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Living the Exclamation Point: Scholarship, and Motherhood, and Role of the Christian Community

By Elizabeth Howard

For me the academic life has been inextricably bound up with motherhood. My second daughter was born less than three weeks after I started my PhD program at the University of Minnesota, and my firstborn decided to arrive two weeks early, just days before I was to defend my master's thesis thereby successfully delaying my graduation by a full semester. My children have also enlivened my research interests and expanded the questions I ask. They care for my colleagues with the pictures they draw and the prattling stories they tell. Their skinned knees and sticky fingers daily remind me that I am so much more than my brain--as have the moments when they accidentally cut up value research documents. 

Navigating motherhood in the academy and the academy as a mother is breathless, sometimes bleary-eyed, and often bewilderingly beautiful. I am, therefore, intrigued by the syntactic metaphor Katelyn Beaty uses to describe the motherhood’s relationship to all sorts of vocations. At the same time that Beaty advocates for women pursing in a wide range of work, she notes the potential complexity that children add: 

“Sometimes motherhood presents itself as a question mark that hangs over a person’s life as she pursues other good work. Sometimes it’s a period that halts other callings and pursuits full stop. Sometimes it’s an exclamation point, a gift of grace that energizes all other endeavors” (A Woman’s Place, 2016).

It is worth adding to Beaty’s description that the same mother might pass through all manner of punctuation marks in the course of a few months or years as she care for her children, but I like the subversive elegance of Beaty’s summary: balancing motherhood with multiple additional vocations is a simple (and, therefore, necessarily as compound and complex) as a sentence.

Now, it is easy to imagine the demands in motherhood that might stop or reconfigure one’s other vocations; the list of a child’s possible needs in a fallen world is, in fact, practically endless. The rhetoric of “seasons of life” is also familiar enough for us to imagine what it might mean for parents to reduce or reconfigure their non-parenting workload when endeavoring to survive the demands of an infant’s schedule or to be home to welcome weary little ones off the bus. Certainly such “stops” or “pauses” for the sake of others are not challenges unique to parenthood but, as Beaty rightly asserts, they are emphatically present in the experience of building, bearing, and raising small humans.

The pace of life as a student-parent that can feel like poetry written in exclusively spondaic feet: a long string of stressed syllables. Unlike the alternating stresses of the ever-popular iambic foot, like Wordsworth’s inspiring lines “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky,” the demands of my call to motherhood and my academic vocation can make my days feel more like a sweaty high-intensity interval training routine and less like verse. But in this essay I want to investigate Beaty’s exclamation point: the moment, Beaty celebrates, when children inspire and spur their mother on to other work.

As a strong advocate for human flourishing, I want to live in this possible world in which children and scholarship thrive with the thriving of the scholar mother, precisely in part because I deeply fear my children and my scholarship competing in a zero-sum-game for scare time and energy resources. In the last five years, as I consider the graces that have made it increasingly possible to live as an exclamation point in Beaty’s punctuation metaphor, I have become utterly convinced that the support of a robust Christian community, and communal Christian living in particular, plays an integral part to children’s capacity to energize the work of their mothers.

In her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf demands that for a woman to succeed as a writer she must, at a minimum, have both social space and economic independence to write. Of course she must. But Woolf’s most sustained, understated demand in the first section of her 1929 essay is that a woman must also have a place, not merely of her own, but one in which she also belongs. When I have taught Woolf’s essay to my writing studies students, their most consistent complaint has been that Woolf’s essay wanders abominably. She announces she wants a room and an income, but, my students complain, she makes her case in a horrible circuitous way, dragging us through a narration of her traipsing about one afternoon, finding cats and being kicked out of libraries. Yes, Woolf’s argument meanders. And that is precisely her point. As essential to Woolf’s success as her income and privacy is the community out of which she writes. The movement of her essay is a performative argument about her additional, fundamental need for context, connections, and the power both provide.

If Woolf’s essay describes the plight of humans generally and women specifically, how much more might this be true for those whose lives are a framed and stretched by smaller lives. I desperately need time away from my children to read and research and write. Such time is incredibly costly, and graduate stipends are small. I have, therefore, relied disproportionately on the community I do life with to survive. But more than that, it has been the church in its smallest enclaves, in its consistent, tenacious tiny groups, that has supported my dual vocation to scholarship and parenthood in such as was as to expand my capacity to research, write, and raise kids. 

Why is the Christian community so powerful in undergirding individuals and multiplying their capacity—in my case as a student with her two children? First because the Christian community, unlike so many others, is received by us, but not built by us. It is inaugurated and realized by Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his moving reflection on the power of communities of Christians living together, “Because God has already laid the only foundation of our community, […] we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, God’s forgiveness, and God’s promise. We do not complain about what Goes does not give us; rather we thank God for what God does give us daily” (Life Together 1938, 28).

Thus, participating in Christian community is an activity of reception not assertion. It is a divine welcome enacted by my fellow followers of Christ who provide me and my children a place out of which to work and rest—to rest and then to give. Academic work demands much time and energy; motherhood, more. Were I not welcome to root myself in a context defined by generosity and gratitude, where could I find the strength to carve out a place for myself when these two roles make me so vulnerable? 

In eight years of marriage, my husband and I lived with others—other grad students, other family members, colleagues, and other members of our larger community—for at least seven of those years. Each of these different communal living contexts have, in unique and varied ways, expanded my capacity for the various kinds of work God has called me to, most especially these recent years when I am exhausted by the physical needs of little bodies and am raw from the mental and psychological demands of the university.

But I am not merely energized in the Christian community because communal Christian living provides a necessary relief from endless days of academic stress and maternal striving. Such a situation would be a far cry from the exclamation-point invigoration Beaty celebrates, and it would only confirm that the combined demand of grad school and children might succeed in undoing me. So while I am buoyed in motherhood and scholarship by welcome of the Christian community, I am further persuaded that, grounded in the context of the Christian community, my children actually do, albeit indirectly, continue to energize my academic and other endeavors.

This spring we have been living abroad as a family in Italy, and my ability to thrive as a mother and student here is once again so closely tied to the other graduate students living in our flat with us and to those who are eating meals with us daily. So far away from all the easy supports back home, I am coming to understand more clearly how motherhood might energize scholarship: when the children themselves are valued as critical members of the community. 

When I care for my children directly, they can and do drain my scarce energy resources. Some mornings I cannot design one more dress-up costume, sit on the couch for another chat about nothing in particular, or make another puppet duck-taped to the back of a pencil. But some days doing precisely those things is a gift to those I am living with. When I watch my children desperately need or compassionately care for other members of our small cadre abroad and then witness these same members of our community turn and care for me, I am experiencing through a powerful, mysterious indirection, my children expanding my capacity. It is in that increased margin that I write another page of my dissertation or an essay like this.

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