Parenting as a Vocation

I wrote this about three months ago, but I am publishing it now, partly in response to Aj Schwanz’s query about our monk-hood.

Probably everybody knows something about marriage vows. The idea of parenting as a vocation is also not new. It’s fairly common in some circles. But I’d like to consider it more directly as equivalent to the monastic vocation, comparing parental life with the vows that people take who are called to consecrated religious life. (which we all are to some degree).

So the big three that most people can name are poverty, chastity and obedience.

Let’s start with poverty. On the one hand, housing and clothing and feeding children – none of whom are contributing much in the way of income – can bring you closer to poverty than anyone would desire. Even without private schools and Nike shoes, just the extra bedrooms and carseats and gallons of milk will set you back pretty far. Having children means having to make different choices, set different priorities for your money.

But the deeper meaning of a vow of poverty is not about having nothing, it’s about holding all things in common. Like a monastic community, a family holds property for the communal good, from the kitchen table to the college funds. Income is not solely for the benefit of the person who earned it. In a family, we learn to put others needs ahead of ours and to share in the big and the little ways.

Chastity – well, if I weren’t a Quaker, I’d bet dollars to donuts that every parent I know is practicing a higher level of chastity than they’d care to admit. Beyond the stage of babies actually sleeping in your bed, there’s the whole thing about people (supposedly) sleeping in the next room who could wake up at any time and scream “Wipe my nose!” I mean, if I can hear them every time they mutter in their sleep, they must be able to hear me. Or worse, they could get up in the middle of the night and come tiptoeing in to tell you about their dream about the monsters in their closet and then want to get in bed with you. The sheer exhaustion of raising children leaves little energy for romantic gestures. The amazing thing to me is that more than one child is ever conceived in a household.

However, on a deeper level, chastity is about reserving a certain kind of love for a certain kind of people. Any degree of intimacy requires a certain level of exclusivity. In marriage, we have generally accepted monogamy as the basic standard. Parenting too requires that we value the needs of our own children before the needs of the Sierra Club or even the Little League. It means we keep our families’ embarrassing stories to ourselves (usually). Practiced well, it allows us to concentrate on the people who need us the most when that is needed and to be open to the broader concepts of hospitality and community that enrich our lives.

Anyone who’s been ordered around by a two-year-old knows something about Obedience. If you’ve turned around and driven back 60 miles to get the blue bunny, that’s obedience. If you’ve lost your temper and shaken someone under four feet tall for failing to put their socks on even though you asked them six times, you also understand how strong our notion of obedience and lack of obedience can be.

In the end, obedience is not just about “You do what I say” but about submitting our will to a greater good. It’s about being able to say, “No, I can’t come to the Board retreat today because my child is sick.” It’s about knowing whether to choose the minivan that seats six or the hot little two seater, even though they cost the same. It’s about teaching our children that they can say no to something they know is not good for them even when we’re not there. It is about saying, “Yes, I’ll play Candyland with you again,” maybe even without rolling my eyes. It is about choosing employment, recreation and all our commitments by considering what is best for our family as much as ourselves.

The final vow I’d like to mention is one the Benedictines take, that of stability. As I understand it, they commit to one monastery, one community, for life.

I already live ”in community” – one where half the people are clearly not pulling their weight in terms of keeping the community going. Like monks, parents don’t choose all the people in our community, and we probably wouldn’t have chosen all these particular people. We learn to give and take, to tolerate others’ human frailty and weaknesses and to be seen for who we are, not who we’d like to be.

Other orders send monks and sisters to different locations at different times. This is also a consideration for families. Family life may require moving to a house with another bedroom, or closer to a new job. But these changes should be minimized. The complex bonds within a stable community can take some of the pressure off the intimate bonds of family life. Parents, as human beings, need growth and change, but we serve our children best when these are part of our interior growth and not willy-nilly changes. Children need to know that some things won’t change.

Occasionally people bemoan the fact that there are no required courses, no licensing exams for becoming a parent. But perhaps what we need is a clearer sense of the vows we take when we become parents.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin, I've been checking your blog from time to time for a while now but not long enough to have caught this the first time. I love this entry with the perspective you take and the comparison to monastic commitment and family life. With teenagers in the house it’s hard to remember why we had children sometimes. It’s not that they’re bad, they really are wonderful kids, but the effort of re-learning how to communicate with people you thought you knew is monumental some days.

Today, we will be dragging our kids into helping paint the porch and clean the house for company coming. One will be helping put corn up for the freezer while someone else will be making sure the rest of the garden gets watered. They’re going to hate it. Having a clearer sense of the vows I took makes the effort entirely worth it. Hopefully we’re all learning to give and take and tolerate each other’s humanity as we live and breathe in community. A community where, I need to keep reminding myself, Christ who has risen resides today.

9/05/2005 11:20 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Kathy,
Thanks for commenting! New voices are always welcome.

Just to clarify, I didn't have a blog three months ago, I actually started writing this in my journal a year ago, and so this is the first time it's appeared anywhere in public.

I love your description of the work your family is doing together. My own recollection of being a teenager is of complaining bitterly about the work I had to do. (Anything from washing dishes to chopping wood to working in the family business) Now I know it was really good for me, and good of my parents to just accept the complaining as part of life.

Your comment also highlights something that has bothered me all day (since I posted this last night). I didn't mention God so much in this post, and in fact, that's what's missing from my comparisons. How does God factor into our family life, and family factor into my spiritual life? And how does this compare to monastic devotion to God?

For example, I said poverty is really about holding all things in common, but on an even deeper level, all things belong to God, and we are just tenants or stewards.

And one of the gifts of monastic chastity is that they are not called to exclusive human relationships but a more intimate relationship with God and so they are more free to practice radical hospitality with humans.

Ah well, just a reminder that there is more work to be done, in my thinking and my writing.

9/06/2005 12:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for posting on my blog concerning the "individual responsibility post." I absolutely agree with you, that Quakers have sought to maintain a multi-authority of the Spirit, Community (and Queries), and Scripture as their guilding principles. I think this is quite simply one of the brillances of Quakerism and a strength in a post-modern world.

9/06/2005 12:41 AM  
Blogger Aj Schwanz said...

Ah, what a great post! You have such a way with words and a unique way of looking at things: a kindred spirit!

Sorry I haven't been around to play in blogland lately; my "vocation" is a bit time consuming as of late. But hopefully soon I will be albe to return: hopefully . . .

Blessings to you and your family!

9/09/2005 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Robin,
What a fantastic, creative description of parent-as-monk.

It's funny, I'm a parent of young twin girls and I've been reading some of Thomas Merton's journals lately and it never would have occurred to me to put Merton's monastic experiences together with the current crazy state of my family life. Perhaps its because of the lack of silence! Anyway, great post, will try and check out more in the future. In peace, Steve (stevenvpatrick@yahoo.com)

7/19/2006 1:13 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Steve, Welcome!

About silence, you're right there isn't as much in family life but what there is is rich, like the silence of watching a child sleep.

And I think even in monasteries, it can be challenging to listen with charity to that brother or sister who is always off key in one's favorite hymn. Which reminds me of some kids I know...

7/19/2006 2:00 PM  

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