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.

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Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

like that

It says something about me, and about where I am these weeks and months, that my last two posts begin with ‘some days are like that.’ Like what? These days are full of beauty that I can’t quite appreciate, joy that I know is there but just can’t feel, and love that knocks quietly but insistently on the door of my heart as I struggle with the lock.

I had this dream several nights ago in which I was insisting to a couple of colleagues that going through the motions is important. Developing habits consistent with the hope you ought to have, even when you don’t have that hope, is not a bad thing. What do you do, I asked, when the love of your life doesn’t feel like it did at the first? You do what you would do if it did, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you find that it is still there.

What I didn’t say in the dream, of course, because it was (after all) a dream, was how difficult it is to do. It is incredibly soul-wrenching work. I write about the character of Christian identity, in my life as an ‘academic’ theologian (whatever that is); I say that John Milbank is right: the heart of our Christian practice, our being and believing and acting Christianly in the world, is receiving life, and love, and our very being from God. Apart from God, we cannot persist. (See Colossians 1: 17, or listen to Rich Mullins’ song ‘All the way to kingdom come’ if you don’t believe me.) Feeling like we are apart, but acting on the certainty that we’re not…well, you get the picture.

These days are like that. I wonder, is this accedia? Is it depression? Or is it the ordinary bumps in the road, jarring me and knocking me off balance? Does it really matter what it is? What it does is make me irritable, jumpy, tired and inconsiderate. My dad might call me ‘temperamental’, as he used to when I was a teenager, by which he mostly meant ‘grumpy.’ I find the laundry exhausting and am driven to despair by wooden train track on the floor. Everything that happens seems to upset me, and everything that might happen worries me.

So why am I sharing my misery? I hate complaining. I usually take it as a sign that disappointment has won, and stands over me, triumphantly smug. That may be. That was certainly true when I got up this morning, because yesterday I was frustrated that the activity of resting in God was not available to me in the noise and commotion and mess of my cluttered house. Janet Martin Soskice came to me this morning, though (not in person, of course, though I would dearly love to meet her someday):

Most Christian women…think that what they do around the home is worthy in God’s service–they do not think, they have not been taught to think, of it as spiritual. And here, monastic figures who, apparently, found God over the washing up or sweeping the floor will be called to mind; but these are not really to the point, since servile tasks were recommended because they left the mind free to contemplate. What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder (The Kindness of God, pp. 22-23).

That’s my failure. I think that because receptivity is active, that the sort of activity I should seek is quiet contemplation. No, no, no! It works both ways: the activity that is typical, ordinary, and ‘mindless’ is also–or can be–a form of receptivity. This is what the prescribed movements of Benedictine prayer should teach me. It is not that I need to do something different (‘you are in the right place NOW’–thanks Sr Catherine Wybourne), but I need grace to re-frame what I am doing. I need God to reveal himself to me in the wiping of noses and bottoms, and in the picking up of toys and clothes off of the floor.

For the moment, though, I am just going through those motions. But just a little, tiny bit of hope peeks out from beneath a pile of things to be sorted. And for that I am immensely grateful.