Somebody really smart said one time that we read to know we aren’t alone in this world. I think that writers write for the same reason. I know I do. Writing is the way I process life and try to make sense of what is going on in the microcosm of my own life and the macrocosm of life on planet earth. I write because I need to know that I am not alone. Yeah. Definitely. I need to know that what I do matters to somebody, somewhere, and, perhaps more significantly, that the voices in the world around me are not merely my own, echoing back at me from the jagged rocks across the canyon. The flip side of that is that I write because I very much hope—more than practically anything—that I will someday write something that will remind other people that they aren’t alone, either.
So this week, I have been mulling over the choices we make as parents and as career people and, ultimately, as human beings, and how we can live with assurance that those choices are valid. And, as is almost always the case, it was an incident in my own life that got me thinking about this stuff. And since I am convinced that we all need to know we are not alone in our vulnerabilities and uncertainties, I am writing about it.
It happened a few weeks ago at a social thing. Now, I should go ahead and admit upfront that I am a pretty sensitive girl. I don’t look like it and I don’t act like it, but I am. This incident involved this sensitive girl’s feelings being hurt by someone else’s words, so I am still trying to work through it—because we sensitive people are a little slow when it comes to working through stuff. So. I was at this party and I met a young woman who was sharp as a tack—an engineer who was just super-put-together. She asked what I do and what I studied in school and, when I told her, said that she wished she had done something easy like going to seminary and becoming a stay-at-home mom who writes books on the side. You can imagine the blow to my vanity. For about three solid seconds, I started to get good and pissed off. I literally bit the side of my tongue to keep the stalactite-sharp reply that came to my mind from escaping from my lips.
Now, the letter that James wrote says that the tongue is like a fire, and I totally agree. I find that the quickest way to start a wildfire—one that can potentially rage for years—is to make a comment (even unintentionally) that attacks another person’s person-hood—their ontology, their validity. And I am painfully aware that I am no less susceptible to starting forest fires than the next person, so any time I catch even a faint whiff of smoke wafting lazy-like on the breeze, I try to button my lips as quickly as I can before a tongue of flame blazes into an inferno the size of the state of California. So, I swallowed, took a deep breath, and swallowed again. Then I noticed the nervous way this young woman’s eyes were flitting around the room, and how her shoulders and arms were pulled in tightly against her chest, kind of like she was hugging herself. Then I remembered that she was sitting in a room full of strangers, and that—what was worse—the rest of us already knew each other and were, in fact, best friends. So, I took a second deep breath, and then another one, and said that, yes, becoming an engineer seemed like it would be insanely hard, and that she must be really über smart to have pulled it off, and that there is just no way I could have made it through an engineering program. I watched as her shoulders visibly relaxed. Then, because those words seemed both true and kind, I left it at that.
I wish I could say that, because I am such a ridiculously well-adjusted and internally secure person, I immediately forgot that it ever happened. But that’s just not the truth. It bothered me. Not simply because this new girl wasn’t quite sure if my life choices were valid, but because I am always wondering if my life choices are valid. I am always dealing with my own defunct humanity; my own existential and emotional uncertainties; my own slightly cracked soul. Since I am always grappling with those fears in my mind—and because human life doesn’t happen in a vacuum—I am pretty certain that other people must be struggling with the same questions and with the cracks in their own souls.
I had a conversation the other day with one of my best friends on a similar topic. About how, even as relatively self-confident adults, we both always find ourselves secretly hoping that people are really impressed with us; we hope that people look at our friends and marriages and career paths and the way we are raising our kids and our meta-narratives and the way we choose to spend our money and whatever else and think, “Wow, that old So-And-So really has it together.”
Now, this need may not look the way it did when we were younger and wore our hearts on our sleeves. In fact, I think that we do a much better job of concealing our need for approval and reassurance as adults; but still, this need is pretty deeply rooted in the fabric of who we are as humans, and I don’t think that anybody escapes it. And I also think (as do a bunch of other really smart theologians who thought of it before me) that it is probably there because once upon a time we lived in a garden called Eden, and we got to spend our evenings receiving a lot of face-time from our perfect, loving Creator. Back in Eden, the Creator gave us our identity and our security and very successfully told us who we are. And we accepted His pronouncements about us, because we understood intuitively that He was the only one who had the right to make them.
