Month: January 2014

D-E-A-D Is a Four Letter Word: True Confessions on Coming to Terms with Mortality

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By Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo

My children have been obsessed with death lately.  The older two are five and almost four, and their imaginary play has been focused an awful lot on scenarios that involve dramatic exclamations of  “I’m dead,” “I’m dying,” and “I killed you!”  The questions they ask about the world have come to include things like: When do you die? Can you die when you are zero, eleven, fifty-five, etc.?  Can you live to be 100?  After you die are you “with God to infinity and beyond?” When will you die?  I know that their curiosity is completely normal and, like Claire (whose August 2013 post, Backyard Life Lessons, inspired some of my own thinking on this subject), I do my best to respond to it with a level head and honest answers.  But I have to admit that all of this talk of death coming from the mouths of babes—my sweet, innocent babes—is just killing me!

It wasn’t always like this and I can’t help but long for the fleeting days when bugs and birds didn’t die, they were just sleeping; Scar didn’t kill Mufasa, he just made him go away; their grandfather (my father) was not dead, he was just living with Jesus; and their mommy and daddy and all of us were just going to live forever.  During my eldest daughter’s early years, I avoided saying anything at all about death or dying.  D-E-A-D really was a four letter word in our home.  And I was very good at censoring my vocabulary—I may have even spelled the word out in conversation with my husband rather than expose my daughter to its fearsome ring.  I’m not sure when or why it happened, but things have changed since those days of blissful ignorance, of course, and the younger children inevitably are being exposed to talk of death and dying at a much earlier age than their big sister—which is probably a good thing.  But my own feelings towards death and dying have only heightened in their level of discomfort and anxiety.


You see, becoming a mother to these heart-breakingly precious beings has made me more than a little uncomfortable with mortality.  I suppose that in my youth my own mortality and that of those I loved seemed very abstract, far off in the future, and not something to give a second thought.  But once I began having children, the truth of our mortal condition hit me like sucker punch to the gut (the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you breathless).  I suppose that falling in love as deeply and irrevocably as I have with my children has heightened and deepened my awareness of the fragility and fleetingness of existence in general, and that of the lives of myself and my husband, our children, and other family members in particular.  My own mortality now scares me half to death, with my sentiments echoing those expressed very simply by ecologist Sandra Steingraber in Having Faith, a memoir of her pregnancy and early motherhood: “Now I cannot die.”  And neither can my husband.  These thoughts often cross my mind.  But when it comes to contemplating the possibility that something could happen to one of our kids—I don’t even go there.

I cope rather well with my newfound fears and anxieties—I am very skilled at blocking them out.  Not only am I am so busy and exhausted that it is not too hard to keep the thought of mortality at bay, I also have found myself strategically avoiding anything that might call to mind the contingency and fragility of my family’s existence.   I have begun to evade news stories, films, or books that involve violence or childhood death of any kind (just a bit strange for someone who is writing a theology of human vulnerability through the lens of maternal suffering).  In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, I simply could not bear to read or listen to any accounts of the violence that took place, the analyses of the shooter’s motivations and psychological well-being, or—worst of all—the stories of the children who were killed.  Similarly, while I was once a passionate crusader for social and economic justice, I no longer even allow myself to be confronted with the human face of what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the “early and unjust death” that erases tens of thousands of children (and adults) from existence on a daily basis.  I put all of this out of my mind and heart with great skill, but the prevalence of death and dying in my kids’ imaginative play and curious questions keeps bringing my discomfort with our own mortality more and more to the foreground of my mind and heart.  I think the time has come for some spiritual reckoning with the big “D.”

bleeding heart

It seems to me that my real problem is NOT that I can’t bear to contemplate the fact that I or my children could suffer and die prematurely.  This is completely normal and healthy – who wants to think about the possibility of leaving or losing our loved ones?  And how could one possibly “come to terms with” such loss preemptively?  The real problem, rather, is my avoidance of others’ suffering because I psychologically project myself and my family into the horrific situation, which just causes me too much pain.  This evasion of suffering has locked me into a selfish mode of being, in which my discomfort with death due to my passionate love for my husband and children is all that matters.  I have been operating under what I know intellectually to be an illusion—that the blissful comfort of my intact relationship with my nearest and dearest is more important than compassion for the suffering of other human beings (and creation, for that matter).  I have anesthetized myself to suffering and have thus blocked the divine power of compassion that might emerge from a genuine encounter with others as others on their own terms and not as placeholders for what, God forbid, could have happened or might one day happen to my family and me.

