Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction. 

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)

The Body Knows

I think it was the second time we visited Jacob after I was discharged from the hospital.  I was still hurting a lot, even with more pain medicine that I was really comfortable taking.  My moods were all over the place.  We came into the dark, noisy (so much beeping!) NICU, scrubbed in, and walked over to Jacob’s isolette.  We talked with the nurse, and got ready to “kangaroo” – which means I take off my shirt and they put Jacob on my skin and cover us up with blankets.  We stayed for an hour, or a little more.  I slept, Craig took pictures and read to us.  Then it was time to go.

As we walked out of the hospital, I began to realize: my pain was practically gone.  My mood had lifted – there was no danger of a flood of tears at the moment.  It had never occurred to me till that moment: the drug my body needed was my baby.

Of course I have known, in my mind, the importance of mom and baby being together, but I usually thought of it as being for the sake of the baby more so than the mother.  Then I remembered going back to work after I had Lucy, and again after I had Samantha, and how hard it was to hand them off to someone else for a little while.  But I hadn’t had such a visceral reminder in a long time of how much we need each other.  My body never forgot.  It’s amazing how I make twice, three times as much milk if Jacob is in the room than if he’s not.  My body knows.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned before.  My body knows how to birth.  My body knows how to care for a newborn.  It knows how to heal.  We are all truly fearfully and wonderfully made, gifted with bodies that, if we listen, tell us how to care for ourselves and each other.  Such a gift God has given us.

And still, as much as I loved being home with my other children the rest of the day, as much as I loved spending the evenings with Craig, the hour or two I spent in the hospital with my baby brought peace to my day.  I just kept looking forward to bringing our feisty little bundle of peace home with us.

Little Hands

Ah, the things we learn from the wee ones.

For those of you who have ever nursed a newborn (sorry guys!), you know about those precious little hands.  The ones you want to kiss and spend hours admiring.  And swaddle within an inch of their life so they will stop getting between the baby’s mouth and your breast when he’s hungry.  Because the hungrier he is, the more likely those sweet little hands are acting as appetizers…except they don’t take the edge of baby’s hunger, they just make him more frustrated.  And who has enough hands to hold up the baby, position the breast, AND gently hold two little hands out of the way?

Thus the swaddling.

The poor child just doesn’t realize that if he would put aside his desire for his hands (even though they are great for munching most of the time), something much more delicious and nourishing would suddenly come this way.

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And now, for the slightly forced analogy to the spiritual life.

We never quite grow out of this tendency, do we?

Maybe it’s a not-so-great relationship, but we’re afraid that if we let it go, we’ll be alone.  Or a job we hate (or which simply isn’t good for us), but we’re afraid of not finding something that pays as much if we quit.

And then, of course, there’s sin.  What sins do we cling to, because they feel good, or maybe they just feel comfortable?  What do we fear if we let them go?

Are we too busy holding tight to our pride to seek God’s help and forgiveness?

What if we were to move our hands out of the way, and let God nourish us with his goodness?

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It’s Lent, and lots of us have given something up (sleep in my case – thanks Jacob!).  Hopefully we’ve been able to clear away something that was actually in the way of our spiritual growth.  It’s a good time to reflect: How well have we used this opportunity, this little emptying, to allow God to nourish us?  What are we still clinging to, blocking God from filling us with his love and goodness?

Bonus:  Here is a great article about the little hands and breastfeeding – which makes me feel bad about all the swaddling, but sometimes I get desperate.  Still, it was illuminating, and helped me be less frustrated with hands-in-the-way phenomenon.

Waiting, part two

I wrote an essay on the theme of “waiting” for the Mudroom blog back in December.  You can find it here.

I thought, once this baby was born, the waiting would be over.  No such luck.  We started our waiting game over:

First waiting to meet my baby – I had be strong enough to get from the ICU bed into a wheel chair to make the trip to NICU.

Then waiting to get out of the hospital.

The waiting for Jacob to be big enough and free of enough cords so I could actually hold him.

And we were patient, more or less, and got through all of these.  And waited for each set of tubes to come out of Jacob’s little body.

But then there are the two long waits: one for my milk to come in (apparently trauma and massive blood loss slows these things down…) and the other for Jacob to come home.  Not to mention for him to start eating on his own, wearing clothes, getting out of the isollete (the big clear baby warmer).

God clearly wanted me to learn some more patience.

It’s frustrating, four weeks after birth, to get milk drops at a time, if at all.  Not a problem I’ve had in the past.  But the thought of not nursing this baby – this last baby – is heartbreaking.

And so I’m waiting, again.  And praying.  And pumping.  And eating oatmeal (a galactagogue – add that to your vocabulary!) in every conceivable form.  And praying…while pumping.

I think of St. Zelie Martin (mother of St. Therese of Liseiux), who couldn’t nurse some of her children and had to send them to live with wet nurses until they were old enough to wean, and I am grateful that I don’t live 100 or 150 years ago.  Not only are there doctors and nurses and hospitals which have been able to keep Jacob and me alive, but there is formula.  I would not have to ship off my baby to feed him.

But somehow that’s small comfort.  And I want some big, fat comfort, the kind that comes from a tiny, warm baby falling asleep at my breast.

On the other hand, we’re both here.  Alive, when by rights we probably shouldn’t be.  So maybe I’m asking too much.  But I’m not giving up either.  Not until Jacob has tried for himself, and my body has simply refused.

In the meantime, I’m celebrating every 0.1 mL of milk, and waiting.

