I was reading a poem recently by Gwen Harwood that went like this:
In the Park
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by—too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice,” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
(Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems, Penguin, Camberwell, 2001, p. 27.)
Harwood is not a Christian, and when I first read the poem, I was offended by the blackness of its view of motherhood. I love being a mum, and I believe the Bible when it says that children are a blessing from the Lord. A big part of me wants to protest against a view like this and scream out, “It’s not like that at all!”
And yet, as I reflect on my experience as a mother, I find myself admitting (somewhat guiltily!) that I do often feel a little like the mother in the poem—‘eaten alive’ by the demands of caring for a household of young children. (I write this at the end of a day of catastrophic gastric disturbances amongst the junior members of the family …)
So what do I do with this apparent contradiction between what the Bible tells me—that children are a blessing—and what experience (at least on days like today!) tells me? The bottom line, of course, is that I have to be willing to side with what God says in the Bible, whatever my experience may tell me. But maybe, in this case, the contradiction is more apparent than real.
The verses that came to mind as I pondered this question and talked it over with my husband were Paul’s words in 2 Cor 12:14-15. He’s not directly speaking about parenting, of course; he’s using parenting as an analogy for his ‘parental’ relationship with the Corinthians. But in the course of discussing that relationship, his assumptions about what it is to be a parent are revealing: “Children”, he writes, “are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls …”.
What are the implications of what Paul is saying here for how I should view my life as a mother of young kids? On the one hand, Paul’s words are a reminder and a confirmation that being a parent does involve ‘spending and being spent’ for your kids. It is foolishness to pretend otherwise. To say with the Bible that children are a blessing is not to say that they are a convenience or an accessory or a lifestyle enhancement; you’re meant to feel ‘spent’ at the end of the day!
But at the same time, Paul’s words challenge me to find joy in the drudgery: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls”. Maybe there’s a clue here about the shape of what ‘blessing’ looks like in God’s world. Perhaps the departing ex-boyfriend in the poem knows less about “the grace of God” than he thinks he does! And if anyone ought to understand that, surely it’s the followers of the one who taught (and showed) that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”