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On Mother’s Day, and the Dark Night of the Soul: An Atypical Tribute

Four years into my experiment in mothering, I’ve read a sizeable number of reflections upon parenting, ranging in nature from poetic to cautionary, from political to humorous. I’ve found the poetic and humorous most useful for maintaining perspective on the whole. (Though, admittedly, my mind turns to the humorous more often than the poetic—likely because humor is in greater demand when one’s two-year-old smears fecal matter all over the floor as one is rushing to leave for a wedding… or when one’s three-year-old asks a non-pregnant woman in line at Kroger if she “has a baby in her belly”… and on other such occasions in mothering.)

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I thus find it somewhat regrettable that this post, written in view of Mother’s Day, is neither poetic nor humorous. I am glad, however, that it speaks of challenges with which I’ve lately been wrestling which are not unique to mothering, nor even to parenting—even if they are challenges with which my experience as a mother is very much intertwined. By offering an account of them, I hope to carve out a bit of that precious “perspective,” not only on the duties of parenting, but on certain trials of faith as well.

*          *          *

This past November I completed the long process of earning a Ph.D. in Theological Studies. In January, I joined ranks at Lipscomb University as an assistant professor of theology. I have a husband who believes in me fiercely, and a couple of fantastic kids. If you knew me only by way of social media channels, you could presume that I had blissfully moved from the satisfaction of finishing a degree program to the satisfaction afforded by a meaningful, hard-come-by professional position, surrounded by a loving family and supportive community.  

The truth is more complicated.

On the one hand, I have not ceased to feel sincerely grateful that I survived the Ph.D. process, or that I landed an academic job in a department whose mission I believe in, and wherein I’ve been warmly welcomed by the finest sorts of people. And, however predictably my husband, kids and I all drive each other nuts, I regularly marvel at the gift of their being in my life.    

On the other hand, over the past year or so, I’ve repeatedly come up against the sheer limits of physical exhaustion. I’ve had moments of despairing over the sense that I don’t have what it takes to be an intentional mother, spouse, teacher, and scholar (let alone friend, church member, civic member, etc.; not to mention “self-care”). I don’t know what it would take for me to do it all in a manner I deem “good enough”; I just know it ain’t happenin’.

When I vent these anxieties to my friends, I’m consistently reminded that most people feel a similar sense of harried-ness—even if they don’t have any dependents, or even if one spouse works in the home, or even if their children are basically grown. To summarize it as would any red-blooded millennial: “Adulting is hard.” Sure, there are varying levels of strain, and—as social analysts consistently point out—mothers in the workforce are usually saddled with concerns that working fathers do not bear.[1] But the point is that most of us regularly grapple with not being able to “do it all” as we navigate our over-scheduled lives.

In view of that truth, I realize that what’s been different lately—what’s really made me question my choices—is my worry that the stress has suffocated my spiritual life. It’s not just that I find God’s voice muffled by the dull roar of demands and fatigue. It’s that, in teaching Christian theology, I talk about sacred things…and lately I’ve been keeping to a script to which I assent intellectually, but I feel very little when I profess it. I regularly pray that those feelings will come back to me, but those prayers are mostly answered by continued aridity.

I recently confessed this to a colleague and dear friend, emphasizing my fear that I won’t be a good mother or teacher in this sort of desolate spiritual shape. In responding, he had the wisdom to say, “I sometimes think parenting brings you into a forced ‘dark night of the soul’.”  

That comment stuck with me. It inspired me to dust off my copy of the 16th-century classic on mystical experience, The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross (written as part of his longer work, the Ascent of Mount Carmel). In reading it, I’ve realized that my friend’s feedback is insightful on several fronts, not only for strung-out parents, but for any who stumble into long bouts of “unfeeling faith-commitment” as I have. I’ll briefly mention two points I’ve found most helpful.

While many religious types will describe an episode of intense sadness and doubt as a “dark night of the soul,” it’s worth noting that St. John of the Cross writes about this experience specifically as a stage in one’s spiritual development—an advanced stage, in fact, involving a painful “purgation” of one’s faculties in movement towards mystical union with God.

This brings me to my first point: in honestly reading the text, I know I have far to go before reaching this advanced point in my own development; nevertheless, I can identify with St. John’s description of what the “sorrowful soul feels most in this condition,” which is “feeling itself to be without God” (Book II, Chapter VI). Situating that experience within the framework of spiritual purgation helps me to evaluate my present pain as a meaningful occasion of liberation from attachments—including attachment to the emotional energy I’ve previously found in my faith journey—rather than hastily reading it as signaling spiritual regression or some depressive disorder.[2] 

   
  
   
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    Lauren Smelser White is Assistant Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville. She very recently completed a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University (she officially graduates this Friday, in fact). Lauren also holds the titles of M.T.S. (Vanderbilt, 2010), M.A. (Abilene Christian University, 2006), B.A. (Harding University, 2004), wife, mama, fruit-snack-distributer, nose wiper, and Netflix connoisseur. You can keep up with her on Instagram  @laurnsmlsrwhite  and on  Facebook , where you can be sure she will not flood your feed with much content. Photo credit Stephen Jerkins.

Lauren Smelser White is Assistant Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville. She very recently completed a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University (she officially graduates this Friday, in fact). Lauren also holds the titles of M.T.S. (Vanderbilt, 2010), M.A. (Abilene Christian University, 2006), B.A. (Harding University, 2004), wife, mama, fruit-snack-distributer, nose wiper, and Netflix connoisseur. You can keep up with her on Instagram @laurnsmlsrwhite and on Facebook, where you can be sure she will not flood your feed with much content. Photo credit Stephen Jerkins.

Second, this frees me to frame dry, intellectual assent to Christian teaching as a fruit of the Spirit rather than as indication that I’m a fraud. Rather than conflating my mood with the quality of my faith, I am compelled to recognize faithfulness for what it is: sticking with something one accepts as right, regardless of one’s changing emotional states.

Much of the time, this is what mothering calls me to as well. My passion for parenting doesn’t matter to my children. They care about my being true to my word—that I follow through on claims that “I’ll be there in a second,” that “we’ll play once I finish this email.” They care about my full attention, my patience, my imagination.   

Perhaps episodes of profound disorientation are necessary to move us towards a transfigured vision, or to call us to a vision we once had. We can all recall how time felt when we were children: like a giant canvas, stretching out with infinite possibilities. During our adult days, time can feel more a series of canvases piling atop one another, upon which we’re haphazardly scribbling content in an attempt to write out “life” as we intend it to be. Lately I’ve been recognizing that the moments shared with my kids which so easily feel to me like those compiling frames—commute time, meal time, story time—are received by them as if marks upon a giant canvas. I feel sure that their perception is closer to the truth. And I am called to accepting my limits as catalysts for perceiving the grace of the everyday.

 

[1] See, for instance, this article: https://www.npr.org/2012/04/20/150967376/working-moms-challenges-paid-leave-child-care

[2] I say this in full respect for the gravity of clinical depression. I only mean that I recognize how quickly I can “medicalize” my own sadness, and that I’ve come to find value in considering what might distinguish depression from a “dark night of the soul.”

 


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Lauren Smelser White

Nashville, TN