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As a minister, I am supposed to have something to say. That’s why ministers have pulpits, even if at Grace we don’t really have such a thing. Ministers have been called to make sense of tragedy throughout American history.
I’ve got nothing. No wise words, no new insight, nothing. There isn’t anything anyone could say that will make sense of 49 innocent people lying dead in a nightclub.
In moments like these, when there are no words, when rage fills my veins, I desire to fill the void by at least doing something. If you are restless like me, wondering just what you can do, here is the list of “the something, anything” I created for my community.
I would like to make a few things clear about this post:
1. This post is about being a working mother. I have no intention of alienating women who have chosen to stay at home. I am clueless about the challenges stay-at-home-parents face; I’ve never really done it.
2. If I sound like a whiner, I am. Read my previous post.
3. This is a feminist (bordering on bitter) rage. If you need uplift, do not read.
4. The word balance does not appear in this blog. Balance is not a thing.
5. This post in no way addresses the issues that face low-income working mothers. I am deeply aware that my rage is a privileged one. I concluded recently, as I drove to an away lacrosse game, that low-income single working mother’s would be forced to pull their children out of sports unless someone else drove them. The time and financial resources alone would make it virtually impossible. How do we begin to support low-come single moms in our communities? If you have any suggestions, let me know. I would like to post them.
Sunday night I gathered my children together before bed. I wanted to praise them for their flexibility over the weekend. It was crammed with too many games, graduation parties (of people I deeply love and for whom I am over-joyed-proud), and pastoral work. Before I could really finish, my middle son broke into tears. “I hate it when Daddy is gone. You’re so grumpy!” I tried to muster up compassion. I tried, for a moment, to take note that I probably was grumpy, or if not grumpy, impatient because there was more expected of me that humanly possible.
“I know it’s hard, but there is nothing we can do about it,” I feebly responded.
“You work too much,” he cried.
“I have to work.”
“Couldn’t you work less? You don’t really have to do everything.”
Those words ignited a time bomb. I do not remember my response, but it was something I am sure I would not want to repeat. I walked out of the room, tucked my youngest into bed, picked up the house, cleaned the kitchen, transferred the wash to the drier, and then headed back upstairs. I kissed my boys and tucked them in out of duty, but my rage had no softened. In fact the next day, it was pulsing.
The expectations placed upon me by my family, by our 21st society, and by myself are unmanageable. I did what I was reared to do. I worked my tail off in college and graduate school. This privileged education gave me room to pursue the vocation I was and am passionate about. I married a good man and had children and have made sure they are fed nutritious food, tucked into bed on time, and read books. Is this not enough!?
I am told this is not enough. My house should be clean (says our new HGTV culture and my compulsive nature), I should stay in great shape, and my children should excel in at least one thing which means starting at a young age I need to drive them everywhere in a mini-van. Finally, I should be an unfailingly supportive spouse who always places (if I am aware of this or not) my husband’s work above my own.
I have fought normal societal conventions. My children only play one sport at a time. They attend alternative schools. I relay on “my village” to help me rear my beloved children. I *try* to talk myself down from my obsessive vacuuming. My husband and I are very much mutual partners. But none of these things have helped me resolve the ever competing demands on my energy and attention. My eldest loves lacrosse; I am pleased he is excelling in something he loves. Deep relationships feed me; I love a table filled with good friends eating together. I yearn for more children; three doesn’t feel like enough. I am passionate about my work and my family needs my income. So what should I give up?
Perhaps the question is not what should I give up, but when shall I be offered grace by society, and my son, as a working mother. I should have responded to my son’s tears, “Please offer me a little slack, kid. How about some grace for your mother?”
Yet sadly, if I am to be fully honest, my ticking time bomb was not just about the competing demands and expectations I face as a working mother, but the glaring feminist implications. My husband leaves every two years to take his students to India and no one has ever asked him if this is the best thing for his family. No one. Ever. Instead, he is praised for his worldly experiences and admired for his academic achievements. Further his own children never ask him to stop working too much or blame him for the three plus weeks their mother is grumpy while he is away. They never ask him why the laundry hasn’t been done or where their lacrosse stick is. Ever.
