Bread, art and a kindergarten heart

 

“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”

My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.

As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.

But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.

Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).

As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”

She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.

I sighed, disappointed.

“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”

She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.

“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”

“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).

paper--plate-hearts
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.

And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.

How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?

Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?

I love you because you feed me.

communion-chalice-bread
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.

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.

Praying with children crawling every which way

Recently—and a bit ironically, considering my vocation—my life has offered me an opportunity to learn all sorts of lessons about prayer and parenting.

When I was in temporary vows a few years ago I agonized about my vocation a lot. I agonized about why it was that I was called to be a Sister, especially since marriage and motherhood were also so incredibly attractive to me. I was tormented by my conflicting and equally good desires. I doubted my abilities and even the discernment that led me to religious life and kept me sticking around. “Why?!” was my perpetual question that spiraled around in my prayers and cycled on repeat through every conversation with my spiritual director.

Then, one day, while on retreat and feeling elated in the silence and solitude I was soaking up the answer dawned upon me: I am a Franciscan sister because solitude and silence help me thrive.

It was easy to picture myself as a mother and a wife. My love would be intense and I would be enthusiastic about serving and creating a strong, happy and healthy family. I knew that I’d sacrifice my needs for the sake of others and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy true solitude and prayer—to unite with God in silence. I suspected that my relationship with God would be basically put on hold for 20 years and I couldn’t bear the thought; couldn’t imagine myself as calm and grounded without a strong prayer life. Rather, all I could envision was a frantic, stressed and overwhelmed version of myself–not exactly a peaceful woman who was joyfully living the Gospel.

Perhaps I was afraid of who I might become. More than likely, though, the Spirit was guiding me to the truth of who I was made to be: a Franciscan Sister grounded in prayer and community, free to serve and love anyone who entered my life.

For the past month I have been very fortunate to stay at my younger sister’s farm in southwest Iowa–and in a sense, test out my intuition about what life would have been like as a mother. My sister is a businesswoman, a farmer, a wife, and a parent; my precious niece is three months old and my adorable nephew is three and half. During these weeks my intuition has been affirmed: yes, indeed, my prayer life is different with kids around.

My niece and me, July 2016

But, it turns out that I am not exactly frantic, stressed nor ungrounded after all.

It’s taken me a while to understand how this happened. I’ve realized that assisting with childcare hasn’t actually decreased my prayer life, but rather prayer has taken on a whole new form and shape. In this setting prayer happens between diaper changes and bouncing the baby while my sister squeezes in a meeting or a nap. Morning and evening psalms are prayed in a bouncy, choppy manner while a curious preschooler creates an imaginary play world around me.

My nephew and I, July 2016
My nephew and me, July 2016

Mostly, though, God’s presence is known through the ordinary sacredness of viewing the world through the lens of childhood—as a beginner person and a person in need. My niece stares out the the window at the green life moving in the breeze and her expression of pure wonder and awe remind me not to take God’s creation for granted. My nephew cries out “I want someone to play with me!” and interrupts my tasks with a reminder that attending to a vulnerable child is one of the best ways to unite with God’s love and listen to God’s voice.

For certain, I have learned that the prayer of parents and childcare workers is the prayer of action. It is on-the-go, and in-between. For some families prayer may be structured and formal, but for most it’s likely the holy raptness of ordinary chaos. It is listening and responding to a child’s cries, questions, or made-up story. It is asking the child to lead the meal time prayer. It is responding to the question of “How did God make the cabbage purple?” with “It is a beautiful mystery! Isn’t God amazing?!” It is, as Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rousers Nicole and Steven have each written about, integrating Truth and wonder into the messy, loving relationships and constant service of family life. It is psalms enacted and adoration of God everywhere, just like the sort of stuff that Sister Sarah will speak about in a webinar later this week.

Although my experience this past month has been a blessing and a teacher, I still feel affirmed in my vocation as a Franciscan Sister. As my time here comes to a close, I look forward to returning to my more familiar form of religious life, to sharing daily life with my FSPA sisters and a bit more structured prayer. There, I’ll pray united with parents everywhere who commune with God in the art of childcare every chaotic, beautiful day.

