Child-Rearing Interlude

Aug 24, 1998 |Kathryn Donovan Wiegand

Wiegand’s decision to be a full-time mom made sense to her, but to her Harvard colleagues, it was a break in her all-important career stream.

Like many other women of my of my generation, I was extremely vulnerable to the you-are-your-career myth. Success was measured in job titles, in salaries, and in the ability to write an impressive entry to Class Notes.

I winced slightly as I opened the questionnaire — elegantly typeset on twenty-four-pound Strathmore natural- white bond paper. What was inevitable had finally happened: I had been asked to indicate for the Radcliffe Alumnae Directory just how I was putting my Phi Beta Kappa education to use. I looked down the columns of careers that the questionnaire, apparently, had preselected as possibly appropriate occupations for Radcliffe women:

  • Attorney
  • Physician
  • Concert Musician
  • ...

I sensed a minor existential crisis brewing within. Somewhere near the bottom of the sheet I found what (I guess) was my occupational cubbyhole:

  • Childrearing Interlude

I went for the box, grateful to not have to mark:

  • Other

... and then explain at length. Hurrying, I dispatched what had turned out to be a particularly irksome piece of correspondence for a morning just beginning. But later that day the phrase began to trouble me: childrearing interlude. This is not my real life? Something with a title? Something that requires a degree?

Allow me to fantasize where I would be and what I would be doing now without my 3-year-old Becky Jane, without eighteen-month-old Danny Boy and without their daddy, Jeff. As much as the thought distresses my Protestant husband, I think I would have made a good nun, preferably of a somewhat isolated variety — the type out of fashion today — hemmed in by the rhythm of the prayer cycle, buoyed along in spirit by the enigmatic smile of a mother superior, and those swishy robes. I am kneeling on cold medieval stone and pouring my soul into a Gregorian "Magnificat." I am preparing a sparse room for some weary pilgrim. There I am, in the order of Mother Teresa, bathing a dying outcast in a bucket of disinfected Ganges water and in tender remembrance of the suffering Christ.

And about as far removed as one can get from the life of a suburban housewife in comfortable New Rochelle, New York.

Thank God, who saves us from what we think we want. On the other hand, be careful what you want, because you will get it, the saying goes. God has given me my fantasy, but not in the exotic form that I thought — actually better. I consider these years of full-time motherhood as a hearty and much needed portion of humble pie. All right, I admit it: having been a music major in college, I do want more from life than wiping runny noses and dismantling Play-doh sculptures. I look forward to having my children in school and spending long, uninterrupted hours playing Bach fugues and composing. Yet I wouldn't trade the lessons I am taking from God, and from my children, for the most fabulous musical career. Although I still direct a choir and enjoy many freelance opportunities, these activities are subsumed under the priority of my family.

But why has God chosen to reveal himself to me in the cycle of diaper changes and not in the rhythm of monastic prayer? The Westminster Confession states that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." How is that for a priority? The apostle Paul, in his magnificent letter to the Philippians, concurs: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

I certainly am not claiming that full-time motherhood is the vocation of every woman or even every married woman or even every married Christian woman with kids. I do know, however, that none of us — woman or man — can respond fully to the call of God without a death. I recognize this in my own life: I had to die to my idea of a successful musical career or a formal religious vocation. For me, those options would have been gifts which, in pride, I would have brought to God, when what I needed to realize was that I could bring nothing. And from the nothing of death, from the bareness of the cross, has sprung new life in me.

Like many other women of my generation, I was vulnerable to the you-are-your-career myth. Liberation meant losing ourselves in workaholism as grimly as "successful" men of our parents' time did. Success, of course, was measured de rigueur in job titles, in salaries and in the ability to write an impressive entry to Class Notes. Although I did not choose the professionalism celebrated by nearly an entire generation of baby boomers, I carried its ethos with me, and its image within me.

Like a career in music or in the monastery, working on Wall Street, I am sure, can be a lofty and fulfilling life's work. But God called me into this death to self in order to free me to become a nothing — in society's eyes — thereby also freeing me to rejoice with Mary the mother of Jesus that "He who is mighty has done great things for me."

There are, of course, different kinds of death. Some of us will die to the dream of graduate school or artistic accomplishment or marrying rich (of course, no one I know ever thinks about that) or children or health. But every death is an opportunity, an invitation to embrace God if we do not give in to bitterness and self-pity but see our brokenness as a reflection of His on the cross. We cannot approach God in pride and self-sufficiency and still have any hope of knowing Him or the meaning of His grace. In dying to ourselves we give up the lordship of our own lives and thereby make space for His.

Philippians 4:7 teaches that quite regardless of your circumstances, there is a "peace that surpasses all understanding" which can "keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." I still think I would have made a good contemplative in a monastery — and yet here amidst the nursery-like Walt Disney decor of my home, my overwhelming daily experience has been the calm presence of a loving and faithful God. Like Brother Lawrence, who prays amidst the clatter of the abbey kitchen in his book The Practice of the Presence of God, I acknowledge God constantly throughout my day.