Then, when the Fall happened, we lost track of that perfect identity, that security, as well as our profoundly reassuring relationship with the Creator. And we have been wandering around our beautiful blue planet ever since, looking for someone to meet that most basic of human needs—someone who can sufficiently provide the ultimate answer to our ontological questions—and, sadly, not finding anyone who can pull it off. We humans seem to be always on the lookout for someone who can give us back our metaphysical security; inevitably, we are looking for it in the wrong places. God was the one who gave us our identity in the first place, so, it stands to reason that He’s the only one who can give it back.
So, how does this spiritual black hole of insecurity play itself out in my own life? Well, probably more ways than I can name. For one thing, I will probably never appear publicly in a bikini this side of the Pearly Gates (I mean, come on, I actually grew another human being inside my stomach). Also, and on a more philosophically significant note, I often find that I don’t innately possess the answers to how to properly parent my son and, strangely, it feels as if everyone around me is completely sure of the rules of the game. I find that I mostly parent one very deep breath at a time, whereas other mothers seem to parent from the natural wellspring of their indefatigable knowledge. I look at my little person with such wonder, with such complete and total bewilderment, and think, “Okay. I am going to try and feel my way through this one, son, because I have no idea why you are behaving in the way that you are. I am trying to understand you, W, and I just cannot figure out why you would want to bite the dog.”
However, in spite of how things look or how I feel, I remind myself that people who seem to have the answers rarely do, and that people who look the most truly confident in their abilities are oftentimes the most insecure. One of the ways that I most often recognize other people’s parenting insecurities is when parenting becomes a competition. It is a bizarre phenomenon, but one that is very real, nonetheless. Particularly in the case of motherhood. Don’t kid yourself. It is. At least, most people operate as if that’s what they think… Usually, the cues are subtle. Not always, but often. Mostly, parenthood’s competitive nature is communicated non-verbally. Mostly, people won’t tell you that they don’t think you’re doing a good job or that they are doing a better job, unless you count what they are telling you with their eyes, with their body language.
I notice it a lot. I notice it at church on Sundays and at the library and the park, and pretty much anywhere where there are kids—and parents. To be honest, I don’t think I am capable of keeping up. And to be even more honest, I don’t think I am even interested in keeping up. Still, I do find myself asking “Why?” a lot. A lot. “Why don’t you throw birthday parties like that?” I think. “Why is W not involved in this activity? In that? Why don’t you invest thousands of hours of your life in couponing? Why don’t you get a job that most people view as a legitimate job? Why don’t you shop at five grocery stores a week, in order to ensure that you get the best deals? Why aren’t you passionate about discovering and implementing fun new macrobiotic recipes into your weekly meal routine? Why doesn’t your son know Spanish? Take tumbling? Faithfully do his poopy-doops on the potty? What is your problem?” I think, as I see this spectacular mother doing this thing, and that spectacular mother doing something even more impressive…I watch open mouthed, in stunned silence, as if being wowed by acrobats at the circus, all the while thinking, “Why didn’t I ever learn to do that?”
And yet, there is something inside of me that instinctively rejects living up to other people’s standards of what a mother should be capable of and of what a truly admirable woman should look like. And I don’t think that this instinctive rejection stems from my own desire to be autonomous or even from my own pride (although I do definitely struggle on an hourly basis with both of those things), but from something inside of me that says that other people’s standards for me and for each other are often simply the wrong standards. I think that there is something inside of me that recognizes that my true identity doesn’t come from other people’s warped and, frankly, dehumanizing expectations, but from God’s life-affirming expectations. For me, being around other moms is often a lot like looking through the pages of a fashion magazine: when you compare yourself, you inevitably come out of it feeling completely inadequate. And, also, just fat. And, what’s worse, until the comparing began, you actually thought of yourself as being pretty competent or attractive or having a nice bum or as being intelligent or stylish or…whatever.
