Reassessing Motherhood

Amy Chua is at a dinner party when she tells the story about how her daughter is disrespectful to her, and she responds by calling her daughter “garbage.” The reaction of the guests is intense. She is ostracized and one woman breaks down in tears and has to leave.

I wonder what I would have done if I were at that party. Depending on how much wine I had that night, I very well could have been the person to cry and leave. I’m a very weak woman.

I’m also like so many moms who are fascinated by Amy Chua’s article comparing Western and Chinese moms. As I read her column (I don’t think there is any way that I could make it through the book without a bottle of wine, which means that crying and leaving would quickly ensue), so many thoughts swirled around me. Guilt seems to be my most accessible emotion. I’m always worried that I’m messing up somehow.

I’m a pastor in an affluent area. Most pastor parents and preacher’s kids know what that means. We make one-fourth of what our neighbors make. We are not powerful. We have a lot of conversations with our child about the inequities in Christmas gifts. We have access to this world of influence, but we’re not exactly a part of it. Our parenting looks different sometimes. We don’t have the same educational expectations of our child. We don’t have the money for private schools or tutors. Both my husband and I work a lot of hours, juggling numerous jobs to make ends meet, so we don’t even have a lot of our own energy to be funneling into forming the perfect prodigy. In all of it, we are constantly trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not important in parenting.

As I read Amy Chua’s article and the responses, that question kept ringing in my mind. What is the most important in our parenting?  What do we want for children? Is it success? Is it happiness? Is it something else?

For me, because of my faith (and maybe even because we simply can’t keep up with the Joneses), it is something else. As a mother and a Christian, my greatest hope is not that my child will be a gifted concert pianist by the age of fifteen. It is not even that she achieves academic success that reaches far beyond her peers. It is not that she attends an Ivy League school. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an anti-intellectual. I would be incredibly proud of that sort of success, but it is simply not the most important thing that I want to model or instill.

I’m not even sure that my greatest hope as a parent is that my child will be happy. Happiness is noble goal, but it also seems fleeting. On most days, I’m a happy person. But with the burdens of humanity there are times, in the face of death or tragedy, that happiness is not even appropriate.

No, my greatest goal as a parent, the thing that I hope to model and endue is love. I’m not merely relating that I want my child to know that I love her, even if I call her “garbage” in front of a dinner party and a million readers. What I’m saying is that I want to instill a notion that we are to love our neighbors. No matter how successful they are, no matter how much they accomplish, we care for one another because all humans have dignity and worth. When a person doesn’t achieve in our Western society, we already have a culture that already denies them food and a place where they can relieve themselves. My hope is that within our home, within our church, in our neighborhood, our children will be able to develop a sense of compassion, care, and empathy.

And, my faithful hope is that each child will be able to love him or herself. I’m not talking about a child developing a narcissistic gluttony where she devolves into Hannah Montana rockstar fantasies or someone who gains affirmation through amassing friends on Facebook. I am not talking about a bloated sense of entitlement, or the often-shallow pursuit of self-esteem. No. I hope that a child would learn to love herself so deeply that she is able to look in the mirror and appreciate what’s staring back. I’m talking about growing into a comfort with her own skin, even when it stretches and changes beyond recognition. I am talking about a love that is so fierce that when a child fails, she is able to know that she is still a good and worthy human. When a child is able to perform beautifully, or when she can never quite succeed, she is able to love. I am talking about having the internal strength that she is able to say “no” when she needs to, that she will be able to negotiate exactly what she needs in her job. I hope that a child would be able to love herself enough that she would never put up with abuse from any other human. And I hope that she loves herself enough that she would never inflict any abuse upon herself.

I have no doubt that Amy Chua loves her girls. I agree that we have a different notion about what that parental love might look like. And I’m thankful that Chua has given moms a chance to pause and to reassess. Success, happiness and love. These are all good things, but for me, the greatest is love.

A woman’s place

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I’m thinking a lot about the role of women these days. Not in the sense of clergy women so much… although a discussion about this will be forthcoming. I am thinking more of the role of the regular, pew-sitting mother. The exhausted one who is begging for children’s Sunday school during worship and falling asleep during the sermon. She is not faring well during our cultural shifts–especially in our churches.

