Life has been challenging lately – I’m sure you can relate. Normal emotional and financial stress are worsened by COVID-19 and the election— and I’ve often said that there’s nothing like motherhood for making us feel like failures… It’s as though our brains are incapable of seeing anything but the things we have left undone or done badly. And it is often excruciatingly hard to be a calm, patient parent when the kids start getting wild, or someone breaks something, or the <expletive> online form won’t <expletive> work on my <expletive> phone.
…Why is it so hard to feel “good enough?” Could it be because patriarchy benefits from making the female class feel constantly insecure and unworthy?
As I said in my last post, “it takes a village to raise a child,” but the oligarchic capitalist patriarchy we live in makes sure we have no villages. When I describe what safe, empowering parenting can look like, I hear the collective sob of mothers everywhere wailing, “How could I ever do that??!!” The guilt we carry from our sense of inadequacy weighs us down in defensive resignation. Why? Because it takes an actual village. A VILLAGE. Are you a village? I’m not a village. I’m expected to be a village. But I’m sure as hell not a fucking village!!!!
I was thinking about this problem last week when I hit a particularly rough parenting moment. My older daughter had some brief, mild eye discomfort one morning, so I quarantined us and took us all to get COVID-19 tests. Somehow my usual snacks and water were not in my bag. Somehow the online registration form hadn’t worked. We waited ages in the car, hungry, thirsty, and frustrated, as I tried to fill out forms over and over and get us all tested on the optimal day. Fractious children, strained health care employees… I eventually started crying. Thank goodness. My tears allowed us all to name how we were feeling and comfort each other.
“Why is this so hard?” I have asked myself that question for years, through parenting moments when I literally banged my head against a wall in frustration, or daydreamed about locking myself in the bedroom with a bottle of wine, or like this very second – my twelve year-old burst in, brimming with enthusiasm, words tumbling out describing the fun game they are playing where they are characters from Les Misérables, building and defending the barricade together. Father Mabeuf just gave someone his coat, and Courfeyrac is not watching for soldiers as he should. One part of me smiled genuinely as I listened, while another voice inside me was howling “WHEN? WHEN DO I GET TIME TO WORK UNINTERRUPTED? Now my concentration is broken! Aaaaugh!!!”
After we got home from the COVID-19 tests, I kept thinking about how hard parenting can be when I perceive that my needs or priorities will be sacrificed yet again. I don’t want to be a parent in those moments; I want to be a child. My inner child wants a parent to swoop down and solve the problem, take away the stress, and comfort me. When I feel all alone shouldering emotional labor, household management, protecting the health and safety of the family, and struggling with my new COVID-19 disability, my inner child wants to curl up in the fetal position in a safe, peaceful womb dedicated purely to helping me.
In the years since my parents passed away, I have grappled harder with my inner child’s fear of abandonment. Even when my mother was too busy or far away to help, I could call her later for support. That was her role. Whenever we met, my whole life, she would give me long, long, long hugs… the kind where you eventually stop wondering when the hug will end, stop fidgeting, surrender to being held, your heart rate slows, your breathing calms, and—
—Les Misérables update, apparently Ursule keeps getting wounded, and Grantaire is fighting fiercely alongside Enjolras on the bridge!!!—
…where was I? My mother hugging me? That feels about as far away as 1832 France.
Recovering from my stressful day after the COVID-19 tests, I thought about how religions have a role to play in this dilemma. Religions offer definitions of “The Good” and try to help communities live together in ways that bring mutual thriving: advocating for just economic/labor systems and offering meaning constructs that promote wellness. Many religions offer means to soothe the inner child, through ancestor veneration or through symbolizing the Divine in parental/nurturing ways. The Psalms are full of laments wherein people give voice to their anxious inner child and wail, “Save me! Protect me! Comfort me!” In healthy religions, when parents let us down or pass away, we do not feel quite so abandoned or orphaned. We turn to our ancestor altars, scriptures, rituals, and sacred songs and prayers to feel held… to feel those long, long, long hugs.
Healthy religions also help us turn to each other. The supportive, comforting parental love that we all need, no matter how old we grow, is also found in our communities: our living friendships and family and faith networks. The church I have been attending for the past couple of years is extremely tight knit. At first, I felt impatient with the multiple daily emails requesting prayer for people I’d never met. But then I got COVID-19. It has been a long, horrifying, dreadful time. I had to look my children in the eyes and tell them that I did not know if I was going to be OK. You don’t ever get over that feeling. So yes, they absolutely can interrupt me, run in, and tell me about their barricade game. But I still need a village.
The cards flowed in from my church family, from people I had never met. They told me where they sat in the sanctuary, so I might remember their face if not their name. Cards and prayers kept coming, week after week, month after month, even though I never could attend the zoom services or anything else. Another church in Cornwall (Britain) prayed and asked after me for six months after I attended one — ONE! — of their zoom services. What a long, long, long hug.
So, I hope, mamas, that you have that hug. Somehow, from some friends, family, community, or faith tradition— you deserve to be held, affirmed, comforted, soothed, and loved. Maybe together, we can help those hugs grow and grow, until everyone is supported through tough times, everyone has their needs met, and everyone is filled with enough peace inside that we cradle our precious children with divine, loving, peaceful, long hugs.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the women sing?
Lifting our voices, free from fear?
It is our village that we bring:
Healing love is here!
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.