"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Giving Birth vs. Defending a Dissertation

During the first year of my doctoral program, one of my male classmates (married, but childless at the time), asked me what I thought about the analogy of birthing for writing a term paper. He was observing that many people will casually make such a comparison, that all the effort and work that goes into writing a paper, and then the final result of turning it in as a complete project for evaluation is not unlike the effort and work that goes into pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

It seems funny to me now reflecting on this because in many ways, my dissertation was a bit like a pregnancy. I wanted to know that I was making progress, getting closer to the end. I was highly invested in it. And though I had a lot of help, the completion of it depended upon myself, much as pregnancy, labor, and delivery depended upon me.

But even at that time when Michael asked, I remember telling him that, no, those two things are pretty different. I pointed out that you don't really "do anything" during pregnancy...the baby just kind of grows on her own, whereas the term paper writing is very active. And a term paper is a creation of sorts that shares in the creative work of God, but not in the sense that bringing another human being into the world shares in the creative work of God. Really, finishing a term paper pales in comparison to the significance of giving birth because that does involve some labor as well as physical sacrifice and recovery.

And yet, during the drive to Dayton on the day of my defense, I said to my husband that in a sense I felt that having given birth four times had prepared me to defend my dissertation. The scenario at the time, in fact, was somewhat similar; with the baby sleeping, I felt like it was just the two of us on the way to the hospital for a really important event, where we were uncertain as to the upcoming details of the little things that might pop up and complicate the situation, though ultimately we were confident that everything would work out.

Yet actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much less scary defending a dissertation is than giving birth. Most of my work was already done, and now I just got to talk about it! I was fairly sure my committee wasn't going to burn me, so it was just a matter of how idiotic I could possibly appear. Given that my topic is penance, however, even that possibility didn't seem so bad; it would have been appropriate - a good opportunity to offer it up as mortification. And I knew being post-defense would not be nearly as challenging as the physical and emotional changes of being postpartum.

Perhaps some of these thoughts explain why in fact I was so calm and relaxed by the time my defense finally started. A dissertation defense is important, sure, but not like giving birth. It's a momentous occasion, but not so significant when compared to having a child.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Falling, and Getting Up Again

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for first-time parents to do is not to overreact when they witness their little one's first falls. Especially with that first child, the tendency is to hover and try to prevent as many of the little bumps and bruises as possible. Early on in my parenting I decided that I was not going to hover or overreact. Now that I am raising my fourth toddler, I think I can say that I have actually improved on this front, and it struck me the other day when I was in the back yard watching the three youngest at play.
 Robert happened to trip and fall, which is pretty common for someone who has only been walking for four months. I didn't even get up from my seat on the deck steps, but instead waited to see how he would react and if some mama comforting would be needed. To my surprise, he got up, turned to look at me, and clapped delightedly. I almost felt that I could translate his eager clapping into words - the words I often use when my kids fall - "Great fall! And you got right back up! Way to go!" He seemed to know that some cheering was in order after his great fall and quick rising. It struck me in a sort of profound way that this child, barely one year old, already had learned the joy in getting up after a fall.
Nor is Robert the only kid who has been falling lately. For Patrick's third birthday, he got his very own Micro Kick Mini Scooter, just like Eva's. I had been hoping she would outgrow hers and pass it on to Patrick, but since she was still using it daily, Patrick asked for his own (blue!!!) scooter. He learned how to use it remarkably well in an astonishingly short amount of time. But one thing he hasn't quite mastered is the rear foot brake. When we were taking Maia to school one morning, he decided (following Eva's cue) to scoot up and then down the little hill that the school is on. As he began rolling down the decline, it hit me that he wouldn't know how to brake, and could run into the on-duty police officer, the fire hydrant or even go into the street. I wasn't sure how Patrick would solve this problem, but I soon found out when he attempted to dismount doing a jump stop and ended up doing a knee-skid on the asphalt. When he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and I looked down at the scraped knee, I said, "Wow! That was great! And look, you finally will get a Superman band-aid!" That was all I needed to say for Pax to hop back on his scooter and roll the rest of the way home. What's a little blood, when a Superman band-aid is on the way?
Meanwhile, after a month or two of using the balance bicycle (which Eva came to late because of her love for her scooter), Eva (not yet five!) began riding a regular two-wheel bicycle, without training wheels, in the past week. It's been really fun to see her take off and do so well at bicycling. But of course, she's also had her share of falls, given the normal difficulties of learning how to steer, as well as stop and go. Even though I've gotten more relaxed when it comes to these things, I don't like to see her on the ground with the bike on top. Today when it happened, she waited for me to catch up and help get her straightened out, and then she looked at me and asked, "Was that a good fall?"
 "Yes," I said, "that was a good fall," as she climbed back on her bicycle and pushed off once again. It couldn't have been comfortable, the way she fell and with the bike on top, but all she needed was a little affirmation and a smile to get her going.