I imagine that in many ways she looks a lot different than a mom did fifty years ago.

In the fifties and early sixties, our mainline denominations grew up in the post-war boom, with civic-minded pride, and the dominance of white, protestant culture. Women’s roles in this moment are particularly interesting. When the war effort was over and the troops came home, women who had briefly entered the workforce resumed their domestic duties.

However, new technologies were evolving and making it easier for women to work outside of the home. The dishwasher, washing machine, and clothes dryer all made things faster for women to complete their household chores, and yet, they still did not have an economy, childcare system, or societal understanding that supported a flourishing female workforce. More women began attending college and entering the educational system or the secretarial pool, but when a woman married or became pregnant, she was expected to go back home, and stay there.

So what were women going to do with all of that energy, intelligence, and imagination, once their children went to school? They found a place where their gifts could flourish. As sure as the bricks and mortar, women began to build the church, with all of those talents and volunteer hours. 

Often congregations were the center of a woman’s life, and so it followed that a spouse and children were expected to attend services every Sunday. Religious education flourished as women with strong callings to teach and preach, found a niche teaching Sunday school and leading Bible studies. Women’s groups grew up within our denominations, complete with gifted officers, abundant budgets, and full schedules. These groups became powerful influences on denominational structures, as they built alternative basis of influence outside of the traditional religious hierarchies.

 When many of the mainline denominations finally affirmed the ordination of women to become deacons, elders, and ministers, I’ve heard that some women were actually disappointed by the development. They had built up such powerful influence outside of the structures that being inside of them felt like a demotion!

Now the Mainline church is in the midst of all of this, mourning our membership decline, as the wonderful people who built our congregations in the Fifties are passing away. Our church cultures were often formed forty years ago, and there can be a certain disconnect as we reach out to our current world.

At the heart of this, I don’t think we ever quite figured out what to do about women. Our denominational culture has welcomed women clergy and academics. Of course, we have a long way to go. Many people in the pew who are still uncomfortable with a woman in the pulpit and women’s voices in our educational institutions are still an overwhelming minority, but as we look at the broad spectrum of our religious culture, we continue to be on the cutting edge in these areas.

But what about the average mom in the pew?

In the post-war culture, women kept things going. They taught Sunday school, took care of the sick and the elderly, kept the women’s programs together, and cooked the mid-week dinner.

Now, forty percent of working mothers make more than their husbands. And yet, our expectations of them have not changed much in the church. We still want wives to do way more work than their husbands do, and we do not give them the type of head-of-household respect that we give men. We still expect them to do a great deal of our housework.

Working moms are at their jobs long hours, and get very little time with their kids. The time that they do have, they often don’t want to spend it trying to police their small children in the pews. They don’t have time to keep our Sunday school running, or mid-week dinners cooking, or the deacon board populated. When they do come to church, they are often greeted by guilt-ridden invitations to attend the mid-week morning Bible study.

You know what they say–Equality begins at home. So, when we look at church cultures, are we expecting women to do most of the housework? Do we silently shame them for not keeping up with their grandmother? Do we make snide remarks about how the young women these days just don’t care about the church like women used to? Do we pass judgment on their children’s soccer schedules? Do we wonder (with big, long sighs) why they won’t take part in women’s groups? Do we expect them to do more work than we expect from their husbands?

Or, can we just give them a break? Can we begin surrounding them, caring for them, supporting them, and trying to make their lives a just a little bit easier? 

photo by imaGENEation

Family business

I asked some pastor friends, “Looking back on your career, what would you do different?”

And one answered, “I would have never been a pastor. If I knew what kind of toll the pastorate was going to have on my sons, I would have never gotten into the job.”

“Really? Then, what would you have become?”

“Anything. A secretary in a law firm. Anything other than this, really.”

It was shocking to hear. I had a sinking feeling that made me want to run home and hug my daughter. Because my husband is also a pastor, we have to be vigilant about not letting it completely consume our lives. It’s easy to go from doing something that we love doing, to letting that something grow like a cancer, until there is nothing left of our lives.

