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!)

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.

A Photo Update…I hope

Let’s see how far I get with this – we’ve been too busy living to spend time writing about living lately!  So here’s what I’ve got saved up…

According to my camera, this is from last June.  But I think the date is wrong, and it was actually October.  Either way, it’s been a while since I went through the pics on the camera!

Here is the little altar I put together for the Day of the Dead.  Mom’s only in the picture because it was the best/most easily accessible one I had of Dad.  The had and cookbook are my grandmothers (Eva Krivanek), gum drops were one of my other grandmother’s favorite treats (Margaret Courtney).  The box and frog puzzle my dad made, and the peanuts were one of his favorite snacks.  The rosary was also Grandma Krivanek’s, and the little pictures on the right are of me with my grandmothers.  That was all I could dig up at the last minute when I did this, but I’ll be a little more prepared this year (if the things aren’t still in storage!  More on that in a later post…)

This was in November.  One of them was confused about the weather forecast.  If I remember right, it was Samantha.

They take good care of each other…

…and Pooh Bear.

The nativity set the girls played with.  They’re taking a nap while they wait for baby Jesus.

The meltdowns have begun, so I’ll have to finish this later.

Counting down the minutes

I have to say I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by all the notes we’ve gotten saying that we are in people’s prayers.  Thank you all so much!!  No matter how things end up going, it has been a great blessing for me to know how many people care about me and our family.

The ultra sound appointment is set for 2:40 this afternoon, then it’s straight to the OB’s office to discuss where we stand, and then if there is time, we’re meeting with the midwife while we’re uptown.  And then I’m hoping for a celebratory dinner somewhere…  So I’ll update as soon as I can, but it probably won’t be until this evening.

The girls went with Taylor to visit her family in Bunkie (Tay has been here helping us out since Sunday – she’s better at getting the girls to sleep than I am!) so the house is quiet, maybe for one of the last times for a while.  Please pray for their safe journey, also, and that the Newtons survive our little bundles of energy!

December 7, 2010

Homeschooling Journal:

Visited the farmer’s market and grocery store.  Read Art and Max; Watch Out, Little Wallaby!; and Arbor Day Square before naps.  Craig read some other books in the afternoon.  Went to Adoration at AOL this evening, and then got a Christmas tree.

Finally, some news!

Yesterday I had the appointment with the OB who backs the midwife we’re looking at using, and I am offically certified “low-risk” for home birth!  Yay!

I spent 3 1/2 hours at the doctor’s office, and took a tongue lashing, because the OB has had some pretty bad experiences with the midwife we used for Samantha’s birth, but she said she trusts Emmy’s (the new midwife) judgement so much that she thinks we will be fine, even if something should go wrong.  So I have an appointment with Emmy in two weeks, and all I have to do now is keep from doing anything that would kick me out of the “low-risk” category between now and February.

I am so relieved!  No more trips to Baton Rouge (I think I was going to try to switch to Touro if the home birth fell through anyway – that drive is just not something I really wanted to contend with after the baby was born), and all the rest of the appointments, except one 36 week check-up with the OB, are at my house.  No more dragging the girls anywhere.  No more 1, 2, or 3 hour waits for appointments.  And no hospital (God willing)!  Thank you so much for all the prayers, they have paid off in a big way.

I hope all is well with those of you who still bother to check up on this poor, neglected blog.  I guess my creative energies have just been directed into several other areas lately.  I’m waiting to see if this new baby gives me the kick to want to write like Samantha did, or if this is just going to become a very occasional forum for me.  Or I could try to be disciplined.  But that rarely goes well. : )

At any rate, Samantha had a wonderful little birthday party about a month ago, and Lucy’s is this Sunday, and then we have Christmas, and babies, and such, so things are staying busy.  And that’s pretty much the news.

Pray with me!

Hello, again.  I know it’s been a long time between posts, and I have finally been motivated to write again because, of course, I could use a little help.