Perhaps this is where I ought to begin, then, with a renewed sensitivity to the suffering and mortality of those beyond my own kith and kin.  The life of every human being is as valuable and precious as the lives of my own beloved children.  Contemplating and acting with compassion for the vulnerability and mortality of others is a first step towards coming to terms with my own vulnerability and mortality, along with that of my family.  Compassion for others is not, of course, a means to this personal end.  Rather, it is the end, in itself, of a truly human life lived in communion with the divine pathos for a suffering world.

Not Just An Other Mother, A Guest Post By Kate Lassiter, Ph.D.

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by Kate Lassiter

I started to feel the white hot flames coming off the top of my head as I read Abby Rosmarin’s article thanking women who choose not to have children and the comments from friends on Facebook who lauded this post for its forthrightness and thanked their own friends—me, I assume—for not having children.  Rosmarin writes, “To the women who choose not to have kids, I have one thing to say: thank you….Thank you for recognizing that childrearing isn’t for you and being true to who you are. It doesn’t mean you hate kids. It just means that raising one is not part of your path in life.”


While the sentiment came from a place of gratitude on Rosmarin’s part, the academic in me wanted to cite the numerous reasons that many women do not have children, whether their own or adopted. I wanted to ask why the conversation centered only on women having children and not larger social issues of equity between partners, or support of single women having children.  Most of all, I wanted Rosmarin to carefully define how she understands the word ‘choose.’

I have never been pregnant or subsequently given birth vaginally or by Caesarian, but I have been a mom.  My sister lived in South America during the time of my niece’s conception and birth.  I flew down within that first month of her birth and stayed with them for 2 months.  As they returned to the United States, they came to live with me during the year that I was finishing my dissertation and applying for teaching jobs.  From the outside, it is easy for me to see how this makes me an “other mother” in the eyes of many—or no mother at all.  But I saw myself as a mom to my niece.  I held her when she cried in the middle of the night and made decisions that were in the best interest of all of us, not just me alone.  I watched and taught how to roll onto her stomach, crawl, eat solids, play with sundry toys, and walk.

Rosmarin’s article falsely assumes that a woman without child equals choice to not raise children.  Choice, however, is a delimiting concept.  As a theologian, being true to who I am has nothing to do with whether I have chosen to have children or not.  I think here about all the abbesses—mothers—in Roman Catholicism, the tradition I know best.  Abbesses mothered small children and adult children in multiple contexts—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Some of their children were only with them for a brief period of time; some, much longer.

For me, I became a mom for a brief and intense time during my niece’s first year of life; I continue to be part of her life in a mother-like role, as my voicemail attests when I miss a call where she announces that she’s gone “pee pee in the potty.”  Raising a child is not just childrearing and it is not always a free choice.  Like many choices that we assume to be free choice, but are actually constrained, becoming a mother is a constrained choice, and sometimes made under less than ideal conditions.  Still, constrained choices do not lack the capacity for incredible personal spiritual growth.  Perhaps we could even say that the constraint makes possible the conditions for that growth.  I may not have freely chosen to become a mom, but it changed me in a way that revealed to me more of who I am, not less.  That’s something that all theologians, ministers, and faithful people should consider when we ask a woman if she is a mom.

Dr. Lassiter is an assistant professor in Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph.  She graduated from Vanderbilt University with her Ph.D. in Religion and from the University of Dayton with her M.A. in Theology.  Her primary research and teaching interests lie in the critical investigation of theological practices of ministry and faith, formation of the self, and advancement of social justice with marginalized and excluded persons.