I know that I am not the only mom (or parent) on the planet that struggles with this—not by a long shot. I see it in the body language of my girlfriends all the time. In fact, I often see them fearing that I am judging them, when, frankly, parenting generally leaves me far too tired and bemused to judge anybody. I often listen to the undercurrents beneath the words and the inflections between the sentences. I listen to the silences; and then, to the spoken words—to my girlfriends condemning themselves for working and parenting, or not working and parenting, or needing occasional peace and quiet even as they are parenting, or working part-time while they are parenting, or any one of a hundred other things, and I see them watching me—all of us—from the corner of their eyes. They are wondering what we are thinking. They watch us from under their lashes. They are fearful—as am I—of whether or not they measure up in the eyes of other mothers, of other people. It’s a lot of pressure, frankly. And that’s too bad, because being a parent has enough inherent pressures of its own.
“So, are my life choices valid?” I ask myself for the millionth time…
Most days, I feel pretty good about myself as a mom. As a person. As a writer. In fact, most of the time, if I step back from myself as a parent and evaluate—as impartially as a person can—whether or not I am doing a good job, the answer is, “Yeah. Certainly not perfect; I need some work in certain areas (I am not even close to being as patient as I ought to be). But yeah, I am actually good at this.” Most days, I am also able to recognize that what I write matters to other people. Maybe not to everyone. Maybe not all of the time. Maybe not even to most people. But sometimes it does. Sometimes I think it is even able to make people think a little or to make life just a little bit better or at least to make people smile for a second. Most days, I can listen to God speaking to my spirit, affirming and affirming again the truth about who I am. It is only when I allow the voices of other people’s (oftentimes strange and nonsensical) expectations inside my head that I begin to lose sight of what my life is supposed to look like and who I am supposed to be. And I will be honest, I do that pretty often. And when I do, I find that I have to go to a really quiet place and remind myself of the truth, and that human “truth” and God’s truth are oftentimes not that closely related.
When I look at what my husband and I identified and established as our ultimate, foundational values about a zillion years ago, I see that we have mostly remained true to them. Sometimes we have failed and sometimes those values have evolved, but, mostly, our life looks like we hoped it would. It is unquestionably true that our life is oftentimes messy and dirty and ugly and sweaty and very frequently uncertain. Yet, it remains equally true that our life is beautiful and valuable and fulfilling and chock-a-block full of love. Does that mean it works for other people? Nope. Does that mean other people affirm the goodness, the value, or the success of it? Not always. Does it mean that everyone thinks I am the world’s most amazing mom? Uhn-uh. Does it mean that I look exactly like Jackie Kennedy while doing it? Definitely not. Sadly, not even close.
I recognize, hopefully with patience and grace, that not everyone thinks I am great at what I do. I recognize, hopefully with kindness, that not everyone will see my career as a valid one. I recognize, hopefully with generosity of spirit, that a lot of people will think I am not nearly as impressive because I choose to be a stay-at-home mom and work from home. And I have learned the hard way that not everyone will understand that what my husband and I do is actually work—really hard work—and that we do not spend our lives lounging by a pool somewhere. The truth is, most days, we will work frantically all day long; most weeks my husband will work upwards of seventy hours and I will work upwards of forty. To add insult to serious injury, a vast majority of what we will create, we will not get paid for—other artists know the truth of this. And, then, perhaps most frustrating of all, I recognize that a lot of people who are not artists will think we spend our days farting around.
What’s more, there are many other areas of our life together that other people will question the validity of. For instance, we will probably go through life with any number of people questioning our parenting abilities; with people thinking we should be doing things differently; thinking that we are too strict or not strict enough; too structured or not structured enough; too demanding of our kids or not demanding enough—thinking that we just really don’t have a clue (which, if I am being honest, is probably a pretty legitimate evaluation).
Those realizations are tough and unquestionably disheartening, but they do not relate to the reality of who we are. They don’t really relate to the words that God would speak over us if we could still kick back with him in the garden under a purple and crimson sunset sky in the cool breezes of evening. I definitely struggle to remember that; I struggle to remind myself of the purity and truth of those words. Oftentimes the world around me demeans the validity of them, and I have to slip away to somewhere quiet and drink a scalding hot cup of tea and read from the Psalms or the Proverbs or my prayer book or from one of my favorite theologians until I can remember what the truth is.
