Women’s work

A few months ago I read a fascinating book, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (that’s right, it’s rigorous enough to need two subtitles!). She traces the history of textile production — perhaps the quintessential women’s work — from the Paleolithic through to the end of the Iron Age, drawing on archaeological evidence as well as written records and even artwork. It’s well worth a read if you have any interest in spinning, sewing, weaving, or their related arts and crafts… or in how to tease out historical accounts from activities like these that are often very marginal to official records, for that matter. It’s a dense read, but an excellent one.

Something that really jumped out at me, however, comes from the introductory chapter, where Wayland Barber asks what it is about these activities that makes them traditionally “women’s work”? She quotes from Judith Brown’s 1969 article, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in her explanation:

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon “the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), “nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men….” Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be “compatible with simultaneous child watching.” From empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one’s back or being interrupted by a child’s crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the core of women’s work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending on the circumstances of the particular society).

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, pp. 29-30

This jumped out at me because it makes an intuitive sense, and accurately reflects my own stage of life. Women bear and birth children; until very recently on the scale of human existence, only women could feed the youngest members of the species. Women have not traditionally been the cooks and gardeners and sewists and spinners because of an inherent aptitude for that work or an inability to perform other tasks, but because of the biological realities and demands of mothering.

Everything I do at home is mediated by those same concerns and responsibilities. I have three children under seven, one of whom is still nursing; all of my daily tasks have to be fit into the day around breastfeeding, diaper changes, naps, home schooling, squabble mediating, disciplining, reading and playing, and of course the constant, unending cycle of making food, serving food, and cleaning up after having food. I spend 14-18 hours a week putting children to bed. My cumulative breastfeeding time is now up to 4.5 years (and counting!). And so it makes sense that my hobbies are things that fit around these things: reading, writing, sewing, embroidery, crochet. They’re the kind of thing that I can pick up and put down as needed, that can be left on top of the piano for a week before being picked up again, that don’t take more thought or attention than I can easily spare.

And they’re slow. Handiwork takes time: even a small baby blanket can easily take a dozen hours or more to crochet, depending on the yarn weight and pattern. It takes many evenings of work to finish a piece. I don’t mind, really. The time it takes to make something sends its own message to the recipient: that I value them enough to spend my time in order that they would be warm, or that their clothes would be mended, or that their house would be beautiful. And while I’m very glad that I don’t have to make all of our family’s clothes by hand, or spin my own thread and yarn before I can use them, I love being able to feel myself a part of this great historical chain of women working with our hands to make, mend, and care. Women’s work is good work; here’s to twenty thousand more years.

Simple Holy Week

It has been a long time since I have been able to celebrate Lent and Holy Week the way I might wish to. With Anselm and Perpetua so close in age I spent four and a half straight years pregnant and/or nursing, which puts fasting and such right out. (That enforced non-participation is not something to feel guilty about, but it did often feel strange.)

In the Holy Weeks since 2015 I have had a baby, and then a toddler and a baby, and then two toddlers, and now a toddler and a preschooler to wrangle. Holy Week services are inevitably scheduled during someone’s naptime or bedtime; our particular family situation means that if someone needs to stay home from church with the children, it’s me. That probably sounds like a complaint — it’s not, really, just a reflection of reality right now — but it also means that I can’t even remember the last time I made it to a Good Friday service.

It’s easy to read all of those wonderful liturgical parenting blogs and feel that my own efforts have fallen rather flat. But the point of Holy Week is not my efforts — it’s about nothing less than the immeasurable grace of God towards a sinful and desperately-loved humanity. And in these seasons with small children and scattered church attendance and ridiculously improvised celebrations at home… well, there is grace for that too.

Yesterday afternoon, Anselm and Perpetua helped me bake bread, marking its top with a cross (recipe). We talked about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and instituted the first Lord’s Supper. Later they went to bed and I got to go to the Maundy Thursday service at our new church. We won’t be at home on Easter Sunday, so perhaps we will make empty tomb cookies tonight instead of on Saturday, assuming I find and unpack my mixer. (Note for those who would try them: I remember from last year that using a full cup of sugar is way too sweet. This year I’ll halve it.) And that’s how we’ll do it this year. Mostly at home, mostly simple, mostly expecting to meet with God in the chaos of family life and the stillness in between.

A blessed Easter Triduum to you and yours.

