(House)work, Part II

Part of the problem I have with writing a long, philosophical post like The Theology of (House)work is that it’s hard for me to get through it without a meandering digression every sentence or two.

This post is to take care of all those side-notes…so my apologies for the variety of topics and directions!

Kids are work!

First of all, the (House)work post oversimplified the situation in order to make a (good, I hope) point: it’s important for us, particularly as mothers, to be reminded that the people around us are more important than the housework. This seems to assume that there are two choices, kids or (house)work, and that they are different things.

We all know, of course, that it is also true that the kids are our work. Sometimes putting your children first means laying in the grass with them and looking for cloud animals…but sometimes it means changing diapers, and the pants that covered the diapers, and the carseat cover the pants were sitting on. So I don’t want to suggest that caring for our children is always as restful as a monk’s time in prayer. (Here comes the parenthetical statement, within the parenthetical post! The monks might point out that standing up and chanting for long periods of time can also be exhausting…but I digress.) Caring for our kids is both our work and our opportunity to praise and rest in God.

The Value of Labor

Then there’s a whole other issue here: the value of a woman’s work. Let’s imagine a couple. The husband has a high-paying job, which provides well for his family, and he prides himself on this. He ties his self-worth to his ability to provide for his family – to make money. His wife is blessed to be able to stay home and raise her children. On the other hand, she feels restless. She went to college to prepare for a good job; maybe she also worked for a while before staying home with the kids. Though she works hard every day, in an occupation she knows is deeply important and worthwhile, she makes no money doing it. It bothers her that she isn’t contributing to monetarily to the family.

The truth is, our society values people by productivity, and productivity is judged by how much money the person makes. By this logic, a homemaker’s work is worthless.

Obviously this is not true, but it’s incredibly difficult to tune out society’s messages completely. So whether it’s the cleaning or the cooking or the raising of children, women’s work is dreadfully undervalued, even by those of us who do it. (Sorry, stay-at-home dads, I know you’re out there, too.)

We can’t be reminded often enough that the job of raising children and creating a holy, beautiful place for our families to live and grow is a great and valuable work indeed.

It’s just not one that you can order on Amazon. Thank goodness.

Prayer vs. Progeny

There was also another false dichotomy lurking in the last post, again in the interest of simplicity. It seemed to imply that we had to choose: prayer (like the monks) or kids (like we have). While it’s true that we can’t spend the hours a day praying in a chapel like a monk or sister would, that doesn’t mean we have to neglect our prayer life. A few minutes when the kids are in bed (early or late) can make a huge difference.

There are also ways we can incorporate our kids into prayer, so that we not only refresh our own spirits, but teach our little ones to pray as well. I know several moms who will stop (with their very young kids) for just a few minutes in a local adoration chapel whenever they are passing (and not already running late!) And prayer that works well for kids is good for grown-ups too: use sea shells, a candle, icons, or other beautiful objects to help little ones focus. My mom used to teach RCIA for kids, and her classes always included both the parents and the children who were preparing for the sacraments. Her prayer table was rich with things to catch the children’s attention, and it worked for parents, too. Thinking like a child can open up a whole new dimension of our relationship with God, who after all, calls us to be like little children.

Finally, I was surprised, a couple of days after I uploaded the last post, to go to our Well-Read Mom meeting (we were discussing Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain) and hear Marcie Stokman on the audio introduction saying basically what I had said in the post, only much more eloquently. She suggests that for each of us, our home is our monastery, the very place where we can best meet God. In fact, she calls all the little interruptions of our days – snotty noses, kids fighting, late night talks with teenagers – the very bells calling us to greater sacrifice and deeper relationship with our families and with God.

Whew. It never ceases to amaze me how many side discussions one seemingly simple idea raises. I hope you find some food for thought in there somewhere!

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!)

May I recommend:

To my daughter, who taught me not to worry about time

a beautiful reflection on motherhood via The Washington Post.

Have a beauty-full day!  (I know it’s cheesy.  I couldn’t help myself.)

 

A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!

Two weeks and counting

Jacob has been home two and a half weeks now.  His due date is in about a week…still a little crazy to think about.

No weight update, unfortunately.  But it looks like I should stop trying to force him into premie size clothes.  Newborn, here we come!