There are certain things that we can’t avoid. We have to work evenings and on weekends. And on most holidays, we have to ratchet the hours up even more. We all have cell phones and email, so that we’re on-call a lot. (But, lest I sound too pathetic–we have perks too. I take my daughter to work a lot, and everyone is happy to see her. And we have vacations. Four weeks of holiday that I have learned to relish with great intensity.)

The message of how a parent’s work can destroy a life was certainly one that stuck with me when I read Crazy for God. It’s an interesting memoir, filled with the antics of a missionary kid, who had a fantastic childhood, in many ways. 

But, there are the strange, painful realities too. Francis Schaeffer, who was known as the intellectual evangelical, who was educating the world about art and literature, was letting his young son, Frank, flounder without basic schooling.

Edith Schaeffer, who was an extraordinary hostess, setting out fine china every night, and treating every person as if he or she was royalty, welcoming anyone in their home, was also crowding out her introverted son.

As Francis and Edith allowed themselves to become martyrs for their work, they could not be there for the person who depended on them the most, who needed for them to be very much alive.

The memoir wasn’t sad. It was an interesting, inside perspective of a far-from-perfect famous Christian family. A third-culture kid (as many missionary children are called) who never felt at home in Switzerland or the U.S.

As with most dysfunctional families, there is always a scapegoat, someone who calls attention to the unhealthy system and is subsequently discredited. We’ve seen them. It’s the rebellious teenager, who seems to be sole source of the otherwise flawless family’s problems. Until you spend about five minutes with the family together and realize that he’s probably the healthiest one.

Frank Schaeffer plays that role perfectly.

Although the memoir wasn’t sad, subsequently, reading some of the reviews has been heartbreaking. It seems that Frank Schaeffer has destroyed the life work of his parents. How? By telling his perspective. By choosing a different path. By allowing himself to have his own voice.

Frank Schaeffer is in his fifties, sorting out his complicated family history, as we all must. And yet, I think the most dismal part of this story is what was not written. It’s that there is still no space for him, for his feelings, and for his voice. His parents’ ministry led to a neglect that shattered his life in very basic ways. And, as a writer, in order for Frank to put his own self back together, he will have to continue to tell his sordid story, with all the truth he can muster, even if it destroys our glossy image of what his family ought to have been.  

The tragedy of this tale is in the fact that even though his dad is dead and his mother is in her nineties, it seems he still can’t have his own room.

Child care

The great thing about being part of a second generation of women ministers is that the church-at-large needs us. We now make up a large percentage of pastors. And I’ve been hearing more stories about churches that would not consider a woman pastor, but when they went swimming in the pool of available candidates, they decided that a woman was the best match for them.

Although we still get paid less, our burnout rate is higher, and we have less chance of being called to a head of staff position, we are making progress. We can negotiate our salaries, instead of just being grateful that we got a job. We no longer have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. We no longer have to hide the differences between women and men, and we can begin thinking about things like maternity leave. Moms can even make things a bit easier for Dads so that we can start imagining family leave. And other things… like child care. 

Most religious leaders have to work when the rest of the world is off. You know, we need to be available for meetings in the evenings, sometimes on Saturdays, and (of course) on Sunday. But a problem arises for families in all of this. What if I was a single parent? What if my spouse also works? What about childcare in those odd hours of the evening? After we have paid for childcare all day, should we also be expected to pay for care in the evenings?

We had this situation in our congregation—a Wednesday evening dinner where my daughter was the only one to show up. Because my husband also had a meeting on that evening, we had to negotiate childcare. It was a tough call, and being a pastor and a mother, I felt pulled in several directions.

To open the nursery, we usually have to keep two people on staff, so the cost to the church was huge. Was it worth it?

There was resistance to opening the nursery up for only my child, but I wondered… if it was someone else’s child, would there be any debate? Should my child be treated any less than any one else’s? She is, after all, a child of our church. Our congregation has a responsibility for her that extends beyond the fact that she is my daughter. 

Finally, I knew that the church was trying to get young families to attend Wednesday night, but how could any parents go if there was no childcare available? Not having childcare because there are no children ensures that we will never have any kids.

We resolved the issue… sort of. We had childcare for a month or so, until it became clear that my daughter was the only one who was going to show. Then, we relieved the child care workers, and I quit going to Wednesday nights. Occasionally, if I’m really needed, I either bring my daughter with me or I hire a sitter at home.

