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This is a picture of my daughter Lydia and her pantsuit wearing feminist mother on our way to vote for Hillary Clinton. .
I wrote the following blog yesterday. It was ready to publish first thing this morning. I so yearned for this moment that I could feel my daughter's warm body in my arms, her earnest eyes looking at me, as I told her a woman was now our president. Now I must tell my daughter that sometimes a bully wins, and that when a male bully faces a woman in America he will win. I must prepare her for a deeply misogynistic culture.
And yes this is what it comes down to for me. Misogyny. The dislike of, contempt for, the ingrained prejudice against women. What other explanation is there? How else would an ill prepared, angry narcissist win the presidency against one of the most qualified, intelligent candidates in American history? I think the answer is simple: America is still a deeply misogynistic culture.
May this hopeful, premature blog be a lament. May it be a remind us of who we should be. May it propel us to continue the struggle:
This moment will forever mark our nation. Many powerful essays will claim this day in American history. But I only have one simple story to share, one simple name: Lydia.
Lydia is my seven year old daughter. She has come to political consciousness under a black president. This summer she watched her first political convention and saw two women own the podium: Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. This fall she watched snippets of the presidential debates and shouted with glee as Hillary Clinton gracefully and intelligently stood up to a bully. Over these past few months she has also been flexing her muscles and proclaiming, “I’m a strong woman!” We didn’t teach her to do this.
I have waited for this moment since I was 17 when I understood for the first time that my gender limited my opportunities. I have ached for more women in powerful positions since I began a profession dominated by men.
My daughter hasn’t waited, ached, or yearned for this historical moment. Instead, she will simply wake this morning and embrace this moment. Her sleepy pajamed body and blonde bedhead will shuffle down the stairs. As she curls into my lap, I will tell her that Hillary Clinton, a woman, has been elected president. I will tell her to seal this moment forever in her memory. I will tell her of all the women who struggled tirelessly for this day to happen. And I will remind her that all day long--and for the rest of her life--she should continue to flex her arms and declare, “I’m a strong woman!”
For this day I am deeply grateful.
Recently, I came across this blog from November 2013. It still speaks to my heart on this All Saints Day as I give thanks for my Baba.
The Christian holy-day All Saints is really a pre-Christian (pagan) holiday reclaimed. Shocking! Say it isn’t true! The truth is most pre-Christian holidays morphed into reclaimed Christian holy-days. My favorite is All Saints. Traditionally pagans celebrated a day called Samhain, what we typically call “All Hollows Eve” or Halloween. Samhain was the beginning of the New Year; on the eve of the coming year it was believed that the veil between life and death, this life and the next, was thin.
I have some Pagan friends.* I love them. Their traditions inform and challenge mine. Recently during Samhain I asked them to listen for my Baba. Yes, an ordained minister asked her “witch” friends to keep an eye out for my former babysitter Dorthy Sponholz who I lovingly called Baba.
And then without any trouble I led an All Saints Day Christian gathering and preached about my pagan friends’ very real connections to the dead. It was a beautiful gathering during which we honestly laid our thanksgiving filled grief before one another in community. Again: Shocking! Pagan and Christian practices mingle. Call the Orthodox Police!
I would like to think we have come a long way from the days when “Christians” use to burn their pagan neighbors at the stake.
Too often people believe that saints are some or all of the following: famous, martyred, miracle performers, extremely pious to the point of weird, dressed in long robes and huge crosses. Wrong. Saints are the very real and ordinary people in our lives who simply loved us to God and then died. Some saints are famous. But most are not. My beloved Saint Baba was not an extraordinary person. In fact, she was simple. But her simple love transformed me.
Saints are no different from the spirits Pagans connect with on Samhain. They are the dead who are inexplicably with us. How we understand this “with us” is debatable, but who cares! This All Saints Day my dear friends helped me understand that I did not need them to connect me with my beloved Baba. Instead, I was already connected to her. I have always been in communication with Baba through what I call prayer since her death 25 years ago. I just didn’t know it because my Christian forbearers were trying to hide their pagan roots. My religious leaders didn’t let me know how close the living and the dead mingle, probably because they had no idea themselves.