Emotional Tyranny

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by Claire Bischoff

“I am tired of the emotional tyranny of the holidays,” the woman the next cash register over was saying, with clear vehemence. “I do not feel merry or happy and do not want to pretend I do just because Christmas is coming. And did you see the headlines in today’s paper? I cannot believe what the Catholic church is doing…” She jabbered on, loud enough for anyone checking out at the busy grocery store to be accosted by her rant. I internally rolled my eyes at this woman speaking like no circumspect Minnesotan ever should in polite company: not only talking about religion but, even worse, stating her actual (and critical) opinion about something to complete strangers.

Yet since that morning buying groceries, the anonymous woman’s words—emotional tyranny—have echoed in my head on numerous occasions. The first time was when I took my cousin out to dinner to celebrate her recent engagement. As we dipped our bread in olive oil, I asked, “Are you excited to be engaged?” After putting down her bread and taking a sip of wine, my cousin responded, “Honestly, and I don’t feel I can tell anyone else this, I am sick of having to put on the gushing school-girl act whenever anyone asks about my engagement. Certainly, I am looking forward to being married, or I wouldn’t have said yes. But getting married includes lots of serious and stressful stuff: finances, the question of kids, trying to merge our two lives together when we both have been living as independent and single adults for 20 years. Heck, we both still have our own separate laundry baskets.” In a culture that puts so much emphasis on the blushing bride-to-be planning her dream wedding day, my cousin found there was little space for her to talk about the more sobering realities that marriage entails.

Similarly, over the holidays, my husband and I were able to share the good news about expecting our third child with family and friends. “Oh, that is so exciting! We are so happy for you!” went the typical refrain of well-wishes. And I am not complaining about this; I would hardly want news of my third pregnancy to be greeted with a grunt and a “Sucks to be you.”

But as the conversation moved beyond the initial congratulations, I was hesitant to share my ambivalence about this pregnancy. Certainly, I feel blessed that if all goes well we will welcome another child into our family in July. And I feel this sense of gratitude against a backdrop of knowing and loving so many people who have struggled to conceive. Yet alongside this gratitude is no small amount of terror. If I am having trouble falling asleep at night, usually it is because of the tickertape running in my head: “I just finished my dissertation two years ago. I just started adjuncting a year and a half ago. I am supposed to be working on this Mother Matters project. I am just starting to feel like a professional adult and that taking care of my two boys is getting easier instead of harder and now I am going back to the 24-hour a day demands that come with the first few months of an infant’s life. I just started to feel like I was getting my life, really myself, back and I am afraid it is all going to go away again. And what if I cannot bounce back from it this time?

file000278604432As I have worked to understand this fear, I realize that a large part of it is related to the emotional tyranny that has ruled so much of my tenure as a part-time stay-at-home mother to my first two sons. I felt blessed to be in a financial and career situation where I was able to be at home part-time, so I kept quiet about how excruciatingly boring it was at times and how isolated I felt. Used to being “successful” in the professional realm, I projected an image of a successful caretaker, not letting on to the constant questions about doing and being enough for my kids that plagued me day in and day out. I felt that mothers were meant to be supportive of their children, so I ignored my own likes and dislikes and played chess with my three-year-old following the real rules and one-on-one football with my five-year-old, even though I despised these activities enough that I could not make it through them unless I was accompanied by a pocket full of M & M’s (a sign of an eating disorder that I am just beginning to understand).

A few weeks ago, Annie Hardison Moody wrote on this blog about the importance of asking people in our lives about how they are feeling and how we can be supportive of them, as a way to make sure that we do not jump to conclusions about what we can do to care for them. As I think about the emotional story lines that inhere to important life events, like marriage and having a child, and to important life roles, like parenting, I think the accompanying point to the one that Annie made is that each of us has to be brave enough to speak the truth of our emotional existence. I am the first to admit that I have too readily lived under the emotional tyranny of particular images of motherhood—the selfless mother, the perfectly content at home mother, the has-it-all-together mother—images that have ended up being harmful to me because they have meant that I have not been honest with myself and others about my experience as a mother. So in an effort to live into my own image of motherhood, if you were to ask me how I am feeling about expecting a third child, I would honestly answer, “I am thrilled and terrified at the same time.” It is a place to start practicing speaking the full emotional truth.

What are the emotional aspects of motherhood that you are hesitant to speak about? We invite you to name them here, in solidarity with all mothers who experience much more than they feel permission to speak out loud.