Jesus said that there is no greater commandment than to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk 12:31) Sometimes, the hardest part of this lesson is to love ourselves. Particularly for people who have been taught to put others needs before our own. For mothers, in a culture that demands self-sacrifice and putting the needs of our children before our own, this can be even more difficult. Sometimes, loving ourselves requires deeper self-knowledge and self-care than our culture recommends or even understands.
As an academic and an active ecumenist, I travel a great deal for my work. I give papers, lectures, workshops, and serve on national and international committees. And I love it! I love to travel. I love to talk with people about social issues and problems and work together with others to try to address them. I love to work with colleagues who share my passion for addressing poverty and injustice in the US and around the world.
My favorite travel story comes from a trip I took to Geneva for a World Council of Churches meeting a number of years ago. My youngest daughter was still breast-feeding and so she came along as my travel companion. Jet-lagged and tired from being up and down during the night with an infant, I got us both ready and struggled downstairs anticipating the glorious comfort of a European continental breakfast, complete with a pot of strong black tea.
I sat down in my chair with the baby happily ensconced in her car seat carrier next to me and happened to look down and notice that I was wearing my slip! Thankfully, it was a black silk half-slip and I did have on a blouse and jacket to accompany my slip. I quietly stood, picked up the baby and returned to my room to find my skirt.
Working mothers around the world all have their versions of this story. The challenges of fitting together our responsibilities as mothers, partners, workers, and human beings are on going. While it is true that 21st century women may have unique obstacles to overcome, women throughout the ages have had to negotiate how multiple identities and responsibilities fit together to make a complete and fulfilling life.
When my husband and I started dating, I was actively traveling internationally and was often gone for weeks at a time. Sure, it can be challenging, but time away from a secure and loving relationship to do something that you love is also part of honoring one’s self and can be a means of feeding one’s soul.
This didn’t change when we had children. I took both of our girls with me wherever I went while they were breast-feeding and always asked my hosts to find an appropriate babysitter for my meeting or lecture engagements. My youngest daughter made three international trips before her first birthday. But, I was surprised at how other people’s attitudes toward my travel changed.
Some were surprised that I wanted to come to an event and bring an infant with me. Others were deeply concerned about what happened to my children when I traveled and how my poor husband managed on his own! Others wanted to know how I managed the guilt of leaving them at all.
The truth is – I don’t feel guilty. Never have. I love my husband and my daughters dearly and they know that. They also know that I am passionate about my work and that my work for justice is a response to a deep calling in my life to live out my faith. Since my traveling has been a normal part of our lives since they were born, it’s not a big deal.
When I travel, the rhythm of life changes at home – how it could not? It is definitely harder for my husband to parent on his own (as it is for me when he is gone) but we are also blessed that my mother moved near us some years ago and is able to help out. But my absence also gives my husband and the girls quality time together, without me. My husband will often text me pictures or videos of the fun things they are doing together while I’m gone – canoeing, hiking, examining a beaver dam, even the occasional piano recital at school.
I am a better mother and partner because I embrace my life in all of its fullness. My family knows that involves my work as well as my family time. When I am home, I am present and engaged with my family. We make lots of quality time to be together and to canoe, hike, read, and cook together as family. When I work, I work hard and I charge up my batteries – intellectually, interpersonally, spiritually – as I live into my calling as a scholar, teacher, and preacher.
I work hard to live an integrated life. My family is familiar with what I do professionally and my family life influences how I think about and understand justice in the world. Honoring self is not selfish. It is only through loving ourselves that we are in a position to love others.