Stirring IT Up: Day-Care Chain-Gang and the Meaning of Motherhood

Recently I saw a very young "day-care chain gang" and thought, with all due respect for those for whom child care is an absolute necessity- we can not simultaneously hold up the supremacy of motherly presence without seeing in her absence a supreme privation.

Often we've experienced that certain incredulity from others when they discover we are a single-income family, seeking to support a family of eight, on a ministry income (prior to eight years ago), when both of us have graduate degrees. As a father and provider, with many years of working with numerous children and families, and researching the modern family phenomenon extensively in graduate school, this little incident prompted me to share this relatively short reflection on the ideal of stay-at-home motherhood.

Once while navigating the grocery aisles with a few of her little helpers, my wife was offered these words of encouragement by another woman: "Better you than me."  The woman's cynical, stressed, unhappy demeanor prompted my oldest daughter to reply under her breath, "You're not kidding."

This irony says a lot. It offers us a common premise: happiness. The ancient philosophers and Christianity affirm that the end of human existence is happiness.  I submit here that, among other things, if people were tuned into the real nature of happiness there would be many more stay-at-home moms (and stay-at-home moms who are genuinely happy). I submit here that the DNA of human existence, the potentiality for genuine happiness, is revealed in Christ. Happiness is not a function of the "Almighty I," but of the "Sacrificial I for You."  

In my experience, the "working mom question" is hardly ever about what's best for the children, much less a God-given identity and mission.  On the contrary, it often revolves around the Almighty I: "I'd be bored," or "I went to school too long not to use it," or "I can provide a better living for the kids." Ironically, we'd hear from many teachers the problems they were having in classrooms which they attributed to the absence of a home-life, and yet many of these had younger children themselves in day-care enabling them to... take care of a multitude of other children?

For those who think their extra income is more valuable than their presence, consider this anecdote. Friends of ours who are graduates of Dartmouth shared a story of an article about their alma mater where students were asked what they might have done differently as parents. An overwhelming response can be summed up: they would have invested in personal presence.

No amount of "presents" can surpass the value of "presence."

Let's face it, there's no "perfect" situation- but there ought to be a prioritization of values. I'm stating above that the value of motherhood can not be both honored and disregarded at the same time. Either she is principally valued as the one primarily entrusted and gifted with forming her kids (as is sociologically validated, and anecdotally affirmed by anyone working closely with kids!), short of which "motherhood" is diminished as a mere "guardian" or "caretaker" anchored by biological connection.

Have we lost the vision of what it really means to form our children for this life and eternity? What that takes? What's at stake?

As politically charged as this may be, without it being stated we run the risk of a parent-less society-- which I'm of the opinion is the source of every social ailment: the God-designed ideal is for husband and wife in sacramental marriage (seeking to follow God's plan for mutual love), and mother "making home" for younger children (with a husband's full involvement). Everything short of this ideal is not lost- but is not easily replaced (certainly, we all ought to entrust our lives and work to God's grace, but recognize where that work is humanly realized through us).

It's revealing that if anyone on a job-interview were asked the question, "How well will you do at this job? What will you give for it?" the answer would be most emphatic: "I'd strive for the best! I'd sacrifice! I'd give my all!" And yet this is not the same response most parents give to the same question asked of how they will parent. The standard seems to be: "They'll be ok." The simple question- what is more valuable (again, life-sustenance aside), children, or work?

My brother-in-law and his wife make many sacrifices to make ends meet on their single income. Their motivation?: "We didn't have kids for others to raise them."

Now self-employed for eight years, homeschooling and contributing 40% of our time uncompensated to Image Trinity- we kid (pardon the pun) about how many weeks of income we have until  we inhabit a park bench (Steph warmly smiles and tells me it will be a nicely-kept park bench!); we recognize the lack of any retirement savings (in our 401K plan, the "K" is for "Kids") or any education savings (we're investing in their full, personal success and praying to God they receive scholarships or the human-resources to make it).

Yes, there are sleepless nights when our faith is challenged (many where my prayer has a certain resemblance to begging), but all this is a gift of unsurpassed value to our children: Living evidence that what God calls us to, He will provide for.

God has been and will continue to be faithful.  We would not trade a day of financial serenity for formational serenity. We can not put a value on the great joy we have in "being family" - endeavoring to create an environment (albeit imperfectly) where they are saturated in a full, human vision created in Jesus Christ... to strive for the very best God created them to be... for themselves, and for the world around them. [And as I'm saying this, noting that even if it were possible to "do" parenthood perfectly, children will choose. Particularly as they're getting older and venturing beyond the home, we give permission to all to please provide the extra-parental prayer, support, and yes, correction, where it may be needed!]

Recognizing the tremendous potentiality and mission here, fully intended to be realized and anchored in "home"- I really can't understand how anyone could say "what do you do all day?" Nothing is built without sacrifice... throw away everything else, every endeavor, work, ministry-- this magnificent "work of home" is our God-given, sacrificial, but joy-filled call to build a civilization of love.