On the elevation of parenting

Once upon a time, a woman named Kim Brooks left her four-year-old in the car, with his iPad, on a cool and overcast day, when she ran into a store to quickly pick up an item. When she came out five minutes later, he had been kidnapped! — No, just kidding: he was perfectly fine (of course he was fine). But she wasn’t fine: a bystander (of the concerned variety) had seen her leave her son and come back. Instead of expressing their concern in person, the bystander recorded Brooks re-entering the car and driving away, and then called the police, who in turn issued a warrant for her arrest.

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear is the book that came out of Kim Brooks’s experience: part memoir, part sociological study, and a fascinating overall read that I would recommend to all parents. Brooks not only explores the overtones of both fear and one-upmanship that surround parenting in this particular cultural moment, but also digs deeps to expose (some of) the roots of those overtones. Why do we approach parenting with such great fear that we, or the world, are going to irrevocably screw up our children? Why is parental competition so vicious? Where has our tolerance for differences in parenting styles gone? In part, the answer is because we live in a moment of where parenting has been elevated far above its historic importance — particularly for mothers. Brooks writes of her own experience,

For more than six years, I’d been embracing, or at least blindly accepting, the assumption that a woman who has small children doesn’t just become a mom. She becomes Mom — that is her name, her station, first and foremost the essential thing she is. In a New York Times op-ed, Heather Havrilesky wrote, “Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, and all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.” (p. 170)

When I was pregnant with Anselm, I was in graduate school, taking a full course load. I wrote papers, went to classes, read interesting things. I had hobbies. Yet for those six-ish months of public, visible pregnancy, it was like all of that disappeared: not because I wasn’t interested in them anymore, but because nobody else was. If someone asked how I was feeling, they meant in relation to my pregnancy. If someone asked how things were going… they meant in relation to my pregnancy. It was like I wasn’t myself anymore, but instead had become this title, “Mother” (or perhaps, at that point, “Expecting Mother”). It was crazy how quickly that switch flipped. I see it now, too, when I’m out with my children, and acquaintances address me as “Mom” rather than using my name.

Although this is all super-duper annoying, I don’t put it down to malice on anyone’s part — nobody is actively trying to discard or denigrate the aspects of my life that aren’t related to mothering. It is, however, indicative of the way many of us think about parenting, even if only subconsciously: that when someone becomes a parent, that is the thing for them. Everything else is (or ought to be) shoved aside to make room for being a parent. Don’t get me wrong; I love my kids and I take parenting pretty seriously. But being a mother is one aspect of my being, not its totality.

Brooks talked to Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun, for insights into this cultural shift:

[Jennifer] Senior offers several theories about how [what sociologist Annette Lareau named “concerted cultivation”] became the accepted standard for middle-class parents. She refers, for example to a century of shifting attitudes about the role of children, one of which the sociologist Viviana Zelizer calls the “sacrilization of child life,” a shift in which children became “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.” Senior speculates about social changes brought on by women’s full-fledged entrance into the workforce over the past five decades, and how this movement has stoked fears about the quantity and quality of time parents (but especially mothers) devote to their children. As Hilary Levey Friedman explains in Playing to Win, a heightening sense of class anxiety permeates much of twenty-first-century American life, and a symptom of that is the fact that parents now view their children’s educational achievement, prestige, and future success as “the only protection, dicey as it may be, against future family downward mobility.”

Senior also details the unprecedented expansion of choice that has changed the way parents approach matters of family life large and small. “Not long ago,” she suggests, “mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of deciding how large their families were or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence. . . . They had children because it was economically necessary, or because it was customary, or because it was a moral obligation to family and community.” By contrast, for many parents today from the middle class and above, caring for children is not an obligation or a necessity, but a long-anticipated life decision; we take on parenthood after a level of deliberation and preparation that would have been foreign to our grandparents or even our parents. And because we have our children later, because we have fewer of them, because many of us really, really want children if and when we have them, our identification with both the parent-child relationship and the work that parenting entails takes on enormous significance.

When child-rearing is something most people do for one reason or another (economic necessity, religious obligation, creating future warriors for battling rival tribes, and so on), when birthrates are high, parenthood common, children abundant and well integrated into various aspects of communal life, a baseline level of cooperation and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving pervades. But when being a parent is elevated to the most important thing you will ever do, a thing you in particular have chosen, a special duty and responsibility that only some accept, the stakes rise. If parenthood is no longer just a relationship or a part of “ordinary life” but instead a new kind of secular religion, then true tolerance of each other’s parenting differences becomes a lot more complicated and a lot less common. As Paula S. Fass writes in The End of American Childhood, “Once having children is defined as an individual choice, American parents often imagine that when they do not succeed or are less than completely successful . . . it is somehow their fault. Having made the choice, they are somehow obligated to do it right.” But obligated to whom? (pp. 48-9)

All of that makes sense to me. Because of several historical and social convergences (smaller family sizes, contraception, the shifting “worth” of children, and the rest), parenting is now seen as an extremely high-stakes endeavour. And if the stakes are high, then we are compelled to find and practice The Best Way, to know in our bones that we are doing it right, and that therefore those who chose other ways are doing it wrong. Parenting is something that needs to be “won” over and against other parents, including our friends and even our spouses.

