Caring for three children under three is challenging. As I told someone the other day, it is a constant cycle of needs: feeding, changing, pottying, playing, dressing, talking, listening, cleaning, the cycle never stops. And it is difficult, no impossible, to not have one child’s needs compete with another’s. I thought it was a lot of work with two. As many people told me, the shift to three is in many ways disproportionately more work.
The last few days have been harder than usual because I have been sick. As I said to my sister, usually when I get sick it’s not like there is someone else to take over: I wistfully remember days when sickness meant calling school or work and spending the necessary time in bed. Motherhood does not have that system, unfortunately, but I was so miserable today that Doug went in late for work and I did call a friend to come over and help. When it was time for her to leave I was faced with a two year old who has just transitioned to a big boy bed who needs a bit more involvement with his bedtime routine as a result, and an infant who had spent a few mommy-less hours already who REALLY needed to be cuddled and fed.
These are the moments that get to me: when attending to one child’s needs must be deferred to deal with another’s. I remember with Mercy, I was able to respond to any and every little cry or fuss. Elijah does not enjoy such privilege. As I have said before, it is not another set of hands I need, it is an entire body.
Lest this sound too negative, let me also say that life with three has been more delightful than I could ever have imagined. I would not change who we are as a family now for anything (not even the Scotch, Kath, though it has helped tremendously this past week).
As I have been thinking through these adjustments in our family dynamic, and in my methods and abilities as a mom, I am struck by some ways this feels similar to certain challenges faced by the church today. There are many places in church life that feel dominated by the consideration of a bunch of individual needs. This is where the “consumer church” language finds it home. Under this mindset, church becomes the place where every fuss and cry is attended to, and if it is not, that church is left in favor of the church down the street or across the city that is better equipped to do so. It is no wonder, then, that pastors can so quickly feel like frazzled failures, unable to be everything to everybody every time. They too don’t need more hands: they too need extra bodies.
The harder, and dare I say less appealing approach, is the cultivation of a community that cares for one another: a community that takes seriously the needs of its members, and chooses to live lives of sacrificial love with one another. This is the piece that relates to my life as a mom right now. I can no longer single-handedly offer what my kids need at all times. Instead, we are learning new ways to cooperate, help one another, and create ways of living together that take into account the diversity of our family. Elijah’s needs differ greatly from Mercy’s, and we are learning how to create systems and a culture as a family that take all of those into account. Would it be easier for me to just cater to each child? Absolutely. Would I feel quite good about myself if I could somehow be all things to all my kids all the time? Of course! The supermom myth is hard to ignore. But there is something profoundly beautiful about seeing my little ones discover mutuality in how they relate to each other and to us.
I know that much has been said about Willow Creek’s Reveal study, and one thing I remember hearing is that Willow’s new strategy is to move people away from being consumers of programs and services and toward becoming “self-feeders” (I think that was their term). I do think there are ways where this conclusion is appropriate. I know that for me it has been immensely valuable, perhaps crucial, that in the last months Mercy and Aaron have developed some new areas of independence. Using the potty, putting on clothes, cleaning up after themselves, etc…these have helped immensely with the arrival of a newborn and the high levels of neediness he brings in particular. But I would argue that the new ways we are learning to do things as a family, the new routines, systems, and habits, matter much more. It is that shift from life is about me to life is about us; that move away from my needs at all cost toward really recognizing the needs of others, even the most fragile and frail in our midst, that is truly transformative.
I had a conversation recently with a good friend who is deciding where he will attend church after leaving the congregation that had been his home for some time. The piece that seemed most crucial for him was the preaching. I am pretty sure that in all the conversations I have had with peers who are transitioning from one faith home to another, this has been the case. In L.A. there are any number of pretty fantastic folks in pulpits throughout the city, and it is not totally surprising that in a city where Britney Spears is the lead story more often than not in the evening news, discussions of churches tend to center on the reputation and performance of the guy in the pulpit. I remember a provocative quotation I posted here a while back that is worth mentioning again:
Bill Kinnon has offered a thoughtful piece on the human desire for authentic community. I think he rightly diagnoses what is too often missing in churches scrambling to respond to a collection of individual preferences and needs. I know that as a mom right now, I am learning how that approach, though appealing, will most certainly be my downfall. And teaching Mercy and Aaron, and eventually Elijah, to be ‘self-feeders’, while a piece of the solution, is not the whole. And so I am embracing the harder calling to mold new ways of being together, and create a culture of mutuality, respect, and care for one another.
It is a beautiful thing to see already how Mercy and Aaron’s hearts incline with love toward their baby brother, or extend grace toward their tired mother, or work together to find solutions and take care of each other. It is a precious gift to share together this adventure called family. Perhaps that is part of the struggle that churches face: Mercy and Aaron can’t hop across the street and join another family when I frustrate them or fail them in some way. They are stuck with me. And when Elijah cries too much, or takes too much of my time from them, they can’t just pick a new mom or find a baby-free home to replace theirs. We are forced to find ways to make it work and persevere together.