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.

Toddler Tantrums and the Kingdom of God

By Guest Blogger Nicole Wooldridge.

It was one of those moments every parent dreads: my two-year-old had worked herself into an ugly public tantrum, and I had to abandon our planned activity in order to haul her thrashing body out to the car. Frustrated and embarrassed, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Seriously, Jesus? The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”

Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  –Luke 18:16-17

Before I was a mom, I never really pondered the Bible passages in which Jesus encourages His disciples to become like little children. I assumed He was extolling children’s innocence and telling us to return to the purity of our youth.

But now I know better.

Little children are far from innocent. They are impatient, volatile, jealous, and unreasonable. They are, as it turns out, younger versions of the human species, and the human species has only ever produced one perfect human.

So why does Jesus hold these tiny tyrants in such high esteem?

As my daughter approaches her third birthday, I have a few thoughts on the matter (insert requisite disclaimer that I am not a biblical exegete… just a mom who has observed her kids for the past few years): Though they are not innocent, per se, young children are exceptionally transparent; their flaws and failings -be they fits of anger or refusal to share a toy- are out there for the world to see. Even their occasional attempts at deception are laughably obvious (ie: my daughter announcing from another room, “Mama, I didn’t make a mess!”). If they are angry with you, they do not subtly contrive to tear you down –they simply throw a fit.

When children misbehave, they do so with glorious flagrance.

And that, I think, is what Jesus was driving at: whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. So, in those wonderful moments in which our kids are not humiliating us, the face of God shines brilliantly through their wide-open eyes. A seemingly insignificant activity, like playing in the sprinklers on a summer day, is a downright awe-inspiring experience for my daughter. She does not guard herself or her emotions, but runs headlong into the adventures of each day.

It’s easy, then, for me to picture the little ones of Jesus’ time as they ran toward Him, laughing and jostling one another in their haste, completely oblivious to the impropriety of their gusto. In those days, children dwelled in the periphery of society, their immaturity excluding them from full membership in the community. Yet despite their lowly station, these children easily recognized and sought out the loving power of Jesus (as did so many of “the least of these”).

photo by Nicole Wooldridge
“Crying Baby” photo by Nicole Wooldridge

Nowadays, we afford children more respect than did the ancient Jews, but the fact remains that our kiddos are wholly dependent upon us to meet their needs. Amazingly, this relative powerlessness does not burden them with feelings of unworthiness or insecurity (as it likely would you or me), but instead frees them to experience life with a passion that knows neither limits nor shame. When my daughter belts out “Jesus Loves Me,” she doesn’t apologize for her untrained voice… And she doesn’t doubt for a second that the words she sings are true. So why do we?

We are all of us imperfect, but perfectly loved anyway.

I sometimes wonder how much deeper my relationship with Christ would be if I ran toward Him with as much unbridled eagerness as my daughter runs toward me: arms outstretched, grinning or sobbing, unself-conscious of anything other than our mutual love. How much more loudly would my life proclaim the love of God if I were unencumbered by an instinct for self-preservation? How much more devout a disciple would I be if I could not hide my own brokenness behind an exterior of apparent self-sufficiency?

In other words: how much worthier of the Kingdom of God would I be if, rather than pretending at nonchalance or stoking the fires of silent resentment, I followed my daughter’s example and just threw an undignified tantrum once in awhile?

 

Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia who lives near Seattle. She is the mother of an almost-three-year-old and a 1-year-old, and she considers herself lucky to have only had to abandon a public place due to a tantrum once (so far…).

Jesus and the Mommy Wars

I am a conscientious objector to the Mommy Wars.

If you’ve never heard of the Mommy Wars, then you (mercifully) missed last year’s media frenzy surrounding a Time magazine cover that featured a mom breastfeeding her four-year-old son. The accompanying article, provocatively titled “Are You Mom Enough?,” spawned a vitriolic nation-wide debate that was sadly emblematic of the Mommy Wars.

