Sunday, February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 What About The Children?

“And WHO will take care of the children?” The very tall bishop towered over me, looking down at me— and on me. His query was not curious, but aggressive. I cringed. The national church had just voted (1976) that women could be ordained priests. I wanted to be a priest in the Episcopal Church and this bishop put me in my “rightful” place: mother at home with kids. (I promise I did not fuzzy-up the photo.)
The Rt. Rev. Warren J. Hutchens, Connecticut
His question would prove my undoing. It would prove as well to be the Church’s rationale of choice for turning women, especially mothers, down as they tried to enter the ordination track.

This question is not unusual, or new, or over and done with. It’s loaded with patriarchal assumptions about the fixity of gender roles, many of which were not justified, not to mention sexist. Yet this question is alive and exclusively addressed to women, please note.

It’s now some forty years since that question froze me in my tracks. I pursued my vocational calling and have been an Episcopal priest since 1988. Besides being a priest, I am a mother, a counselor and spiritual director, a marriage partner, and yes, a writer—delighted to have read in Poets and Writers Magazine (March/April, 2016) an article “A Residency of Her Own” by Melissa Scholes Young. She ran into the same question I’d encountered in the church, but in a secular context. (To be honest, I think the categories “sacred” and “secular” are far less oppositional than people assume.) She was planning a month away from her family to get some time to write. Writing is her job, her income, and, yes, her soul-quenching passion.

What about the kids? Here is Melissa’s take:

“The problem with the question ‘What about the kids?’ is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choice, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia (Woolf) say to the “what about the kids" question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother, And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again, She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.    . . .

I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

Now I can think of a million arguments against this action, as well as much praise for it. Choice is choice and it has consequences no matter how right or wrong it may seem to oneself or to others. It’s not so simple. It’s also rarely either/or.

No one asked Virginia Woolf this question when she sat alone in her study composing A Room Of One’s Own—not to mention the fact that Virginia Woolf had no children  and took her own life.

What about the kids?  (Here are children when I began my midlife breakout:)

The question haunted me all through the ordination process. To be a mother and a priest was not doable—a “dual vocation” the church committees and bishop called it. Nothing about fathers and not to mention the sexual orientation of some of the male interrogators who made these judgments.

I admit that when I made my choices my soul suffered much shame. I broke the sacred cultural rule about childcare and the centrality of mothering. It was Betty Friedan’s fault, and secondarily Godde’s, I told myself. But it was my choice. I handled it clumsily—with help from my then husband who fled the scene in his own way. I broke all the rules my mother ever taught me. Sins beginning in “a” were my favorites: adultery, alcohol, and abandonment. I hurt myself and those I loved most: my four children. I’m neurotic, so it took years to heal my shame. It was apparently less of a problem for Godde who supported and strengthened me all the way. Self-forgiveness, however, is easier to preach than to inwardly digest.

What about the mother? Few people ask about the well being of the mother, even today as abortion debates rage on. The choices are still framed as either/or although they are a complex blend of messiness one navigates with as much prayer, compassion and good council as possible. I did not choose against the children. I did chose the well being of the mother, and tried to balance things as best I could.

Change that matters, and, I dare say, such change is divine, always hurts. It hurts more for mothers and women because of cultural expectations and, yes, a womb. I broke away from the shell of my role as wife and mother—shattered my own comfort and my children’s. Humpty Dumpty affair.

“What about the kids?” lingered in my flesh for years.  (Here I am ordained priest by ten years:)

It took a very long time for me to stop apologizing. One of my daughters got fed up one day and said: “Mom, stop apologizing!” This same daughter later said, amidst tears: “Mom, religion took you away from us.” The other daughter called me a wimp, and we used up a whole box of Kleenex together in a therapist’s office. My sons were easier, don’t know why. Maybe because at the time of my breaking- out they were microscopically intent on managing their own social standing.

The only people qualified to answer the question: “What about the children?” are the children. Mine answered it with their own resilient lives, by hanging in with each other and with both parents, by establishing satisfying work lives, by tolerating all my apologies, by therapy and recovery meetings, and by making their own series of not-so-great choices and keeping on. None of us ever stopped loving each other. I never stopped being their mother. There is no way I can thank my children enough. 

I have answered this question by not asking it any more, and by living my own life and thriving in it.

 P.S. Just as I was composing this post I read an article in the Boston Globe (February 4, 2017) about self-care outranking childcare. Genevieve Shaw Brown, editor and reporter with ABC News, recently authored The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the Last Thing You Do.

Well now that is too either/or. Still, there’s a reason why airlines instruct people traveling with young children to put on their oxygen masks before helping the kids put theirs on.