The word “motherhood” conjures a wide range of images. In earlier generations, we think of a smiling woman in a pearl necklace, stockings, and high heels, happily cooking dinner while her smiling, obedient children play quietly in another room, waiting for her smiling husband to arrive home from the office. Even earlier, as in colonial American times, mothers were undisputed captains of their tidy households, commanding a small army of children in the daily chores necessary to create food, clothing, furniture, and recreation for their family life.
Today, the popular image of the stay-at-home-mom is one of an exhausted, disheveled woman in yoga pants, clutching a coffee cup, balancing a baby on one hip while chasing older little ones through supermarket aisles. The working mother wakes before anyone else in her home, puts on her professional attire, drops her children at daycare or school, and returns at the end of her first workday to continue the work of her home – laundry, dishes, and feeding her family. “Mom humor” abounds with jokes about coffee and wine being the lifeblood of motherhood, husbands being somewhat useless (often the “extra child”), and our children being the center of completely chaotic, though of course wonderful, lives.
Why the shift? How did the mother transform so much in her role, both perceived and actual, over a few decades? Has modern life truly changed this much? Have children changed?
“The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?” Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both of families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down.”
+ St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20, Homilies on Ephesians (italics are mine)
The Church has sanctified marriage and transformed it, as it does every aspect of our lives, into an extremely useful tool for our mutual salvation. St John has wonderfully practical advice about marriage and family life, and it is in marriage that the security of the family lies. A healthy marriage is crucial for raising balanced, mature children, who will someday conduct their own marriages largely based on what they observed growing up. I firmly believe that children must observe their parents prioritizing their marriage, every day, and constantly striving to build up their spouse. Obviously, babies have immediate physical needs, and older children need plenty of our time and attention as well, but a husband and wife MUST put their marriage first as often as possible. We are raising our children to leave us eventually, are we not? When the children become the priority every time, when they can monopolize and interrupt every interaction between their parents, when they do not learn to respect that Mommy and Daddy need to talk to each other, and your spouse takes the back burner for 5-10 years, immense strain is put on the marriage. It’s certainly not easy to balance this – children are quite demanding, especially when they are young! It is more convenient, more trendy, and strangely praised by some parts of society to be so focused on your children that all other parts of your life get lost. Like all other things, the Church teaches us to practice moderation, and just as we learn about patience, humility, self-sacrifice, and struggling against the passions, so must we teach these lessons to our children.
The roles of each parent in our family come up repeatedly; but usually on a micro level. How to organize our time on busy mornings so each of us can get a shower; how to handle night wakings from one or both of our children; who does which household chores; in what ways will we discipline our boys; how to spend my priest husband’s limited time off as a family, but still allow us all to get rest and recharging time. While these are all valid issues that must be addressed, perhaps the most important role of all is that of spiritual teachers and models. When I say most important, I also mean most terrifying, humbling, and difficult. I’ve spent nearly three and a half years being a mother, and have spent upwards of 80% of it questioning every decision I make. Very few days go by where I put my boys to sleep and say to myself, “yep, nailed it” when reflecting on the day. More often, I drag myself into my kitchen, put on a podcast, and attack the sink full of dishes while going over the mistakes I made, the times I yelled when I wish I hadn’t (almost every time), and the endless list of things I just didn’t get around to today.
Parenting has taught me much about being uncertain, unsure, and dependent upon help to get through each day. I realize this does not sound like an endorsement of having children! But Orthodoxy doesn’t teach comfort. It doesn’t teach us how to eliminate struggles; on the contrary, it prescribes them for us. Dr Philip Mamalakis (professor of Pastoral Care at Hellenic College Holy Cross) often talks about learning to “live in the tension” that is marriage, parenting, and ultimately, Christianity. Living in America, we are rather obsessed with finding comfort, satiating desires and whims, and staying safe and happy above all else. These are not evil pursuits, but just look at the world around us. Outside of our first-world bubble, Christians are being martyred daily. It’s easy to read the stories of ancient Christian martyrs and saints and feel quite disconnected to the dangers and horrors they faced. Beloved, this is happening TODAY! Parenting my extremely active boys is a tiny teaching tool in comparison. My discomforts and agony are very real – I will never downplay the struggle of mothering small children! But the Church provides us with all the tools needed to handle that struggle, and any other struggle, for that matter. Confession, the Liturgy, the Eucharist, community with other mothers and fathers, prayer rules, prayer ropes, the cycles of feasts and fasts, the saints who pray for us, spiritual fathers to guide us, and churches in which to sit and simply cry, sit in silence, pray, or chant services.