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He’s actually acting very much like a normal newborn, more so than I had expected.  He’s spending more time awake, and he’s as noisy as ever.  (Did I mention that?  Even the first couple of weeks the nurses in NICU commented on how noisy Jacob was – always grunting or cooing or at least breathing loudly.  He fits right in at our house!)

We still have follow-up appointments for hearing tests, development tests, vision tests…it feels like a long list.  But, thank God, everything looks good so far.

Of course his brother and sisters adore him, and I have to fight for my turn to hold him, or even change his diaper!

Our big challenge right now is trying to transition from bottles to breastfeeding.  Which includes convincing my body to make enough milk to keep him growing.  Still not even close.  So we’re using a supplementary nursing system, plus pumping, which means I spend 3/4 of my day on some aspect of Jacob feeding – pumping, nursing, making bottles, heating bottles, cleaning bottles…and occasionally I eat and/or sleep myself.

We would be up a creek if the girls (and Isaac, for that matter!) weren’t so helpful.  Lucy practically runs the house, and she really does at least as good a job as I do.  She’s making red beans for supper as I write this.  I am doing the very important work of keeping Jacob asleep.  It looks a little like this:

 

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So technically I am still writing “while they are sleeping”…but also while they are cooking, dancing, playing violin, climbing trees, sewing, and playing family, or orphanage, or something similar.  It’s a full life.

 

 

The Good Times

This is why I like us all being home.

I’m making lunch and packing up to go visit Jacob this afternoon.

Lucy is practicing violin, working between piano, YouTube videos, and her metronome to get it “just right.”

I walked by the art room, and Samantha (who could not, would not read this time last year) is reading one of my childhood favorite books, Happy Birthday Moon, to Isaac (in Batman outfit) and Clare (caring for a baby bear).

These are the good times.  Lord, help me remember that!

Happy Birthday Jacob!

Jacob is one month old today.

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As of yesterday afternoon he weighed 3lbs 10oz.

We’ve come a long way. Here are some of the milestones from his first month:

-Ventilator taken off

-Umbilical IVs taken out

-CPAP taken off

-PICC line put in (that’s an IV from his foot to his heart)

-Humidity turned off in his incubator

-Oxygen taken off

-PICC line taken out

-Feedings “compressed” (a step from feeding tube towards bottle/breastfeeding)

The next steps are to learn to eat and to control his body temperature. And to just keep growing!

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One of the best parts of my day is going to visit him for “kangaroo care,” which means they take him out of the box and put him on my chest under a bunch of blankets. We nap, we read, we listen to the nurses gossiping. It’s lovely.

In another month we can start thinking about when he’ll be coming home. They say most premies come home “at term,” which would be March 6 at the earliest.  True this month went quickly…but another month feels like an eternity.

It’s been a wild, difficult month. I can’t pretend I don’t regret the 12 weeks I didn’t get to stay pregnant with Jacob. It’s true I complained about how big my belly was already, and aches and pains. But I wouldn’t have minded putting up with all that a little longer. It would certainly have been easier.

Still, as hard as it has been, I’ve also cherished getting to know this sweet, feisty baby. We get 12 extra weeks with him, even if it’s only a for an hour or two a day.

I wish he had been born later, and I’m glad he’s here now. I don’t know how to reconcile the two.

But Jacob is a joy and a blessing (just like all our children!) and I’m glad to be able to make this journey to health and [something approaching] wholeness with him.

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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:

Chicken, anyone?

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommies out there.  I hope you have a peaceful, love-filled day.  Here’s a Lucy quote to brighten (or not) your day.

Lucy: “Tell me about the chickens.”  (By which she means, the slightly gory story of how a chicken goes from the farm to our table.

So I do.  And I ask, “Does that make you want to eat a chicken?”

Lucy: “Yes!  I want to eat a chicken.”

Me (prepping her for the *eventual* move to a farm): “Would you like it if we raised chickens and killed them and ate them?”

Lucy: “Yes!  I want to kill a chicken!”

My grandmother lives on in this child.  Although, I’m not sure that she butchered chickens with quite this sort of relish.

Anyway, Happy Mother’s Day!