"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.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Of Butterflies, Buffaloes, and the Mental Load of Moms

"You Should've Asked," by Emma

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the mental load of moms. In particular the piece "You Should've Asked" by Emma does a great job portraying the very real struggle that women, and particularly moms, encounter in trying to run a household. Many moms that I know really identify with this, and, in fact, some of my friends posted it on social media. Being a mom and managing a household does put an enormous mental load on the woman, which the man seems largely to escape.

At one point the female narrator states, "Of course, there's nothing genetic or innate about this behaviour." She elaborates, "...we're born into a society, in which girls are given dolls and miniature vacuum cleaners, And in which it seems shameful for boys to like those same toys." "In which we see mothers in charge of household management, while our fathers only execute the instructions."

It is here that I just can't agree with Emma. To me there IS something clearly genetic or innate about this behavior. It's not just a matter of conditioning and societal expectations. To borrow Gary Smalley's analogy, it is the difference between a butterfly and a buffalo. "The butterfly has a keen sensitivity. It is sensitive even to the slightest breeze. It flutters above the ground where it can get a panoramic awareness of its surroundings. It notices the beauty of even the tiniest flowers. Because of its sensitivity, it is constantly aware of all the changes going on around it and is able to react to the slightest variation in its environment....The buffalo is another story. It is rough and calloused. It doesn't react to a breeze. It's not even affected by a thirty-mile-an-hour wind. It just does right on doing whatever it was doing. It's not aware of the smallest flowers, nor does it appear to be sensitive to slight changes in its environment" (Smalley, For Better or for Best, 39).

When my husband mentioned Smalley's analogy to me a few years ago, it really struck a chord with me. Like many women, I tend naturally (genetically! innately!) toward being a butterfly. Like Emma's description, the mere task of clearing a table can involve complex multi-tasking. In our household, I notice things - like my daughter's hairbrush stuck under the couch, the school permission slip waiting to be signed on the counter, the dripping wet jacket thrown on the floor that needs to be hung up, the crushed cracker underneath the kitchen table. My husband tends naturally toward being a buffalo, and for the beginning years of our marriage I took this personally. To me, the laundry basket full of clean clothes at the bottom of the steps clearly announced, "THIS LAUNDRY NEEDS TO BE CARRIED UPSTAIRS." The dirty skillet on the stove said, "YOU CAN'T USE THIS STOVETOP UNTIL I'M CLEAN, SO DON'T WAIT." The toddler shoes tossed on the bedroom floor screamed, "YOU WILL BE LATE FOR PRESCHOOL UNLESS THESE GET PUT AWAY BY THE FRONT DOOR."

So when my husband hurdled over the laundry on his way up the stairs or hustled through the dishes without noticing the skillet or stepped over the toddler shoes while doing the bedtime routine, I was offended. Like, really offended. I would even talk to him about it so he knew my feelings. His response was a genuine, "Oh, I didn't see the laundry basket." "I didn't even realize the skillet was there." "That's where the shoes were, then!" 

My husband is an awesome, loving, kind, supportive man, and so I finally concluded that he was being honest with me. He really did NOT see the laundry, the skillet, the shoes. He is a buffalo; I am a butterfly. He charges ahead, on task, single-mindedly doing whatever he is doing. And he gets stuff done in this way. Meanwhile, I get stuff done in another way. And I do get lots of stuff done too, although most of it the world regards as menial (finding the lost hairbrush, signing the permission slip, hanging up the wet jacket, sweeping up the crushed cracker).

Emma goes on to describe the hellish adjustment women go through after having kids and returning to the work force, including how fathers seem inept at parenting. "The problem is that when we stop, the whole family suffers. So most of us feel resigned to the fact that we are alone in bearing the mental load, nibbling away at our work or leisure time just so we can manage everything."

Yes! How true! The mental load is something I would be happy to share. Emma is negative about the solution of "outsourcing" these household responsibilities to "poor immigrant women." While this may seem not to be the ideal situation, the fact is that many of us women simply have more to do than we can do (or can do well). The isolated nuclear family is not the ideal, and it is ok to admit that help with childcare, cleaning, and cooking is helpful or even necessary. In recent months, I've often commented to my husband that this is just too much for one woman to do well.

But I think there is some good news here when we recognize the difference between a buffalo and a butterfly and are honest with the gifts that each bring to the home. To be a butterfly may bring with it a challenging mental load, but being able to manage every little flower in the household really is a gift that the life of the family depends upon. In the eyes of the world it is menial, but for the life of the family, it is essential. Also, when we recognize our natural tendencies, we can see both a complementarity and a challenge - both to understand each other fairly and to assess our own behavior as necessary.

There are times that my husband will urge me to "be a buffalo!" For example, when I'm having a hard time leaving for my morning run because there are books on the floor, a dirty diaper to change, or dishes on the table. He'll urge me to get out the door and get going, assuring me that he can handle the house but that I won't get my full work out in unless I leave NOW. Likewise, when I have grading to do for my online course and only two hours of childcare, I'll say to myself, "Time to be a buffalo!" I will not put away the shoes on the floor that I pass on the way to my office. I will not stop to wipe out the disgusting bathroom sink. I will only sit down and start working.

