the other lie

I’m a little behind in my reading, I confess. Only today (for boring reasons) did I get around to reading The Feminine Mystique. Since I am so behind, I have the advantage of reading the text through the criticisms of others (notably bell hooks) and the luxury of a pdf version online. Because the book celebrated 50 years since publication, I also have the help of retrospectives: Ashley Fetters’ article in The Atlantic gives a concise and helpful overview of the major criticisms (and has its own argument to make with respect to the book and its reception).

If you want to read about those major criticisms–that the book is racist and classist, founded on lies, and homophobic–please click the link above and read Fetters’ article. Here, I want to point to one more lie that permeates The Feminine Mystique: the ‘pointlessness’ of the work mothers do. The problem with no name seems to me to be only partly about women’s newfound ambitions being frustrated by the daily suburban routine. The women who don’t make an appearance in the book are those who found meaning in family life, and those who never had the opportunity not to work (see ‘classist’ above).

Please don’t stop reading now, because you assume that I am about to argue that motherhood is intrinsically fulfilling and women should all be trained not to develop other ambitions. Not at all. I am, after all, a Catholic theologian who teaches at a university in the UK. The work I do gives me a sense of ‘more’ beyond the boundaries of family life, and I enjoy it. I confess to a certain weariness sometimes, though, and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better not to have ambitions. I sometimes think I would be a better mother if I were always there for and with the children and not off teaching, researching, or writing. I’ve no way of knowing. I do envy women that seem satisfied with family life, who somehow make motherhood a profession, a vocation, a career. But this is a bit of a digression.

The pernicious lie of The Feminine Mystique is that the work housewives did was ‘pointless’ (in the words of one of Friedan’s informants). It is a lie because the work is not pointless. It’s repetitive, and it can be boring and isolating. But the mundane tasks that involve care for others–preparing food, cleaning, looking after children–are necessary. Care is not pointless. And that’s the pernicious part of the lie. The tasks associated with the care of children are demeaned by the complaint that they’re pointless. The implication is that these things are unimportant; by doing these tasks every day we achieve nothing. In this line of work, there is no opportunity for advancement–no raises, no promotions, no corner office. And those are the things that mark us as important.

As long as we believe that, however subconsciously, we will serve our children badly. Not because we don’t care about them, but because we have begun to treat childhood as something of a disability. Children are not able to look after themselves, they need educating and training so that they can become productive. All this is true. But in adopting this attitude to childhood–it’s something to be got over–we ignore children in themselves. Children are not merely defective adults. (This is one of the key insights of the work of Maria Montessori.) Even if they were, and raising children was simply the process of shoring up the deficiency, it wouldn’t be pointless. Treating children as doing the essential work of becoming the people they are meant to be takes a different kind of attention to them, an attention that does not just measure them against the standards set for grown-ups but helps them to see who they are becoming. That work is not pointless.

So Betty Friedan was wrong about that. As grateful as I am for the opportunity to study and to work, which is a fruit of the feminist movement, I do sometimes worry about the cost. When caring gets sidelined, children suffer. And not only children, but all those who need care–the elderly, those with disabilities, and us temporarily able-bodied folks, when we fall seriously ill. Caring is a distraction from the really important stuff; let someone else change the sheets and prepare the food, so we can get on with the stuff that matters. I think we’re missing something here.

But I can’t say more about what it is: I have to take my 5-year-old daughter to the library now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another morning gone

6:05am.  Wake up. Realize that the reason it feels like it’s still the middle of the night it that the 4-year-old woke us at 1:00 because she was wearing the wrong pajama bottoms. The rest of the night was not, well, restful. Hit snooze.

6:14am. Wake up, round 2. Think. No, not yet possible. Hit snooze.

6:23am. Wake up. I must get up. At this point, I still believe I can make up for lost time. Brain will maybe catch up with the body eventually, but at least the physical activity of the day must now begin.

