Lost in thought?

Tonight I should be joining a zoom discussion of Zena Hitz’s lovely new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I’m not–or I will only be in and out, as I flit from chores to bedtime rituals and back again. Not that I couldn’t just put the TV on and check out of the household evening routine. After all, that’s what the kids are doing now, as I write. I am not going to draw up a chair with a glass of wine for a chat about the intellectual life with a load of fellow academics because we are the proverbial choir. I’d rather save my evening away for a discussion of such a book with other mums and people who work with primary school children.

Why? Because–and I don’t think the author would disagree with me here–the problem that reaches its apex at universities begins before the first year of school. It wasn’t surprising to find that my ethics students looked puzzled when I asked them whether they had come to the university because it was the only way to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. (A few gave me a knowing look, and smirked. But they didn’t raise their hands, either.) It wasn’t surprising, because from quite early on in primary school, pupils are taught to write ‘L.O.’ and to state the learning objective at the top of pages. (I caught my then 8-year-old daughter doing this at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and had to exercise tremendous self-restraint. CGS is about listening, not learning objectives!) Someone, somewhere, has decided that children are really just miniature adults, who like to be told why they are learning something, as if learning wasn’t something worthwhile for its own sake.

As I have said, the author would not disagree. And my colleagues wouldn’t disagree, either. But the people who have time to write the books are not the ones who sit with the 7-year-olds who are struggling to develop reading fluency and struggling even harder to understand why they need to learn to read fluently. If reading is about learning school stuff, and learning school stuff is about doing well on tests, and doing well on tests is about being employable (I kid you not, I saw a 7-foot by 3-foot poster in a primary school hall that indicated skills and traits that made a person more appealing to prospective employers), then if your dreams don’t tend in that direction, learning just isn’t important. Love of learning for its own sake has been squeezed out of the curriculum, and it isn’t just professors in the humanities that have noticed. It’s just that professors in the humanities are the people who have time to write letters to periodicals, and journal articles, and books.

I am not one of those people. My life is complicated by the needs of my children, who are extraordinary in sometimes demanding ways, my own struggles with basic sanity, and an impatience with injustice that remains as hot and irrational as it was when I was seven or eight. ‘But it’s not fair‘ I still protest, in spite of all the grown-up arguments for why it is what it is. So I am no good at explaining to the real grown-ups what’s wrong with the grown-up world. (This is the point at which somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that I should retrain as a Montessori teacher pops up, and I quash it with a memory of trying to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with boys between the ages of six and nine: I was rubbish!) And I also have a CV that appears ‘thin’ to people in the academic world; I look at it and wonder when I had time to write anything. 

Thus, I am opting for a different sort of evening. When I have finished my chores (the kids have done their share, I promise) and everyone is settled, the chances are very good that I will lose myself in Trenton, NJ* rather than Princeton. And tomorrow, I’ll get up feeling regretful that I missed the opportunity to have grown-up conversation about the intellectual life and its pleasures. I love learning and I don’t need an ‘objective’, but I am more at home arguing with my nine-year-old about whether the tree is a silver birch or a paper-bark birch (I don’t always win) or insisting that my 13-year-old son explain to me why fireworks explode in the microwave rather that just being entertained by the fact that they do. (Why do fireworks explode in the microwave? I could make up some stuff that might not be far from the truth, but I’d really like to know.) So, if anyone knows why fireworks explode in the microwave (beyond the basic, ‘because they’re explosives, silly’), let me know.

And thanks to all y’all who read my blog post last night and let me know. So wonderful to know we’re not alone.

Becoming a ‘motherist’

The new academic year is underway, and today I am introducing a group of second year students to Christian ethics. What on earth do I mean by that? I am hoping to persuade them that one of the most important things that ‘Christian’ does in modifying ‘ethics’ is locating practitioners. We cannot pretend we have a view from nowhere.

Where do I stand, I wondered. How can I explain to them what it is that shapes the person before them and guides my own practice of this academic discipline? I describe myself as a Catholic moral theologian, but that has to be qualified. I used to qualify it by saying that I was a feminist. That no longer seems to fit, for a variety of reasons.

The most important reason, especially for the purpose of teaching an ethics class, is that the word ‘feminist’ generally conjures up the notion of ‘women’s rights’. I’ve nothing against women having equal rights. Access to the same legal protections as men is essential for women. It is especially so now, when women suffer sexual violence routinely in spite of broad public support for the #MeToo movement.

My concern with rights-language, in this context, is two-fold. The first concern is that it is insufficient. Necessary, but not up to the task of reforming relations between men and women. And that is what is required: not more laws, but a conversion of more hearts.

The other concern is more complex and more controversial. I have long had a niggling sense that something wasn’t right about the way we women got our rights. Something had to give–something always does in order for such radical change to happen.

What gave? Something intangible, and something that cannot be recovered. I am not ever going to be one to advise turning back the clock: the young Sean Connery as James Bond convinced me there was no going back. The cultural milieu that made his interactions with women ‘normal’ had to change (and hasn’t yet changed enough).

I agree with early feminists about the ‘problem with no name’. I’m just not certain that the diagnosis and treatment of the problem was thorough enough. On the one hand, women who wanted (or needed) to work outside the home should have had equal access to the training and positions. On that score, I think we have not done too badly. I’m sitting in an office in an academic building, about to go and lecture in a university that admits at least as many women as men each year. The women now studying will have the same career opportunities, legally, as their male colleagues.

