I rattled off some details about my life, slightly nervous to bear my soul to a complete stranger. So goes it when you begin a relationship with a new therapist—one part medicine, one part confessional.
Without too much warning, she asks me point blank,
“It sounds like you’re wrestling with meaning and purpose. Do you know what your purpose is?”
Her question hits me like gunfire.
Searching for Purpose
Over the last year, I’ve been searching, exploring, and seeking. Maybe this was the million-dollar question.My stomach feels queasy. Purpose. It seems like a word we shouldn’t speak out loud, a concept reserved for those who have clear direction and decision-making skills.
My mind wanders in the moment to the first question and answer in the Shorter Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
That sounds good. Now, if I could only grasp what it means to glorify God.
Phases of Purpose in a Woman’s Life
I’m aware that there are phases, or seasons, in a woman’s life. Seasons aren’t necessarily dependent on our age, but rather what place I’m at in my adulting journey. Clearly, motherhood calls.
My screaming newborn ushers in my purpose. I never looked back. A nursing addict, I feed on demand, surviving cracked nipples, plugged ducts, and low baby weight despite all my diligence.
Next, a daughter graces me, survival despite months of colic; finally, an easy baby boy arrives, then a last-but-not-least sweet baby girl blessing, number four. I am full—and tired.
“Mommy, can I snuggle in your bed? Me too says the younger one.”
I’m momentarily aggravated, but then, realize I don’t want to live in a world without snuggles.
“I need help with my math homework.”
“Can you get the tangles out of my hair?”
I know to carve out time for myself, but it feels impossible. Exhaustion prevails. I wrap myself into and around my family. The purpose of rearing a family is all-consuming. Tiring, but satisfying. I fall asleep wasted every night before the inevitable late-night wake-ups.
Maintenance of the Family Life
We approach our calendar like a war plan, strategizing how to manage the onslaught of nightly and weekend events. My husband and I split up, each taking a child to a sporting event (along with the siblings too young to participate). I pack snacks and load the minivan; soccer wagon, camping chairs, umbrellas—the usual arsenal. We watch, we cheer.
Babies bloom into toddlers, who morph into grade schoolers; they shift into tweens, then teens, and grow taller than me. Their needs change and shift like the wind. Their demands override my own; I let them.
Motherhood Years of Purpose Fly By
Years tick by; we measure in basketball games, dance recitals, and back-to-school photos posted to Facebook.
And yet this strange thing continues to happen—kids grow up. We joke with them about promising not to grow up—to stay small and youthful like Peter Pan.
Wiser, older parents cautioned this would happen; I didn’t want to believe them.
“Mom, it’s a hangout, not a playdate. I don’t need you to help me schedule my social events. I can do it myself.”
Behind their back, I roll my eyes.
Sure, you can figure out a meet-up with your bestie, but can you earn money to pay for your costly activities?
I still claim the upper hand.
Motherhood is perhaps the only career where the entire goal is to work your way out of a job.
They can do their laundry now. Two can drive themselves. No one needs help with homework anymore. I’m rarely called in for fashion advice. Once essential, now I provide the food and the locale for people to gather; their needs change, and I must change too.
What am I here for again?
After operating as Julie-the-Love-Boat-cruise-director for what feels like my entire life, my job security hangs in the balance. I shift to finding new, creative recipes for dinner and bake my guts out.
“Mom, this bread is amazing. Whatever you do, don’t stop making good food.”
It’s the last vestige of need, their bellies.
Working Myself Out of a Job
If I do it correctly, they need me less.
This is the goal. This is the goal.
I say it over and over. But slowly my purpose fades.
Motherhood is like being a chameleon, shifting and changing colors to adapt to the environment.
In the back of my mind, I hear my therapist asking me again, what is your purpose?
Secretly I despise her for going straight for the jugular in our first meeting.
Why does this question vex me?
