I’ve been asked lately, for a book club, to find my guiding principle. What is the goal that shapes my life? For me, that’s the easy part. It’s love. It’s always been love. Love God, love others. Not like emotional affection, but active, seek-your-best, establish harmony, shalom-seeking love. But that quest, per the book we’re reading, Life Worth Living, begins with a question: who do you answer to? For me, then, who gets to say whether what I’m doing is loving? Who gets to say what love requires? And that, dear reader, is where it gets messy.
Authority demanded Obedience
In my first career—a short lived and ill advised foray into Christian ministry— “loving” meant pointing people toward the moral and ethical structures of Christianity as interpreted by current discourse among pastors and preachers. Those pastors would say their authority is “the Bible,” but I didn’t tell a single damn college student to marry pairs of sisters, pillage Jericho, or wear a head covering. The real authority was the discourse about the Bible, and it included a love that was often painful and even cold at times, in pursuit of “alignment with God’s purposes ” or, for short, “God’s will.” I owe about a million apologies for my participation in the discourse, but I was also being eaten alive by it.
I was bad for others, and I was bad for me. Those purposes of God (for women) as defined by the heavily capitalistic, patriarchal cabal of leadership were pretty simplistic: “Deny your desires for anything that feels good until what feels good is volunteering at church, pleasing your husband, and raising babies at home.” In that awkward time when I was not married, that meant no sex and using my free time to support women who were volunteering and having babies, or in some other way get more people to go to church. Any love, attachment, or desire that did not further these ends this was temptation. If was lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, or the pride of life: the temptations resisted by Jesus after his time in the wilderness.
In this season, I took my name-brand advanced degree and spent it raising my $16,000 per year salary, and regularly having my writing and work dismissed, diminished, and demeaned. I treasure the lives of the college kids I mentored, but professionally I was constantly, and egregiously disrespected. But, I told myself, this was what love required, that I starve out the idol of ambition. The idol of respect.
Idealism demanded Perfect Selflessness
My ministry imploded, and I gave myself to ambition. I worked two jobs, hustled, networked, and traveled. I met people who re-awakened my soul and my imagination. I rekindled a love for not just the world, but aspects of the world I’d been told to ignore or run away from. The purpose and desire and delight of that season was so heady.
And then I had children.
My imagination of motherhood was one of deep nurture, in which I would delight in the intimate knowledge of their needs and my unique ability to meet them. I would feel the glow of that life-giving bond cascading onto my marriage, and onto grandparents, aunts, and neighbors. The reality of motherhood was near constant conflict between their needs and mine. They needed to nurse while my nipples were bleeding. They needed to be held while I desperately needed to sleep. Lewis, who is now the most amazing partner in the whole keeping-the-children-alive project, was not fully *there* yet. I had gone from the wife who believed that my purpose was fulfilling his every dream (at the occasional expense of my own), to the mom who believed that my purpose was fulfilling my children’s every need (at the constant expense of my own). Lewis was not yet adjusted, and because he was used to depending on me to shine like the sun, he did have some legitimately unmet emotional needs.
When my children cried, it felt like an indictment. I literally said, about Moira, “She wouldn’t cry if I hadn’t somehow failed to meet her needs.”
Friends, she was two months old. There’s nothing a two month old is better at than crying.
I struggled every time I left the house, even though I quickly learned the truth of the third-wave feminist axiom: working makes me a better mom. It was good to take some of the intensity off of them, to go get my complete thoughts and achievement-oriented energy out somewhere else. But I also felt rotten for having that need. I felt like it was selfish, not my selfless ideal, to need anything that was more than simply “to see my children thrive.”
Love, in this version of family life, required me to have no needs outside what was fulfilled by meeting the needs of my husband and children. It required me to be superhuman—not a thread in the tapestry of our life, but the loom on which is was woven.
All I can Be is Faithful
When my youngest was two years old, I took a career risk that ended with me unemployed and freelancing while stuck in San Antonio, one of the most difficult places in the country to build a freelance career (or a journalism career at all, for that matter). Meanwhile I was being mom to two toddlers. The scope of all I would not be able to do, the ambitions that would not be fulfilled, the impact unmade, would often overwhelm me. I’d feel the need to strategize and create contingencies. To somehow prove that I had not thrown my career away, and stolen time from my children all for nothing.
And then, miraculously sometimes, I would feel a calm connection with God, and I would think: just do what’s in front of you with integrity. Do the best you can, and trust that the next thing will come.