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http://www.sxc.hu
For a glimpse of the battles being waged daily, just visit an internet message board for expectant mothers. I’ve seen a discussion thread about the use of pacifiers devolve into a veritable combat zone, with pro-paci factions launching caustic condemnations at those who refuse to give their babies pacifiers (and vice versa).

Water birth or epidural? Cry-it-out or attachment parenting? Career- or stay-at-home mom/dad? For every parenting decision we make, there is an “expert” eager to explain exactly how that decision will cause irreversible damage in our children. Once, distraught by contradictory parenting books, I called my mom in a panic. “How do I know which one is right?!”

“Nicole,” she replied with wise bemusement, “there are a million right ways to raise a child.”

What a revelation! I’ve carried that advice with me even—and especially—as I’ve waded through judgment from others and the temptation to judge others. I do, of course, have strong opinions about what’s right for my family, and I have unfortunately witnessed some very wrong ways to raise a child. But, for the most part, I respect others’ parenting choices and operate under the assumption that they’re doing what’s right for them. I think most of us can agree that deeming a woman “Mom Enough” based upon her use or disuse of the pacifier is rather absurd … but, then again, welcome to the Mommy Wars!

Some would say that the Mommy Wars are yet another symptom of our fundamental brokenness. I, however, am a bit more optimistic. I believe the Mommy Wars are a reflection, albeit misguided, of our commitment to live out our parental vocations as best we can. We understand that the decisions we make in raising our children are tremendously important—perhaps more important than any other in our lives. Add in the surplus of “expert” opinions, and suddenly even minor decisions (like using a pacifier) take on an almost-mythical magnitude. Our earnest desire to do it right fuels both passion and insecurity, and we become hyper defensive of our choices. The ultimate result: the Mommy Wars.

There is a temptation, I think, to become defensive whenever we know we are doing something of profound significance. In this matter, as in so many others, our faith tradition can be instructive. Our primary vocation as Christians is to live out our baptismal calling: to bind ourselves in perfect love to God and one another. And here too, when faced with the knowledge that what we are doing really matters, we become rightfully passionate and deeply insecure. Look in the editorial section of your local diocesan publication for the latest version of “If the way you’re Catholic is different from the way I’m Catholic, then you must be wrong.”

Yet our Church belies this perspective. Joan of Arc was a warrior; Dorothy Day was a pacifist. Francis of Assisi spurned material wealth; Thomas More lived in opulence. Thérèse of Lisieux prayed in a cloistered convent; Francis Xavier was a missionary evangelist.

Clearly, our Church prescribes no single right way to be a saint. Jesus himself called fishermen, a tax collector and a zealot to be among his apostles. The diversity of the saints and apostles tells us that we can be united in mission and purpose while living out our vocation in vastly different ways. What’s saintly for one person may not translate into holiness in another. I apply the same principle to parenting: the best decision for me as a mother might be impossible or imprudent for another mom, but it has nothing to do with either of us being “Mom Enough.”

Being a mom is sufficiently difficult without the snarky comments or disapproving stares of others. We parents need to be able to turn to each other for advice, encouragement and empathy without fear of judgment from those who are doing it differently (especially because, when it comes down to it, I’m convinced we’re all basically winging it anyway).

I’m pretty sure Jesus couldn’t care less whether we give our babies a pacifier. He would—and we should—be far more concerned with whether we are giving one another love and support as we stumble along the path of parenthood. In fact, I think Jesus would take one look at those vicious mommy message boards and declare a holy ceasefire in the Mommy Wars. Let us do the same!

This week’s guest blogger, Nicole Steele Wooldridge, is a friend of Sister Julia’s. She’s a mom to a two-year-old and a two-month-old, and she really wishes her baby would take a pacifier.

Motherhood and Not-So-Simple Simplicity

By guest blogger  Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I always used to find it challenging to live out the value of simplicity in a contemporary Western context.  Now, as a mom, I find it nearly impossible.

