the other front

This morning I was struck, looking out at the children during Mass at my kids’ primary school: my future is in their hands. Oh, I know, it’s the sort of thing we say. Like we know we are mortal. But it doesn’t really sink in until something presses it on us. (For me, it was the death of my mother that did it.) In fact, it is such a banal thing to say that Whitney Houston recorded a song about it. Today, though, that ‘banal truth’ (as David Foster Wallace might describe it) hit me in a different place. A deeper place.

I’ve long worried about the evaporation of childhood. Academic work starts earlier. And homework, and stress about school. Kids watch more TV and are protected from the dangers of tree-climbing. My generation thinks that childhood in the 1970’s may not have been as safe, but we survived it–and thrived. So I am not alone in the concern for childhood. Nor am I alone in the concern that part of what shapes childhood for our kids has little to do with safety and everything to do with what’s convenient for us. Screens keep kids occupied as easily and certainly as Mary Poppins. I know (#guilty).

And I wonder whether, at least for me, a part of the desire to keep my kids safe and healthy is a desire to keep things in order. Nothing disrupts my work like a kid off school. Yesterday, I let my 11-year-old stay home because he was so stressed out by school, knowing that I’d be sacrificing a day of work. We had a great walk in the woods and more time alone together than we have had in years. We both enjoyed it–and a funny thing happened. I slipped in the mud, and realised suddenly that he was fully my equal in terms of agility and speed. And he thought he was looking after me as much as I was looking after him. We have changed. I’ll miss the deadline I thought I would meet, though I judge the loss to be worth it. The unexpected sick days, though, can inspire grumbling and worse. Who thinks that missing work because a child is off school ill, or because of bad weather, is worth it? Maybe I’m just selfish that way.

That experience yesterday probably set me up for the awakening I had this morning, that conviction that my future is in the hands of all those children at Mass in the school hall. We worry about what sort of future we are creating for them. But we should be equally concerned about what sort of future they will create for us. God willing, I will still be around when they are running the world. And I will be vulnerable, as they are vulnerable now. I hope they don’t just give me a screen and hope I’ll leave them alone for a bit to get on with their work. If they do, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Work, work, work. I love my work, actually, and am grateful for the opportunity to do it. As a moral theologian, I work in a space cleared for me by feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ve expressed my gratitude for them in previous posts. And there is still work to in that space. Part of the reason I do not jump on the ‘it was all better in the 1970’s’ bandwagon is that it wasn’t. Not for women, anyway. I don’t mean not being welcomed into the workplace, either, though that is part of it. I mean the sick feeling I got when I watched an old James Bond film (with the young Sean Connery). The portrayal and treatment of women in those films horrified me. Never mind that there isn’t the graphic and grisly presentation of fighting: those films are deeply violent, unconsciously so…which makes it worse. I’m not going back to that, and I am deeply grateful to the women in Hollywood who have led the #MeToo movement. I dream of a future in which my daughter will never, ever use that hashtag.

There is, however, another front in this war we women have been fighting. A less glamorous and more dangerous front. One of the things that we have lost in the fighting is the value of childhood, of home, of motherhood–by which I mean the form of radically available parenting that doesn’t regard a sick child as an interruption in the work. In ‘mothering’, tending to the sick child is the work. (Obviously this form of family life was never the universal that some of us like to think. But it is still true that growing up with parents who were still married to each other is a privilege. So it is worth considering as a desirable form of life, even if it isn’t for everybody.)

The ‘other front’ is the battle for the honorable craft of caring for children. To fight for it doesn’t mean asking for a regression to the 1970’s, but for a true recognition that those who are children now are creating their future and ours. Teachers cannot raise our kids for us, though my kids’ primary school does a smashing job of making kind and generous-hearted young people. We are losing childhood and motherhood together, and it is a terrible loss. Not because we should all return to a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ society, but because losing childhood and motherhood means losing a space in which we used to do a lot of growing together. I remembered that space yesterday: every day my children change, and I change. I want to help guide that change, and I want them to guide my changing self, too.

