“Does the mommy guilt ever subside long enough to feel good about anything you’re doing?” This was the question that a new mom in my congregation who was returning to work following her all-too-brief maternity leave tearfully asked, and I resonated deeply with her grief, anxiety and, yes, her guilt. It wasn’t that long ago that I had returned to work after ten weeks of maternity leave with my second child. And just because I had done it once before hadn’t made it any easier—if anything it made it more difficult, because now I knew just how quickly the time passes and before you know it they’re not babies any longer.
Elizabeth’s question brought me back to my first day back and the first full day that that my son had been with his babysitter. I got a little more than an hour with him (just barely enough time to nurse him, change his diaper and, oh yeah, get a bite to eat myself) before I had to hop back in the car to fight the rush hour traffic in order to get to a community action. And I cried all the way there, thinking about missing my babies.
The community action was a gathering of more than one thousand people in our county, from more than sixty churches and synagogues, who were demanding government funds to repair and rebuild neglected county community centers mostly in working-class African-American neighborhoods. As I walked in, I was greeted by a cheerleading squad of giggly girls waiting anxiously in the lobby, getting ready to do their cheers to open the meeting. One of the youngest girls said on her way into the large meeting room, “I’m nervous!” I told her that she didn’t need to be nervous, that she was going to be great, and she smiled sheepishly. But when they ran in and took over the stage in front of all those people, she was great—waving her little pom-poms and flashing her big huge grin. Following the cheerleaders, we heard from a third grade boy who attends an after-school program at one of the community centers speak confidently and eloquently about how “Ms. Cookie” had taught him how to speak in public by making him and his fellow students read their books out loud. And suddenly I was in tears again; I knew that I had made the right decision to come to this action and show my support for this community centers campaign.
I can feel deep in my bones that maternal instinct that makes me protect and provide for my children. I would do anything for them—to make sure that they are healthy and safe and happy, that they have every opportunity to learn and grow and thrive. I am sure that nearly every mother feels this way about her kids, too. And as a follower of Jesus, I know that I can’t just fight for the good of my own kids, but that I should do whatever I can to make sure that all God’s children have the love, the care, the opportunities that they need. Those kids, and their parents, who depend on these run-down, neglected Montgomery County community centers deserve so much more than they are getting. And those kids are my kids, too.
Of course not every day of ministry feels like the rewarding work of building the kingdom of God. There are days when the work that I do in the church is tedious and dull. Writing conference reports, sitting in long, unproductive meetings, dealing with petty personality issues—these are things that come with any job. And there are times when I do ask myself a similar question to the one that my congregant asked me: is this worth it? But then someone calls in the crisis and I am able to help. Or a baby is born and I get to be one of the first people outside the family to hold this new life and bless it in the name of God. Or someone is struggling with their faith and I have the privilege of being a listening ear and speak of the assurance of God’s redeeming love and grace which may lead them home. Or the church gives a voice to the voiceless and a glimpse of the reign of God is visible.
Those are the days when I know that it is worth it, that I am doing important work that will, ultimately, make my children’s lives, and the lives of all God’s children, better. I am helping to create a community of care in which they can grow and thrive; I am helping to create a world of justice and righteousness where all children of God can grow and thrive. And that eases my “mommy guilt” somewhat.
Every day is a struggle to balance ministry and motherhood. There are those days when I am still at church at 9:00 at night and I have missed seeing, holding, smelling, hearing the voices of my children all day and my heart aches. There are other days when my hands are playing with playdoh but my mind is consumed with some leadership issue or my heart is heavy with a pastoral care need at church. But it is not a feeling so much of living a divided life as it is that I am two parts of a whole. I cannot imagine my life without my kids, but I can’t fathom leaving behind the blessings and challenges of ministry either. And my two roles inform one another—I’d like to think that being a mother makes me a better pastor, and I pray that the reverse is also true.