But in seeing parenting as something that has winners and losers, as a situation where there’s only one right way (though nobody really seems to know exactly what that is) we succumb to a mentality that is fundamentally unhealthy and unsustainable — for children and parents alike. Small Animals is a breath of fresh air in many ways, inviting us to reexamine our assumptions, lower the stakes, and loosen our grip — even just a little — on the anxiety-driven need to do everything perfectly. Kim Brooks isn’t a perfect mother. Neither am I. And that, I think, is exactly how things should be.

Explore more: Crime statistics | LetGrow.org | Kim Brooks (official website) | Study: No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children | Jennifer Senior’s TED Talk

Tis a gift to be simple

Since I’m the primary caregiver for our children, I consider it part of my professional development, as it were, to read new-to-me parenting books on a relatively frequent basis. I’m often not looking for anything particular out of them — I think we’re all doing pretty ok on the whole — but it’s always good to be able to take a look at things through a fresh lens. And of course, there are always things that we could be doing better!

Enter Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne (with Lisa M. Ross), which is appealingly subtitled “Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids”. And who wouldn’t want that, right? Calmer, happier, and more secure sounds great to me.

Payne’s thesis is that our children are suffering from “soul fevers”  caused by “the four pillars of ‘too much’: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too fast” (p. xi). Kids are overwhelmed with material goods (chiefly in the realm of toys!), whose very excess leaves them unable to appreciate, much less love, what they have. Closely related to this is the issue of too many choices: how to you decide which stuffed animal to play with when you have twenty or thirty? or which clothes to wear when your drawers are overflowing? Choice overload and decision fatigue are not solely adult problems, after all, and our children are even less prepared to cope with them than we are. Kids are bombarded with too much adult information, and overscheduled into activities that deny them the gifts of unstructured time and the boredom that leads to deep play and real creativity. So what’s the solution? In a word, simplify.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Reduce the number of toys. Hold off on organized sports until kids are approaching adolescence. Save charged political discussions with your spouse until the children are sleeping. Open up the schedule for free time. Build predictability and rhythm into your family’s life. Turn off the TV and let them be bored. Get outside.

Now, in many ways this is all stuff we’ve heard before. What I appreciate about Payne’s approach, however, is that he makes it all seem eminently doable, without any accompanying sense of guilt. Although he presents research which can occasionally be alarming, his tone is not of an admonishing superior but one of someone who is coming alongside you to show the way and cheer you on. It’s entirely refreshing. Moreover, Payne provides a series of concrete actions that you can take in any order, and encourages you to start with whatever feels easiest for you to accomplish. Once you start with the first thing, he posits, the rest comes easier.

And so with that I decided to tackle step one for our family: clearing out the toys. Not that I think we’re doing too badly at all — Anselm and Perpetua have what I would consider a pretty reasonable amount of toys, most of which are of the simple old-fashioned sort that don’t make noise or flash or do the imaginative heavy lifting. But at the same time, I knew we were holding on to toys that they really didn’t want or need. So, armed with Payne’s “10-Point Checklist of Toys Without ‘Staying Power'” (pp. 69-74), I set to work:

  1. Broken toys: we had more than a few of these. Out they went into the trash!
  2. Developmentally inappropriate toys: I don’t think we have any toys that are too developmentally ahead of the kids. I did find about half a dozen baby toys that had been missed in the last sorting, so those got put into storage.
  3. Conceptually “fixed” toys: I did keep some of these — we have some Sesame Street figurines that see a lot of use — but I got rid of anything that came in a kids’ meal.
  4. Toys that “do too much” and break too easily: We somehow ended up with a lot of little toy vehicles made of very cheap plastic. I got rid of all the broken ones and put most of the rest in the donation box.
  5. Very high-stimulation toys: We actually have only one toy of the making-noise variety, which is a talking and singing teapot. That gets a lot of use, but I do have a mental note to not replace the batteries when they (finally) wear out.
  6. Annoying or offensive toys: I didn’t find anything annoying — besides the teapot, which I can live with — but used this guideline when sorting out duplicates, trying to choose the toy that was more touchable or aesthetically pleasing as the one to keep.
  7. Toys that claim to give your child a developmental edge: We didn’t have any of these.
  8. Toys you were pressured to buy: None of these, either. Although the kids watch some TV, it’s all from streaming services so they’ve never really seen commercials.
  9. Toys that inspire corrosive play: Right now, Anselm and Perpetua play fairly well together — I couldn’t think of any toys that consistently get between them. None of these.
  10. Toy multiples: Ah, yes. Toy multiples we definitely had (and still have)! Plenty of stuffed animals that don’t get played with, many many vehicles, and other duplicates. I put a lot of these into the donation box.

