“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).
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?
Nicole 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.
“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.
“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 theYouTube 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.
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.
“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.
Amy 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.
People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.
Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again. It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.
At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.
I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”
Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.
Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?
I suspect the answer is almost every time.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:
Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.
Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.
Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.
Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.
Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.
We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.
The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).
I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.
There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.
And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.
I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.
Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”
I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.
The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to ask my dad, Kevin Walsh, a few questions.
Considering that many of us do not know our fathers, I am very blessed to have a very loving, supportive and caring father. My dad is a deep thinker, knowledgeable, wise, prayerful and at times, very jovial. He also has a great sense of humor. I didn’t give him any warning that I was going to do this or give him much time to think about the questions, so I am very grateful he agreed. Still, he had a disclaimer. He said, “Being that I have a short-sleeved shirt on, this all very off-the-cuff.”
What is one of the best things about being a dad?
Watching my children grow from infants, from children, to young adults and into adulthood and moving on in their lives. Helping you interpret different things going on in your lives and in your environment and supporting you through different milestones. Teaching you kids to go with the flow but responding when you need to for the sake of justice, for the sake of your own self-esteem and what you have learned is right.
In other words, to quote something I’ve heard from others, the best thing is “to give my children roots and wings.” I tried to give the roots of Christianity and roots of understanding your heritage. Roots in a disciplined and ordered life. Roots so you know that we’re here on earth to make a difference—which kind of fits with the Christianity thing, and living simply and simply living.
Those are a hodgepodge of things. Some are roots. Some are wings. Some are both roots and wings.
What is one of the hardest things about being a dad?
Watching my children suffer; watching them struggle and knowing I am powerless over their struggle. Knowing their struggle is their struggle and they need to figure it out. I’ve taught my children how to fish and now they need to put their hook in the water and they have to fish.
The hardest thing was when you got injured when you had your accident and fell off the cliff.
[Note from Sister Julia: My dad is referring to an accident I had in the summer of 2007 that left me in critical condition for several days. I have not (yet) written publicly about the experience, but I once told the story in front of a live audience during a special event with The Moth.]
Was that really the hardest moment in all your years of being a dad and for all four of us kids, Dad?
Yes, most recently at least. Also when Hans [my brother] was born and was having seizures, that was awful also.
Watching a person suffer and knowing you’re helpless and powerless over that situation is awful—when that person is your child and you are a parent it’s really awful, for as a parent you want to be a nurturer.
But that’s not to say that the pain and suffering wasn’t formative. I grew tremendously because of that experience both emotionally and spiritually. The growth I had is unfathomable.
How has being a dad changed you as a person?
It’s made me more human in that I have experienced and have learned how to love like I never loved before.
It’s made me understand the same responsibilities that God has for his creation. So it has changed me and made a co-creator with God and given me responsibility to take care of creation and to realize the Creator’s work is never done. There’s always newness and renewal coming in the relationship between the Father and the children—as well as potential for renewal between me and my children.
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.
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.
As I came walking down the hall to return to you just now, returning triumphant with the coffee I set out to retrieve, I saw another expectant father sitting outside the operating room … sitting outside the room in his scrubs, waiting to start his new life, waiting as I was waiting just a short day ago. Just a day ago, yesterday, the day you and I met. I remember standing where he was standing, being nervous as he was nervous, trying to look brave as he was trying to look brave. My heart went out to him, and I prayed every good thing for him. I sincerely and deeply wished him peace. And you might not understand why, but this is very good news. It was in the wake of this moment, my dear daughter, that I felt a great flash of hope.
You see my love; I had one great fear when I heard you would be born. I had one great fear about what will happen to me now that I have accepted this new mantle of fatherhood.
My fear wasn’t that I wouldn’t love you—I knew I’d love you. I hear some fathers worry about that, but I didn’t. I knew I’d love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. I have already loved you, since that first moment when your mommy told me you were begotten.
My fear wasn’t that I wouldn’t be a good daddy. I figured I’d be at least a pretty good daddy. The most important thing you need in order to be a good daddy is to truly want to be one, and the biggest factor in truly wanting to be one is loving your child. And as I said, I have love for you in abundance. If I have that—and I do—then I’m sure I will put in the work and the study and the sacrifice I’ll need in order to be a good father for you.
