Practicing Peace in the Trenches of Motherhood
I begin this post with a battle scene from my life: It was an afternoon a few weeks ago, and my new puppy had rolled in the mud on the way home from picking kids up from school. I told my son to take her into the backyard until I could give her a bath. The usual clamoring for my attention began with one child begging for a snack. My oldest daughter and her friend wanted to decorate cupcakes from a design they found in a book. I told them they could do what they wanted as long as it didn’t require a stove or my supervision. Then I began cutting apples when my son got bored of playing outside with the puppy and let her into the house. With one hand I grabbed the puppy while I placed the apples on the table with another. I almost had a chance to let out a sigh of relief that I had saved myself the trouble of cleaning mud out of my carpet, when I saw my three-year-old standing wide-legged with that all-too-familiar look on her face. “I peed mommy.”
So I picked up the puppy, raced my three-year-old into the bathroom, turned the water on and told my son to turn it off when it was full. Then I took the puppy to the bathtub downstairs. After a quick bath, I wrapped her in a towel and took her upstairs where I smelled something burning. My daughter and her friend were melting chocolate chips along with the bowl in the microwave. I dropped the puppy and helped them for a minute while my three-year-old called incessantly to me because she was done. When I felt like things were secured in the kitchen, I walked past a puddle of spilled milk from the child who wanted a snack, not sure whether I should be letting the puppy lap it up or not, but there she was, and the kid in the tub was overly persistent. While I dried her off, hoping I could clean the muddy, milk-spilled, peed-on kitchen floor before I had to go teach my yoga class, I watched the dog pee on the carpet. I cleaned that up, sent her outside and willed myself to check on the happenings in the kitchen. I will save you the gory details. I helped my daughter finish her project and sent everyone downstairs to watch cartoons while I retreated, worn from battle, to the trenches. Finally the sigh came, as I began to pick through the carnage of my afternoon. Just one hour until yoga, I told myself…sigh.
I often feel that I am fighting on the front lines as I break up fights, clean spilled milk off the floor, change bed sheets that have been peed in or vomited on, pick lice out of hair after an outbreak at the school, soothe sick and upset kids, endlessly, endlessly trying to conquer chaos with order. This winter has been especially hard for me because of the aforementioned lice, and as I write this, I am coming to the end of a very long week with four kids down with influenza. I used to see myself, almost as a soldier sacrificing body, mind, and soul for a paramount cause. My world view was imbued with a patriarchal understanding of sacrifice. I was trying to live up to the ideal I saw manifest in Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice even his son Isaac.
The idea of patriarchal sacrifice was all that I had to work with at one time, and it helped in many ways. It helped me to survive through days like the one I described above because I believed in a great reward that would come of my sacrifice. Abraham, through his willingness to give up the relationship he had with his son and the beautiful life his son could have lived, became a great patriarch with a future reward of an enormous posterity. In my thinking, this meant that the more I was willing to sacrifice, the greater my reward would be.
Sacrifice was a litmus test for faithfulness or worthiness, and tests are often used to compare and rank people. Abraham pleased God and became greater than other men, with a greater reward. That was part of my patriarchal conditioning that I couldn’t see, my willingness to please a God who plays favorites. If I could sacrifice more and be better than other women, I would receive a better reward. If I gave up everything to be a stay at home mom, I would be favored above working moms or women who chose not to have children. Because I had the towering influence of Abraham blocking my view, I saw only the sacrifice and reward. I didn’t see the challenges that every woman faces, no matter how she chooses to be a mom or not be a mom, or lives the life that has been given to her.
My connection to the feminine divine has shifted my thinking completely. I didn’t know that there was a more appropriate way to look at my experience. I didn’t know that I could define my experience for myself through my own feminine lens. I was missing a big part of the picture. In fact, because Abraham’s sacrifice permeates this scriptural story, Sarah’s part in the story is hidden completely. In patriarchal societies, women experience sacrifice differently than men do.
I wonder how Sarah would have felt if Abraham had come home without Isaac, her only child whom she had spent her whole life hoping for and had born in her old age. As a mother, I have a sense of what Sarah experienced as she fought the daily battles of raising a child. I can picture her up at night tending a feverish forehead, changing soiled bedding, feeding and cleaning up messes. As I think about Sarah and her daily life, I find a story that I can relate to. It’s a story about dealing with the circumstances of life, not to be favored of God or to receive a great reward, but because the circumstances of life are right there in front of her, screaming at her, vying for her attention.
Through my paradigm shift, I have replaced sacrifice with spiritual practice. Practice is different from a sacrificial test in the way it eliminates judgement and comparison from my life. It brings me deeply into the present moment, as I focus on what I am doing here and now, as opposed to the reward I will obtain later. It brings with it compassion, patience, and forgiveness that a test of faithfulness can’t accommodate. A test ends in a pass or fail, but practice allows for an infinite number of failures. Spiritual practice means that when I feel trapped or overburdened, I can let myself feel that way, without piling on the thought that I’m not good enough for feeling that way. Spiritual practice brings growth, evolution, and progress into my life in a way that testing my worthiness through sacrifice never did.
Through spiritual practice I’m learning to live with what is, to surrender to the circumstances of my life, to grow in compassion, patience, and peace, as I deal with the messy, crazy, mundane challenges of my life. I focus more on doing things that feed my soul, I practice being centered and calm when my kids are fighting or throwing tantrums, I give up expectations of things going smoothly and my house being clean, I practice compassion and patience with myself and my family. I fail…a lot…at all of this. And when my old paradigm comes in and tries to tell me I’m a failure as a mom, I pick myself back up and practice again…and again. This won’t bring me a future reward. It won’t bring me more power in my patriarchal culture or more favor with God. It won’t make me any better than any other woman who is experiencing her own spiritual practice through the circumstances of her life. But it brings me simple, quiet, spiritual growth.
I know how I have grown as I have worked through the challenges of my life, and I wonder, what did Abraham gain from being willing to kill Isaac? How did that help him to evolve toward greatness? Did it make him more loving, compassionate, patient, or godlike? I think the real heroine of this story is Sarah, who gave her son life and did the mundane everyday tasks that were not canonized for everyone to see her righteousness. Perhaps she found like me, that what she needed to survive motherhood was not some grandiose sacrifice, but simple spiritual practice day in and day out. This is what makes us great, living and growing through the struggles of life.
Now that I can see myself in Sarah’s story more than Abraham’s, I feel the need to wave a white flag of surrender. My life no longer needs to be a battlefield. I don’t need to sacrifice to earn my badge of honor. No one needs to die, least of all, my precious female soul. Where once I thought I needed to sacrifice myself, body, mind, and soul, now I see that I can find deep within my body, mind, and soul a profound peace and acceptance of my life as it is. I can find greatness through living and struggling and pushing through.