So what do you think? What childcare situations have you encountered? Have you found a solution that’s fair for the church and fair for you? How much should a congregation be responsible for the care?

If I was in Palin’s shoes

I was asked this week: “If you were Sarah Palin, would you have said yes to John McCain?”

I would have hesitated, certainly. I never think about any position without considering my family. And with two pastors in the family, there is a lot to consider. Will my child have the best care possible? Is there enough flexibility in the job so that I can be a mom? How would the church respond to a mom? Would they freak out when she breast feeds in public? Do they like women? Will my child be exposed to a sexist environment, where she constantly hears unfair complaints about her mom? How will that affect her spiritually and emotionally? Does the church expect children to be perfect? Will they look after her and care for her when I can’t, or when there’s no way to hire a babysitter? Are there job opportunities for my husband? Will we have enough income to avoid marital stress?

I could go on and on… but you get the picture. Being a mother does not keep me from working, but it does make things more complicated. There are times when there may not be the perfect answer to all of these questions. And I have often looked at the messiness of our lives, and wondered if I should stay at home. But I know I would be devastated and frustrated, and I have to think about myself as well. As they say in South, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Having a working mom might be difficult, but living with a depressed mother certainly is no picnic….

Anyways, we’re not talking here about a pastorate of a 200-member church. We are talking about Vice President and, chances are, maybe even President. And we’re not talking about one child (as is my case), we’re talking about five. One who is five months old with Down’s Syndrome. And one who is five-months pregnant.

I still think I would have taken the opportunity. Perhaps I’m too driven (as may people have said about Palin), but you know why I would have taken it? Because if I was a Republican (I’m not), I would realize that my acceptance would not just affect my family, but it would affect every single family in the United States—even the most conservative ones. Our country has a deep and dark history of social oppression against women, which is largely rooted in conservative Christianity. The acceptance would change all the rules.

According to the rules of many religious conservatives in our country, women should not be in leadership positions outside or even inside of the home. Parents (and especially moms) are responsible for the indiscretions of their children. Abstinence—not birth control—is the only key that will keep young women from pregnancy and (sadly) the poverty that often results.

And in just these short days, we are beginning to see some pliability in the rules. As a woman, I’m delighted to see them changing, especially on the religious front. I love seeing Dr. Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, say that a woman can run this country, even though he once signed the dreaded document:

A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect and to lead his family. A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being “in the image of God” as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his “helper” in managing their household and nurturing the next generation.

Hhmmm… now… if a woman can run the country, can she run a church?

I’m delighted that we have a VP candidate who breast-feeds during briefings. Palin’s young daughter is pregnant, and she does not deserve the scrutiny. But idealistic abstinence policies, like the ones that Palin promotes, do deserve serious examination. As do childcare issues, support for women and infants, and family leave policies.

There are things that I don’t like seeing. I don’t like when people assume that Palin’s dumb, because she’s young and pretty (like the quick spin that compared her to Dan Quayle). I don’t like the assumption that she got the job because she’s pretty either.

Most of all, I don’t like her policies and her inexperience. Actually, I don’t know many of her policies, because of her inexperience (and no, I don’t buy the argument that her experience matches Obama’s. I can’t even find much legislation that she’s voted on, and I would certainly never belittle the work of community organizing).

But a couple things are certain: Palin expects that the US can drill our way out of our petroleum dependence. And we don’t know what she thinks on matters of foreign policy, but she promises to be tough. And, as a mom who would love to see my daughter grow up in a cleaner, safer world, I know that I can’t support her. Lipstick or not, I just can’t stomach another pit bull.

Photo’s by Luis Alves

Secrets

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My daughter’s seven and she seems to be beginning a phase where secrets are really important. You know, children maintain small bits of power in their lives. Almost everything is decided for them, but they can control the things around them by crying, or whining, or being cute. They can refuse to eat.

One of the most interesting things about being a parent is negotiating all of this. I’m far from a “children should be seen and not heard” parent. But I’m also acutely aware of the fact that my daughter has things–intangible things–that children with siblings do not have. Mainly, decision-making power.