My husband has also improved at noticing things. He looks around more now and no longer hurdles over laundry baskets. He'll sometimes notice something and ask a question, "Now is this going down or up the stairs?" or "Is this pan sitting here for a reason?" But he now recognizes and addresses much more in the house, constantly emptying the trash, taking out the recycling, picking up and putting away books, etc. And he sometimes tells me, "I'm doing things around the house that you don't even know I'm doing!"

Because I am full-time at home and he has a full-time job, I do bear the brunt of the mental load. And sometimes it does feel like too much. Yet it is also an important way to contribute to the family, and I don't regret providing this service to my family, even if buffalo work tends to earn more recognition from the public. I outsource as much as I can to Siri: "Siri, remind me to change the laundry in 35 minutes." "Siri, remind me to put air in the bicycle tires tomorrow." "Siri, remind me to schedule the kids' eye doctor appointments today." "Siri, put spaghetti on my shopping list." And I also try to get a break from the mental load by having moments of being a buffalo (exercise, Mass, academic work), as well as acknowledging that with too many flowers to tend, I may miss some things here and there.

In our nuclear-family based society, moms will continue to bear the mental load, not simply because we're trained by society to do so, but because the ability of successfully managing this mental load is a talent we've been given. Recognizing and naming it is a good first step toward understanding why it can be so overwhelming. But seeing it as a gift means not letting it ruin our lives. We can thank God for the real and important responsibility (especially knowing it goes largely unappreciated by society), while trying to minimize the mental load as much as possible, obtaining help when necessary, and  understanding that the immensity of the task means we may not always be able to handle everything in the way we'd like.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Number One Practice of a Pro-Family Priest: a Short Homily

It's not unusual for priests and laypeople alike to lament the lack of families in the Church. Many times we know people who self-identify as Catholic, but don't regularly fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation. Many times these people are parents who care enough about the faith to seek baptism for their children. When it comes to making it to Mass on a weekly basis, however, they struggle.

There are many reasons for this, and it's easy to blame the parents for lack of fortitude, perhaps acknowledging unsympathetically that of course it's tough to have young children at Mass, but that's just what we have to do. Or perhaps we can blame the parents for not being willing to come up with other solutions to the problem, like having a family member or a baby-sitter watch the kids at home so the parents can go to Sunday Mass. We might also blame the parents for the way they are bringing up the kids, suggesting that years ago, kids all used to sit silently during church with no complaint, and that this is all the fault of introducing television and other screens at such a young age.

But blaming parents doesn't really do much to solve the problem at hand. I've written elsewhere about the difficulty of bringing children to Mass, including noting the critical eye cast toward families with antsy (and sometimes unpredictably suddenly loud) children. Fellow parishioners can do much to be sympathetic and kind to families struggling to contain and quiet children during Mass.

However, there is one priestly practice in particular that makes a world of difference to parents with small children, namely A SHORT HOMILY. I'm a theologian by training, and believe me, I love a great theological discourse on the Scriptures. The Sunday Mass readings in particular often present a golden opportunity for such reflection. There was a time when I delighted in the long and insightful homily.

It's safe to say that those days have passed, and, by the grace of God, I landed in a parish with a pastor who is the master of the short homily. Let me try to explain the difference. A long homily means a long time of trying to keep my kids (currently five kids under the age of 11, including two squirrely boy toddlers) quiet. I seldom actually HEAR any of the homily, and I certainly could not pass a post-homily quiz on the material from the homily. If - and that's a big IF - my husband doesn't have to take a toddler out during the long homily, you might think we breathe a big sigh of relief when the LOOOOONG homily finally concludes.

You would be wrong, however. We know that what comes next is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, including the consecration, which should be among the most solemn moments of Mass. If we have successfully managed to keep the kids quiet during the homily (and by that I mean, if the kids have miraculously kept themselves quiet), we are virtually guaranteed a loud outburst during the consecration. If this occurs, it is virtually guaranteed to be completely unpredictable in terms of timing. If this occurs, we are virtually guaranteed to be blocked in on both sides of the pew by elderly kneeling parishioners, with no avenue of escape.

It's not pleasant.

Now, with a short homily, this is what happens. The kids have barely settled in after standing for the gospel, and the homily is almost done. I have heard the beginning, which is the main point, and serves as the middle and end as well. A few minutes of a simple message that makes a connection with the Scripture is all it takes, and I am virtually guaranteed to remember the message because of its simplicity and brevity (and often profundity!). There's really not enough time for the kids to get squirrelly, impatient, or bored. And now the Mass is continuing. Wow! We can make it through the entire Eucharistic prayer. The kids survive communion distribution, with music to cover any noise they might make. Now, it's the final blessing, and maybe some announcements. Voila! With the recessional, we know we've successfully survived another Sunday Mass with little incident. It's a good feeling!

And if more parents had this feeling, I think they'd be willing to take the risk of attending Sunday Mass as a family. That's why I say that the number one practice of a pro-family priest is preaching a short homily. Of course, there are many other good reasons to preach a short homily. Theologically, the homily is not supposed to be the pinnacle of the Mass, but rather point toward the Eucharist. Guidelines recommend a homily to be less than eight minutes. Lastly, it's not just kids that sometimes have a hard time listening!

So, if priests are serious about wanting families to feel welcome at Mass, step number one is to preach a short homily.