On the other hand, though, there is still ‘women’s work’ to be done. And, though some may find it unimaginable, there are still women (and not only women, I hope) who want to do that work. The problem is that that work does not have equal status in the eyes of our achievement-oriented culture. The equal rights taken up by women in the workplace ought to be matched by an equal respect for those who (whether women or men, mothers or not) who take up the hard and thankless work of mother-craft.

By mother-craft, I simply mean the kind of work that more than 50 years ago would have been thought of as stuff women did. Not just doing housework, but teaching children to tie their shoes, cross roads safely, and take their responsibilities seriously at home and school. Parenting requires attention and discipline. More than that, the hardest part is the constant self-giving involved.

The essence of mother-craft, as I see it, is teaching our young that life is not only meant to be lived, it is meant to be given. We all live our lives, and we are careful about how we do that (at least that’s what I’ll be insisting in my ethics class). But also, and perhaps more importantly, we all give our lives. That is worth repeating: we all give our lives. Not only mothers and heroes die. We all spend our lives. We give them away in projects and various pursuits.

Motherhood, the biological kind, makes a nice figure for this. The body is given in pregnancy. Ask anyone who has carried a child. The mother’s body is no longer just her own; it is given for the needs of the child. Mother-craft is the art of co-operating with the body’s work of giving. It continues through the whole of life, as the mother (as was) spends her life for those in her care. The most important moment in my life as a mother and as a scholar came one day when, completely spent and frustrated at my inability to be the mother I wanted to be and have the career I wanted to have, I sat down and wondered what life was for. ‘It’s for giving away,’ I thought.

It hasn’t made me a great mother. And it certainly hasn’t helped my career. But it has made me something beyond a feminist. It has made me a ‘motherist’: someone who believes the equal rights of women should include equal respect for what used to be regarded as ‘women’s work’. The work involved in mother-craft deserves our respect. No matter who did it for us, and no matter whether they did it brilliantly or not-so-well, we wouldn’t be here without it.

Thanks, Mom.

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.

Thinking about Genesis 3 & 4

Over at thinking coram Deo, I reflected a bit on the first Mass reading, and beyond it. I reproduce it here, in case anyone’s interested.

Genesis 4: 1-8 (RSV)

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

*           *         *

This is going to be a bit wide of the mark, I fear–not really a commentary on the verses at hand. But the thing has been pressing on me for some time, and this passage from Genesis 4 (which continues for another 7 verses in the first reading for today) calls it immediately to mind. That is, we don’t usually interpret this tragic episode in relation to what precedes it in Genesis 3. Yes, it’s the beginning of sin, and it’s amazing how quickly a little stolen fruit leads to fratricide. But it also–I believe–should be read in light of Genesis 3: 16. 

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

My thinking about this one verse began several years ago on Christmas Eve. I was listening to the Advent Lessons & Carols service broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, and noticed that in the reading of Genesis 3, this verse was omitted. Maybe it was just a mistake on the part of the reader, though I doubt it. At the time, I wondered. Surely it can’t have been left out because it is Not Nice. Maybe it was something to do with the institution of patriarchy–maybe we don’t want to think about the imbalance of power that generally obtains in relationships between men and women (which seems to have been confirmed over the weekend, if what I’ve heard about the newly-released film is true). 

Whatever the reason for the elision of verse 16 that year, I am glad for it. Although I never did come up with a satisfactory guess about the rationale for leaving it out, I did begin to think in a new way about the first part of the curse–the business about childbearing. Yes, it hurts. I can testify to that, having had four children (even had one without the epidural). But I don’t think that’s what this part of the verse is about. In the first place, the emotional pain of  pregnancy loss seems to me to be greater than the physical pain of labor. And then there are the things that go wrong: congenital defects of the heart or other organs, genetic disorders, infant deaths. About pregnancy loss or the death of an infant, I have no first-hand experience. But I know what it’s like to have something big go wrong–or, better, to have something very small go awry (one little extra chromosome) with global effects. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: things go wrong. 

Not for a few years did I realize (probably only as my children grew) that there was still more pain to be had in the bearing of children. Not only do they give us pain as they come into the world, they continue to cause pain (as well as joy, of course) as they grow and change. Not all of the heartbreak involved in raising children is quite as dramatic as the story of Cain and Abel. But there it is. Genesis doesn’t say much about how Eve’s birth experience is. We do,  however, hear about this tragedy. Having two sons myself, I can’t imagine anything much worse than one of them murdering the other in cold blood. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: we go wrong, and badly wrong.

For a while, I wanted to write a book about the pain of childbearing, broadened to include stories of pregnancy loss and more. The trouble was that there wasn’t really an “up” side to it. I’m looking again at a verse that’s not particularly encouraging to begin with, and saying, but really, it’s much worse than that. Hardly the makings of a best-seller, there. 

As always, though, there is much more to it than this thin slice of the story tells us. There are small hints in Genesis 3 and 4 that God will make it right: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them” (3: 21). And Eve has another son, Seth, whom she regards as being given to her by God (4: 25), and the writer notes that “At that time [people] began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26).  In the midst of the pain, it is difficult to see how even this (whatever particular this is so vexing or agonizing) cannot fall outside of the delightful arrangement that is the work of the Wisdom of God (Wisdom 8: 1). Yet there is nothing, not even this terrible outworking of the curse, that can escape the truth: “in Him all things hold together.” All things. Most days I fall very short of believing that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Deo gratias.