Care of Children
by Jamie Mabe
We begin with so much inexperience; this inexperience is the necessary cornerstone to the hubris that is required to begin the journey of motherhood in the first place. We have no idea what we’re in for. We want to have a child, a baby, a family. What seems like a simple act; starting a family, is actually the first step of the epic journey that we didn’t really know we were starting on. It is leaving home forever, unknowingly.
We “prepare” for our journey with planning, purchasing, and “nesting”. We do all that we can to “see” what our journey will be like, but like a bad vacation, our well-laid plans are often ruined. We didn’t foresee that the journey would include death of self. If we knew that ahead of time maybe we would never have undertaken the journey in the first place, or we would try to outsmart the death and in turn create a monster.
We think we are brave but we’re not; you can’t be brave unless you’re scared first, and when we start on this parenting journey, we often don’t know enough to be scared properly. We walk out the door with our chin up and chest proud and immediately we are stripped of sword, pack, comforts and map. When the labor pains start our journey into the shadow of death begins. We descend to Hades, we leave our bodies. When the baby is born and our soul comes back it has been irrevocably changed. That is the first death of the many deaths that are necessary to be a mother. We learn that we will have to love with all our heart someone who will never be in our control. Great love and death are the same; they kill our ego.
When we get baby home, where we NOW feel so in control, we try to regain our footing, try to be the woman we used to be. But this is where we begin to realize that we are not the same person as the one who left for the hospital. The “heroine” has returned home but home has changed forever. Home is no longer comfortable. We keep trying to “put new wine into old wineskins”, and it doesn’t work. Our relationship with our partner has changed. Our relationship with our self has changed. Our new soul, reworked by the death of who we once were, now inhabits our bodies, and belief, faith, habits, thoughts, and actions of old are (in most cases) no longer useful and productive. Our selves are re-created like quilts, throwing out the old ripped cloth, patching it with new cloth, and becoming something altogether new.
It is necessary to let go of more of our ego, that is, our own exaggerated sense of self importance and control. This is not to be confused with selflessness, or having no concern for oneself. You should have an even greater concern for yourself. Remember, this baby thinks that you and s/he are the same creature, and in so many ways you still are. Putting yourself first means putting you both first- prioritizing health (mental, physical, emotional, relationship) is crucial in this new-found symbiotic relationship. Putting aside your control, however, is something new. You love this child as much as yourself – but you are not in control. Releasing this control (or ego) helps you become the new wineskin that can hold the new wine.
To let go, release, and re-make, we start out on another epic journey. This new journey is a little easier because now we have seasoned faith. We know that the outcome is unknown and out of our hands. We know that we have to rely on something that is not us. We have one of the key elements of faith, vulnerability, and it helps the next death not hurt so much. In fact, now that we realize that these personal deaths (or releases of control) are for our betterment, we welcome it. Our faith wrested from us the control that was never ours in the first place. We are now brave, because we are scared but we carry on anyway.
As mothers we are the shepherds, the ones covered in sheep poop, standing up to the wolves, taking care of the flock. Unfortunately, this holy work often comes without gratitude or rank. It’s not a sexy job. When we come back from our epic journey we aren’t put on the crowd’s shoulders and carried through the center of town. We come back and are celebrated in the smallest and most significantly insignificant ways: our partners are happier, our babies are comforted, we experience our selves as re-made. Our faith is seasoned, tested, transformed.
Jamie Mabe is a mother of two boys and lives in the triangle area of North Carolina.
by Pamela J. Pettyjohn
It is after 1am in the morning. I’m writing this as I sit on the balcony of my oceanfront hotel, listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach, a sound I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing. We are at a family reunion and blessed by the generosity of a family member, who makes such opportunities a reality for our family.
My husband has been asleep for over an hour at least. My son, staying in another room with cousins, is hopefully asleep, but I do not know. This not knowing is good practice for me, as he will soon be heading off to college and I often will not know where he is or what he is doing. And it is okay; I do not need to know. When I was younger, I always “had to know” – uncertainty, ambiguity, and being in limbo were to be avoided whenever possible. But I’ve had a lot of experience of not knowing in the last few years, as we’ve navigated multiple moves and job uncertainties, along with the need to provide a stable life for our son. I’ve had to surrender the illusion that I ever really knew as much as I thought I did. I’ve learned that sometimes all I can do is to throw myself into the arms of God, and picture myself cradled in the peace of Christ, where I can find rest. That is all. In that place, resting in the peace of my Savior, I can live with not knowing, and tonight I am reminded of that.
I am currently in the early years of a new career, serving as a minister. I think that all “working parents” face the tension between family and job; certainly women ministers, whose qualifications to follow our calling are still questioned by some, often hold ourselves to unreasonable expectations in both our ministerial and family arenas. The day we left for this family reunion, just a little over two days ago, I got a call about a near tragedy – a life hanging in the balance, with no way to know which way it would go…. Others went to the hospital and have kept me updated, and there is nothing I could or can do but wait… wait for each scrap of new information. Initially totally stunned by this bad news, I felt numb, and all I could do was pray, God of Mercy, hear my prayer when I do not even know what to pray.