Everything is going well, by the way.  The girls are doing their thing (Samantha has decided to start her terrible twos a few weeks early) and Craig is busy raising ruckus at Shaw, as usual.  All signs indicate that baby Oscar is doing just fine.  He is quite wiggly quite often.

But I’d like a few prayers about our birth.  I met a midwife on Thursday night who is willing to take me as a home birth patient if her back-up doctor is willing to sign me off as “low risk”.  Usually all VBACs are automatically “high risk” because of the 1% chance that the uterus could rupture along the C-section scar, but my scar has already held up once.  No one has asked (to the midwife’s knowledge, at least) to do a 2nd VBAC at home…so there is a glimmer of hope that I will be able to escape the hospital yet.

Plus, this would mean not having to drag me to Baton Rouge in labor, or the baby home from Baton Rouge afterward.  The back-up hospital would be Uptown, about 20 minutes away.  (And if it were really an emergency, there is another hospital about 5 minutes away.)  And I get one midwife to work with, rather than the carousel of six that are at the place I’m going in Baton Rouge right now.

So I’m excited and nervous waiting for this phone call.  Which may come to nothing, and even if it works out is going to be a bit of a struggle to pay for (with the insurance being very unhelpful, as usual), but would be very good for my blood pressure. : )

So, I’ve started a novena to St. Rita, because that was the one that looked good in the prayer book I had at hand, and if you’d care to join me in that or some other way, I’d really appreciate it.

And I’ll let you know as soon as I find out anything.  And put up a decent update, which I know has been sorely lacking.

September 30, 2010

Homeschooling journal:

Our first trip with the girls to adoration.  Theresa’s school has a short one followed by pizza, and most of the prayer time was busy with music, so it went surprisingly well.  Samantha still needs to learn an inside voice, but Lucy sat still and looked at her picture Bible most of the time.  And they enjoyed the pizza.

I read Lucy a good chunk of the Rhyme Bible and the story of Daniel from one of the others today.

We played Cooties this evening, which Lucy followed very well, and then played the make-up-a-story-in-turns game, which she was way better at than I expected.  It’s past time for me to write more of her stories down.

Captain’s Prayer

When we were at Tulane, and I went to daily Mass at the Tulane Catholic Center, there was an elderly gentlemen who came sometimes whom I only knew as “Captain”.  I don’t know his name, or any part of his story.  His face looked like he had been injured during his service, or it could have been scars from surgery, or cancer, I don’t know because I never asked.  He walked with a cane, and when he finally stopped coming to Mass I think I remember hearing that it was because the steps to the upper room chapel had finally become too much for him.

The chapel, for those of you who haven’t been there, is very long and narrow, and the lecturn is set up at one end and the altar, tabranacle, and crucifix (if you could call it that!) were at the other end.  Chairs lined the walls, all facing center.  Captain always sat at the chair nearest the altar, on the window side.  This was carefully planned, so that when we all gathered around the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he was included in the circle.  We would all bend down, on our way around the circle, to share a sign of peace with him.  And at the Concecration, when the Host or the Cup was elevated, he would say, in a gruff but somehow gentle voice, loud enough for all to hear, “My Lord and my God.”

Why am I telling you all this?  Because you never know whose life you touch, and here is a proof for that statement.  Captain did not know my name, I don’t think.  Nor Craig’s.  But at every Mass we have attended for years now, his prayer has become our own.  There, in the priest’s hands, is My Lord and My God.  And “Captain’s prayer” is the clearest expression of faith in the Eucharist that I think I have ever heard.

And if two isn’t enough, I know of at least one more person who has taken up this prayer.  How many are there that I have no idea of?  And Captain didn’t set out to enrich our spiritual lives, he merely (although merely is unfair, because it was a struggle for him) showed up to daily Mass and spoke his faith.  And did so simply.

It left me wondering, am I doing things that have a positive impact like this?  Even little things.  And what little things I do could be having a negative impact, particularly on my girls?  I have to steal a line from Father R.B. here, I hope he doesn’t mind!  But “It’s something to think about!”