I am blessed to be the mother of a twenty-month-old daughter and another little girl due in two months.  I desperately want them to grow up in a home that honors and reflects the values of Jesus — values which I believe are oftentimes in direct conflict with the images of traditional domestic success in this country.  And yet, as a mom who is entirely in love with and predictably devoted to her children, I struggle to disregard the pressures and compulsions of the mommy/baby industry. I want to live simply, but I also want to provide my daughters with “the best…” (insert noun here: nutrition, cognitive development-enhancing toys, opportunities in life, etc.).

From the moment I found out that I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff associated with having a baby.  Merely setting foot in Babies“R”Us made my head spin: playpens, bouncers, bottles, strollers, electric swings, toys, books, CDs, DVDs –how much of this stuff did my baby actually need?  Having lived among babies in Africa and Latin America, my assumption was “not much.”

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Photo courtesy of MorgueFile

For the first few months of my daughter’s life, my husband and I were immensely proud of the fact that we didn’t own a crib.  Initially, we made use of a thrift store bassinet, and when our baby outgrew that, we simply put her on blankets on the floor.  “See,” we thought with satisfaction, “people who fill their homes with baby stuff just aren’t trying hard enough to live simply.”  But then she started rolling.  Virtually overnight, I went from spurning the entire concept of a crib to declining a free crib because it didn’t adhere to current safety regulations (even though I knew four children had happily slept in it throughout infancy).  I wonder: would Jesus consider that to be conscientious parenting or lamentable wastefulness?  I may feel a sense of righteous indignation at the ways in which our consumerist culture preys upon a mother’s desire to provide the best for her children, but I can hardly deny that we are easy prey!

Even without being goaded by marketers, my own weaknesses cause me to fall short of the ideals of “Simple Living.”  Before my daughter’s birth, I was delighted to receive a homemade diaper wipe kit — a kit I only ended up using once.  When she began eating solids, I planned to prepare all of her baby food from fresh ingredients — but laziness, in the form of many store-bought jars of pureed concoctions, prevailed.  And, most scandalously, I confess that I never did figure out cloth diapering.  Our monthly delivery of disposable diapers (“environmentally-friendly” though they may be) always triggers a fair amount of hand-wringing guilt in me.

As my daughter grows older and we anticipate the birth of our second child, the issues surrounding Simple Living and parenthood grow ever more complex.  My husband and I frequently remind ourselves that we want to live our lives and raise our children in a way that would only make sense in light of the Gospel.  But what does that mean?  Given our limited finances, how do we balance our commitment to charitable giving with our commitment to our children?  Right now, those questions arise when we consider whether or not to spend extra money on organic food or a better stroller, but I know that tougher decisions loom ahead.  Do we pay for music lessons?  Do we enroll our kids in private school?  Do we travel abroad with them?  For me, it all boils down to a basic conundrum:  How much is justifiable in the name of providing for our children, especially when one of the things we’re trying to provide is the value of Simple Living?

If you know the answer to that question, please tell me!  I suspect, though, that this is one of those opaque moral areas requiring perpetual personal discernment. I’ve discovered that the terrain of parenting changes abruptly and dramatically with each new stage of my daughter’s development.  I must constantly re-adjust the lens through which I view my vocation as a mom in order to stay focused on what is most essential to me: giving glory to God through this gift of motherhood.

Daily, in matters both trivial and profound, I fail to do so.  But I take comfort in the words of Scripture: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

“Approach God’s throne of grace with boldness.”  I take this message to heart.  A certain sense of boldness is necessary for me to approach the Eucharistic table each week, laden as I am with a disposable-diaper-clad toddler and the weight of so many daily failures!  Yet the God of mercy and grace invites me to come and be nourished… and so I do, confident that the only way I will ever achieve authentic simplicity is with and in the One who simply loves.

This week’s guest blogger, Nicole Steele Wooldridge, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors (in body and spirit) in Chicago, Ill.  She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, and very pregnant belly.  She spends her days chasing a toddler, working at a community college, and struggling to live out this thing called discipleship.