The result was a pretty streamlined toy pile. I got rid of a box of toys (to be donated) and another half-bag or so that went to the trash. We still have a wide variety of toys to choose from, but these can now all be seen at the same time — nothing’s buried at the bottom of a pile. For example, I forgot to snap a before picture, but here’s our decluttered vehicles bin:

I got rid of about half of their vehicles, keeping the wood and metal ones and getting rid of almost all of the plastic toys. There are still lots to play with but they form a single layer now! The rest of our bins got a similar treatment. And while it’s only been one morning, Perpetua in particular has been playing with several toys this morning that had been languishing unseen for a long time. Neither of them appears to have noticed anything missing. I’m going to call this one a win.

As for the other suggestions in the book, many of the issues Payne names are ahead of us because our children are still so young, and so reading Simplicity Parenting is more of a prophylactic than a cure. But I like his vision for family life, a lot:

It takes time to reduce, to say “no thanks” and mean it, to the distractions and excesses that have overwhelmed our daily lives. And changing a family’s direction isn’t easy, especially when life feels like a cyclone. Yet perhaps the strongest force on earth can be harnessed for this work: a parent’s love for their children. The process of simplification — a shifting of a family’s core axis — is usually driven by a parent’s simple desire to protect the ease and wonder of their child’s early years. I’ve seen the wisdom of starting small, of beginning with the possible, relishing the results, and allowing success to them fuel the process. I’ve found that what works best is to simplify the child’s life first: to declutter their overload rooms, diets, and schedules, and to increase the rhythm and regularity of the home.

[…] As distractions fall away, a sense of ease takes hold and expands. There’s more time for connection, room for contemplation and play. Boredom, once feared and banished from the home, will be allowed in again, appreciated for how often it precedes inspiration. Contrary to what you might think, regularity is more liberating than “boring” to most children. Rituals that can be counted on throughout the day and week actas powerful affirmations. For teenagers rhythms provide a steady, reassuring counterweight to the volatility and strong emotions that define the territory of adolescence. Rituals loosen a younger child’s grip, relaxing their need to control small and seemingly random aspects of their day. (211-12)

Simplicity Parenting will be going on the list of parenting books I regularly recommend. I found it very helpful, both in terms of giving us some steps we can take now, and as a reminder to stand firm on some family structures and rhythms that we’ve already established.

Forbidden fruit

Last night my husband and I were chatting and the subject came up of Christian families who don’t let their children read the Harry Potter books. (For the record,this post is about the general phenomenon and not anyone specific.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone came out when I was around eleven or twelve years old, and so I am of the generation that grew up reading the series, eagerly awaiting each new release over the decade during which they were being written. And while my siblings and I were allowed to read them all, I do remember the general suspicion with which the books were met in much of the wider Christian community. After all, Harry Potter was ridiculously popular, and about witches and wizards — what if it led our children straight to the occult? The word “satanic” was occasionally bandied about. It was a strange time.

The trouble with the decision to forbid Harry Potter, as I see it, is that it often seemed to be made (a) out of fear and (b) without ever having read the books. Yes, Harry Potter is about witches and wizards — and also dragons and goblins and trolls, not to mention house elves, gryphons, mermaids, and all manner of spells, charms, curses, and potions. But Harry Potter is also about self-sacrificial love, friendship, loyalty, and courage — not to mention redemption, the care of one’s soul, forgiveness, and life after death. There are profoundly Christian themes throughout the entire series. As Andrew Peterson writes in his article Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me:

Let me be clear: Harry Potter is NOT Jesus. This story isn’t inspired, at least not in the sense that Scripture is inspired; but because I believe that all truth is God’s truth, that the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian story, and the main character of the Christian story is Christ, because I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son—and because I believe that he inhabits my heart and has adopted me as his son, into his family, his kingdom, his church—I have the freedom to rejoice in the Harry Potter story, because even there, Christ is King. Wherever we see beauty, light, truth, goodness, we see Christ. Do we think him so small that he couldn’t invade a series of books about a boy wizard? Do we think him cut off from a story like this, as if he were afraid, or weak, or worried? Remember when Santa Claus shows up (incongruously) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? It’s a strange moment, but to my great surprise I’ve been moved by it. Lewis reminds me that even Father Christmas is subject to Jesus, just as in Prince Caspian the hosts of mythology are subject to him. The Harry Potter story is subject to him, too, and Jesus can use it however he wants. In my case, Jesus used it to help me long for heaven, to remind me of the invisible world, to keep my imagination active and young, and he used it to show me his holy bravery in his triumph over the grave.

