Packing up the house means I need every bit of old newspaper–or, in this case, the weekend magazines from the various papers we’ve had over the years. Usually there’s a recipe or two we wanted (my caponata recipe, for example), and the magazines ended up in a heap in the kitchen. Until last week, that is–when I started packing china and glasses, and ran out of actual newspaper.
I’ve read some interesting stuff–restaurant reviews; why cheap Barolo is not worth buying; the ‘invention’ of slow medicine in San Francisco by a doctor who was doing a PhD on Hildegard of Bingen. But today I discovered a story I’d missed in February 2010, about how a very small girl was failed horribly by her mother, extended family, neighbours, and the entire social service network. She starved to death at the age of three, in conditions unspeakable, in an English town. Her mother is now serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, her step-father fiive years for neglect and cruelty–or something like that.
What are people supposed to do with a story like that? I crumpled up the first page of the article, walked into the kitchen (away from my own children) and burst into tears. Thomas followed me, oblivious, saying something about Cristiano Ronaldo. I let him keep talking while I recovered myself a bit–he would have been in an even worse state had I revealed what it was that had upset me. I recovered myself, though, threw the crumpled-up paper in the bin, and carried on packing. But I will be haunted by that story now, and to no particularly good purpose. What can I do? I pray for the repose of the soul of that little girl.
Doesn’t make me any less sad. How do these things happen? I look at my own little girl, who is three. I pray for children around the world who don’t have what children need–especially attentive and patient love. The suffering of children breaks my heart. Every single time I hear a new story of neglect, every time I remember an old one. It makes me want to take God by the shoulders and give him a good shake. Are you paying attention to this? I want to ask.
Then I remember where God lives in the world now, and I realise that God is paying attention. Wherever I am paying attention, God is there. When I remember little Tiffany and all the other children who suffer in this so-often-cruel world, God is there. My heart doesn’t break on its own, it breaks together with the long-suffering heart of God, whose tender compassion and mercy flood my own soul (on a good day).
That doesn’t answer my most pressing question, though: why didn’t God do anything? Why didn’t someone there, at the time, DO something–that’s how God tends to work in the world. Wasn’t anyone listening? All the theology I read, from the Bible to yesterday’s blog post, helps me not one bit with that question. I know all the ‘answers’, and none satisfies.
And maybe that’s right. Maybe my heart is meant to stay broken open until the redemption of the world. That’s what yesterday (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and today (the Immaculate Heart of Mary) are about: living God’s love in the world is a joyful occupation, but it means living gratefully and joyfully with a heart that is perpetually broken.
I think I am going to go hug my three-year-old now.
I have to acknowledge my debt to feminism. Teaching theology would never have been an option for me before feminism. Feminist pioneers not only in theology but in social and critical theory broke the ground and laid the foundations of the ‘building’ in which I now pursue my academic work. I am grateful for that; I love what I do. I also appreciate the hard choices that lots of said pioneers made in their own lives so that I would not have to choose between being a professional and being a mother.
So I didn’t ‘choose’. I try to do both. With countless other women, I feel like a near-failure most days and a total failure every other Wednesday (or something like that). The thing is, I look around me and see that the women whose careers I most envy are those who pursued them in the most traditional way–without the interruptions that forced me to abandon this post last week. I returned to it this morning, though, because I heard an interview with a successful woman who works in the City. Her observation about women’s success in her line of work? The highest achievers are those who ‘work like men’: unencumbered by the school run or the child off sick from school. She is free to stay late, to dash off to a foreign city at a moment’s notice, because her husband is covering the childcare.
Don’t mistake the wistfulness for a negative judgement. Dividing up the domestic responsibilities is a delicate undertaking, and reversing the ‘traditional’ gender roles is certainly one option. Around here, though, it’s much more messy: daily conversations about who is doing the morning or the afternoon school run and what’s for dinner are the norm. And I certainly can’t complain about my lot. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has always done more than his fair share, considering that he (like the woman on the radio this morning) is the ‘primary breadwinner’.
What worries me about the various arrangements we devise, whether we’re in paid employment or working our tails off at home, is that very often we regard the ‘stay home with the children’ option as a ‘sacrifice.’ We could have been at the top of our game in some line of work, but we chose to give it all up for the sake of the children–as if raising children doesn’t require us to be at the top of our game. We sacrifice ‘doing something’ or ‘being someone’ in the world for the obscurity of the domestic realm. (I’m trying hard not to rant, here, and may not be succeeding; sorry.) I worry about three things in particular. First, I worry that we’ve forgotten that being devoted full-time to one’s children is a privilege. Not every mother has that choice. Second, I worry–and this is the thing that drives me to distraction–about the value judgement implicit in the language of sacrifice.
But–in the third place–I worry about how the feminist achievements of my forebears have shaped our imagination. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), we are being taught that women ‘can’ in a way that is all too easily converted into women ‘should‘. And that, I think, is just as insidious as the old way of thinking–women ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’. The status of motherhood seems not to have changed. It’s just that some of us are allowed (encouraged?) to moonlight as mothers while keeping our day jobs. The more important stuff still happens in the ‘world’, not in the home.
Nonsense. That’s just nonsense. Raising human beings from infancy to adulthood is of ultimate significance. Now I am not saying that ‘therefore, mothers should all stay at home.’ I don’t. I try, and usually fail, to do both. Some women don’t have a choice, and some choose careers that take them away from home a lot. I am not saying that’s bad; my 7-year-old proudly proclaimed to a friend on the playground once, ‘my mummy’s a professor!’ (Only a lecturer, really, but who am I to correct my enthusiastic son?) What I am saying is that we really ought to remember the ultimate significance of what happens in all those moments we do have with our children, as we accompany and guide them on the most important journey of their lives: growing up.
