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.