I think it’s wise to restrict Harry Potter, or at least the latter half of the series, until children are a bit older given the heavy themes that emerge as the series goes on. But there’s no need for a total ban. In fact, the moral universe of Harry Potter is so clear-cut — good is so good, and evil is so evil — that I would far prefer my children read Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone (etc.) than something like Twilight or the rubbishy V. C. Andrews books that got passed around when I was in middle school, for example.

But to move away from these seven particular books, the arguments for and against Harry Potter do raise the question of how and when and why we restrict our children’s reading. I find that when I think about it, my concern is less with the specific books my children will read or not read, than with whether they will have been given the intellectual and moral framework to competently evaluate what they read. Can they recognise an agenda? Can they trace an argument? Are they secure in their own convictions? Those, I think, are the types of questions that matter.

My role in this shouldn’t primarily be a matter or allowing or restricting (though certainly that is sometimes necessary), but of guiding. All things — or near enough — may be permissible, but I hope above all to teach my children to discern what is beneficial and edifying. After all, as the years go by I will be less and less involved in their media consumption. I want them to know how to make wise choices once they’re the ones holding the reins. More productive than turning certain books into forbidden fruit — which seems as likely to invite rebellion and sneakiness as anything else — is to engage with them with your child: to read what they’re reading (either in tandem or before they start), to cultivate a family culture the encourages discussion, to lead by example in approaching books with thoughtfulness rather than reactionism.

Harry Potter won’t turn our kids into wiccans any more than The Lord of the Rings will turn them into elves or Pride and Prejudice will turn them into early 19th-century landed gentlemen. By all means let us decide that some things are not worth consuming — let’s just not do it from a place of fear.

Why we keep our kids in church

Ever since Anselm was born, we’ve made it a priority to keep him — and Perpetua as well, once she came along — in for as much of the main church service each week as humanly possible. It began mostly as a practical step (we had mandatory chapel in seminary without childcare) but has become something we really value for what we see it doing in our children’s lives. Our church has a great kids’ program — Anselm loves Sunday School and Perpetua more-or-less tolerates the nursery — but for most of the service, they’re in the pew. This is why.

Knowing how to behave in church comes from being in church. 

Sometimes people compliment us on how well our kids behave in church. This isn’t to say that they’re never loud or wiggly, or that I’ve never had to carry a screaming child or two out of the sanctuary (ha). But by and large, they do fairly well. They sit (mostly) quietly and listen, they stay in the pew instead of climbing over or crawling under. As much as I’d like to say that this is because I am, obviously, a 100% amazing parent… what it really comes down to is that our children know how to behave in church because they’ve always been in church. It’s not a foreign environment to them; it’s just something we do. Since they were born they’ve been watching and listening to what the adults around them are doing. As they’ve gotten older they’ve started mimicking that behaviour. They can’t read, but they hold their bulletins. They stand and sit when everyone else does. Anselm can sing some hymns that he knows. They know how to behave in church because they spend time in church.

We want them to know that church is for them. 

We’re Anglicans, so Anselm and Perpetua were both baptized as infants. They are members of Christ’s body. There are no second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God! God desires our children’s worship just as he desires ours; God works in our children’s hearts through the hearing of his word just as he works in ours; God invites our children into his presence just as he invites us. There are few things that make me grit my teeth like hearing someone gush about how “children are the future of the church.” Y’all. Children aren’t the future. Children are the now.

We trust that God meets them right where they are. 

Can Anselm articulate a coherent, comprehensive systematic theology? Of course not. He’s three. But does he have faith? He sure does. He’s got all of the basics down: God made him and loves him, Jesus died for him and then rose again so that we can be with God forever, we go to church to worship God and learn about him, we can talk to God in prayer whenever we want, and the Holy Spirit helps us in all of that. As he grows he will learn and understand more. God’s grace meets us where we are; there’s no minimum age or cognitive level that we have to meet before he will begin to work in our hearts. Corporate worship is critically important to the process of spiritual formation, and we trust that having our children in church is impacting them in ways that we perhaps cannot yet see or understand, but which are nevertheless very real.