I want to be at the hospital, keeping vigil, and yet I am all these miles away, and, truth be told, I want to be here too with my family. While I physically relax and re-connect with family members, some of whom I only see once a year, while I laugh, play games, swap funny stories, drink wine, eat food, and have meaningful conversations, I am also waiting. I wonder. I rehearse possible outcomes. And I acknowledge more and more that I just do not know. Tonight, I accept that I do not need to know. Somehow, I am able to manage these two parts of my life, the ordinary person-wife-mother-daughter-sister-aunt part, and the minister part, which both co-exist inside of me all of the time. Somehow, I let go of the ache from the impossibility of being in two places at once. I am able to let go of needing to know if this dear one will pull through, and if so, what the future holds for her. I can let go – again – of wondering what my own future holds, professionally and personally.
I am grateful for this opportunity to be in this place, recharging my internal batteries, even if I do not fully understand how or why it is so nourishing. I can listen to this ocean, this pulse of the globe that we call earth, and I can know that One bigger and greater than me is working to make all things new. And that is all I need to know for now. Tonight, knowing that is enough.
Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.
by Liz Gandolfo
Last week I was invited to bring my two-year-old to an early childhood development class so that the students could see a toddler in action and ask me questions about his daily routine, developmental milestones, etc. I was happy to oblige as long as my four-year-old son could accompany us, which was thankfully fine with the professor. The night before we were supposed to attend the class, my five-and-a-half year old daughter was up for hours with a croupy cough. She was clearly not well enough to go to school, but she was perky enough in the morning that I decided to bring her to the class along with my two sons. Things went well for about 20 to 30 minutes or so, during which time all three kids were very shy and surprisingly silent. But then all hell broke loose. The two-year-old continued to sit quietly with me, but the older two began to wrestle (complete with sound effects worthy of WWF) right in the middle of the circular seating arrangement that was designed for more intimate access to the visiting guests, not for a circus side-show of pre-school antics. I did my best to corral the trouble-makers, but to no avail. They completely defied me and refused to be quiet or still. In my hurry that morning, I had neglected to pack crayons, a snack, or other activities that might lure them into submission. So in those painfully long 20 minutes of chaos, I longed for the ability to control my children with one stern look. A Jedi mind trick would have been helpful to have up my sleeve at that moment. But alas, a Jedi mother I am not, so I sat meekly staring at my children in horror, mortified at their behavior and my lack of ability to control my own offspring.
This is just one anecdote among many—and a particularly embarrassing one at that. How often I long for the power to control my children’s behavior—for their own safety, for my own sanity, or for the sake of raising them to be polite and respectful human beings fit for social interaction with others. I am sure there are parenting techniques that would help me gently persuade my children to heed the commands of their mother and father, and I aspire to one day master those techniques. In the meantime, my desire for some semblance of authority and control over my children is raising some interesting questions for me as a feminist theologian.
In feminist theology, power (both divine and human) is often recast in terms of relationality, reciprocity, and mutuality rather than unilateral authority, domination, or might. For many feminists, this distinction is one of power-with vs. power-over; the power of persuasion vs. the power of coercion; power-in-relation vs. power-in-control. As a feminist thinking about power structures and social relationships, I am completely on board with this vision. As a parent of small children, though, I am having a hard time with the imperative need to have at least some semblance of the old-school authoritative control over my children that I have theoretically (and politically) rejected as antithetical to the true nature of power and love. Sure, the ultimate goal of my relationship with my children is the kind of mutuality and reciprocal exchange of power that these feminist ideals uphold. But the reality is that I have three children under the age of six, and my desire for control is not entirely unwarranted. Preventing children from running out into traffic, from spitting in each others’ faces, from stabbing themselves with sharp objects, or from emptying all the bathtub water onto the floor. These are not unreasonable areas in which to hope for some authority as a parent. My primary strategy in these situations, and in our relationship as a whole, aims for persuasion and respect for my children’s developing sense self-worth. But coercion—the dreaded word that I dare not use in a positive light when I write as a feminist theologian—is often a necessity in parenting young children. The coercion of which I speak is not physically violent or abusive, of course, but it does seek to control a child’s behavior in an authoritative manner. Even the most permissive of parenting styles must admit to some need for unilaterally controlling certain behaviors in order to preserve the physical safety of children.
The necessity of some degree of coercion in parenting leaves me wondering whether and how power as authority and control might fit into a feminist theology committed to mutuality and respect. Is there a rightful place for coercion in feminist theological accounts of divine power, human interaction, or ethical action? Or is parenting young children the sole exception to the unacceptability of power as coercion in feminist theology (if it is an exception at all)? It is only in writing this blog post that I have even been able to even formulate these question, and I have no answers to offer here. So your thoughts on these matters are most welcome. What do you see as the place of power, coercion and control in parenting? In life? In theology? In ethics?
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.