There are some fairly practical reasons why I find it possible to do this, not the least of which is that parenting continually reminds me of God. Just as David's years taking care of sheep later helped him to understand God's watchful, nurturing side, so has caring for my kids deepened my awareness of God's parenting love for me.

As any mother knows, however, the home front is not all calm presence and contemplation. Indeed, much of my spiritual growth comes from the unending need to exercise patience, gentleness, self-control and all the other expressions of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5. Having a child in the house seems to be the spiritual equivalent of following one of those programmed texts that constantly quiz you to let you know just how well you have assimilated the lesson. The feedback, I assure you, is instant and generous.

But trying as it may be, motherhood is not the intellectual and emotional black hole it often is made out to be. (Pause for a moment's tribute to the availability of some sort of regular baby-sitting relief.) Being at home permits me the luxury of controlling my environment far better than my husband can control his, spending his workday yelling hardly audible stock quotes across a noisy, cigar-filled trading room. The kids and I silence the world's barrage by keeping the television unplugged, substituting lots of homegrown entertainment.

In a wonderful essay published in a 1908 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot offered a culturally prescient appraisal of the modern Radcliffe woman's dilemma in sorting out myth from reality in trying to balance family and intellectual challenge. Said he:

There is a common impression that to procure for herself a real intellectual life, as distinguished from a life of sentimental or mechanical routing, a woman needs to have some occupation similar to those of men - that is, she needs to keep a shop, carry on a business, have some trade or profession, be skillful in some art which has a commercial use, or be a professional writer, artist, or student. The common life of women in bearing and rearing children and making a home for a family is not thought of as affording the wife and mother the means and opportunities for an intellectual development. Is this a rational view?1

After demonstrating some understanding of the challenges of childrearing. Eliot then comments with some astuteness:

It will be observed that the women who are most apt to lose their chances of obtaining their intellectual life as mothers and heads of families are those who are able to employ servants, nurses, and governesses to do their work for them. They do not so surely secure the natural opportunity for mental growth which the direct and unaided care of children provides.2

I can personally affirm the empirical truth of President Eliot's surmisings on natural opportunities. Much of the rhythmic routines of laundry, dishes and toy-sorting keep my hands busy but leave my mind free to ponder Tolstoy's musings on the inevitability of history. I am enjoying War and Peace in ten-page bites, sandwiched between dicing carrots and figuring out how our new whizbang electric juicer works. I memorize music from a hymnal propped open on the kitchen counter while doing dishes.

With their constant store of questions that no one would think to ask, the kids themselves are a source of intellectual stimulation. I like to reconstruct Becky's linguistic concepts from her grammatical errors. It's like doing a crossword puzzle underwater in a foreign language. "Know wha' something?" is one of her newfangled elisions — a combination of "Know what?" and "Know something?" (Becky doesn't have time to waste.) Just today I asked my Harvard classmate Jenifer Nields, fresh out of medical school and about to begin a residency in psychiatry, if she had any ideas why children love to be chased. Jenifer drew a blank. So I offered my theory to her — that for children, playing chase disarms an actual fear of menacing presences by diffusing it into a ritualized substitute. "You wanna know something?" Jenifer mused. "In medical school we learn but they don't actually teach us much."

All told, my fantasy career is not altogether unrelated to the realities of my domestic life. My matins are a six o'clock mug of hazelnut coffee with Jeff as we take in some morning Scriptures. My "Magnificat" may be "Jesus Loves Me" crooned to a tired child. Instead of Mother Teresa's precious outcasts, I serve the ordinary inhabitants of a suburban neighborhood, counting it a privilege to minister to the sufferer of a rocky marriage or of loneliness or of creeping frailty. My current weary pilgrim is an inspirational East African Christian visiting the United States on a mission for his home church and staying in our guest room. Since Mr. Kpawirena speaks little English, I am challenged by the need to communicate with him in freshman-elective French.

As I speculate on my future with God beyond this "childrearing interlude," I am comforted and assured to read that a Dutch woman named Corrie ten Boom was little more than a kindly spinster watchmaker until, at the age of fifty or so, God used her to smuggle Jews out of Nazi-occupied Holland, thereby saving the lives of hundreds. Without the many years of quiet Christian faithfulness that laid a deep foundation for ten Boom's crowning work, would she have dared the hazardous task or subsequently survived her own imprisonment (and even blessed others) in a concentration camp?

Much in me still would prefer to be burning myself out for God in a way that hews closer to the Alumnae Directory's ideal of what a real Radcliffe woman should be doing. But I believe that, for now, the Lord desires a less Class Notes-oriented vocation for me. He is molding a handmaid, as he has done for centuries, to sing Him praises and to nurture others He has called to Himself. I don't begrudge the Lord His creativity — or even His sense of humor — in assigning this would-be contemplative to the front lines of the baby brigade. Ad Dei Magnam Gloriam.

Adapted from Finding God At Harvard. Copyright © 1996 Kelly K. Monroe, editor. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

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