When our children were very young, I delighted in hauling them along with me to whatever I was involved in. My oldest slept, wrapped in a sling, while I took notes in my seminary classes. My middle child watched the hub-bub of a commercial kitchen from his car seat as I cooked for the local soup kitchen. And my youngest, nestled in the same car seat, looked up at me as I led the ladies’ bible study. Back then, I was determined that my children would not be a reason to stop ministry, that their presence would be good—both for them and for the adults around them.
As our kids have grown, our ability and availability to serve has changed shape. I might have once put a child to sleep early before opening my home to a discipleship group, but the demands of children whom we have decided to homeschool, and whose bedtimes have shifted to later hours, have limited what I can and cannot do. Just this year, we’ve reduced our involvement with the youth group, in part because it’s simply become too difficult to manage our own three along with the young people.
In theory, the tension between ministry and parenthood is universal: as Christians, we are all called to partner with God in the work of extending the blessing of Jesus to the world. Yet, for those who have moved to a particular place for ministry’s sake, that tension can feel more pronounced—as if the validity of our move, our calling even, depends on the hours of location-specific ministry we can add up each week.
If I’m honest, sometimes I fret that our life looks too normal. I worry that the weekly schedules of homeschooling and extracurriculars, teaching and working, look so similar to the lives of other families with school-aged children that the reason for being millions of miles away has faded and lost its intensity.
It’s easy to chafe at these limits, to want to stretch myself in multiple directions, towards my kids, my church, my neighbourhood, my students, so that I can be all things to all people all the time—and so validate our presence here. In a distorted calculation of time, family, and ministry, the demands of our family can feel like a hindrance, a problem to be solved.
In Natalie Carnes’ beautiful book Motherhood, she reflects on the ways that motherhood splits women in two: “Motherhood is the movement of one body becoming two, one life becoming two, and the mother is called to both lives, not to affect their unity but to aid their separation.”
“Where can I be whole again?” she asks, a haunting question for me as a mother, and as an expat.
More: the flood of possibilities for things I desire to do and to be leaves me both flushed with the wideness of the world and straining at my own limits. How do I decide what to give myself to? And how do I see those choices clearly enough to discern which will knit me together, and which will rip me apart?
I wonder about those heroes of Scripture with definitive calls from God: Abraham and Moses, Samuel, Mary. I imagine, at first, that a voice from heaven would be enough to put to rest conflicting desires, to unite one’s self around the most-evident will of God and so to prevent the pulling apart that I desire so much to avoid. But of course, I know, that this is not the case: despite the clarity of a call, both faithless doubts emerging from within and also good gifts given from without can create complexity where I desire simplicity. Can I dare hope for wholeness, even a moment of it?
In Carnes’ reflection, she concludes, “I have no climactic moment of visible, identifiable wholeness to reach for. I have only the episodic negotiations of my divided self.” These “episodic negotiations,” she brings us to see are not the negotiations of a business transaction, but of a dance—a light and lithe weaving between vocations and obligations.
I think of Paul’s exhortation: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Given Paul’s military analogy of the armour of God elsewhere, it could be easy for us to imagine this as a marching of soldiers, stiff and without variation. Yet, keeping in step could just as easily describe a dancer, attentive to the leading of her partner. Led by the Spirit, my prior ineptness and lack of talent recede as barriers; instead, I need attentiveness and a willingness to surrender.
The Spirit, after all, is the one who affects the wholeness we are promised at that last great day—and our longings for wholeness are ultimately longings for that day.
How do you feel the pull of ministry and parenthood—do they feel opposite, or complimentary? How have you found ways to hold both together?