Bringing our kids to church reminds us that church isn’t about us. 

There are times that having the kids in church feels more like a hassle than anything else. I take them out to Sunday School and nursery, respectively, right before the sermon begins, which means that I miss the first few minutes of the sermon more often than not. And I go fetch them during the Peace or the Offeratory, which means that I often miss at least the first part of the Communion liturgy. When they’re with me, my attention is divided; I may be singing or praying or listening, but I’m also keeping one eye and one ear fixed on them. It’s hard for me to completely “enter in” to what we’re doing. But you know what? That’s ok. Granted, I do look forward to the days when I can regularly hear the whole sermon and participate in the whole liturgy, start to finish. But bringing my children into church reminds me that weekly worship is about a lot more than how I feel or what I get out of it. It’s about being with the body of believers, however messy that might look sometimes. It’s about passing on my faith to my children. It’s about a whole lot of things, none of which are centred around my ego or enjoyment.

Our kids need to be in church because the liturgy forms us.

We learn to worship by worshipping. We learn to pray by praying. We learn to sing by singing. Hearing the words of the liturgy week after week lets them penetrate our children’s hearts and minds, just as they penetrate ours. We have consistently been surprised when Anselm comes out with a phrase or idea lifted from the liturgy — but we oughtn’t be. In fact, it’s exactly what we ought to expect. The liturgy is deeply formative and we want our children to be formed by it.

Jesus bids us to let the children come to him. 

This is the big one, isn’t it? Jesus invites our children into his presence, just as they are. Even when they’re too small to understand. Even when they’re fussy. Even when you just get settled into the pew and then someone has a diaper blowout or drops a hymnbook or cries. Even when it’s the last thing we want to do on a Sunday morning. We don’t have to bring perfectly behaved children to church. We don’t have to bring completely attentive children to church. We just have to bring the children we have, again and again, trusting that in their imperfections and ours God is doing something beautiful.

Related Reading: Topical Tuesday: Why are there no children in church? | Children in Worship, or the Mortification of Parents | Welcoming Kids into Worship | Dear Parents with Young Children in Church | Pew parenting | Children belong in Mass

In defence of bringing home no bacon

Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading a lot about multi-level marketing schemes (which isn’t really germane to this post, but if you’re interested in that particular rabbit-hole you could start here or here or here or here). One reddit thread I was reading asked the question of what personally brought people to the anti-MLM movement, and one of the discussions it sparked was in relation to the way these companies seem to particularly target stay-at-home mothers. Here’s a little snippet of conversation:

Q: What made you personally hate MLMs?

Person 1: The working mom shaming. I have a full time job, my husband WAH with the kids. It works for us, really well. I don’t need someone telling me I’m less of a mom because I work.

Person 2: I will never understand why moms are so hard on each other!

Person 3: Because they’ve convinced themselves that being a stay at home mother is the hardest job in the world and can’t stand working mothers being able to balance working and raising a child.

Hmm. Do you hear the contempt in response number three?

I am a stay-at-home mother. I don’t think what I do is “the hardest thing in the world” — I’m not jumping out of helicopters or working oil rigs or brokering billion-dollar deals — but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. All jobs have their own particular challenges and difficulties (and rewards) and I don’t think it serves anyone well to start comparing them too vigorously. Being the parent at home is hard in some ways. Being the working parent is hard in others. (I’ve been at home since my kids were born, but I worked as a nanny for several years and so I have seen both sides of this.) I’m not interested in debating which is “harder” because, really, it’s apples and oranges.

But I do think that the response quoted above is telling. I think a lot of SAHMs are quick to defend the difficulties of being at home with little children (isolation and loneliness, boredom, the fears that come with being dependent, and others) because the broader world is often so quick to behave as if those real difficulties are widely exaggerated, if not downright imaginary.

Why is this? I think a large part of it is that at this current point in Western culture, children have little to no value — and so neither do those who care for them, in which category I include not just parents, but nannies, daycare workers, teachers, etc. But I think it is especially acute for those who have left the workforce in order to care for children. I don’t generate any income for our family; we rely on my husband’s salary. And in the eyes of many, that makes my contribution to our family life if not exactly worthless, then certainly worth less. My economic power is wholly derived from someone else’s labour. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? If what I’m doing isn’t bringing home income or stimulating the economy — what, then, can it possibly be worth?

