Can Motherhood be a Spiritual Practice?

I’ve never been a particularly patient person. Hardworking, passionate, dedicated – yes – but patience has never been my virtue.

Becoming a mother has taught me many things, but perhaps the most important thing it has taught me is the necessity of patience. In the fast-paced culture of busyness in which I live, being a mother has taught me the value of kenosis – emptying myself of my own need and letting myself be filled by the needs of another.

In Christian theology, the idea of kenosis is usually applied to the believer who empties oneself of their own will and desires and allows oneself to be filled by God’s will.

While I thought I knew what it meant to try to let go of my own ego and desires and to open myself to God’s will and direction, it was only when I became a mother and daily practiced the essential tasks of caring for an infant that I began to get an inkling of what kenosis truly requires.

From the earliest days of relinquishing my need for sleep to my baby’s need for nourishment to the ongoing challenge of giving over my desire for personal space and quietude to the sometimes clingy, chattering, and rambunctious realities of living with and nurturing the healthy development of children – mothering my children well has required me to practice patience on a daily basis.

Of course, as with any spiritual practice, I have certainly not mastered the art of patience nor do I think I ever will. But isn’t that the whole point of a spiritual practice? Practicing those tasks that come easily is very different from practicing those that are a challenge.

Other virtues come more naturally. Justice, for instance, which is one of the four cardinal virtues from Greek philosophy, seems to run through my veins and orient my approach to the world, to my faith, to my community, to my family. It’s my default setting. I also practice justice on a daily basis but because it is how my brain and my heart are oriented, the challenges of practicing justice are more material and concrete (what must I do in this situation to be an agent of justice) rather than ontological (how can I continue to remind myself to practice the kenosis necessary for patience).

Because patience is not one of my natural virtues, it requires more of an effort. In this way, parenting is, for me, a spiritual practice as I daily seek to empty myself of my own needs and desires in order to care for the needs of my children.

Now, lest this be taken as a traditional Christian discourse on motherhood that valorizes the self-effacing, self-giving, and sacrificial mother – that is NOT what I am saying at all in this post! I have written elsewhere about the importance of honoring self as a mother.

There is no “right” way to mother. After all, each of us has our own combination of virtues and vices, the strengths and weaknesses that make us who we are and these gifts influence not only who we are but will inevitably shape how we parent as well. And then, of course, there is the reality that each child is a unique and wonderful creation all its own. I don’t even parent my own children the same way because they are different people and they need different things from me as their mother.

As a feminist theologian, my interest is in exploring and discussing the ways in which mothering is an experiential reality that can help us to know God and practice our faith in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Many of the tasks of parenting – cooking, cleaning, laundry – could be spiritual practices if we oriented ourselves toward them as spiritual practices (ok, maybe not laundry!). Likewise, approaching some of the challenges of parenting as spiritual practices might help us grow in our faith as well as in our parenting skills. It might also make these challenges more bearable as well.

Lest I romanticize mothering as spiritual practice, let me be clear – I still yell at my kids, I badger them about cleaning their rooms, I get exasperated and say “because I said so” way more than I ever thought I would.

Practicing patience as a spiritual discipline doesn’t mean I’m very good at it! But it does mean that I am working on it and that I also practice forgiving myself when I don’t always parent as I wish I could.

Perhaps even more importantly, practicing patience as a parent has helped me to become a more patient person in other aspects of my life and it is has offered me a deeper, experiential insight into the meaning and practice of kenosis, which also informs my faith and Christian practice.

image Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_otnaydur’>otnaydur / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

3 thoughts on “Can Motherhood be a Spiritual Practice?

  1. Ah, Toddie – Remember those innocent / naive days when we insisted to Amy Platinga Pauw in our Feminist Theology class that being a mother doesn’t change you or how you see the world? !!! I suspect we might argue differently from this side of the divide. Thanks for this –

    Liked by 1 person

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