maybe a freshly washed and folded batch of laundry doesn’t need to be proof that I am likely the best husband and father ever. Because maybe the dusting and the laundry aren’t all about me?

    Your post has me thinking about how our chronic concern over simple appearances–and how certain we are about our perceptions–can feed our ego and put us into a spiritually troubling place, when instead we should work to accept (which is rather different than “own” to me) our humanity and acknowledge with joy and gratitude the grace in our lives.

  2. Julie Davis says:

    Sarah- Thanks for writing this piece. You’re an astute observer. I think the “messy” motherhood movement is a healthy reaction to the pressure women feel to always have it together. Of course, since we’re human, we take things to extremes and tend toward one end of the spectrum or the other. It’s my experience, being a mother of 4, that women put enormous pressure on themselves to make the right choices on the education of their children, keep a clean house, and keep a thin body. It can be a joyless existence.

    Of course, a lot of this joylessness is a result of seeking our identity in those things to define our worth, and not in Christ. That’s idolatry. But, “embracing the mess” of a disorderly home or forgetting to send Johnny with his lunch is not necessarily sin, though it could be. And yes, we can certainly make “mess” a new standard, but theres’s a difference between embracing the mess and embracing sin. I get angry at my children and that is NOT something I embrace. In fact, it’s a profound sadness for me. But sometimes I have to laugh at the fact that their sheets haven’t been changed in two months or I’d go crazy.

    I think the foundational issue behind all of it–mess or having it all together– is what standard we’re creating to define ourselves. And this is the true battle. I’m in a daily battle with myself to define myself by Jesus and His grace. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to be on one extreme or the other.

  3. Sarah Condon says:

    Wow Rob. Thanks for such an honest reflection. Your comment could/should be an Mbird article! I love your thought about accepting being different from owning. That’s a really strong point. And perhaps the issue of comparison is at the heart of what worries me so. I’m grateful for your insight.

  4. Sarah Condon says:

    Julie, thanks for naming it: “Of course, a lot of this joylessness is a result of seeking our identity in those things to define our worth, and not in Christ.” I certainly struggle with this too.

  5. Rob says:

    Sarah – you flatter me! My thoughts about accepting versus owning really came from you: “Does a sense of my redemption make me vacuum more often? No. But it grounds me in an identity that does not depend on me. My identity in Christ cannot be measured in my tasks or failure to do them, but only in the freedom making realization that my failure has been recognized and converted into new life.”

    My identity in or value to Christ (if we can call it that) cannot be measured or even exhibited really in what I do to have a tidy life or in “owning” the messiness of life. I can–we can–even in small way accept that so many aspects of our life do not depend on us we can find freedom to embrace that Christ is redeeming all sorts of messiness and find some transformation.

  6. lauren re larkin says:

    Sarah this is a good post: you have such a beautiful way of communicating and articulating such deep thoughts. Your pastoral heart is at the forefront.

    I also think Julie is really on to something here: we’ve swung to the other side of the spectrum.

    I’d like to add a couple of thoughts:

    1. there’s the pendulum effect that often characterizes someone’s life who has really embraced this new message of freedom from the condemning voice of the law.Often when freedom has been embraced, the pendulum swings ALL THE WAY over from where it was (with great momentum) and this can easily look like celebration, and maybe it is. Sometimes when the captives go free, they really GO FREE. But it won’t and can’t really last forever_the energy it takes to swing with that momentum is unsustainable). And this is the beautiful thing about freedom: it is itself self-regulating. Freedom actually creates what the Law desires: order, temperance, and moderation. (My dear friend Kelly Brewer has a brilliant post on MBird about the chocolate cupboard…it’s great and worth the read and backs up my point here.) Freedom does in fact mean that you are free to be a mess (and to have a messy house, or burn the casserole or fail a pinterest project yet again) and it means you are perfectly free to even celebrate that mess and failure. As we really embrace that level of freedom, and it really is drilled into our thick skulls that we now have dominion over our works, we are then even set free to work and to enjoy it because work no longer has domination over us (the effects of the event of justification in our lives on a horizontal level). But it’s all based on walking into the deep end of freedom–you are really free (period).