I describe to her how my career and professional callings are like water poured into a full jar. Pebbles fill the jar to the lip—these are my kids, my husband, and my commitments to hearth and home. The water poured over the top is my career—which has included being a public relations consultant, running an online magazine, authoring several books, and freelance writing.
In the past, everything I pursue outside my family must operate within the gaps and spaces available in and around these pebbles.
Am I getting closer to my purpose?
I’m not sure. Women’s work often seems like putting everyone else’s purposes before our own.
Liminal Space and Mother-Purpose
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'” (Genesis 2:18)
I can see that I’m a helper, working as a team with my husband to raise our family. We do it quite well together. Our children thrive. I’m still a wife, partnered with a great husband by my side.
And yet as I come up on the 20th year of being a mom, I see change before me, I begin to pivot. I don’t use the words “midlife crisis,” yet it feels like one. Some days, I question who I am without being needed by a child.
It is a liminal space—an in-between zone of fulfilling my mother-purpose for twenty years. I see the tunnel before me, only four years before they’re all done with high school; out, making their way. It looms large before me like a curse.
Shifting Sand, Shifting Purpose
Why do I dread the goal of my babies launched as young adults? Why do I suddenly break into tears at the thought of no children living under my roof?
I see that my purpose needs to shift.
I wonder if women who dedicated more to their careers struggle less with knowing their purpose outside their role as wife and mother, as I am.
But then life moves on, needs arise.
My college son texts, he needs help with applying for a job; My senior daughter needs help with college research and ordering her homecoming dress online; My high school son doesn’t feel good and needs me to pick him up at school; My middle school daughter doesn’t want to walk home from school, I cave and pick her up, getting her a milkshake on our way home (and secretly enjoying the small talk).
It’s not over, I’m not done.
Saying this feels like balm to the soul even when I know the end is near.
The Motherhood Journey Never Really Ends
Moms further down the road tell me that this motherhood journey never really ends. Kids always need their moms; the needs just take different forms and shapes.
I try this on for size and say yes to a friend’s birthday party on a Tuesday night. At the party, my phone rings. It’s the oldest from college. I text to say I’m enjoying a party and will call him later. He responds with enthusiasm, “Enjoy your mom party!!!” I can tell he is happy for me.
We have adjusted in a good way, mother and son, and are friends, too. I coach him when needed but aim not to pry too much or grill him over what vegetables he’s consumed. It feels good.
The very next day, I am overwhelmed with missing his daily presence in my house—it feels like my heart is being ripped out in the moment.
God, I’m desperate to know, what is on the horizon for me? Will you give me a new sense of purpose?
I’ve been praying this for some time now, having sold my online magazine last year. It seems that God trusts me a lot to figure things out because there have been no lightning bolts yet. Only a circuitous path leading back to writing and music.
Maybe I need to write and sing my way out of this funk.
I write daily and it helps. I sing and play my favorite worship songs in the car and from my living room piano.
I learn with each day to take it as it comes, something I’ve never been particularly good at.
“It’s a season,” or so they say.
No one ever mentioned that there are in-between-seasons; liminal times where kids still live under my roof but don’t need me that much; times when I’m fulfilled by some things and not by others; times when I think I have the day to myself to ponder my purpose, then get called in urgently for some unforeseen parenting duty.
I’m listening, I’m waiting.
Perhaps there is glory in not knowing; maybe there is sacred journey in the unknowing and unplanning, just being. Glory possible, even, in the expectant waiting.
I think of Mary waiting to bear the Son of God, unmarried and filled with uncertainty—on the cusp of her own motherhood journey.
Ever the one to busy myself, I make space for morning prayers and meditation. I carve time to sit and write. I ponder and listen for whatever purpose God is inching me towards. Often there is silence.
For this moment, however, I’m grateful that these remaining soon-to-be-adults still live under my roof. They are hungry, and so I set aside my meanderings and pledge myself to the preparation of dinner.