Truth be told if I left my family for three and half weeks, my husband would have to hire support staff. He could not manage balancing the demands of his children, the housework and his profession. To be fair his work is less flexible than mine, but even still, he couldn’t do it. When I have left for short trips, I spend the day’s prior writing detailed lists for him and creating a network of women to assist him. When he boards the plane bound for India there are no lists awaiting me at home; he knows I can handle everything just fine.
So why is my vocation less important than his? Why do my children complain if I work too much, but never notice if he does? Partially, I am to blame. I have helped create my children’s unreasonable expectations. My unsettling rage these past few days is in part because I am angry with myself for not advocated for my professional dreams. But this can’t just be my fault. And why do I know this? Because when I posted this story on Facebook, I received multiple responses from other working moms who understood my rage, my ache, and my frustration.
When, O God, when, will my children notice the demands of my work? When, O God, when will society not question my motherly commitment and instead praise my passion as a pastor? When, O God, when will I be able to step on a plane, leave no list behind, not wonder if I have done the right thing leaving my children behind, and pursue fully what You have called me to do?
My beloved left for a three and half week trip to India with his students yesterday. On Memorial Day. The coincidence was powerful.
Let me begin by making some things clear.
Now back to Memorial Day and Anxiety.
Over the weekend, I was very aware of the above, but it didn’t matter. The three day weekend seemed longer than any other holiday. It dragged out as my anxiety increased. The pit in my stomach climbed into my throat until finally my pulse quickened. I understand clinically what was happening. I was experiencing anxiety sprinkled with a few minor panic attacks (I know they were minor, because I have had a full blown anxiety attack before).
Anxiety, according to the DSM4 and Miriam Webster is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event of uncertain outcome. More seriously, it can be a chronic state in which many find themselves trapped. Anxiety can spill into someone’s life in a way that excessive uneasiness and apprehension are a way of life, coupled with disabling panic attacks.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, my non-clinical description is this: it sucks! It invades every moment. It is utterly exhausting.
Thankfully with the help of therapy, life style changes, and medication, I have learned to successfully cope with my anxiety. I am fortunate. (Let me be clear again—I am fortunate. The mostly successful treatment of my anxiety is not because I am some mental health warrior. I am simply lucky.) But still I can’t keep a lid on my anxiety during certain moments—like the weekend before my husband leaves for India.
I am the sort of person who rarely sits down. Yesterday, I could barely muster the energy to fold laundry. Midday, I laid down on my bed, eyes open, unable to figure out what to do next even though I had a long to-do list. My anxiety was debilitating and all because my husband was leaving for India with his students. I knew my anxiety was unwarranted, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t control it.
Sadly, throughout American history, mostly women, but all sorts of loved ones, have spent weekends and months and years living with the anxiety I dappled in this past weekend. Their anxiety, however, was rational. They were sending off their beloved husbands, sons, brothers, life-long friends to war. They knew many did not return.
It’s hard for me to imagine there was a woman in history whose pride was greater than her fear. Too often in the movies we watch proud mother’s give teary-eyed kisses to their sons at train stations or stricken wives give one last passionate kiss to their husbands before they board the bus. These goodbyes have almost become sanitized in their painful beauty. The movies never show a mother whose sobs are so overwhelming she can’t even walk with her son to the tracks. They never portray a wife clutching her husband, begging him not to go as he boards the bus (that’s what I would have done). And they never tell the true story of the wife who clutched a baseball bat in her hands as she waited for her husband to fall asleep; she planned to break his knees before he left for Vietnam. In the end he stopped her.
And how about the many patriotic images of the women left behind, proudly displaying stars in their front windows, knitting socks to be sent to keep her son’s feet warm, or organizing sales to support the troops? I wonder if these women’s daily anxiety was so overwhelming that it took the joy out of everything. I wonder how much effort it took them to tape the star to their window, to cast the yarn on the needles, to bake for the sale. I wonder what it would have been like to spend day after day waiting for news, one small piece of news that one’s beloved was still alive.
I spent three days trying to contain my anxiety. It took all of my energy. My husband was leaving for a three week trip to India as a college professor. He was not going to war. So two days after Memorial Day, now as I write, I not only give thanks to the veterans and those who lost their lives, but I am remember the many left behind who were brave enough to keep living.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.