Back home in the Great White North, the federal government just passed a budget bill that seems to be asking the same questions — although their answer is different than mine would be. The major focus of the budget, it seems, was rectifying gender inequality in the working world:

In the federal Liberals’ first budget, in 2016, the word “gender” appeared twice. This time around, “gender” was used 358 times. As expected, gender equality was a major theme of the 2018 federal budget, such that “every single decision on expenditure and tax measures was informed” by a gender-based analysis, according to the government. (source)

But what sort of measures do we find in this budget? Almost exclusively, ways to get mothers out of the home and back to work, as soon as possible. Because if a woman is not contributing to the GDP, she’s not contributing to society, either — and despite this budget being hailed as a feminist interest, it seems particularly unfeminist to assume that women (and men) stay home with children not because it’s an informed choice they deem best for their family but because they are somehow being, I don’t know, economically oppressed into doing it. What is the value of a parent — and specifically a mother — in the home? Not much, apparently.

In her commentary in the National Post, Andrea Mrozek says it with more elegance than I:

This policy track couches a desperate need for GDP growth as women’s empowerment. It pretends women today, especially mothers, are doing nothing, where in reality the caregiving demands upon the sandwich generation (those caring for children and parents) are very great. It demands state-funded, centre-based daycare, where polls show 76 per cent of Canadians believe the best place for a child under six is at home. Finally, it is specifically coercive toward lower-income women, who will be pushed to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make. Women with lower education aren’t all going to join the skilled trades. Some are going to need to sacrifice precious time with young children for a minimum wage service job, while their kids are in daycare. It’s not the tradeoff many would prefer.

Imagine with me for a second that the budget focussed so much on men. Imagine that Budget 2018 referenced men 708 times instead of women. Men — we need to coax you into nursing! Men — not enough of you are kindergarten teachers! Men — don’t take time off with your children when they are young! Men — you can’t choose more paternity benefits — these are “use it or lose it” for women, only!

If that sounds pushy, it’s because it is.

(Andrea Mrozek: A truly pro-woman budget wouldn’t try to tell me how to live my life)

This is why many stay-at-home parents react defensively — because this is the sort of message with which we are constantly bombarded: our worth is measured by our economic prowess, and if we’re not contributing, we’re not pulling our weight. I may not be pulling in any money for our family. I may not be working the hardest job in the world. But those things don’t determine my worth, either to my family or to the national economy.

I’m not worth more than a working mother because I chose to stay home while my kids were little. But surely I am not worth less, either.

Introducing an up-and-coming young author

Anselm and I wrote a book yesterday. I think you’ll agree that it shows early promise of considerable genius. We worried! We laughed! We made sure to open and close our tale in accordance with all the orthodox formularies of fairy tales! We gave it a title that turned out to be completely irrelevant to the contents! In short, we had quite a bit of fun.

THE WEEKS (by Mama and Anselm)

Once upon a time, there were some Vs.

And there was the rest of the alphabet.

But the Vs had gone away! They went to the beach.

The Vs have to come back.

So the Vs walked back from the beach.

The Vs were back!

When the Vs were back at the alphabet, they had to take off their shoes and their jackets.

And they lived happily ever after. The End.

We’ll be querying agents shortly.

Let the children play

One of the interesting things about being a stay-at-home parent is that, unless you are literally staying at home all the time, it puts you in position to observe a lot of other parents and their kids.  We have a couple of regular haunts — the local playground, our fantastic public library — where we get to see a lot of other small children and their caregivers. And really intrigues me in these other child-adult groupings is watching how they interact around the issue of play.

Play interests me. In my former life I worked for several years as a nanny, and so long before I became a parent I started reading parenting books, articles about child development, and the like, as part of a sort of ad hoc professional development plan for myself.  One of the authors I’ve very much come to appreciate is Peter Gray, a psychologist who writes extensively on the related topics of play and self-directed learning. (His blog can be found here; his book Free to Learn is available at retailers near you and is well worth a read.) Gray can be quite eloquent on the subject of children playing, as shown in the opening paragraph of his post “How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Invervene“:

My soul has been stirred by many of nature’s wonders–by orange and yellow leaves sparkling in the autumn sun, by mallards landing softly on still waters at dusk, by clouds drifting by as I lay on my back gazing upward. But, of all of nature’s scenes that I have enjoyed and pondered, none have enthralled me more than those of children playing — playing on their own, without adults guiding or interrupting them. Intervening in children’s play seems to me to be like shooting those mallards that are landing on the water.

He goes on to write about two long instances of child-directed play he was fortunate enough to observe without interrupting, the first between a large group of multi-aged children, and the latter the solo play of a young boy doing a craft project. (The entire post is a quick read and worth your time.) His point in giving an account of those instances of play is that they were fortunately not ruined by the adult involvement that we are usually so quick to thrust upon our children. No adults were needed to make sure that each of the fourteen children had their fair turn in the game they were playing; nobody rushed the young boy to finish his craft or to complete it in a “better” way. They were simply, gloriously, left to play on their own terms.

