*Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
This week I have enjoyed a prolonged meditation on an essay by Canadian Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser called "The Domestic Monastery." The basic theme Rolheiser communicates in this essay is that mothers can live a contemplative life, even (and especially) amidst the isolation, drudgery, and interruptions of daily domestic life, if we recognize that every sacrifice is a reminder that our time is not our own, but God's. Among the ups and downs of my journey into parenthood over the past few years, I really needed to hear this.
The truth is that it has been hard. I did not really feel prepared by anything I had ever attempted before, not even the grueling work of inner-city teaching, for the constant sacrifices of parenting. In a recent column entitled "Parental Pity Party" NYTimes writer Ross Douthat recently called these sacrifices "medieval" and I like that choice of word, it implies all the physicality and pre-modern drudgery (hard, repetitive physical labor) that parenting has meant for me.
Growing up, I internalized the unspoken values of the middle-class world where I lived: education was of primary importance to success in life. Those who did well in school (I qualified) should go on for more school and embark on successful, innovative careers to shape their community and world. It was a grand, idealistic vision, and it didn't leave much time for the basic physical tasks of life, like cooking from scratch, washing up, doing laundry, cleaning toilets, sweeping and mopping floors, and so on. Since my mom did most of those things for me, so I could focus on my own intellectual work, I never learned the repetitive importance of these tasks, and just kind of assumed that there would always be someone else to help me out with them, a convenient, industrial economy, hired help, etc.
I don't fault anyone but myself for the short-sightedness and ungratefulness of this attitude, but that was how I thought. It made plenty of sense, even through my single life on my own and my early marriage. I had achieved what was promised: a comfortable middle-class teaching job with plenty of disposable income to buy easy, processed food, send my laundry out, and I wasn't home enough to make much of a mess or a fuss about cleaning.
But it didn't make any sense at all of the sudden, painful, irrational jolt of parenthood! I had left behind that comfortable teaching job for more schooling (not a pragmatic decision, but a good one) and emerged three years later victorious and heavily pregnant.
And parenthood was a jolt from the intellectual and idealistic career-building pursuits of grad school into the daily drudgery of stay-at-home parenting. And though I found many aspects rewarding (mostly, I loved being with Lucy like crazy and would do anything for her), I came to resent the fact that the food, laundry and cleaning didn't do themselves anymore. In fact, they exploded into a Herculean task. And this time--without me going back to work and sacrificing all that I loved about being with Lucy--there was no way to pay my way out. I've had to confront the fact that I didn't value these basic life tasks, learn to do them and learn to live into them intentionally--or at least to just plain get them done so I can get on with my life. I've finally realized and faced up to the fact (silly girl) that ain't nobody gonna do this work for me anymore.
In the midst of all that mess (including my own mental selfishness, laziness and elitism), Rolheiser's piece challenges me. Especially the beautiful image at the end of the monastic bell--the bell that rings throughout the day to call monks to move to a new activity like mealtime, worktime, or communal prayers. St. Bernard emphasized in his writings that the monastic bell teaches a monk that his time is not his own, it belongs to God. Every time it rings, whether he is ready or not, he must lay down his own agenda for his time and move along to the next thing.
If we had the wrong idea in our heads that being a monk meant an escape from the mundane worldly realities of life for a life of prayer, the monastic bell shows us that that's not true at all! Life must still be lived, but with different priorities. Rolheiser draws out how that same monastic bell rings in the life of a mother every time her child needs something from her or her work presses. She must drop everything and attend to the situation.
But I have found that I could either resent the ringing of the bell (not a very effective strategy for mental health, by the way, because it's just going to keep on ringing anyway, but resentment is a valid choice), or I can accept its ringing and respond gratefully. It depends on whether I am willing to trust God, to acknowledge that my time is not my own, it is his, graciously given to me. I want to use this time wisely, investing in God's invisible, upside-down kingdom with my daily work. I hope that still involves an innovative career down the road, but all that I have is now, and what I have now is preparing for baby, keeping my home, and loving on Clint and Lucy.
So, each morning with the "Mommy, Mama, Mommy" that wakes me, with the "Mama, read this book now," with the repeated emptying of the dishwasher and tackling the towering pile of laundry, I choose, again, to trust.
This post is linked up with Amy's Trusting Tuesdays at her blog The Messy Middle.
**edited on March 25th because I noticed I got my saints and monastic rules wrong... it was St. Bernard Rolheiser cited about the bell, not Benedict. My apologies. :)