In remembrance of All Saints Day, in thanksgiving for my dear pagan friends, and in celebration of the many ordinary saints and their transformative love I would like to tell you my favorite Baba story.
One morning my mother dropped me off early to Baba’s house; she had a meeting. Baba fed me breakfast at her Formica kitchen table and then it was time to catch the bus. It was pouring. I put on my rain jacket, but even my hood could not keep the rain from pouring down my neck. Instead of waiting at the edge of Baba’s driveway, I ran back to Baba’s porch. When the bus came it did not see me and passed by, leaving me with no ride to school. Drenched, I walked back into Baba’s house, afraid she might be angry. I confessed I had missed the bus.
I now know this was one of my best mistakes for it turned into a great adventure. Baba didn’t want to wake her husband Carl. She decided she would drive me to school.
Baba hadn’t driven in 15 years. Her husband Carl did all the driving in their old brown station wagon. I was a bit scared when Baba put on her coat and boots and tied a plastic bag around her recently set short curls. We hurried to the safety of the brown wagon and Baba started her up. I sat beside her in the front seat, watching the road intently, certain Baba needed my pair of eyes. The wipers could not keep up with the deluge of water. Baba and I were silent for a moment as she pulled out and started down the road, the squeak of the wipers the only sound in the deafening rainfall. And then Baba laughed. I don’t know the last time I’ve drove! The car feels so heavy. Was that a bad thing I asked?No, no. I just don’t remember it being so heavy. And then she laughed some more.
On the rest of that adventuresome ride to my elementary school, I was aware that I was the only person Baba would drive for. I was the one Baba loved best. The love present in that rainy morning 29 years ago sustains me today.
Remember your ordinary saint and bask in their love this day.
There are many days I am ashamed to call myself an American. This shame has settled like a heavy rock in the pit of my stomach this fall. I also struggle deeply with calling myself a Christian (read my former post). These struggles are similar, yet I cannot deny either of these identities. If I like it or not I am an American, just as I am a christian. Much of who I am is a result of the physical origin of my birth, even more so than the supportive family in which I was reared. My identity has been shaped by American culture for better or worse.
As an American citizen there is much to be proud of and more to be thankful for. I can write you a long list including security, education, freedom of speech, and prosperity. I know the list is longer than that. I also know the list of things that I am ashamed of as an American citizen is long. For every blessing that American bestow, it seems there a corresponding sin. The American constitution declared that all men were created equal while one in four Americans were considered less than human because of the color of their skin. America expanded west, offering free land to thousands of immigrants who had never owned land in their life; but we stole this land from American Indians. Americans mobilized as a community to defeat fascism in Europe while we imprisoned Japanese Americans.
These gifts and curses, blessings and sins, are present in most nations’ histories. The way forward is to learn from our sordid history, acknowledge and repent for our wrongs, and create a new future. Why then, am I, a relentlessly positive person, hanging my head in shame these days?
The recent hate that has riddled our national discourse and divided us as a country has left me ashamed to be an American. Perhaps more precisely I’m ashamed to hold the same national identity as those who desire walls, scream racists epithets, condone misogyny, advocate imprisonment without trial, disregard years of international community building, demand Muslims be registered, ignore science, worship guns, and denounce everyone and anyone who is different. I’ve been hanging my head in shame, embarrassed to be an American, just as I was embarrassed to be a christian when the mainline church was outwardly denying my LGBTQ sisters and brothers their right to marriage and ordination. I am just ashamed.
But then something happened. Grace.
In the faith community in which I serve, the communion table is wide open. When I say wide open, I mean wide open. We are explicit that everyone is welcome to the table: children, infants, agnostics, atheists, every faith tradition, every gender and orientation and identity, every race and socio-economic class. Everyone is offered the same gifts of grace--the simple bread and cup. Everyone counts at the table. Every morsel, every sip is grace joyfully and abundantly offered. Class lines disappear, who uses what bathroom does not matter. Instead we joyfully celebrate that everyone is a beloved child of God.