Clare Anah Baker

I will post photos as soon as I find my transfer cable, but Clare Anah was born this morning (early due to a 3am bleeding episode). Mom and Clare are doing well and resting. Thank you for your prayers!
Craig

UPDATE:  Thanks to Justin’s IPhone for the first photo:

A Final (?) Update

We had one last OB appointment yesterday afternoon.  She helped clear up the confusion we were feeling after the ultrasound last week, and really it looks like the previa was worse that we thought at first.  So we’re planning on being at Touro for 6am next Friday, the surgery should be around 8 (unless the woman scheduled ahead of me has her baby sooner, then we’ll go in at 7), and should all take about an hour.  Then at least 2-3 days in the hospital, if all is well, and back home again.

Our doctor has been so patient and accommodating, I really do feel blessed that we have been able to work with her.  All the random requests we’ve made she has taken very seriously, and it looks like she’s figured out a way for me to see the birth (usually there is a giant curtain in the way) and my mom will hopefully be able to be present in the OR.  I gave her a copy of this article, compliments of Veronica, and she seemed to find it helpful.  Thanks, V!

Of course, this all depends on our making it to Friday without any more bleeding, because if the bleeding starts again, we go in immediately, and depending on how bad it is, we may or may not have enough time to worry about some of those details.  (Not to mention then Mom may have to stay with the girls instead of come with us, etc.)  So if you’re looking for something to pray for, we really need to not have any bleeding before Friday.  And then of course, you can always pray that the surgery goes well for both of us and that the recovery is speedy.  I’m really not looking forward to that part.

I’m still a little grumpy about the girls not being able to be around for the birth, or very much the first couple of days really, but mostly I’ve come to terms with this whole thing, I think.  Or at least resigned myself to the inevitable, and started focusing on getting ready for the hospital, getting our room cleaned up for the baby, and not doing anything that might cause contractions.  We’ll see how I’m feeling about it all a week from now!

Anybody who has suggestions for preparing for this, or recovering quickly, I’d love to hear them.  I’m thinking along the lines of natural remedies, meditations, stuff I’m likely to want at the hospital that isn’t on the general lists you find on the web…or whatever else you think of.

Thank you again for all the support over the last two months.  We’re almost there!  I promise I’ll get a picture and a few details posted as soon as humanly possible after the birth.  As much as I like being pregnant (I know that sounds crazy to some of you, but I’ve never gotten to the “I can’t wait to get this baby out!” stage), I think I’ll be about ready to meet this baby a week from now.

We’re open to suggestions for names, too!  That is still very much up in the air. : )

Breast-feeding support, from the Beltway!

This is one of the best things I’ve seen come out of the government in a long time.

http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/breastfeeding/calltoactiontosupportbreastfeeding.pdf

The Surgeon General has issued a “Call to Action in Support of Breast Feeding”, which (from my quick look) is pretty sweeping in its arguments for giving mothers more breast feeding support and in its suggestions for how to do that.  It’s a long read, and a lot of it is common sense (but apparently somebody has to say it – it’s not happening otherwise!) but there are a couple of parts worth looking at.

I’m particularly excited about pages 43-45, which suggest that formula companies ought to back off with advertising and giving of free samples, and that doctors should clear their offices of advertisements, free samples, pens, and the like which promote formula usage.  What happens when the hospital sends a new mother home with no support and a free sample of formula?  End of breast feeding.  I don’t dare to expect formula companies to stop advertising in “Parenting” magazine and the like, but I sincerely hope these recommendations are put into effect immediately, at least on the part of health care providers.  We have been watching Similac commercials in the OB’s office for the last few weeks, and I would certainly not miss them.  (If only they would do the same with prescription drug advertising, particularly contraceptives…but that’s another long discussion!)

The other exciting part is the call for employers to expand paid maternity leave and opportunities for mothers to nurse or pump at work.  (See pgs. 50-53 of the PDF.)  With as many women working as there are today, this would make a huge difference in how long many of them are able to continue breast feeding.

So it’s nice to see that somebody in D.C. is doing something that might just be worthwhile.  The hitch, of course, is that most of the actions recommended are voluntary, so there is still a ton of grass-roots work to be done.  But maybe this will open a few eyes to what they could be working on, and it certainly gives mothers a new tool for discussing these issues with their employers and health care providers, who tend to care about these sorts of documents.

February 4

That is the day our C-section has been scheduled.  Apparently the placenta has not budged, and the risk of massive bleeding is too great if I go into labor, so we’re going in at about 38 weeks, which is actually longer than we probably could have hoped to wait if we had any other doctor.

The doctor who did our ultrasound was very lacking in bedside manner, to say the least.  (Although he claims he “knows how I feel” – and I’m sure as many babies as he has carried for nine months and birthed he does – ha!)  That whole part of the day was pretty upsetting.  Our OB was very sympathetic, however (she does know how I feel – she told us some of her birth stories and they are much worse than what I’ve had to deal with!) and she is ready to bend over backwards to make the experience as good as possible.

The good news is, if we had never looked into having a home birth, and because of that switched OBs, we’d be going through all this with Oschner in Baton Rouge, which would be a real nightmare.  And I’ll still be able to try and VBAC for another baby, assuming that there are no complications like this again.  And our kids will have birthdays on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of their respective months.  And mom will finally get to be here for the birth, instead of driving in while it’s going on.

So the next two weeks are going to be hard, waiting for something I really don’t want to happen.   I’m not ready for this pregnancy to end, but after two more weeks of bed rest I may be more than ready!  But at the same time I’m trying to be very thankful that we caught this and can hopefully avoid such a serious risk.  This pregnancy has been a roller coaster – midwifes in Baton Rouge, to home birth, to hospital, to C-section…  So it’s more bed rest, and trying to avoid any more bleeding, because that would mean delivering immediately.

And despite the flurry of ultrasounds, we still don’t know the gender.  And we want you all to be surprised with us! : )