To Dust and Ashes by Natalie Weaver

Natalie WeaverThis year marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, edited by Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans.  I contributed a chapter.  A few days ago, I was contacted by the editors and asked for an update.  “What had changed for me in five years?” they asked.  As I tried to respond to their questions, I was surprised by the gravity in my heart.  When I wrote about motherhood and life as a professional theologian five years earlier, I was a new mother, applying for my third-year review, and trying to navigate my nascent roles as both mom and scholar/educator.  I felt overwhelmed to be sure, but I was overtly grateful to have such a rich and full array of choices about how I lived my life.  Here, a few years later, I am applying for full-professorship.  I am a more seasoned mother with two healthy children.  I chair two departments at my school, and I am generally more established in the many things I juggle simultaneously.  Had I given it any consideration, I would have anticipated a more cheerful five-year check-in.

mamaphdcoverI’ve been considering what altered my perspective.  To start, as I have become a more experienced teacher, I have been better able to turn over my classes to my students, who at Ursuline College (a women-focused institution) are primarily women.  In doing so, especially in my course on the theology of suffering, my students have opened up their lives to me generously and sometimes painfully.  Most of my students work full time.  Many also parent, and, of those, many do so as single mothers.  I have had students who do sex work to pay for college; who are homeless and in flight from spousal abuse; who are back in school to reboot life after leaving bad marriages; who have lost children to illness or violence; who are caring for dying parents; who are themselves battling cancer; even a few who have themselves died.  In working with a primarily female population, I am astounded time and again by the challenges women face as a matter of course, because they are women.  The stunning statistics of poverty, low pay, gender+racial discrimination, sexual abuse, and domestic violence transform in my classes from numbers into individuals whose development is in part within my sphere of influence.  These realities have sobered me as an educator, theologian, and mother.

I also wasn’t expecting the legacy of violence in my own family to rear its ugly head again.   I was raised on stories about which uncles to avoid, only to learn in adulthood what they had done to their wives and children.  Indeed, one of my earliest memories was the wake of an aunt who had been shot in the night by her husband.  It came to me as woeful shock, then, when recently a close female in my family was abused and a closer male relative was incarcerated as a result.  Now, I parley among tenuous relations before the witness of my two young sons.  How can I be forgiving of that which I abhor?  How can I not forgive if I indeed hope that there may be some ultimate redemption for us all?  What shall I model for my watchful children, especially as these tragedies and failures become for me the real tests of whether and how I love those sisters and brothers before my very eyes?  Such things I did not anticipate when I first became a mother, and such things confound my thoughts as a theologian.

In my work, I have become increasingly studied on women’s world situation, with special attention to the vulnerability of women in my own backyard.  Such awareness is heightened by high profile crimes against women in Cleveland (my home) over the past decade.  As a theologian, I increasingly argue for a causative relationship between the suppressed ecclesial status of women and our social vulnerability (the subject of my next post). Nevertheless, I strive to improve the situation for women from the inside, as a participant church member, teacher-scholar, spouse, and mother.  Most recently, I have begun to serve as a colleague in the Catholic Theological Society of America by becoming secretary to the organization, a responsibility I esteem as an honor.  My first reward for this work, however, only moments after my election at the June 2013 meeting, was a demeaning invitation by an elderly, prominent CTSA member to join him in his hotel room!

As I reflect on my changing perspective over the past five years, I realize the difference is that I am merely deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole.   The once troubling “double burden” of work and motherhood has paled for me next to the intransigent questions of women’s (theological) histories.   I am not sure my studies evidence, at least for me, something like an evolutionary or systemic improvement in women’s (and therefore the general human) global condition.   So, like our sister Ada Maria ~ may the mention of her name be a blessing upon us ~ I find my deepest challenge has become the preservation of joy en la lucha.  Yet, it is here that I find a quieter, perhaps more mature, and in ways more satisfying, faith.

We all are like Jesus in the garden, or, at least, we have the opportunity to be like that.  In the garden, we find a recognizable person, whose courage and vision endure beyond terror and grief in an anticipatory resurrection.  This is my student at age sixty-five, leaving her violence and becoming a professional artist.  These are our Cleveland girls, finding their freedom and families after a lost decade.  I cling to the possibility, and sometimes reality, of courage and vision redeeming people’s lives from the common daily trial to the extraordinary historical ordeal.  And, even while I have adjusted down my theological hopes to people living well on our way back to ashes, I have learned that our dust is made of stars.

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

Categories: Academy, Activism, Family, Feminism, General, Motherhood, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work

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5 replies

  1. I started my Ph.D. program the day after my son’s third birthday and divorced my husband a year or so later. My son has some interesting stories………….


  2. Thank you for this honest, passionate post!


  3. What a thoughtful post. The most profound sentence for me among so much to mull over is this one: “As a theologian, I increasingly argue for a causative relationship between the suppressed ecclesial status of women and our social vulnerability (the subject of my next post). ”
    You’ve articulated a belief of mine that presses more urgently on my awareness every day, and ties in to my own experience both intellectually and personally. Thank you.


  4. Thank you for this post. I am not a mother, but as a professor I strongly identify with your statement that the realities of your students have “sobered” you as an educator. I feel honored that my students share their stories and lives with me; but I am also very saddened by the continual sexism, hate, abuse and racism that they face. Hearing their stories challenges me to think more critically, creatively and compassionately about my role as an educator.
    I really appreciate your focus on “the preservation of joy en la lucha.” This is a powerful way of understanding your work.


  5. Welcome, Natalie. I look forward to more of your posts. This one was sobering, a necessary, if difficult look at our reality as women.


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