In this vein, what I’d like to focus on here is the role of the mother in the Liturgical and prayer life of her children. I am a presbytera, and have been since before I had my first child. I have, therefore, essentially always been a single mother in church settings. My husband is obviously unavailable to help me during the services, and even afterward, is often pulled in 7 different directions by various people and needs. It would be extremely easy for me to use this as an excuse to bring my children much less frequently to church, especially given their ages (3.5 and 1.5), or at least to arrive just before Communion to make my life easier. Disclaimer: There are days when I stay home because I just need to stay home. There are days I show up right before Communion because it took us three hours to get ready for Liturgy. I am in NO way condemning “mental health” decisions like this. However, I take my role as teacher to my boys very seriously. And if I expect them to understand how important the Church is to us, as Orthodox Christians, not simply as “the priest’s family”, then I must SHOW them. Going to Sunday Liturgy is bare minimum; and while I am flexible with illness, missed naps, and general toddler behavior, I try my very best to always make the effort, even if it means we leave after thirty minutes. I did not grow up Orthodox (I converted at age 12), and I am still figuring out the reality of what that looks like.
As a perfectionist firstborn child myself, I have mostly had to learn to relax my idealistic and unrealistically strict vision of having babies and toddlers (especially toddlers) in Liturgy. Babies need to nurse, get diapers changed, and be walked back and forth in the back in a baby carrier. Toddlers have an undeniable need to move, so we take lots of little walks and trips around the narthex, but always returning to our seats for the next interesting part of the service. Thank God for the constant motion and activity within our beautiful services! There is always something different to look at, to notice, to count, and to wonder aloud at. My oldest (3.5) is now a preschooler, and it is fascinating to me just how much he absorbs from regular church attendance and my accompanying explanations throughout the Liturgy. He can go into detail about aspects of the service, especially when I am sure he is not paying the least bit of attention. One exasperating Sunday morning, I was telling him for the 47th time to stop climbing the pew and leaping off of it, and he turns to me and says, “Mommy, we have to be quiet and kneel now, Baba is gonna make the bread and wine into the Body and Blood when we say ‘amen amen amen’.” My younger son (16 months) is at the age where he wants to walk/run for the entirety of the service, preferably directly into the altar with Baba, so we spend the majority of the services in the narthex, ensuring the used candles get lots of exercise. Other adults in the parish are often more than willing to help out, and are just waiting to be asked – ask! Older children are also helpful – there are several wonderful middle- and high-school aged girls who love to read books with my oldest and help him go up for Communion while I am walking the back with my little one. It is not easy. At all. But it is holy work (WORK!) that I strongly believe we are called to do as mothers and fathers of Orthodox Christian children. And if I’ve learned one thing from my experiences as a young mother and presbytera, it is that though doing this work may feel unproductive, may be embarrassing at times, may seem to be doing more harm and distraction than good, it is usually inspiring at least one person. Maybe another mother who is timid about bringing her loud children to Church if she was not raised to be comfortable with “child noise” would gain some confidence to try it out. When my preschooler announces during the sermon that “I want Baba to stop talkin now so I can have bread,” the congregation relaxes a bit, and can laugh at the honesty of young children. When I must take one or both of my children outside to recover from a (loud) meltdown, then bring them back into Church afterward, other parents see a real, daily occurrence and how it can be handled with love. My struggles, failures, and triumphs alike help others to see the process, in all its glory, and encourage them to join me in raising faithful Christians. A most blessed Paschal season to all of you, and I pray that Panagia brings comfort and strength to every parent during this Holy season. Christ is Risen!