About five years ago, when my husband and I were hosting a gathering from our parish, a member of the group made a comment that caused me to flush with humiliation and anger. "I don't think I could quit my job to stay home and take care of my kids," said the woman, who worked full time for a non-profit agency that
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financed low-income housing and who was the mother of two young children under the age of 4.
In her statement was the implicit message, at least to me at the time, that her job helping others was more important than her job as a mother. I felt humiliated because she seemed to be degrading, in front of my closest friends, my choice to rearrange my life to be an at-home mother. And I was angry because I wanted to defend my choices and argue with her that my choices were the better ones.
After I calmed down that evening, I discovered that my humiliation and anger stemmed really from my own self-doubt about the worth of my role as a parent. First, society had been telling me for years that I should not be an at-home parent because I wouldn't be able to achieve the material trappings of the traditional suburban life; now, a peer from church was suggesting that my choice to be an at-home mother paled in significance to ministry to needy persons.
A couple of years later, as I sat in a small prayer group, I felt tongue-tied as others prayed for different economic and international concerns in which they were involved. My prayers about the struggles that my husband and I were having with a child's behavior problems, once again, seemed to pale in comparison to these shattering visions of political and economic injustices. It has been at these times that I doubt whether the energy given to maintaining the daily routine of a family just doesn't stack up to the urgent issues of AIDS, homelessness, or political crises.
As I return in my prayers over and over again to the central gospel call to love one another, I realize that I cannot and should not compare or weigh the relative worth of my ministry to be a wife and mother to the ministries of others. The love that I give and receive to my husband and children, I humbly hope, is the love that Jesus speaks about as being central to the gospel message.
NO LONGER do I see my years as primary caretaker to be a way station on my sojourn. I am living my sojourn, and my husband and children are integral to helping me live it out. In 10 years, my sojourn will be totally different, but it will be richer and stronger because of the presence of God through my family relationships.
I still have my doubts. I wonder if I am doing enough to shoulder my responsibility to help find the kingdom of God here on Earth. That's when I know it is time to take another step away from complacency. Although my husband and I try to be faithful to our choices today, we pray for discernment and are challenged by those in our faith community and in the larger Christian community.
I do wish, however, that the struggles of the more traditional (by that I mean nuclear) family could be addressed more frequently in the context of challenging us to live more non-traditional lives. Family ministry is given a lot of attention in the institutional church, usually to the exclusion of alternative families. But the institutional church does not do a good job in challenging nuclear families to question the traditional suburban-tract, two-car reality.
I hope that one day there will be more options for the nuclear family that wants to live a more non-traditional life in community with others. And I hope that family ministry will one day take its rightful place alongside the list of other social justice ministries that receive so much attention in the more radically oriented Christian community. Perhaps when that time comes, mothers and fathers will not face the kind of self-doubt that I faced about my ministry as a wife and mother.
I recall a story about a woman who has inspired me and who has helped me accept my role as wife and mother as legitimate and God-given. This woman adopted a baby who was deaf, blind, mute, and who could not respond to outside stimuli. The woman devoted her life trying to elicit a response from the child, talking to him, caring for him, loving him. She never gave up; her hope was unflagging.
One day she placed him in front of the piano, and he began to play. With every passing day, the child (who was now a young man) expressed his feelings through the beautiful and moving music he played on the piano until, finally, he was able to express his love for his mother in words.
This story always reminds me of God's unconditional love for us, and the changes that it can bring into our lives. And it reminds me that God calls each of us to love unconditionally those whose lives we touch-whether we touch the lives of one person, or one million persons.
CYNTHIA J. CARNEY is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.