On November 8th, America will celebrate it’s very own communion table. Like the table, everyone is welcome to the voting booth. Everyone. Part of our shameful past is that this has not always been true. Up until 1920 women were excluded from the voting booth; then the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. Many African-Americans were unable to vote until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Thankfully our upcoming Election Day is something of which we as Americans can be deeply proud.
On November 8th there will be no armed guards in the street. Bosses cannot tell their employees how to vote and demand that they do so. The rich can’t pay the poor to vote a certain way. Voter intimidation will be illegal, and those laws will be enforced. There will be no fear of lost jobs or homes because of an individual choice. Some might argue the system is corrupt, but each ballot will be counted. The well greased machine of our democracy will run smoothly and a victor will be announced late that night.
And in Walpole, Massachusetts, on November 8th I will be very proud to be an American as I remember everyone, Republican, Independent, Green, Democrat, Libertarian, undecided, everyone, is welcome to vote. Perhaps once again I will hold my head high as an American.
#everyvotecounts #proudtobeanamerican #november8
Yes, thank you. I mean it. Why? Because as my wise clergy friend pointed out: your “locker room talk”, Donald, has finally ignited a conversation that has needed to happen for sometime.
Imagine the scene. Yesterday, I was at a knitting circle in a church parlor. At forty, I brought down the group’s average age by 20 years. The women in the circle are long time New Englanders and progressive, but traditional, Christians. They are not bra-burning feminists. As a rule of thumb, they avoid conversations about sex, especially conversations about sexual harassment and violence. But not yesterday. They willingly discussed the locker room and Donald Trump.
I am positive some of these ladies have voted Republican in the past, but not one of them will be voting for Donald Trump this election cycle. They were horrified. They wondered together how often these sort of conversations truly happen among men in closed circles. Some of them acknowledged they “knew of” men who used “filthy, unspeakable words” in regards to women, but was this common? They were angry. Why was it okay, they asked, for men to talk about women that way? Why were their bodies open for discussion?
Imagine. I found myself openly discussing the vulgar words used for vagina with a group of 60-70+ year old women. Then I shared my story and they listened.
In high school I dated a boy on the football team. In the locker room some of his teammates starting harassing him about his relationship with me. Was he going to fuck me? Was he going to do it doggy style? We were both virgins. We had made a conscious choice that we weren’t ready at 15 and 16 to have sex. His teammates must have have guessed at our choice. My boyfriend was an easy target. And according to them I was a hot one who should be conquered. My boyfriend didn’t say anything. Nor did my brother who was also in the locker room. They didn’t know what to say.
My boyfriend confessed later to me what happened, ashamed that he didn’t know what to do. My brother also spoke to me, wanting to make sure I was careful around the boys who spoke about me as if I were a simple sexual conquest. My brother was also ashamed and befuddled. What was his role? I was furious with both my boyfriend and brother for not standing up to the locker room talk. When my mother found out she was enraged and my poor brother received a mouthful.
25 years later I am not angry at my high school boyfriend or brother. They didn’t know what to do. They knew it was vile and were ashamed. Yet in their defense, no one explicitly said to them, “You never speak about women (or men!) as sexual objects using vulgar words that you would never say in front of your grandmother.” They knew it was wrong because they were raised by good men and women, but they also knew women were spoken about as sexual objects openly in society. Vulgar words were just reserved for the locker room out of their grandmother’s ear shot.
Well, thank you Donald Trump. You have now made it clear to America that we need to have these conversations. We need to have them in knitting circles and in locker rooms. We need to have them in youth group and in boy/girl scout meetings. We need to have them at our dinner tables and in our mini vans. We need to tell everyone that we should never ever EVER talk about women or men with such sexually demoralizing terms.
Here are some tips for the conversation when your 12 year old asks for greater clarity:
Let’s end locker room talk here and now. #endlockerroomtalk
I don’t want my 12 year old to have sex anytime soon. In fact, if I could control him (which I cannot) I would hope he would wait until he’s out of high school. But I can’t control him. Maybe he’ll fall deeply in love in high school. It happens. And well, he’ll be horny and in love. That usually equals sex.