One of the most important things I have learned my whole life long is that what other people say about us is not who we are. We are not who people say we are. We are not defined by the names we are given by others. Others don’t have the right to name us; only our Creator has that right. It’s what God says about us that counts, and God sees glory in us. He thinks we are pretty damn good at what we do, and at being who we are. He thinks it is so exciting if I decide that I want to be a surgeon and He is also equally sincerely delighted with my desire to be a stay-at-home mom who has a hole in the bum of her yoga pants. According to the Creation account in Genesis, He likes us enough to want to spend His evenings with us. And, what’s more, if the Incarnation is any indication, to spend every moment of His lifetime with us—and a thousand other lifetimes, besides. And the thing I find most fascinating and reassuring about the Creation account? God wanted to hang out with Adam and Eve, who were nothing more than farmers—real salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar types. Uneducated. Unsophisticated. Completely unaccomplished. And, as far as God was concerned, just perfect.
So, what about the engineer at the party? Is she right? Is my life easier than hers? Less impressive? Less legitimate? Is she smarter than me? Yeah, maybe. Probably. Honestly, I don’t doubt it. But, as a beloved theology professor of mine used to say all the time with a shrug (offering one of the most profound philosophical lessons I ever learned, by the way): “What’re ya gonna do?”
In part, it was through hearing those words on a near-daily basis for four years that I began to see that some questions are not worth asking. I learned that we are oftentimes simply asking the wrong questions, and that, incidentally, we waste a fair bit of time worrying about the wrong things. Consequently, I can see that my life isn’t significant because of its relative degree of glamour or success or based on whether or not I am accomplished or smart or impressive (and I daily thank the sweet Lord for that). In truth, my life is significant because of it’s implicit ontology. Because of its “is-ness.” Because it is. Because it’s mine. Because God gave it to me. And, most significantly of all, because He called it “good.”
Am I a great mom? Honestly, I am not sure. But I do know this: I am W’s mom. I am the one he has—the only one he has; I am the only one who volunteered for the job and subsequently, I am the only one he needs. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone else could have been the very particular mama that W needed. He’s a really good, really tough kid, and I think that God gave me the emotional, physical and psycho-spiritual makeup to deal with both his particular brand of goodness and his particular brand of toughness.
Am I a great writer? Some days, I definitely think so. Other days, I feel grossly inadequate to do the job I feel like I have been given. Some days, I alternate on a bi-hourly, rather manic basis between thinking I have been given a special gift and thinking that I am a bit of a dufus, really. But I do know this: my favorite postmodern theologian and writer, Madeleine L’Engle, said that it doesn’t matter if a writer has a small, a medium, or a large-sized gift; it simply matters that she does the best she can with that which she has been given. As L’Engle sees it, it does not matter whether the gift you have to offer is small or great—as long as you are a giver of gifts! And I think she’s right. I can honestly say that, whatever I have been given, I try faithfully to use, to the best of my ability—to offer to others as a gift, to the best of my ability; and then, beyond that, I try to walk away from it and not to worry too much about the end result.
And lastly, if all else fails, I remind myself that we read and write and relate (and even compare ourselves to other people) out of a desire to know that we are not alone. So, the put-together engineering chick at the party? I am not a psychologist, but I would imagine that she was not evaluating my life choices so much as she was evaluating her own. I would imagine that she was not so much trying to denigrate the validity of my life, as she was trying to establish the validity of her own—to a room full of strangers. And, so, in my bumbling, stumbling, slightly soul-cracked way, my job was to try and help her establish it, and then to move on. And if I come out of it with my feelings hurt and my pride wounded? Well, then, I try to imagine myself lying in the cool grass of a garden under a purple-red sky late in the evening. I imagine putting my hands behind my head, feeling the blades of grass prickling against the backs of my fingers, feeling the breeze whipping over my cheekbones and brushing over my lashes and feeling the presence of God lying next to me. I imagine reaching over and sliding my small, cold hand into the warmth and solidity of His. I imagine the two of us lying side by side watching the stars popping up like glimmering kernels of popcorn across the night sky. Then, I just lay there, for as long as it takes, listening to what He has to say to me—about me—until I can remember the truth of who I am.