No, my fear wasn’t really about you at all. Can you keep a secret, my daughter? For this is the sort of thing we should perhaps not share. You see; my fear was that I would no longer love them. Them. They. Everyone else. Everyone not in this room with you and I right now. My fear, my little princess, was that my deep and devouring love for you would drown out any love I might have ever felt for a stranger, or even a friend. I was afraid that the universal love our Master preaches, and which I have tried to practice, would be abandoned in favor of total focus on you. I was scared that I would abandon charity and agape in favor of isolating, albeit passionate, tribalism. I was terrified that the big, bright, burning torch of my love for you would consume all, and the small candles of love I might have felt for anyone else would snuff out altogether.
I saw my future self, and I feared him. I saw myself wide-eyed and deranged, frothing and screaming “Let the world starve as long as my little girl is fed! Let the world freeze as long as my little girl is warm! I will kill, steal, bite, and claw an innocent if it will give her even the slightest comfort or advantage!”
I have seen it happen. Maybe not to the degree I imagined it in my nightmares, but I have seen it happen nonetheless. People have children and they close themselves off from the ministry they did before, from those they loved before. All of sudden the ills of the world don’t seem so bad: feeding the hungry of the world doesn’t seem so pressing, as long as your child’s belly is full; fixing the broken schools of the world doesn’t seem that important, as long as your child is enrolled in a good one. Such people laugh to themselves. “Ha! Remember the quests of our younger days? Ha ha! Remember our naiveté and foolishness?” It’s a selfishness that is able to wrap itself in selflessness because it’s other-directed—you want this for your child, not yourself, so how could it be wrong?
But “your neighbor” does not end with “your kin.”
I have also seen people rise above. In quiet heroism they do not neglect their children, but neither do they turn their backs on the world. Their family includes all of Jesus’ mothers and brothers and sisters, not just the ones who share their blood.
I know that I have not been, nor will ever be, a perfect Christian. But I can now safely say that I will not abandon the Way because of you. In looking at that man in the hallway, I thought to myself, “He is waiting for his Jackie.” And it dawned on me that everyone, everywhere, is somebody else’s Jackie. At some point, maybe only on the day they were born, someone loved them the way I love you now. And, even if not a single human ever has, God loves them that way. If the wonderful rumors of God’s love are true He might love them even more than that (though such a thing is, admittedly, hard to imagine).
And the knowledge of that love unsettles something within me. How can I turn my back on someone else’s Jackie when they are in need? How can I look away from a cold or tired Jackie? How can I refuse a Jackie who needs help or comfort? My love for you does not weaken my desire to serve; rather, it bolsters it … it is teaching me a new lesson about what love is and toward what it calls us. If I am too much a sinner to see Christ in all of my brothers, perhaps I can at least start by seeing you in all of my sisters.
I had a Jesus moment while putting my daughters to bed the other night. My 3 year old was sick: fever, cough, runny nose, etc., and it was clear that she was going to need some special attention in order to fall asleep. Instead of going through our typical evening proceedings, I gave her a teaspoon of honey and tried to rock her to sleep. But as I did so, my younger daughter became increasingly distressed: she wanted her normal bedtime routine.
My husband and I have worked hard to establish a predictable sequence of events leading up to bedtime, and our girls appreciate the consistency. But, sometimes, circumstances demand that the routine be disrupted.
And that’s uncomfortable.
My younger daughter was upset because I had breached the established order of things. I had broken the rules. As she fussed and clung to me and tried to stop me from rocking her sister, I became irritated. Couldn’t she see that, right now, the needs of her sister trumped the “rules”? After untangling her from my leg for the umpteenth time, it struck me that this was probably exactly how Jesus felt when he was reproached by the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his wise compassion, knew that giving sight to the blind was far more important than following the rules. But, much like my daughter felt unmoored without her typical bedtime routine, Jesus’ disregard for the rules made the Pharisees feel insecure, and they reacted with scorn and judgment.
I am frequently a Pharisee.