We were recently talking about condoms. He wanted to know about condoms because he likes to create survival kits. Condoms can hold a whole lot of water, he explained. They’re good to have in a kit. We then talked about STDs and how condoms actually catch the sperm. He squirmed, but I had him in the car. I ended the conversation with, “I’ll have condoms for you anytime you need them for their proper use. I’m not giving them to you for your survival kit. They’re too expensive!”
Some Christians would be horrified by the previous two paragraphs. Some would wonder what kind of Christian parent talks about condoms with her almost thirteen year old. I’ve heard it before. Lots of people don’t think I’m Christian. That’s okay. I know I am. I know this for certain, because as much as I have tried to escape Jesus’ hold on me, I can’t. I follow.
My confidence in Christ’s calling allows me to ignore such comments. But how about the 15 year old, who loves God, loves her church, is being told sex is a sin, but wants to masturbate? Where does she find a healthy Christian ethic about her developing sexuality? And how about the Dad who is faithful and realistic, knows his young son will be having sex soon, and wants to have a faithful conversation with his son about sex, not just an STD/birth control conversation? Where does he turn for advice? And finally, how about the young single person: unmarried because they haven’t found the right partner, and not feeling so young anymore at 30? Is protecting their chastity really a necessary Christian goal? And who can they talk to?
In my experience, the last place you can find any life-giving Christian ethic about sex is in the church. If you escape the no-questions-asked chastity ethic, your Christian community probably just offered you what they offered me as a young adult: silence.
Silence helps no one. And treating sex--which is a really big deal--as a taboo topic just sows confusion. Mainstream and progressive Christians need to have more open and healthy conversations about sex. Thankfully someone agrees with me: Bromleigh McCleneghan. In her new book, Good Christian Sex, Bromleigh breaks the silence. Infact, she is bold enough to talk about masturbation (even for women) in a chapter entitled “My Favorite Feel.” Hallelujah! If my daughter ever shows up with a promise ring on her finger I might lock her in her room with a vibrator and have her read Bromleigh’s book.
While reading Good Christian Sex, I felt Bromleigh was a kindred spirit. Like me, as a young woman, she didn’t embrace the secular sexual norms saturating our culture that suggest sex is simply about pleasure. She knew her sexuality was connected to God and that any ethic she developed about sex must involve God.
Fortunately, God wants us to have love and sexual pleasure. And for Bromleigh, sex has more to do with loyalty and commitment than marriage and chastity. It’s amplified by love and diminished by promiscuity. At its best, sex expresses our body and soul together, and recognizes the body and soul of our partner. And these aren’t rules to be followed--they’re the ingredients of good Christian sex.
In one of the final chapters, “The Avoidable and the Inevitable," Bromleigh defines good Christian sex more subtly. Through narrative she speaks about being “all in” with her husband. I wish I could articulate more clearly how those few words, all in, will shape my conversations with my own children and the youth in my community, but I cannot. Read the book instead.
Good Christian Sex is funny, honest, and faithful. Bromleigh’s healthy sense of self and personal vulnerability transform this book from a stale ethical and theological pursuit to a comfortable conversation with a friend over coffee. If this book had been published while I was in college, I would have bought it in secret, and then read it cover to cover in my closet. After I emerged from my closet, I’m not sure my developing sexual ethic would have changed, but it would have been deepened, and most importantly I would have felt less alone.
Want to read more about my thoughts on sex? See my previous October 2014 blog: Sex is Great!
Let me first make some things clear:
Jesus messed me up. Completely. In fact, he messed up my life. Before Jesus, I aspired to live a neatly packaged life, where you did “good” from a distance, like collecting canned goods for the food pantry. But I never imagined myself meeting the folks who needed the food, or if I did, it was with warm, easy smiles. My interior life was not going to be messy either, overwrought with competing emotions and endless questions. The equation was to be simple: Earnest Kindness = Contentedness. Instead, Jesus grabbed hold of me and I have been wrestling with him since.
I had an epic wrestling match with Jesus this August. It was unexpected. For seventeen summers now, I have spent a week volunteering in some capacity with the rural poor. I thought after seventeen summers of rehabbing homes for those who Jesus tells us will be first in the kingdom of God, I would at least resign myself to Jesus’ call. Nope.
