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.

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.

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.

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.

Be ready!

This week we have the Advent lessons and carols service at the younger children’s school.  Of course my 8-year-old doesn’t want anything to do with it, though he can sing perfectly well. The 3-year-old, on the other hand, walks around the house singing, “Alleluia! The Lord is coming to stay!” and “Stay awake! Be ready!” and also reminding us that “no one knows the day or the hour.”

I always consider motherhood as a spiritual discipline. Faith-shaping, patience-testing, hope-building and joy-giving, it is an exercise of love at its easiest and its hardest. But usually the connection between my Christian faith and the work of parenting is at the practical level. The expressions of love (“the best part of my day is seeing my mummy”) fill my heart, and the surly disobedience (best left unrepeated) breaks it. But this is different: this is a little chime, reminding me over and over what Advent is all about: stay awake! Be ready! The Lord is coming!

I choose to understand my making-ready in light of the second reading from yesterday, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice!” Easier said than done, but the passage from 1 Thessalonians goes on to explain that the injunctions (which include “pray constantly” and “give thanks in everything”) constitute “the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This has a two-fold benefit. It gives me some concrete things to do to prepare (pray, “rejoice” and “give thanks”) that don’t occupy any space on the to-do list but rather accompany all the comings and goings and doings. And it also frees me from the worry about what “the will of God” might be. In a (school) year marked by transition, when the next steps are as yet unknown, it’s easy to become anxious (really, really easy) about what God has in store for us.

Now I know: rejoice, pray, give thanks. And then I will be ready for the Lord, whenever and wherever he meets me.

Deo gratias.

trying too hard

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.