6:25am. Stretches. Almost-yoga. I am not virtuous. I am totally dependent on doing back stretches in the morning to be able to move about normally during the day. If I don’t do them, eventually I will move in a way that would be fine for most people my age, but will result in me finding myself on the floor. So I stretch.

6:45am. Husband arrives with coffee as I am finishing stretches.

I love this man.

6:50am. 4-year-old wakes up, requires cuddle. She’s the fourth (of four!) and I know how quickly the cuddle-able stage will pass. Without really considering my lateness, I oblige.

7:15am. Now lateness is absolutely irreversible, but I am still not awake enough to take this seriously. 4-year-old announces she wants pasta for breakfast. ‘Sure,’ I say: there’s some leftover pasta from last night, and this is not a battle I ever, ever fight. I resist, if it means cooking pasta, but I surrender easily. She does not negotiate with 40-somethings.

7:25am. While said 4-year-old is eating breakfast, I begin to tease the kitchen into a state I will later find conducive to work. This involves a broom, a bit of spot-scrubbing, and getting the boys (ages 9 and 12) to help with dishes: unload dishwasher, help stray glasses and bowls to find their way into empty dishwasher. Oddly the 9-year-old is less resistant than the 12-year-old. Or maybe it’s not so odd.

Somewhere in the middle of that, make second cup of coffee. Some of it will end up spilled on the hall table in the midst of the Battle of Finding-Things-and-Departing. Never mind: 60% of it will make it to its target, and I will slowly become a functioning adult human being. (Ok, I admit this is optimistic. But I am still not admitting that we’ll be late, so optimism is pretty much my morning modus operandi, until about 8:45–the time we ABSOLUTELY MUST LEAVE if we are to be on time.)

Time passes. This is always the mystery of the morning: where does the time between 7:30 and 8:40 go? I pack up laundry to be taken somewhere else to be washed: this is an admission of defeat. I manage to get the kitchen floor looking less awful. The boys clear away a good bit of stuff in the kitchen. Someone rouses the 14-year-old, who miraculously gets up and starts getting ready for school. I pack up the girls’ backpacks. How does this all take more than an hour?

7:45-8:30. Get 4-year-old ready for school. Insist that she put school clothes on even though she insists that she’ not feeling well and can’t possibly go to school. Remind her that the alternative to teeth brushing is not to have any. Remind her that socks instead of tights are a bad idea in January. (She tried this last week: I let her have the choice, and she admitted before she even got to school that it wasn’t a good one. Mummy was right.) Agree that she can have a sticker if she does anything at all, really.

8:25. Husband takes boys and laundry. 12-year-old spends last 5 minutes at home frantically searching for his keys and phone. (Poor kid is definitely ours.) Leaves with keys, without phone, dissatisfied with his organizational skills. Blow him a kiss from the window: he needs it.

8:45. Realize that girls are going to be late. Think: these children need a new mother. One who is on time for things. Clearly the 12-year-old has inherited his organizational skills from me.

9:00. Take 4-year-old to school. ‘Will we get there before the bell, Mummy?’ she asks. ‘No, darling. The bell rang 5 minutes ago.’ She decides not to play the game where she remains just out of reach as I try to come up with some kind of choice for her to make that will allow her to get in her seat without losing. And I try not to lose my temper. But today, nothing is lost.

9:05am. Arrive at school, grateful that we live so close. Realize I am not alone in being late to school. The kids don’t need a new mum; I just need to get over it.

9:15am. Time to get 14-year-old to school. Insist she brushes teeth. Try to do too much while she is doing that. Get to school late and realize that she’s not brushed her hair. Sigh.

9:30am. Arrive back home. Find 2 loads of laundry left behind. Sigh. I face the usual choice: how much of the domestic chaos do I attempt to order before turning to the writing project before me (the one I should have finished last week)? Make the usual decision and try to order too much of the chaos, and find the day slipping away, writing project staring at me from across the kitchen table.