Here is the story:
She is a mother of five children. Her verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive ex-husband held her captive in her home for 6 months. She and her children fled the husband and their home. In the meantime, family members moved into her abandoned home and destroyed it. Now she is back, her ex is in jail, and her home is in ruins. Amazingly, the mother never once raised her voice at her five children who were not easy. Instead, she was loving and patient. Her fortitude amazed me.
Our job was not heroic. It was simple. We fixed the bathroom floor, spruced up her bathroom, painted her living room/kitchen, replaced a few broken windows, and installed a working light. I have done similar work in similarly heartbreaking situations in the past. So why did this house, this story, these children, this mother, break me?
Was it because I knew they had no heat in the winter and slept huddled in the basement in one single room with electric heaters? Was it because the children all showed signs of emotional trauma? Was it because there seems no way out of the cycle of poverty in rural Maine?
My real answer is shameful and honest.
It was the cockroaches.
I am not high maintenance (at least I had never thought so before). I can change the grossest diapers, clean up vomit, shovel horse stalls, wade through cow soup-manure, and clean just about anything I’ve ever encountered. Who knew cockroaches would do me in?
I was painting above the kitchen cabinets because I have mad cutting in skills with a brush. When I positioned myself awkwardly over the cabinets, I soon discovered they were littered with hundreds of dead and living roaches. I wanted to quit, but onward I pressed. We had to paint behind the fridge to complete the job. I felt like a gladiator before she enters the ring. I psyched myself up, talked myself through what would be waiting behind the fridge, and dug in. I moved that fridge, broom in hand, ready. I had to leave and dry heave in the yard after watching hundreds of roaches crawl out from under the fridge and behind the cabinets.
I stood outside for perhaps ten minutes, an eternity when there are others still working. I composed myself, wiped my watering eyes, and tried to give myself a pep speech: This work has to be done. If not me, then who? I was called to it, damn it! Get your ass in gear Rev. Henrich. Suck it up.
My pep speech failed. I remembered the story of Mother Theresa tending the body of a man covered in maggots. When the other nuns, with whom she worked, asked her how she managed, she simply answered, “I knew he was Jesus.” I was not going to see Jesus in cockroaches, but I did decide I would rather deal with cockroaches than maggots. I went back in, did my best, and painted the wall behind the fridge. And then all that afternoon and evening I felt angry.
Every morning I wipe down my kitchen counters. I take out my garbage regularly. I wash clothes, fold, and put them away on a regular basis. I sort through my fridge and throw away fruit that has spoiled. I change my kids’ sheets even though they do not notice. I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy managing our refrigerator to make sure we are not wasting food. I buy groceries on sale and we eat healthy. Why wasn’t this mother doing all those things?! She had cockroaches in her house because there was old food everywhere.
Angry. Nasty. Venomous.
I knew my rant was privileged. I knew I wasn’t struggling with PTSD. I knew that poverty is so complicated, so multifaceted that just grocery shopping is ten times more difficult than anything I face. But still, I was self-centeredly angry. No matter how much shame accompanied my anger I remained stuck. I felt utterly defeated.
Over the past three weeks, my anger has dissipated. Grief has taken its place. I no longer feel ashamed of my anger, but instead am aware that somehow I had reached a breaking point. I accept that I am imperfect and no Mother Theresa. I also believe the limited work we did offered some hope, some buoy to cling to for a struggling mother. It was good work: faithful, needed, blessed. Yet how am I, an imperfect disciple, to follow Jesus when the work seems so futile? When cockroaches still crawl from beneath refrigerators?
I have no answer. If I did, it would merely be a platitude. Instead, I have come to accept, once again, that the work Jesus calls us to is difficult. It is never neatly packaged and rarely does it offer simple satisfaction. Praise songs never play in the background. Nice, clean church clothes are unsuitable. Truly believing that the first shall be last, means encountering cockroaches and maggots. It means wrestling with Jesus.
I am sad. I am frustrated. I am worn out. But in my prayers, I try to remember that God knows when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10). And I do feel assured that God numbers each hair on the heads of five children and a mother struggling in Maine.