I remember when I was in college the requirement that ‘attractive alternative beverages’ be served whenever alcoholic beverages were being offered–so it never became a choice between a tasty alcoholic drink and some cloudy tap water. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for success in the workplace looks like a beautifully-executed mojito or an exquisite pint of beer, against which the potential for nose-wiping and car-pooling appears as a glass of lukewarm tap water in a plastic cup. That’s the shaping of imagination I want to resist. I want to remember–and it’s so easy to forget–that both paid employment and home-and-family keeping provide opportunies to work extremely hard and not always be recognised for it (really!), opportunities for exhilarating moments, and the potential for self-realisation. I want to see motherhood as the old-vine zinfandel next to the Oregon pinot noir of paid employment.
Remember that billboard advert (for cigarettes, I think): ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’? Well, I (at least) still have a long, long way to go.
I was very glad to read a post about parenting that draws on St John Chrysostom and St John Bosch–and recommend it in the very highest terms to all parents, actually. Not only can Christians (especially Catholics, perhaps) learn from the wisdom of the saints, but the advice is practical and makes good sense. Reward good behaviour; it’s more effective. Remember that a ‘reproachful look’ communicates censure as well as a blow–if not better. And never resort to ‘the birch’ out of anger; that’s not disciplining the child but giving way to temper.
Excellent stuff. And it helps me especially, because I have long been slightly uneasy with St Benedict’s advice: ‘If a brother has been reproved frequently for any fault…yet does not amend…let him feel the strokes of the rod’ (RB 28). What? Finding that recommendation took me by surprise, and I have wrestled with it as a parent who looks to St Benedict as a guide in prayer, Christian practice, and parenting. The qualities of the abbot and the cellarer seem desirable for parents as well. But this counsel–not so much.
The counter-argument from St John Bosco is most welcome: ‘force, indeed, punishes the guilt, but it does not heal the guilty.’ Good parenting advice from those whose ‘parenting’ was spiritual rather than biological.
Pope Francis encourages us to confession today:
Confessing our sins may be difficult for us, but it brings us peace. We are sinners, and we need God’s forgiveness.
And Sr Catherine (at iBenedictines) offers us some guidance in examining our consciences, reminding us that “We are quick to talk about being bullied, being victims of another’s rage or hatred; we are much slower to acknowledge the ways in which we try to force others to do our bidding.” (Click here for the full blog post.)
I think this is particularly apropos for me as a parent. What do I do when my children don’t do what I ask? Do I resort to bullying tactics (however non-violent)? Of course I sometimes lose my temper–which itself can certainly be bully-ish. But are there other ways I could do better as a parent in leading and teaching my children how to wield authority and keep frustration in check? I bet there are.
This week, I’ll follow Sr Catherine’s advice, and on Saturday week, Pope Francis’ counsel. I know on the Saturday before Advent begins, I will have something to say in the confessional. For certain.
That is, I find myself trying too hard at the wrong things, sometimes, and not hard enough at the right things. My noviciate in the blogosphere has taught me that I am most emphatically not alone. If I am unique (yes, I know, we all are), it is because I am a unique combination of shared experiences, concerns, ideas, gifts, and needs, each of which I have in common with countless others. This is a Good Thing, though it doesn’t always seem so; and the response to feeling ‘ordinary’ is not always a healthy one.
What worries me about my adventure in this sphere is that it sometimes seems to be about being noticed. So I have been thinking a lot about popularity, and the pitfalls of popularity. I was encouraged and challenged this morning by wise reflections on the Rule of Benedict from Sr Catherine (@Digitalnun): the gifts we have been given must be exercised in humility and love in order to make us, as she says, ‘great’. But even this greatness doesn’t make for popularity. Sometimes gifts are exercised wonderfully well in small places. Sr Catherine drew from Chapter 31 of Benedict’s rule: the instructions to the cellarer, which I have always found inspiring as a parent.
One of my take-away phrases, which I have on the fridge, is ‘fratres non contristet’: do not upset the brethren. (It just looks better in Latin on the fridge.) St Benedict is explaining how to respond to an unreasonable request. Not harshly, he says, but gently. If the request is outrageous, the response should not be so, lest the brother or sister be upset by the refusal. Now this, I submit, is a key element of parenting: seventeen outrageous requests before breakfast, right? At least that’s how it is around here sometimes. The gifts of the cellarer, and those of the parent, are gifts exercised in small spaces, in the house or the car; sometimes in the grocery store or at the park or the library. Parental greatness is a huge, and hugely important quality, but it doesn’t often get recognised beyond the confines of the family. Greatness of this sort doesn’t always get you noticed.
I am not a great parent. I do not always succeed in responding calmly and gently to the most outrageous requests. Sometimes I do ‘great’ things: I find everyone’s PE kit, even the missing shoe, and the ‘lost’ reading book, and all this before the dreaded leaving-for-school time. To do that cheerfully is to exercise the very simple gift of attentiveness in the way I ought to. Although my sons and husband happily repeat after me, ‘mum is awesome’, I’m not winning any medals, not acquiring more followers on twitter, or on this blog. No speaking requests are coming my way because I sent my daughter off to school with everything she needed, and did it with a smile.
It is too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that the measure of my success, my ‘greatness’, is somewhere in cyberspace, or on my CV, or in teaching evaluations. And truly there is something to that (especially that last thing, I think): I have gifts to exercise in teaching and writing, and I ought to do what it takes to do well at my job. But if I want somewhere to practice exercising my gifts with humility, in love, I am better off digging in the cupboard for the missing shoe: no pretensions to grandeur there! When I have tried hard enough at the small things, perhaps I will be less prone to try too hard at the ‘big’ ones.