This is not to say that there’s never any need for adult supervision or intervention when children are playing. I interrupt my children’s play because we are working on things like sharing and not screaming and I know you are building a tower but your sister is younger than you and knocking things down is how she plays right now — not to mention the pee in the potty is not for splashing in and hey get off the dining room table and (constantly) why are you naked?! There are moments — perhaps many moments — when adult involvement is good and necessary. But I think we presume far too much when we start assuming that it is always good and always necessary.

I see this tendency when I watch other parents/caregivers interact with their children (generally the under-five set as that is whom we encounter most frequently). There’s a little boy around Anselm’s age we see relatively often at our regular park; I’ve seen his grandmother berate him for picking up the mulch or trying to climb up the slide. A friend and I took our kids to the science centre last week; in the kids’ zone they had boxes of duplo out, along with a plaque on the wall reminding parents that there’s no right way to play with building blocks. At the library last week I watched a young girl who was probably around a year and a half old pick a toy she liked and start playing with it; her mother, noticing this, promptly scooped the child into her lap and started asking her questions about what she was doing and directing her interaction with the toy. I see things like this happening all. the. time. Why do we keep doing this?

Why don’t we trust our children to play? It can’t be because they don’t know how; the play instinct is incredibly strong. A young child who does not play is either dealing with some major trauma, or one sick puppy. Play is what children do. It’s the way in which they explore, grapple with, and understand the world. Barring  instances of actual physical danger, it’s certainly not something we need to teach them how to do, or how to do properly.

Perhaps that word — properly — is a key here. We can get ourselves quite worked up when a child isn’t playing the way we think they should be playing: when a toddler decides to test his might by trying to climb up the slide, or tries to build a castle out of mulch; when a child uses a doll like it’s a football, makes a tower out of puzzle pieces instead of putting it together, or gleefully colours outside all the lines; when our notion of how the world should work and our own importance in directing that work is offended.

Sometimes, strangely, I think it’s because we don’t want to miss out. We want every moment to be a teachable moment. Our cultural zeitgeist dictates that a good parent is an involved parent, and we want to be good parents. We want to feel as if we are important to our children. And we want, sometimes desperately, to know and understand and be part of every single little bit of our children’s lives. Spending time with our children is lovely. But we mustn’t be so focused on our own involvement that we miss the opportunity to give our children the gift of a little benign neglect.

Case in point: the sibling experience. My brothers and I had a rich, imaginative, collaborative play life that our parents largely knew nothing about. This was, I think, as it should be. It wasn’t as if we deliberately decided to keep things secret from our parents; rather, the idea of including them in our play was so ludicrous it simply never occurred to us. Our parents I’m sure did a lot of the stop hitting each other kind of interference when necessary, but we were largely left to sort out our play, and therefore our relationships, on our own. I wish no less for my children. Anselm and Perpetua are finally at an age where they are playing, really playing with each other and it’s a joy to behold. Of course there are bumps in the road. Of course I have to play referee sometimes. But as they are building a relational foundation that, I hope, will sustain them for many years to come — all through play. Who knows what they will miss out on if I try to get too involved?

The call, therefore, is to constantly work to relax a little more, to let go a little more. To give the squabble just one more minute before we intervene, to see if they can work it out on their own. To stop worrying about the right way to use the playground equipment. To do more observation and less direction. And, above all, to simply let the children play. Perhaps one day they will even thank us for it.

Anselm speaks

The best thing about having a precociously verbal two-year-old is getting to find out what, exactly, goes on in a toddler’s mind. (This is also the worst thing about it.) Here’s a peek:

~~~~~

On his sister: “This is a big heavy kid. I think you should lift it off my bed.”

On interpersonal relationships: “Can I thump you? Can I bump you? Can I push you and you will fall down and cry? Can I bash you to bits?”

On beauty regimens: “Can I put my pee in your hair?”

On the preaching ministry: “Daddy is writing his sermon loud,  Loud, LOUD!”

Wishful thinking: “Can we buy a phone for me and I can use it by myself?”

On alternative medicine: “Mama, can I pass you my hiccups?”

On geography: “Zambia, Gambia. Zambia, Gambia. Zambia, Gambia! Zambia and Gambia… RHYME!”

On chores: “Can you help me clean up this house, because it’s really really messy?”

Keeping it encouraging: “My big fat mother needs to take off all her clothes and have a shower.”