11:00am. Despair.

11:10am. Write the 800+ words I should be adding to some writing project or other here on my blog. Hope I will live long enough to do some writing after the children are grown.

Noon. Might as well go to Mass. Although I fear I will just hang my head and weep, I know from experience that I probably won’t. And I need to repent of my despair and self-loathing, and remember that it’s not about what I accomplish in a day. Sometimes I forget what it is all about. Somewhere between the sign of the cross and the ‘go in peace’, I usually remember.

I just hope I don’t forget it again by tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

not the usual Sunday night Compline

Usually, we say compline together each evening. And most evenings we follow basic form set out for the office, the way the nuns sing it at Minster Abbey. We have our own prayer that stands in for the hymn, one the children learned at school and like to say.

I thought as our 9-year old is about to make his first confession, that we might talk a little bit more about the examination of conscience that normally occurs just at the beginning of Compline. So last night I did.  We followed our brief conversation with the confiteor, which we don’t often say. Afterward, my 9-year-old observed that the language includes asking ‘brothers and sisters’ to pray for us. This sparked a further conversation about the relationship between members of the body of Christ: although in the context of our family, I am the mother and they the children, in the family of God, we are all brothers and sisters.

Suddenly they were all attentive. Not only that, I said (taking advantage of this miraculously teachable moment): you have a very special place within the body of Christ, as children. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing with each other about who was the greatest, he put a child in the midst of them, and told them that unless they became like little children, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amazement. We talked a little bit about what it was about children that was so important to Jesus. Not their crazy antics (mine are especially prone), but some key qualities. The one we spoke about was a capacity for awe and wonder. My 9-year-old interjected something about a really huge snake. Exactly! Awe and wonder. Of course there are other things, but the teachable moment is just that, at least with my children: a moment.

After that we veered off course slightly, according to the rubrics. We each said a ‘God bless’ or a ‘thank you, God’ and said a Hail Mary, at the 4-year-old’s request. Then we had the nunc dimittis and final prayer. As I prepared to play the Alma redemptoris mater (we like the Marian antiphon for the season), I realized there was a problem. Just as I was about to be frustrated, one suggested (again the 9-year-old) that we simply stand around the prayer table and look at the candles. So we did. It was the most beautiful silence I have ever experienced. It was not only quiet, but peace.

Deo gratias.

fifteen minutes

If I have any time at all–to do reading and writing related to my academic work, that is–it seems to come in increments of 5 to 15 minutes. Usually it takes that long to decide which of the various projects I have going commands my attention just then. A couple of days ago, I spent a while thinking about despair (in the abstract, not while suffering from it, thankfully) after reading a comment by Evagrius on Psalm 41[42]: 6 and looking at Psalm 37, for example, but had to leave it in order to attend to some indispensable daily task or other.

Yesterday, my youngest child decided she needed a nap, and took herself off to bed. I thought she was playing awfully quietly… My older son was outside, happily tossing a football around. I thought I had about fifteen minutes to do a little work, maybe post about some of the things I have been working on lately. So I poked my head out to check on my son before I settled down to the computer for a bit.

“Will you come out and throw the football with me?” he called up. Since his dad is British, and not a fan of American football (and since I grew up with a dad who taught me to throw one), I am the designated player when it comes to that oddly-shaped brown ball. The friend my son usually plays with that afternoon was ill, and I knew he was disappointed. So, “yes,” I said, “all right, but just for a little bit.” Twenty minutes later, we were still playing.

Whatever it was that I thought I needed to do those “fifteen” minutes–I never got round to deciding finally what I’d do–will happen eventually. But what I did do accomplished something more, I think, than any bit of work I might have chosen. And it will stay with me. At least until my arm isn’t sore any more.

What’s Down Syndrome?