But here’s an encouraging thought: although I was irritated by my younger daughter’s dogmatic approach to bedtime, I certainly didn’t love her any less because of it! I was, in fact, very sympathetic to her discomfort; I wished only for her to understand that, although I cherish them both equally, her sister’s need was greater in that moment.
As Catholics, we profess a Preferential Option for the Poor. This is a rich and provocative theological concept to which entire books are devoted, but it essentially boils down to this: God is most present to those who are most vulnerable and—as followers of Christ—we must similarly prioritize the poor. One of my spiritual directors described it this way:
Theologically, the notion of preference says more about the goodness of God than it does about the goodness of the poor. It does not mean the poor are necessarily more virtuous, more deserving, or more holy than those who are not poor… It means that God reaches out in love to those who have a greater need. —
When one of my daughters is sick, I reach out to her with a special kind of love, not because she is better than her sister, but simply because she needs me more. As a mother, it is easy—instinctual, even—to give preference to a sick child without wavering in love for her healthy sibling.
As a community member, churchgoer, and citizen, it’s a lot tougher.
We who believe in a Preferential Option for the Poor are called to stand in solidarity with and prioritize the most vulnerable. That may sound romantic, but this is messy, difficult, and sometimes exceedingly unpopular work. Still, we are called to do it with cheerful hearts.
Even as we break the rules in order to uplift the vulnerable, and even as we ourselves cling to the rules in order to maintain our own comfort, we must remember this: although he preferred the disciples, Jesus did not love the Pharisees any less.
I find that fact to be both distressing and reassuring. I am distressed because it means I must look with love upon those whose actions I deplore. I am reassured because it means that my own deplorable actions have not made me unlovable.
… And I know this to be true, because no matter how many times my daughter fusses or clings or tries to sabotage her sister’s special time, I could only ever see her as my beloved.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a mom, writer, and friend of Sister Julia’s. She finds that putting a theological spin on her daughters’ behavior helps maintain her sanity.
I hate it when my children are sick: when their normally endless energy is replaced by a whimpering lethargy. When their bleary eyes can muster no enthusiasm for treats or excursions. When I know they are suffering and there’s nothing I can do to make it better.
Except for snuggles. Oh, how I love to snuggle my daughters when they’re sick!
I love to snuggle them anytime, of course, but toddlers are squirmy and busy and generally disinclined to sit in one place for any amount of time. But when they’re sick they come willingly, imploringly for snuggles. They bury their faces in my shoulder and wrap their arms and legs around me, as if physical contact will somehow cool their feverish limbs. They doze and cuddle and listen to lullabies.
And my heart swells with love.
I hate it when they’re sick … But I cherish those sick snuggles more than they will ever know.
That thought gives me pause to consider my relationship with God. Like many people, I tend to seek God out far more fervently when I am in need of comfort than when everything is copacetic. The most difficult times in my life have corresponded, un-coincidentally, with the times in which I have felt closest to God.
I’ve always felt guilty about that.
Why am I able to find the time to sit in silence and listen for God’s word when my spirit is sick, but not when all is well? Shouldn’t I spend as much time thanking God in the land of milk and honey as I spend asking for deliverance from the desert?
Acutely aware of this spiritual weakness, my prayers during those troubled times often begin with an apology: “God, I know I’ve been neglecting you, and I’m sorry I don’t spend as much time with you as I should … But I really need you right now.”
I feel compelled to confess my devotional failures before I venture toward God in supplication–as though my prayers are less valid because they are made under duress …. or as though God will be less inclined to comfort me because I have not sufficiently nurtured our relationship.
But if my experience as a mom is even remotely indicative of the love that God has for us as children, then this is not how God cares for the afflicted.
When my daughters approach me with runny noses and sore throats, seeking sympathy and comfort, I don’t ask them, “Where was this affection when I was taking you to the park or coloring with you?!” I simply gather them into my arms and treasure them.
I want only for them to snuggle in and abide in my love.
So the next time I find myself in need of spiritual comfort, I’ll try to remember that God cherishes any opportunity to lavish me with love. I’ll breathe in the divine essence that surrounds me, knowing that God, too, is breathing me in with an infinite tenderness – a tenderness of which I’ve only had a glimpse in this life, while snuggling my sick children.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle, Washington, area, where the flu season apparently started early this year.