The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Caregiving
I am only beginning to chip away at the mystery of what a profound gift it is to be called in ways big and small, to respond to others as Jesus did.
That is not to say I am particularly good at it. Occasionally though, I catch glimpses of this grace through the bleary eyes of someone awakened many times for love of one who cannot care for themselves. This is a paradox: the place where the sacrifice of serving another out of love settles seamlessly alongside the startling beauty of recognizing the depth of our own reservoir of compassion.
This gift is not exclusive to parents, as any caregiver could tell you. Those who care or have cared for a parent, spouse, family member with special needs, foster child, or grandchild are keenly aware of what accompanying another asks of their mind, body, and soul. This understanding is at the heart of our parental participation in the Paschal Mystery: Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
It does my heart good to hear couples, imagining their future selves, making mention of their hopes and plans and children’s arrival on the scene. Often these descriptions are followed quickly by the qualifier “when we’re ‘ready.’” This approach resonates with me so profoundly, its appeal and its audacity. How very polished to have done all of the research, read the reviews, and have the calculations in hand before making a decision—like buying a new car.
And yet, this is very often the same approach with which we view the welcoming of children.
These parameters were not the introduction to parenting that I received, and I’ll admit to politely swallowing my guffaws when I hear of these very thoughtful calculations. I am keenly aware that this lands me squarely in the camp of the veteran who has simply been at it longer and who didn’t know any different myself. I am learning more and more that our encounters with children, like our encounter with the Divine, simultaneously do a great deal to teach us about our limitedness while exposing the depths of our own previously incomprehensible reserves.
Are we ever really “ready” to care for another? The chasm between best-laid plans and reality often requires the real death of any selfish desires.
Perhaps the most realistic and appropriate way to imagine our role in caring for children (or anyone else) is less the approach of a thoroughly-researched investment and more like a baptism: necessary, sanctifying, and a way we die to our former selves, so that we might enjoy the hope of transformation.
The Incarnation was intentionally physical. Jesus’ entire earthly ministry consisted of modeling what this call of kenosis or self-emptying would look like: healing lepers, washing feet, feeding, curing, embracing, and weeping. Entering into the kind of life that Jesus invites us into, means getting close to the needs of others. Pope Francis famously called this “smelling like sheep,” for our proximity to the ones we know and love.
Like baptism, once this transformation takes hold, it cannot be undone. We are marked, altered, permanently changed.
There is something spectacular about the frenzy of preparation that happens around those welcoming new life. It is palpable anticipation: baby showers, ultrasounds, home visits. We are caught up in imagining the newness, the wonder, and we are gobsmacked by the possibility that we are in any position to participate in bringing about someone who has never been before, and will never be again! “Who authorized this?” we muse.
We read books, change our diets, clean up our language, and put on a fresh coat of paint, all with the hopes of providing a place of welcome with open arms and hearts, to one who is about to change everything.
We believe that the Christ child arrived in the same vulnerable manner and we are invited to create a space to welcome Emmanuel: God with us. In much the same way, people made ready with Mary and Joseph. Friends and neighbors likely brought gifts, came and adored, made meals, and taught Jesus to provide a space of welcoming and thriving. The tradition continues.
Isn’t it like God to offer such a transformational gift with nonchalant humility?
I am convinced that even the most selfless of folks who enter the fray of caregiving—at any stage—quickly realize how monumentally they underestimated the call to put others’ needs above their own. If you need further convincing of this, get to know a family caring for their child or children with special needs.
And yet, putting others’ needs before our own isn’t just part of the job—it is the job.
This is the witness given to us by way of Jesus’ earthly life, and in a particular way through His crucifixion. It is a privilege to enter into this vocation of being other-centered because it is a practice of melding our posture to that of the Lord, who is Love itself.
Resurrection means not being dead anymore: returning to life. Our highest celebration in the Church year is Christ’s victory over death on Easter Sunday. And yet, what morbid grave are we hoping to be saved from by entering into complete care for another?
I suspect it is the death of our self-importance. Of course we are still made in the image and likeness of our Lord and loved beyond measure within that identity. But caretaking and parenting is a participation in our breaking free from self-love out of love for another and being transformed in the process.
To care for the needs of others saves us from ourselves.
Parenthood may not be the vocation by which everyone enters into this transformation. It may be that caring for your infant is only a precursor to caring for the needs of a grandchild, neighbor, or spouse. But at one time or another, perhaps at a time not of our choosing, there will be an invitation to enter into this Mystery.
All that is required from us is a trusting and ready yes.
This week’s sponsor of Mothering Spirit is Verily. Verily was founded in 2012 as the first women’s “no Photoshop” fashion and lifestyle magazine, committed to printing imagery of women as we really are—without digital alternations of our faces and bodies—eschewing narrow, unhealthy, and objectifying standards of beauty. Since then, they’ve continued providing authentic media for women, with style, health, culture stories, and relationship advice that ring true to modern women navigating an ever-challenging world with hearts intact. Use the promo code MOTHERINGSPIRIT10 to get $10 off an annual subscription for you or a friend until the end of December, at verilymag.shop.