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The Magnitude of Motherhood

A week or so before the birth of our first child, I suddenly realized that I no longer feared labor. Let me clarify: while I held apprehensions about the intense birthing I’d never experienced, my thoughts had turned less to that one-time event and more to what came after. In short, I realized that the birth of our child would only last hours, perhaps days at the most. But our child would be ours to cherish and support for the rest of his or her life. While labor approached, so did lives—my life as a mother, my husband’s life as a father, our life together as a family, all wrapped up in our very needy, physical, helpless child, whose own life ex utero would begin shortly.  The dwarfing, sobering reality of what would soon happen—the beginning of the rest of all of our lives—and the all-consuming magnitude of motherhood made my previously fraught ruminations on labor and delivery seem short-sighted and small.

Nearly eleven years later, and five more babies later, motherhood is no less gigantic to me. If anything, the frivolous has become smaller and the significant weightier. My clueless confidence has long since been refined, over and over again, to humility at the sheer ridiculous responsibility motherhood requires of women. It is ridiculous responsibility not because it is silly, but because it is impossible. There’s no possible way I can mother my children well, and in just the right ways, all the days of their childhood lives, or even, God willing, into their adult years.  

G.K. Chesterton, the famous British commentarian, understood this. In

Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean.

When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Yes, indeed. Pity us mothers. Have mercy and compassion and empathy for the magnitude of our roles. Forgive our pride and self-importance and negligence and whining, understanding our sinful responses to motherhood and our sins within our vocations with the best possible construction: on our hearts are written the searing, impossible, gigantic responsibilities of lives, lives which we know we don’t and can’t maintain or keep perfectly. We are both exalted by our gifts and flattened by their hugeness. Remember us in your prayers, and commend us to the only One who ever did, does, and can handle giving us worlds, both created and spiritual, and making them well and perfect for us.

Lessons from Nebraska

Success is never so interesting as struggle.

Willa Cather

Nebraska has been hit hard recently with epic flooding, and the waters aren’t just affecting roads, homes, and lives. More than one-third of the costs–about $3 billion dollars, officials estimate— from the 2019 disaster are to agriculture. That financial burden will not help rural counties largely dependent upon farming. They already face population decline, a decline that is not likely to reverse anytime soon.

We have witnessed the devastation to the land and to local communities in the last few days, as we’ve visited friends in the northwest Panhandle and met up with family in Grand Island, in south central Nebraska. Endless miles of prairie, scores of wandering cattle, the ravages of angry waters, and many, many abandoned homes and farms–those left behind long before the floods arrived–dot the countryside from Sioux to Hall counties. Driving through these desolate areas, under a continuous gray sky, made me sad. As a granddaughter of farmers, I appreciate the desire to make something of the land that lasts, a legacy that won’t be forgotten. So many people and so much history has happened here, and crumbling, weather-beaten structures slowly falling into the dirt embodies the kind of end none of us want to see for ourselves or our children.

An old tractor on the Cornhusker prairie.

But Nebraskans are historically resilient, and they’re also realistic. While they enjoy the fruits of their labors when they come, they also stoically accept the vicissitudes of time and success that inevitably ebb and flow. One of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, was an early twentieth century author famous for her pioneer depictions of the rugged state, and she understood the fleeting and fickle nature of farm life on the plains. As one of her stalwart heroines, Alexandra, put it in O Pioneers!:

The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.”

O Pioneers! (you can order it here) was first published in 1913, over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed, it seems.

Smelling the dairy air in Nebraska.

So while this particular Cornhusker wilderness might seem like a lost cause in the eyes of much of the world, its value lies in its ongoing existence. People will be born here and die here; some will leave and some will stay. Corn will continue to be planted, sown, and detasseled here, and cattle will roam its rolling, grassy hills. Rain will fall and dry up while some souls tough out life on land that will remain as long as God deems it good. Those are the stories worth telling–the ones that reveal to us the hardship and poignant glory of this life’s struggles, in lonely, vivid, and real places.

An Essential Summer Read-Aloud: The Thirteen Clocks

Affectionados of classical education have long embraced the good, the true and the beautiful as transcendent virtues. That is, we understand them as qualities of God, worthy to be sought after and emulated. It’s no accident that seeking after such things often involves the written word. After all, Christ is the Incarnate Word, and we are made in His image.

Good Lutherans know that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  John the Baptizer famously witnessed of Christ by leaping in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:39-40). So, too, wisdom comes through hearing. Our children have been listening since before they were born, and we hope to continue to edify both their faith and their wisdom as they grow, as well as our own.

Now comes the point–and, perhaps, answers to your muddled questions about the book pictured above. “What,” you might be thinking, “has a rather ridiculous book by James Thurber to do with the good, the true, and the beautiful?” It’s true that The Thirteen Clocks, first published in 1950, is ridiculous. It is also fantastic, strange, hilarious, and–to borrow a phrase from the book–“the only one there ever was.”

I had never read The Thirteen Clocks until several years ago, after reading of it in an interview an author gave about the best read-alouds for children (and, not coincidentally, adults. The best books are always good for everyone).  My children first heard it while sitting in a tent at a muggy, buggy campground in Minnesota. They were enraptured by this story, with the evil Duke who thought he had killed Time; with the breathtakingly beautiful Princess Saralinda; with the prince-turned-minstrel Xingu; with the wholly original Golux, who forgets things and makes things happen, especially on an impossible quest. It’s been a family favorite ever since.

One of the book’s joys is that it is written in prose, but reads like poetry. You won’t fully experience this unless you specifically hear the words. Try reading it out loud:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.

This book is incredibly fun to read and to read out loud. We’re starting it again this week, and it’s already as popular as the first time around. The words are lovely, intricate and finely crafted together, and the story tells an age-old one of daring rescue and of justice–that is, good and evil receive their due. What better way to understand wisdom?

For commenters: what are some of your favorite books for reading aloud and why?