The Inestimable Value of Unintentional Mothering

When I was in high school I had a sort of on-again, off-again relationship with God. My mom would often see my navy blue Bible with my name printed on the cover in silver laying on the clothes dryer at the foot of the stairs to my room over the garage. She knew I’d dropped it there on Sunday. She knew that it was now Wednesday, and that in the interim days I hadn’t cracked it open, hadn’t read even one verse.

So she’d often ask in a concerned, passive-aggressive way, “Tina, have you read your Bible lately?” As we both glanced at that forlorn Bible on the dryer, I remember rolling my eyes in the least subtle teen expression of disdain and saying, “What do you think, mom?”

If anything, her earnest attempt at good parenting had the opposite effect from the one she intended. The pointed question, and the gentle shaming, made me want to read my Bible even less. I left it sitting on the dryer, waiting to grab it next Sunday on the way out the door to church.

But what my mom didn’t know is that from my perch in my room over the garage, I could hear her phone conversations. The kitchen was right at the bottom of the stairs to my room and my mom often sat at our kitchen table talking on the phone with women in the church who she was counseling. I’m sure eavesdropping is a sin, but in this case, it was an unlikely catalyst for spiritual growth—evidence of God working all things together for good.

When I listened in, I could hear the way that scripture wove its way naturally into my mom’s conversation, the way it informed her discussion and her advice, and the way it shaped her prayers. I could sense her abiding love for that book that I didn’t read often enough.

The thing about love is that it’s communicable. It’s hard not to feel affection for something that someone dear to you loves. Their enthusiasm naturally begins to generate curiosity, and curiosity often breeds genuine interest. And that’s exactly what happened when I heard my mom talking Bible on the phone when she didn’t even know I was listening. I found myself falling in love with the book she loved.

She had no idea she was parenting me then. She was just being herself. But I was drawn to scripture most when I saw my mother’s passion for it and her belief that it spoke to real life situations in powerful and transformative ways.

Here’s the thing: some of the best mothering happens when we’re least aware we’re mothering.


In Celebration of Unintentional Mothers

I’m well-aware I’m too inexperienced to give advice on mothering. My kids are still young, ranging from four to twelve. We haven’t hit the turbulence of the teen years or the angst of college. But everything I know about mothering, I learned from observation, not books. I didn’t learn by sitting down and listening to the women I respected teach about mothering. I learned from spying on them, from observing them in countless situations when they weren’t even conscious I was paying attention.

In my pilgrimage of faith, I’ve had a lot of spiritual mothers—women who reflected the character of Christ in a way that drew me to him. Some of those women had biological children of their own, and some didn’t. But the wonder of the church is that any woman in the family of faith can mother in meaningful ways, encouraging and inspiring growth in younger women.

There was Linda Phipps, a Sunday School teacher who demonstrated preternatural patience when my friend and I disrupted the class by chattering and giggling as if there was no one else in the room. Remarkably, Mrs. Phipps could see beyond our disrespect and inattention to the women we might one day become—both of us have gone on to do graduate studies in theology. Reflecting on her presence in the classroom, it’s astounding to me how calm she remained, never taking us to task or scolding, just patiently drawing our attention back to the lesson. She showed me grace in action.

And there was Mary Jo, a woman whose heart was ten sizes too large for her petite frame. She loved women on the fringes—refugees, immigrants, international students—and bedraggled college students (like me) who showed up unexpectedly on her porch unannounced and usually hungry. Her door was always open, and if it wasn’t, she showed me where she stashed a key so I could let myself in. Her home was a refuge and sanctuary for me and for many others. She showed me the warmth of authentic hospitality and unconditional love.

Then Candy. This woman radiated the joy of the Lord like the sun at 1 pm on a cloudless summer day. She absolutely shined. Her bright faith in God’s goodness carried her through a long battle with cancer, and now she’s no doubt shining still, in the presence of the One who is all shine. She showed me the radiance of faith that celebrates salvation, abundant life, and spiritual satisfaction.

Then Julie. She lives with open hands, unconscious of how much her generosity means and how much it’s appreciated. She reminds me that the blessings God gives are never ours to keep, but are always given so we can bless others.

Then Karen. She’s a church history professor, a scholar who loves the Lord fiercely with her whole heart and her mind. She showed me that women with the gifts of teaching and wisdom have a responsibility to steward those gifts for the benefit of the body.

And my mom…She’ll always be the first and most important spiritual mother in my life. She still savors God’s word. She still turns to it when she’s happy or hurting, confident or wondering, confused or thankful. Her love for God and for me and my sisters is steadfast. She shows me the lovingkindness of the Lord that is dependable, available 7-days a week and 24-hours a day, and always, always, always welcomes me home with open arms.

Watching these women, I’ve learned that mothering isn’t so much about what we teach; it’s about who we are.



Happy Mother’s Day, Paula Jean!


6 thoughts on “The Inestimable Value of Unintentional Mothering

  1. Paula Hemphill

    Dad read this first and he said I would need a box of tissues. He was right! I have loved being your mother, intentionally and unintentionally. You and your sisters helped me discover my total insufficiency to parent without The Holy Spirit’s help! My dependency on God’s Word flowed from a need for wisdom beyond my own. I am so thankful for the women you, Rach and Katie have become. May your children rise up to bless you as you bless me! I love you! Mom

  2. Mary Harper

    Wow, Tina, what a blessing! Thank you for sharing from your heart! Some of those ladies have been extremely influential in my life as well! I am so proud of the amazing woman you have become because you took the time to listen! Love you!

  3. Laura Wolf

    What an encouraging Mother’s Day message! Thank you for sharing the good work that the LORD continues to do in you.

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