Loneliness, Jesus, and My Mothering Spirit
I fell apart in my kitchen a few nights after another school shooting that left children and teachers dead. My kids were asleep, and I was washing the dishes when my tightly leashed emotions finally broke free. Anger, grief, and hopelessness washed over me and my soapy, shaking hands. The weight of the vocation of motherhood roiled in my gut, queasy and unsettling. Keep them safe, keep them safe, keep them safe was the panicked beat of my traumatized heart, and I raged at a world that allows such crimes to continue. Nobody cares! I screamed at my husband, at God, at the world. Nobody cares enough to keep our children safe! I was desperate. I was afraid. And underneath it all, I was so very lonely.
There’s a loneliness peculiar to motherhood, and I didn’t see it coming.
It first arrived in the blur of my “fourth trimester,” when my newborn wailed and cried for hours every evening. I’d bundle her up in a baby wrap and strap her to my body to wander the house, whispering words of love and comfort. I ached for someone to intervene (surely someone had to know how to cure the crying!), but no one and nothing comforted her. So I carried her through her tears, and loneliness kept me company.
It was a loneliness unlike any I had previously encountered. It wasn’t a loneliness fueled by the absence of people or support. This was a loneliness fueled by purpose, by vocation. My child needed a mother—a consistent, reliable person set apart to nurture and protect and comfort and unconditionally love her—and I vowed in those early days that I would wholeheartedly dedicate my life to that call. The mantle of motherhood fell upon my shoulders like a heavy yoke, a well-worn stole, and I shouldered the weight of its responsibility as readily as I embraced the babe in my arms. I would set myself apart for her forever, to infinity. Here is my body given for you, little one. Here is my heart, it’s yours. There’s a loneliness peculiar to motherhood, and it’s the shadow side of love.
I often wonder when Jesus first encountered loneliness. Did it fall upon his shoulders during his unrecorded childhood? He was always a bit different from his peers, carrying the fullness of Divinity within his boyhood frame. When his parents accidentally left him behind in Jerusalem and the boy Jesus taught in the Temple, was he lonely? After all, even his parents could not understand who he was or what he came to do.1
Surely loneliness marked the hallowed moment of his baptism. As Jesus came up out of the waters, the heavens opened, the Spirit swooped upon him like a dove, and a voice from heaven revealed his unique identity to all: God the Father’s beloved Son.2 Woven into that Divine identity was a vocation, a calling to save the whole world. No one else could do the job; no one else even understood the job. The mantle on his shoulders was tailored just for him, and none could share the weight. It was a lonely mission, but he shouldered it without complaint and with a willing, determined heart. There was a loneliness peculiar to Jesus, and once you notice it in the Gospels, you’ll find it everywhere.
The loneliness is there when Jesus battled temptation by himself in the wilderness3 and when he was rejected in his hometown after preaching his first sermon.4 It’s there when he fed the five thousand, then walked alone on the midnight water toward his disciples in the boat, disciples who responded with fear, wary of his mysterious power.5 The loneliness is there when Jesus harshly reprimanded Peter for denying that he must suffer and die.6 It’s there when Jesus prayed earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane,7 when he squared his shoulders and faced his trial alone, hearing the death penalty pronounced.8 It’s a thread throughout his life, this vocational loneliness unique to being the Son of God, the One on whom the hope of the world depends. The One who gave and gave and gave himself, without being fully understood, fully appreciated, fully loved by his people. I can hear the raw ache of loneliness in those mystical words—Here is my body, given for you. Here is my blood, poured out for you.9 Here is my heart, it’s yours. There was a loneliness peculiar to Jesus, and he endured it for the sake of us all.
Back in my kitchen, weeping and wailing, it was the ache of loneliness that had me crying aloud, Nobody cares enough to keep my children safe! If nobody else will, then it must be me, it must be me, but I don’t know how! There’s a loneliness peculiar to motherhood, and it haunts me with this desperate, desolate refrain: It must be me, but I don’t know how.
I have wrestled with this refrain throughout my near-decade of parenting. In the infant days when nothing seemed to ease the excruciating pain of nursing, “I don’t know how to do this” warred in my soul with, “You are doing this.” In the toddler years when my kids only wanted mommy, and I begged for just a moment’s peace alone in the bathroom, my lonely voice within cried, “Nobody else can care for them but me,” while another voice gently insisted, “Lean on your people, your kids need them, too.” My vocational loneliness was a constant companion, but so was that inner voice pointing toward connection, toward others who could help shoulder the weight of motherhood.
I wonder if Jesus could sense his disciples’ grief-stricken loneliness when he appeared to them after the resurrection. Surely so, for into their empty, aching hearts, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit, commissioning them to carry on his mission in whatever ways they could, through whatever vocations they would embrace.10 It seems Jesus could not, would not, allow them to shoulder their mantles alone. Jesus made them—and us—a peculiar promise: “I will be with you always.”11 Always. There will always be a Presence, a Voice—Jesus’ very Spirit—within us. This Spirit will always draw our lonely hearts toward others, uniting and strengthening us through our shared vocation, shared passion, and shared hope.
All cried out and broken-hearted, I was sitting on my kitchen counter when I felt that Presence, palpably near. A familiar, hallowed Voice urged me to turn toward my friends. Soon I was on the phone, commiserating with other moms, drawing on their strength, relying on their wisdom. Later, I sat in exhausted silence, grateful that the heavy mantle of mothering was not only mine to shoulder. The Holy Spirit connected me with other mothers in our loneliness, and I felt a bit lighter, a bit freer, and a bit more hopeful.
It turns out, there is a loneliness peculiar to motherhood, but it’s not unique to me. The mantle of motherhood is a lonely garment, and each of us dons its weight with fortitude and grace. Yet I’m learning through Jesus, who knows vocational loneliness better than anyone, that the best way to wear this lonely mantle is to do so together, drawing on the power of Jesus’ Spirit within us. And with the Spirit uniting us mothers in our shared vocation, we can hear Jesus whisper to our collective heart: Here is my Spirit, living in you. Here is my Body, sharing your yoke. Here is my heart, it’s yours.
- Luke 2:41-50
- Mark 1:10-11
- Luke 4:1-2
- Luke 4:28-29
- Mark 6:51-52
- Matthew 16:22-23
- Matthew 26:38-39
- Luke 22:66-23:35
- Luke 22:19-20
- John 20:21-22
- Matthew 28:20
Laura Johnson is a pastor, mother, wife, friend, and writer, though not always in that order. An ordained United Methodist pastor serving the Raleigh, NC area, she loves inspiring people to connect with God in their everyday lives through her preaching, teaching, and writing. She cherishes time with her pastor husband and their two daughters, who regularly give her glimpses of the Kingdom of God. You can find her writing online at www.revlaurajohnson.com or on social media @revlaurajohnson.