So I fight the battle for being a mom. (Or, I guess, a mum, since that’s what my kids call me.) When the world says, let him watch TV and finish that review, I have to say, no thank you. I’m going for a walk. I know there are mothers out there who do this every day and never think twice about giving their entire lives for their children. Their CV will never, ever reflect the world-changing work they do. And I thank them, because my future is in their kids’ hands, too.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

between a rock and a hard place

Last year, I read the book Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, since I had been one of the millions of people who were grabbed by her Atlantic article, ‘Why women (still) can’t have it all.’ Millions of women, maybe. Not that men wouldn’t be interested, exactly. But part of the problem that Slaughter identifies is that care is a women’s issue. Again, not that men are not or cannot be caring, involved parents–even ‘lead’ parents, if we can call it that. It’s complicated.

So I’ll bring it home. In my life, it looks like this: when I was 5, I had two big goals in life. One was to go to Harvard Medical School and become a neurosurgeon; the other was to get married and have a family. The awesome thing about being 5 is that those two goals seem perfectly compatible, not like a superhuman juggling act that’s only really possible if you don’t need sleep. By the time I was in high school, I realised the whole neurosurgeon thing wasn’t going to happen. Yet I clung to the idea of having a career, nurtured graduate school ambitions, and definitely still wanted the marriage-and-kids option. Still, the idea that those two things might be on a collision course never really occurred to me.

Now my life mostly looks like the train wreck I never expected. Not that the house is a mess. It is, of course. One only needs to step one foot in the door to realize that I am in way over my head. Eventually I might find someone to clean, though, and I’d still be sitting in a train wreck. Because I did get that PhD, somewhat later than I maybe anticipated. And I did get that marriage-with-kids, also somewhat later than I had hoped. At the same time, actually. But even the collision of these two major undertakings–motherhood and the academic career–did not produce the wreck that surrounds me.

No. The wreck is this: that I find myself, as a 40-something woman, constantly worried that I should be doing something else. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, usually. (By child #4, I’ve finally settled into the idea that unless someone is bleeding or the house is on fire, if the little ones ask me to read a book, there’s nothing else I should be doing. But that’s about it.) Whatever it is I am doing, I have the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing, for my children or my career, that’s more important than my current activity. Like now, for example. I’m writing a blog post. What is this accomplishing? (Nothing, probably, but it does help to keep me from going completely insane.)

At the heart of the problem is the sense that I should be secure in some sort of employment, or employable at the very least; I should have some measure of independence. I should make money. My half time lecturing job (which of course is not anything like half time) pays embarrassingly badly. If suddenly I had to support my four children (and my husband is under-insured, so that’s not going to solve it–but is there a good way to nag about that, really?), I couldn’t do it. And I feel like a failure.

But why? Why should I feel like a failure because I haven’t managed to do what so many women seem to have done? Every family is different. Our family life has unfolded in the way it has because I was a grad student and my husband already a professor when we met and married. It’s because our first child has Down Syndrome–she had two heart surgeries before her second birthday. It’s because we were worse than completely broke when we got married. It’s because…the list goes on. It’s the strange set of events and circumstances that have shaped our available choices, and we’ve muddled through, probably making the wrong choices as often as not.

Somehow, though, the struggles all settle on my head: there’s the train wreck. If only I had done something better, spent some time more constructively, I would not be 40-something, wondering whether I will ever ‘amount to anything’. I can’t look around me and see four children who know that I love them, and think I’ve amounted to anything. I can’t see the book I wrote as an achievement. Hell, everyone I know has written a book or two–that’s just what people in this line of work do. I’ve no idea how I did it, either, so I am finding writing another (maybe that will be an achievement) somewhat daunting.

I didn’t want this to be a rant. I didn’t want to complain. The thing is, I am glad that I have had the opportunities to study, to write, to teach. When I am not in collision mode, I love what I do. I LOVE it. And I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without being a mother, oddly. I never would have been able to give myself fully to the work if I believed that I was choosing it over having a family. But some days I do think that there is some elusive ‘all’ out there, and I could have it, if I could just work harder…or something.

But the truth is, being a full-time mother and a part-time career woman (as if one could have a career part-time; maybe that’s my big mistake) will always feel like being between a rock and a hard place. Because as a mom, I am (psychologically) ‘surrounded’ by all the moms who devote themselves fully to the work of motherhood, and I wonder why I can’t be like that. And as an academic I am constantly being compared to a variety of other academics who have totally different outside-of-work lives, and who work full-time. Whichever direction I look, I don’t measure up. Not remotely.

I still don’t have any answers. Tomorrow, I will get up and start again.

Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

St Therese of the Child Jesus

I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’

That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.sta_thumbSt Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.

It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.

We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.

St Therese, pray for us.

Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.