It became my mantra to this day: Just be faithful.
My career has grown more slowly than I’ve wanted it to, but with great joy. I have pursued not only projects that were “good” in the noble and moral sense, but ones that brought me pleasure. I have found the place where my delight and the shalom of the world intersect, and in that found the small part I am to play as a single instrument, limited but unique, in the symphony. My role is small, but it is not demeaning or subservient the way my ministry was. It is guided by both desire and Spirit, and a constant commitment and practice to bring those two things more and more in line. The more I cultivate connection to Source/Spirit/God, the more these tiny notes are imbued with the significance of the song of the universe.
Faithfulness is also all I can do at home.
What faithfulness requires with my children is an ongoing revelation. They need me to keep them alive, and to affirm the deep value of their lives. They need me to do my duty and feed their bodies, but to prioritize the connection between us that will feed their souls. Moms are all different, and we manifest our love and care in different ways. The same actions can come from striving perfectionism in one mom and from exuberant love in another. My friend loves making these ridiculously adorable lunch creations for her kids—to their mutual delight. She’s not trying to prove anything. She also travels for work a lot, and goes out for drinks with friends. She does other spiritual and emotional things with and for her kids as well, obviously. All in freedom.
My mutual delights are 1) adventures based on the kids most obscure interests, and 2) talking about “stuff that matters.” I enjoy talking to them about God, sex, and universal basic income. Whatever they want to ask about, they know they can ask. Openness is our jam. Gourmet dinners are not. We watch too much television. I lose my temper more than I want to. Sometimes I sit in the car in the grocery store parking lot and listen to podcasts because I’m not ready to go home and interact with anyone yet.
A lot of times 1) what my kids want, 2) what I enjoy giving, and 3) what is best for them are ALL at odds. They want to watch f-ing Mr. Beast on the Roku channel, I enjoy letting them binge Bob’s Burgers with me, and really they should have been off screens an hour ago. This is the normal dilemma every parent knows. We all do our best to prioritize long term goals, but fall back on short term sanity when we need to. We are faithful to the project of giving our kids the best we can, and that is going to mean easing up on the ideals sometimes. It certainly means rejecting those authorities whose interest in your core relationships is financial or political. Or really even those who don’t share your goals.
I have a very hard time really believing that I, with all of my shortcomings and not-enoughness, am the right mom for my kids. They need me to be present, but also to step back when I’ve become a destabilizing presence. They need me to tend my own shit, so that I can help them grow into adults who can tend theirs. Would it be ideal if I were never myself an emotional typhoon? Yes. But refusing to acknowledge the typhoon (because taking time to care for myself might rob them of some nugget of constant maternal nurture) is the recipe for disaster.
I get the concern, which I’ve mostly heard grumbled by unhealed people, that a mom doesn’t have the luxury of tending to her every wound. Sometimes we have to just grit our teeth and do what our kids need. I mean sure, if they are crying and we want to cry too, maybe we tend to their tears first. But also there’s this fear that if we allow ourselves to say “I’m doing this because I need to” then we will say that about everything, and before you know it, we’ll get all pedicures and piña coladas in the name of self-care.
But might I suggest that all that obedience training in our youth…and the imagination of selflessness in our families…is actually what leads us to think that we cannot trust ourselves to know the difference between needs and wants? That we don’t know where faithfulness ends and martyrdom begins? Or subservience? I think we need to talk about reclaiming goodness of desire in the context of faithfulness.
Speaking of that: you may have noticed that discussion of marriage was conspicuously absent from this post. Marriage was nibbling around the edges, but I didn’t really GO there. That’s because it’s about to get its own post. Because that’s where the big test of desire and faithfulness happens.
Remember that pleasing my husband was ingrained in me as a core purpose. Remember I was told that marriage was about duty to God, and my desires couldn’t be trusted. In the ideal of family life, I felt like any need Lewis could not meet was a need that I should not have. ANY NEED. Conversation, companionship, intellectual stimulation, excitement, desire, adventure, laughter, logistical assistance, help around the house, emotional support. I’m going to devote a whole other blog to that list, honestly, because I truly think that we, culturally, have been evolving the wrong way on this for a long time. We’re heaping more expectations on to one person, making marriage some kind of one-stop shop for every form of human connection AND AT THE SAME TIME reducing the goal of marriage to sexual monogamy. I have a whoooole thing about this and I’m going to write about it as soon as I have dress picked out for being burned at the stake.