I am running behind: World Down Syndrome Day was yesterday. In our house, though, every day is Down Syndrome day, so I am posting the video made by the Lejeune Foundation this year. We watched it together, the children and I. My daughter Anna, who has Down Syndrome, wasn’t as interested as I expected. My 8-year-old son, however, asked the $64,000 question: “what’s Down Syndrome?”

I’m not sure whether I answered his question perfectly. He doesn’t know anything about genetics, or chromosomes, or anything like that. I tried. But I don’t think it matters. He’ll grow up knowing what trisomy-21 looks like.

Family.

pain in childbearing, part 2

That little verse from Genesis 3 sticks with me. I reflected some in my previous post about the pain of losing children, and of heartbreak in raising them. This week, we had some time with a psychologist who repeated (not in so many words) one of the key lessons I am learning in this great adventure of parenting: it’s not intuitive.

Bearing children may be a perfectly natural event. But raising them is an art. Doing what comes naturally, unless we are near-perfect in our virtue, isn’t usually a good idea when responding to the various provocations of our beloved (and utterly infuriating) offspring. Most parents come to realize this, so I am not saying anything new there. And I am not qualified to give child-raising advice. All I can say for certain is that losing your temper is always going to end badly, but keeping it perfectly is impossible, at least in my experience.

The counter-intuitiveness of parenting, though, has theological significance, I believe. Because having children is something good. It’s God’s plan. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells Adam and Eve. God repeats the instruction when Noah and his kin disembark from the ark. The propagation of the species matters to God. And the psalmist remarks that children are a blessing from God.

But it certainly doesn’t always feel like that. Of course there is joy as well, and the work of parenting is meaningful perhaps above all other work. Human beings are precious, and powerful creatures, capable of great things–some very good, and some very bad. Some days the responsibility seems overwhelming. And doing it properly just doesn’t come naturally. So it’s painful. It’s part of the discipline that yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11), or so I hope.

For the grace to get through it day by day, Deo gratias.

the interruptions

It would be wrong to think that the interruptions have no bearing on what happens between them. The interruptions make the ‘between’ fruitful. I have, of course, heard the saying about the person trying to work and constantly being interrupted, only to find that the work was the interruptions. And that’s wise, as far as it goes. But somebody had to have a moment, between those interruptions, to think that, and to write it down.

That’s the purpose of my “between”: to stop long enough to think, and to write things down. I know without a doubt that the possibility of spiritual growth for me lies not in the quiet but in persevering despite the noise, confusion and vexations of daily life with children. Being with my children in all the occupations of our life together forces me to go slowly, to place someone else’s experience at the center of my attention. This does not come naturally to me. Not remotely.

So of course sometimes the vexations have the upper hand, and I am what CS Lewis (we’re listening to The Silver Chair now) might call “out of temper.” Fortunately there are small mercies–the children’s simple love, when it comes to the surface, a moment of quiet, a day or two on retreat (oh, heaven!), or an email from a friend (reminding me of God’s constant presence). And in conversation and in stillness, there’s time for a tiny bit of reflection. That’s what happens between the interruptions.

The relentless chaos of life with children and the priceless moments of quiet between their demands for attention form two parts of a whole. I can’t say I always value the chaotic side–hence calling it “the interruptions.” But the fact of the matter is that the ‘between’ would have little meaning without the work of parenting, which requires a form of attention that usually precludes reflection. If I am not fully present with the children, they know it. Something as simple as brushing my 3-year-old’s teeth requires my full attention. (Nursing a baby, especially one’s third or fourth, might just be the exception: I planned two book-length projects while nursing my third child.)

When I stop to think, or to write, I find that the my faith is formed in that crucible, not in the quiet. The small and insignificant things, the merely annoying and not-at-all-grand forbearances are like sandpaper buffing my hope and love, painfully. Moments of solace and reflection are gentle like a polishing cloth, clearing a surface here and there, and allowing me to see the One whose shining face is always there, in my children and in me, who is the Love that holds us together in the interruptions and between them.