    and 2. On the coattails of the discussion about freedom is one about condemnation and conviction. The gentle nudge of the Spirit in terms of conviction–conviction which leads to repentance and remorse while condemnation leads to despair–can never be heard under the loud thundering stomping around of condemnation. Embracing our freedom–really embracing it, really getting it because we are oh so slow to get it and quick to doubt it–silences the noise of condemnation allowing for the whisper of conviction wrought by God Himself by the Spirit to enter our fleshy heart to really hear deep down and to respond (shema). When the pendulum is swinging so wildly, it’s nearly impossible to hear conviction because it will sound like and feel like condemnation, and so the pendulum has to slow before conviction can be heard. Trying to explain that there should be conviction when condemnation is still running rampant is like trying to stop a wrecking ball by throwing yourself upon it: pointless and might cause more damage because of the added weight.

    But anyway, fear not the pendulum.

  7. Tanya says:

    Guess I haven’t noticed that this is a problem.

    I read Glennon Melton over at Momastery and give thanks to God for her! Almost every day she mentions a mommy task she has failed. She talks about coming to resent her kids, sometimes growing bored and impatient with them. And in her often hilarious truthtelling, I see myself. I see lousy attitudes I otherwise try to cover. I also see how grace multiplies. That when we are kinder and more understanding with our own failure, we are kinder to one another. I’m moved every time the women over there organize some sort of effort to help a struggling school or a struggling mom who needs them. Somehow, these things seem related.

    I suppose if all you read about was parents having martinis on the playground and telling their kids to get lost, letting themselves off the hook where compassion is concerned — it wouldn’t be funny, or endearing, or satisfying in the least. But . . . I hope that stuff is rare.

    BTW, your comment to the lawyer mom about the valentines — I thought it was hilarious. Moreover, I’ve never been tempted to compare fits of domestic excellence with virtue. She might be a good mom, she might be a horrible one. No way to tell from valentines.

  8. We’re all so weak and flawed: We either boast about our failure to perform or we boast about our successes. Let’s be done with this global bragging and boast in Christ instead, shall we? His life, death, resurrection and ascension is the only thing worth bragging about and the only place of life. And, honestly, the only topic that will interest us for more than 45 seconds and will eventuate in either pride or despair.

  9. Elyse Fitzpatrick says:

    Sorry, my last sentence should read: “And, honestly, it’s the only topic that will interest us for more than 45 seconds and not end in either pride or despair.” Old. Tired.

  10. Heather Fischer says:

    I really appreciate this article because I have been mulling over some of the very same things personally. I can acknowledge my sin, short comings, failures and recognize that my fulfillment and worthy comes from Christ’s work. That truth is so dear to me. I acknowledge on a practical level that things still need to happen. My husband and I still have to work, homework has to get done, and I still desire to serve in my assembly and community. I am still a child of God who is commissioned to do his will in both the body of Christ and elsewhere. I recognize my roles as a mom, wife, and spouse to a pastor. I can’t do it all and I will always fall short but if I am honest my own failures sometimes stem from my sin of selfishness, pride, and anger. I don’t think that throwing my hands up and say to myself or others, “Sorry, I suck. Good luck to you!” encapsulates yielding and walking in the Spirit. Being real is important. I love real but I think real is balanced. So I think that I agree with you that judging my crafty sisters in Christ and boasting in my “blessed mess” isn’t helpful and may be an excuse for my own sin and rebellion of what God has asked me to do.

  11. Kristin says:

    Great post.

    Whatever God has called us as mothers to do, let us do it as to the Lord and with full knowledge that we are accepted by God. Our identity is in Christ alone and with that always at the forefront of our minds it is almost impossible to compare ourselves to others.

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