In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.”   – Rumi

“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”

This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately.  Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience.  But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.  I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail.  He does not remember.  Do you?  Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago.  Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray.  As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly.  At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face.  By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!”  The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”

That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week.  As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment.  It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way.  The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation.  I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.  

“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.”  But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”

“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again.  I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it.  There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.”  One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking.  My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast.  I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child.  Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.”  Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh.  How did Mary feel?  Was she exhausted and exasperated?  Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles?  Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands.  It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.

The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle.  My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry.  I say more “no’s” than necessary.   I am not the person or parent I want to be.  Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence.  Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says.  “I can’t, my sweet boy.”  A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.”   Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence.  In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.”  However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Weaning the weight of wistful nostalgia

I am in the process of weaning my almost two-year-old daughter. Although I have enjoyed a wonderful nursing relationship with her since she was born, it’s time to break it off. Whereas breastfeeding used to be a tender, relaxing, sometimes-euphoric experience, it has recently become a burden of which I wish to free myself.

I have been pregnant and/or breastfeeding for four and a half years straight, and I am ready to have my body back to myself. I am ready to be able to take whatever cold medication I want. I am ready to wear a normal bra. I am ready for my daughter (the second in succession) to stop trying to reach down my shirt in public. I am absolutely ready to wean her.

And yet.

Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com

There is a not-so-small part of me that is not ready; one that, I suspect, will never be ready. It’s the part of me that wishes to deny–all evidence to the contrary–that my baby is no longer a baby. It’s the part of me that desperately wants to cling to this beautiful season of motherhood for a few more days or a few more weeks or perhaps forever.

I am, you see, one of those obnoxious women for whom breastfeeding was relatively easy and immensely fulfilling. I have felt blessed and amazed by my body’s ability to nourish both my daughters outside the womb. I have loved maintaining a biological connection with them long after birth. I have (perhaps selfishly) been gratified that there is something that I–and nobody else in the world–could provide my girls. In short, I have cherished the act of nursing my babies.

And now I’m almost done.

By the time I weaned my older daughter, I was midway through my second pregnancy. I was exhausted, sore, and underweight, so the decision to wean was easy. This time, though, there is no new baby on the way … and I don’t think there ever will be. Though my husband and I never presume to know God’s plan for us, our own is to grow our family through fostering and/or adopting children. So when my daughter nurses for the last time, it is likely the last time I will ever do this thing that has brought me such joy and peace and purpose.

I am ready … But I am wistful.

This reluctant melancholy is by no means unique to nursing mothers. We’ve all felt it at some point, as we’ve stood on the precipice of a major life transition and been assaulted by memories and emotions which threaten to paralyze us. We move forward slowly, warily, weighed down by the wistfulness we carry in our hearts.

We carry this wistfulness because we cannot carry all the circumstances of the past which made the past so sweet. There is a part of me that will always long for the nursing relationship I have shared with my daughters … but that doesn’t mean I want to nurse them into adulthood. And although I might say that I want my little one to remain a baby forever, of course this isn’t really true. I want her to grow into the person God created her to be, which means embracing each new phase of motherhood as it arrives.

And so we are weaning: she from me, I from her.

As I refuse more frequently her requests to nurse, and as I create new routines to replace the old, I find myself returning to a Scripture passage that resonates even more with me now than it did at my wedding years ago:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11-13

Now I know my daughter only in part. I can think of nothing more worth the weight of wistful nostalgia than the assurance that as she grows, I will know her–and love her–more fully. So, together, she and I will put an end to this particular childish thing, and abide in what remains.

~ Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. She is aware that writing about breastfeeding is a surefire way to ignite the Mommy Wars, but as she previously blogged, she is a conscientious objector to these conflicts.