It seems  pretty clear that whether learning to walk, ride a scooter or ride a bicycle, that falls are going to happen. Bumps, bruises, scrapes, and of course, dirty faces, are all part of the lesson of childhood. Kids need to know that they can fail and still try again. They need to expect mistakes and learn that they can deal with them. They need reassurance that these little failures are all just a part of learning. And it won't be long before walking, scooting, and bicycling are a sort of second-nature where accidents are rare.

But the falls and failures of life continue long past the adventures of childhood.What a blessing it is to get back up after a fall, to hop back on with determination, to realize that the little setback does not eliminate the possibility of achieving a goal. That getting back up, not giving up, trying again, and rejoicing in the new attempt is itself a skill. It is not just a natural virtue of perseverance, but rather a testament to how we see the world. To paraphrase John Howard Yoder, the Christian world is not so much about cause and effect as it is about crucifixion and resurrection. As much as we would like to think that hard work equals success or commitment assures our achieving our goals, the world just doesn't always function like that. We can't always anticipate the bumps in the sidewalk, the people who step into our way, or the ruts in the ground. We cannot guarantee our own achievements. But we can get back up again, with a smile, and when we do that, we witness to the supernatural perspective of crucifixion and resurrection. The victory has already been won for us, and it is in uniting our sufferings to Christ that we come to share in his glory.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Defending the Dissertation and Keeping it Real

So, the big day finally happened. I defended my dissertation. Everything aligned so that my parents were visiting when my husband had a two-day fall "break," and off we went to Ohio. The drive out went well; we drove part way to Cleveland where we stayed overnight with my in-laws and woke up on Monday morning early and were out the door by about 7:30. We had some time on campus, since the defense was scheduled for 5-8 p.m. And everything went just fine. I was pretty relaxed and calm, and my committee members were very congenial. Some good friends made it to the defense, and I was really happy that at least Jeff and baby Robert were there with me. Afterwards, we went to Graeter's for some ice cream. By that time I was a little tired and talked out, so I wouldn't say I was great company...and of course Robert woke up and was running around trying to destroy all the shop's displays.

I think Jeff and I were both feeling grateful and relieved by the time we got Robert back to sleep at the hotel and fell into bed ourselves. It was a little surreal, actually, knowing that my defense...long awaited (four years of dissertating!)...had finally passed.

It was also a little surreal when at 4:00 a.m. Robert vomited all over me and the hotel bed. Well, no, actually it wasn't so much surreal as very real, in a smelly, sticky sort of way. By the time I had showered, and we cleaned Robert up, we had to make a decision: lay in a vomitous bed trying to keep a completely awake baby quiet while he crawled all over us, or get an early start to the day. We had hoped to catch the 7:00 a.m. Marianist community Mass, breakfast at Panera and head out around 8:00. Instead, we opted for the 4:30 a.m. departure. Anyway, we were excited at the prospect of making it home in time to see Patrick on his third birthday. 

(Above, Prince Patrick Sir Superhero in his UD shirt with sword)

And, in fact, we did make it home by about 3:00... after about 11 hours driving and nine baby vomits. Robert being sick meant that he slept much of the journey, except when he woke up to vomit some more (fortunately my parents keep a handy towel in their Prius that we were driving).

We walked in the front door a bit tired, but enjoyed watching Patrick open his gifts. After a pizza dinner and some cake, we put the kids to bed and the tired parents both fell asleep around 8:30 p.m.

Then, at midnight...surprise! Robert vomited on me again! After taking twelve hours off of vomiting, he was back at it..think garlic bread and pizza. So I had to wake up Jeff so we could change the king sized bed and hose down Robert, and I had to take a shower again too. Jeff rocked Robert to sleep and put him in his crib this time. I went back to bed. Then, at 2:00 a.m., Jeff woke me up: "Patrick just vomited all over the bed!" And of course Eva was in the same bed, having given hers up for my parents. So I transferred Eva to our bed and got to work changing Patrick's set of sheets while this time Jeff took a shower and cleaned up Patrick.

And at 6:00 a.m. all four kids were awake for the day, and I was back to my usual duties of making breakfast, packing lunch, changing diapers (I could give details to add drama to the story but I won't), etc.

So if you want to know how I celebrated defending my dissertation, that's the story. It's good having kids. They keep you grounded and prevent you from taking yourself too seriously. They provide a larger perspective than an isolated academic world might imply. They make theology so practical. It's not just about reading, writing, and debating, but also about living...with people... and sometimes those people vomit on you in the middle of the night.