proud to be a non-great mother… “you know, a bum”

This week I’m attending a conference where Kathleen Norris is a keynote speaker, and I was asked to take part in a panel that will respond to her talk on how liberal arts education helps foster a sense of vocation. In preparation for this panel (which I feel humbled and largely unqualified to be part of), we had a conference call with Kathleen a few weeks ago. I’ve met her a few times before, through the university that I work for and the graduate school that I attended. But I admire her writing so much that I still get geeked out at every interaction.

When we started the conference call, everyone took a turn introducing themselves. I loved that Kathleen went first, considering her renown was the reason we were all gathered. And she described herself simply as “a free-lance writer…you know, a bum.”

I had to hold back my laughter so as not to appear unprofessional. Here is a best-selling writer and poet (ever heard of The Cloister Walk? Dakota? Amazing Grace?), an author that many people would describe as great, successful, well-known. And she describes herself as a bum. I love it.

Sometimes in my moments of frustration, when I’m down in the dumps about my latest perceived failure as a parent, friends will try to tell me that “I’m a great mom.” I can never take this affirmation seriously, because nothing about what I do in mothering feels great. Ok, I try to love greatly; let’s set that obvious one aside. But most days I muddle along, nagged by questions of “Am I doing this right? How should I respond here? How am I going to handle all this?” interspersed by mental explosions of “I AM GOING TO LOSE MY MIND AND I NEVER SHOULD HAVE PROCREATED.” That to me is not a marker of greatness.

Besides, my theologian side says that greatness is of God – it’s not of humans. We can be good; maybe we can strive to be great. But true greatness is by definition divine.

And I think this is just fine. I have come to embrace my less-than-great approach to parenting. It is me, with all my flaws and messiness and imperfections, trying to raise another human being, with all his flaws and messiness and imperfections.

I am proud to be a non-great mother, and thanks to the wisdom of one of my favorite writers, maybe I could even start describing myself as a “bum” of a parent. I’m not saying that this attitude allows me to be neglient, or selfish, or deficient in what is required of me as a parent; I do take this role, this responsibility, this vocation, with the utmost seriousness. But I can’t take myself so seriously as to think I have to become “great” at it.

Embracing the imperfections, being satisfied with being not-great, admitting that sometimes I feel like a bum of a parent – that feels like a healthy and honest path. That is truly human, and that’s all I can be. Plus, if that is what it means to muddle along in humility, to learn more deeply every day of my own need for God, to let down the guard of my fears and insecurities so as to grow in love, then count me in.

Apparently you can write a lot of decent books with that attitude, too.

5 thoughts on “proud to be a non-great mother… “you know, a bum”

  1. Loving greatly is the best and most important thing you can do for your child (aside from giving them a sibling!!!!—but I am biased there!).
    Also, knowing you are not perfect/great at it, and striving to be better, is what is important. Even the best parent can improve in some way. We all have imperfections–it is how we choose to deal with these imperfections that defines us. A great mom (dad, lawyer, teacher, priest, etc) strives every day to improve. Which I think accurately defines you:-)

  2. “I AM GOING TO LOSE MY MIND AND I NEVER SHOULD HAVE PROCREATED.”

    Ha! Love it! I feel like a “bum” most days too! Thank God we need our children and our children need us to become better people! If we were already perfect, family life wouldn’t be a vocation…or at least that is what I tell myself. I trust that God gave me children as a sneaky way of cleaning up my act. It is helping me to be more charitable, more patient, more understanding, etc. Most days I feel like I fail to express these virtues, but thankfully, I am on the early side of this parenting gig…Maybe in 10 years there will be progress! I think that the best parents are the ones who are honest about their faults. My parents weren’t perfect, but they were willing to admit when they were wrong. I hope I can be that way too! Keep up the good work, and thanks for sharing!

  3. You’re right, Amy – we are at the very beginning of a long journey that will (hopefully!) help us become the people and the parents we were meant to be. The other morning S and I were rocking out to Mumford & Sons over breakfast, and the lines of one of my favorite songs leapt out at me:
    “Love will not betray you, dismay or enslave you / It will set you free / Be more like the man you were meant to be.”
    Lots of days I have to trust that God’s love for me, and my love for my children, is just like that. It won’t trap me or let me down; it will free me to become the person I’m supposed to be. I hope… 🙂

  4. I’ve been reading your blog ever since you posted it to the link on my husband’s short blurb about ‘the Spirituality of Parenting’ event we attended on America magazine’s website. First off, thank you for your efforts here — they’ve really hit home and been a jewel amidst (what I think of as) a desert of spirituality resources for Catholic parents. I’m a bit of a theology snob/nerd myself, having achieved an MDiv from Weston Jesuit, so I want things to be solidly based. From what I’ve read so far, I feel you’re doing an excellent job. But this most recent post is so EXACTLY what I needed to read as I’m doing a stint as a solo-parent for the week and I’m less than ‘great’ at it. Keep up the good work — you’re serving a population much in need of the reflections you’re writing. Peace!

    1. Thanks, Carrie! I really appreciate your encouragement. Sometimes I feel like I am throwing these thoughts into the wasteland of the Internet and wonder who might actually stumble upon them and find them helpful/interesting, since I too think there is a real desert of resources for Catholic parents in terms of spirituality and parenting. And we MDiv-ers are a tough crowd to please amidst the saturation of cheesy Christian sentimentality that often passes as spiritual nourishment for growing as adults in faith! So I’m glad to have you along for the ride! And good luck with the solo-parenting: that is one of my least favorite and most challenging moments of the journey. Honestly, keeping myself and the child alive becomes my only goal for those weeks. 🙂

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