A Pastor's Letter for Our Times (Msgr. William Biebel)

[Msgr. William Biebel is the rector of St. Peter Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania. The below letter appeared in their parish bulletin today. We think it is a thoughtful, powerful challenge to all of us who profess to be Catholic, a real "letter for our times." Please take the time to prayerfully consider and share.]

October Musings from the Rector’s desk… October 16, 2011

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Cathedral Family and friends,

The current issue of FAITH Life covered our Holy Father’s teaching during his visit to Germany. He was clearly concerned about the weakening of the Faith there and the fact that only 31% of his own country considered themselves Catholic. His words tell the reason why. “God is increasingly being driven out of our society…Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?”

As a senior priest and pastor I share his concern that we are losing our sense of identity as Catholics. For many, being Catholic means “Catholic lite”, just another adjective we use about ourselves like our political party or nationality, that surfaces now and then when needed or convenient, but hardly the core of our daily life and personality.

Allow me to mention a few examples. Then let me offer some suggestions that both you and I can follow to light the fire anew if it is flickering.

Just recently we had our annual Eucharistic Sunday. Even though we had information in the bulletin, on our website, a school broadcast to the homes of all our students, a homily or two mentioning it, response was not significant: some loyal members of the Cathedral Women’s Council were here, a few school families with their children, in all, hardly more than ten or fifteen worshippers at any one of the five hours the Blessed Sacrament was honored.

In years past, we had three whole days of Adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament! When I was young, FORTY HOURS was a highpoint in our year in the parish. Four altar servers were assigned to every half hour in church. Moms and Dads would send the children to church right after supper to save seats for them so they could attend the evening devotions. I can’t imagine that today. As a seminarian at Gannon, we often attended the novena devotions at St. Patrick’s that were so crowded, that services were repeated twice each Monday evening. That was then, but would Catholics attend in those numbers now? And at night??

There was a time when a Catholic person would never pass a church without going in to make a “visit”. Everyone had a medal or scapular on. Men always had a Rosary in their pocket, every Catholic woman had one in her purse. And they were used for prayer, not around our necks for good luck. Week nights we gathered around the radio to pray the Family Rosary broadcast from St. Mark’s Seminary. (Little did I realize that I would be staffing that same program as a seminarian there a few years later.) Meatless Fridays distinguished us from others.

After decades of religious bigotry, we lived our Catholic lives proudly and openly. People knew who the Catholics were. And WE knew who and what we were! Proudly, too.

Today, Sunday is fast becoming just another day. Family worship at Mass, the family Sunday dinner and all the special touches that made the Lord’s Day holy are almost foreign to us. We find Catholics slipping in to the shortest Saturday evening Mass, so they can have Sunday for themselves. Or even more frequently, families lose their parish identity by going anywhere Mass is convenient and over in the shortest time. Just to get it in!

Every Sunday, as I read the paper, I find it discouraging as a pastor to read the wedding page and see young men and women from traditional Catholic families being married at the beach, or at a hotel or resort, in non-Catholic church. I read obituaries of Catholics burying their departed without a prayer or without a Mass of Christian Burial. What is happening? Have we become THAT secularized that our most significant moments in life do not need the Lord?

Are we forfeiting our sense of being truly Catholic by shopping at the malls or stores on Sunday? Do sports dominate our weekends? Do we lose ourselves among the several million others, watching what was once a game for high school kids that has become desperately important, and those who play it skillfully get paid forty more times than the President of the United States? We protect ourselves with busy-ness, grooming and security- blanket electronics. The media have made the trivial important, and the important things of life, trivial. But, are we more at peace with ourselves, secure in our relationships, content with those we love, at home in the world? Are we numb from entertaining ourselves?

So what can we do? Well, think deeply and pray deeply to truly BE WHO WE ARE! Recently the bishops of England and Wales have reintroduced obligatory meatless Fridays. Do we need such external reminders to shape us up again? Perhaps. But, if we really trace our worldliness and restlessness, our fascination with things of sense, down to their roots, maybe we will rightly conclude that only GOD can satisfy us. The revisions in our worship at Mass can call us to think and pray more deeply in our worship. We could be on the edge of new discovery of our life with God IF we get beyond the words, to the MYSTERY OF FAITH.

God is calling us, now, and every day of our lives, to conclude that Jesus was right when he said: “Without me, you can do nothing.” Everything YOU and I can do to lead others to prayer and worship, whether toddlers or senior citizens, is strengthening us all as the Church. So, don’t be too busy to seek out the sacred, to talk about it and use the printed word, the Internet and all the means we have today to discover and share God’s life and love.

With Him, all things are possible. The truth of Christ is ours to embrace and live. We need to invite others to “Come Home” to the Church, but we have to know our way around our Home as well! We are Catholic: convicted, dedicated and alive with the Spirit. It is our LIFE! Let’s not give our life and treasure away to dedicate our energy and time to what is not eternal!

Peace to you, and blessings,

Msgr. William E. Biebel, Rector, St. Peter Cathedral, Erie
Monsignor Biebel has been leading our Catholic Men's Gathering for three years and is a pastoral adviser to our Image Trinity. He will be leading our Made2Worship in November, with the story shared by Damon Finazzo, principal of Villa Maria Elementary. Please join us.