I read in Born to Buy, that parents let their children pick out their minivans. Car companies figured that out, so they began advertising for vans on Nickelodeon. Now, she doesn’t have that much say in the grown-up decisions. But in the small stuff–like going out to eat–we take her choice into consideration. We listen to her opinion about where she’d like to go on family vacation.

Not all the time, of course, or else we’d be going to McDonald’s for every meal and Disney for every vacation. But she gets a voice. And so, it’s interesting to watch this next phase of power keeping and sharing: the secret.

I’ve been having a lot of discussion with her about secrets. It began when we saw a fascinating exhibit that highlighted the best entries of this blog at the American Visionary Art Museum. Now we’re having “it’s important to keep a secret unless ______” discussions. The unless seems to be filled in with things like someone’s harming you, someone’s hurting themselves, someone needs help. Things like that.

My daughter is powerfully good at keeping secrets. She tells me things a year later that I would have blurted out the second I got home. Her ability impresses me and worries me, a bit.

Well, I didn’t mean to go on and on about my daughter. Part of the secret side of her is that she’s not so utterly keen about me writing about her. Which I would do all the time, if I could, because she’s really an interesting little person….

So, I’ll get back to the topic of this blog. And that is how secrets translate in our churches. It’s a lot the same way. Sometimes secrets are good. I’ve seen a church destroyed by a pastor who gossiped about confidential pastoral care issues.

And then I’ve been in churches where everything’s a blasted secret. And it feels like you can’t move without banging your shin on something that’s been swept under the rug.

And then there are those really dysfunctional secrets that a church hides. The whole system becomes distorted around it.

And there are certain people in out congregations who have a whole lot of unhealthy power because they know all the secrets.

And so, I’m wondering, how do we fill in that blank as church leaders? What would you say?

It’s important to keep a secret unless______________________.

Holy days, hospitality, and housework

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My daughter and I drove to Chuck E. Cheese last night (a.k.a., the third ring of hell, but don’t tell her that because she still thinks it’s fun). I was indulgent because, just like Jan’s kids, her Spring Break and our Holy Week always fall at the same time. So, when other kids are playing basketball in the street, our child is sitting in a church office, coloring.

Erica Swanson, one of our deacons, consoled me with the ground-breaking news: “STAYcations are really cool this year. Everybody’s taking them.”

Her husband stood beside her, looked up to the ceiling, and sighed, “It didn’t work for me either.”

It’s not so bad, really. I mean, we do get four weeks off in the summer. Four! That’s gold. Who gets a whole month off in the summer? We are lucky, lucky that way. And, one of us gets to pick up our daughter from the bus stop every day. Which is also amazing. And, since I’m an associate, I don’t have to work every Saturday. Another blessing.

But…if I could just put a toe into my pool of self-pity for a moment. There are times when the pastor’s schedule sucks.

Like when you’re whole extended family has off for Easter and they decide that since you can’t go anywhere, they’ll just come to your house, and you know good and well that not one dish will be washed all of Holy Week. And the laundry is already piled to the ceiling. And there is no way that you can host company on top of everything else. Providing clean towels for one family seems like a monumental task. And just imagining grocery shopping for guests puts you right over the edge.

And so, when you explain this to them, they say, “Oh. Okay. How ’bout Christmas?”

Of course, my husband and I split the housework. But it still piles up. As a mom, I want to provide a nurturing, spiritual environment for my daughter. When she’s an adult, I don’t want her to gut reaction to Eastertide to be, “Oh yeah… Lent… that’s when my parents got real stressed out and cranky. Until they got to church, and then they acted all nice. I had about 20 seconds to enjoy my Easter basket. And I had to go to a million services that didn’t have any other kids at it.”

So, what do you think? You think the robot mouse will work to dispel all of that? (You know Chuck’s still making references to Back to the Future? My daughter was utterly confused.)

I think I may be missing the boat. And, unfortunately, the dishes did not clean themselves. The laundry mountain’s still there. But, (as much as I hate to admit it) it was fun. We laughed all the way home. And we both needed it this week.

What do you do as a parent/church leader this week? When you were a kid, what were your fondest memories? Please share. Unless, of course, your fondest memory includes something that takes forever to accomplish. No getting all Martha Stewart on us… we need simple things.

photo’s by ratterell