Could my old school Republican father vote a straight party ticket that includes Donald Trump, an outright misogynist? My father is not only the father of two feminist women—he is the grandfather of six girls. This question haunts me.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing my father a letter about Donald Trump. This letter will not stop writing itself in my head. The letter continues where I left off every time my mind has an opportunity to wander. This letter is edited internally as I brush my teeth. New words are added, paragraphs erased as I fall asleep at night. And why? Simply, my father has voted a straight Republican ticket as long as I can remember. My father has also raised three feminists.
I have never had any intention of sending this letter. And I have not sent it, yet. In fact, I'm hoping that, since my father is not Facebook savvy, he will never read this blog. If you know my father, please don't alert him.
So why would I publish this letter if I think my father is better off never reading it? Because I know I am not alone. Many people across America have been writing similar letters in their heads to their relatives, friends, co-workers. There is an entire group of citizens, not just liberal feminist writers, who are struggling with this current election. And when I say struggling, I mean deeply internally struggling with how anyone, especially those they love and respect, could vote for Trump. I hope this letter gives voice to some of us who feel isolated in our struggle.
Before you read my letter, there a few things you should know about my father. First, he is what I would describe as an “old school Republican.” He believes in small government and low taxes, and embraces the “pull yourself up by your own boot strap” philosophy. He is not an evangelical Christian. He's not even a social conservative. He is slower to accept social change, but he is never against it. Second, my father is exceptionally rational. He finds terrorism horrid, but also knows that driving a car is more dangerous. He doesn't think Muslims should be thrown out of the country because less than 1% are radicalized.
The last thing you should know about my father is that he reared me. I hold him solely responsible for my feminist views. He reared my sister and me to be independent, capable women: we could back up our family tractor, hook it up to heavy farm equipment, hay the field, then go home and french braid our hair for a date. He taught us how to balance our checkbooks, throw bails of hay to a second story loft, and throw a football. He watched approvingly as we would take on any man in verbal debate. He invested a great deal of hard-earned money in our education, and he is quite proud that his two daughters have master’s degrees.
Could my old school Republican father vote a straight party ticket that includes Donald Trump, an outright misogynist? My father is not only the father of two feminist women—he is the grandfather of six girls. This question haunts me.
This is a terribly difficult letter to write. I hope you know that the reason I am writing it is first and foremost is because I love and respect you.
Donald Trump is a misogynist. Ironically, if you look up “misogynist” in Webster’s dictionary online, I kid you not, a picture of Donald Trump appears. Others are in agreement. In my opinion, there is no question that he is a misogynist when you read the many things he has said about women and learn how he has treated the women in his life, from his wives to the beauty contestants he had affairs with—frequently while he was married. You can read more about what’s he’s said about women if you would like. You can start here.
You, on the other hand, John Henrich, are not a misogynist. As much as it will make you laugh to read this, you are actually a feminist. And yes dad, men can be feminists. Feminism simply defined is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and equal opportunities. Feminism has nothing to do with burning bras or hating men. I am convinced you are a feminist because of the way that you reared me. From an early age, I knew I was just as important to you as my brothers. You taught me that regardless of my gender I could do anything, from playing sports, to driving farm equipment, to achieving academically. I knew this because you expected as much from me as you expected from everyone. In fact, you put more money into my education than into my siblings’. And most importantly, you did not educate me in the hope that I would become a wife and mother; you educated me with the expectation that I would become a leader.
For this reason I ask you to seriously consider not voting for Donald Trump this November. In no way do I expect you to vote for Hillary Clinton. I like political diversity and reasoned disagreement; it strengthens our democracy. I do not wish for you to embrace my liberal politics. But I would ask you to reconsider your allegiance to the Republican Party this election cycle—or at least to its Presidential nominee. Voting for Donald Trump is a vote against the person I believe you are, a man who fully values women as much as men. I am positive that if Donald Trump were my next door neighbor, you would pay for a very tall fence to be erected between his house and mine, because you would not want your granddaughter Lydia to be exposed to such a degrading attitude toward women.
With much love, abby
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.