Kids go to school and learn things like geometry and the Magna Carta and chromosomes and similes and square roots and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but none of their textbooks has much to say about parenting.
If educators and the American society that hires them ever see the light and recognize the need for children to learn how to grow up and take care of children, one of the first textbooks in the classroom should be Barbara Mahany’s new Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving.
Consider this insight about what it means to take on the job of mothering a child:
Motherhood is not for the faint of heart, and the heart needs to triple its size, so it seems, to pack in the requisite vast and infinite wisdom — and patience and sheer calculation and imagination and stamina and worry and second-guessing and, yes, full-throttle pangs of remorse when we get it wrong, time after time.
Yes, we, parents, do get it wrong a lot, but it’s not for want of trying. Motherprayer is a primer on how to think about being a parent, and that’s what’s really important.
It’s not a manual for how to raise the brightest or the most athletic or most successful or whatever kids. In fact, it’s not really about kids, not directly. It’s about how to approach the job of parenting in a way that enables you to tap into the full richness of the experience — and be as present to your kids as they need you to be; to be, as much as possible, the parent they need; to be there.
I know the book is titled Motherprayer, but it’s about the vocation of every parent.
Indeed, Barbara, a friend of mine, writes that she has always been uncomfortable with the idea of Mother’s Day, wishing that it would be called instead Mother-ing Day.
Because, well, lots of people of all different sorts provide children with the care — long-term, short-term, momentary — that helps them on their road to adulthood. Even men. (Is fathering that different from mothering? I think not.) Barbara writes:
Not just those who know what it is to have pushed the burning bulge as if your life depended on it. And not just those who’ve signed their name on someone’s bottom line. Or stepped in without official papers….
Yes, every last someone who has stroked a brow, wiped a tear, dabbed chocolate off a little cheek, fluffed a pillow, tucked in the covers, whispered bedtime prayers, set an extra place at the table, stretched a meat loaf, picked the peas out of the pasta salad, kissed a bloody knee, kept a retching tot from falling in the toilet bowl.
So, yeah, Barbara does focus on her experience as a mother, and, yeah, many of the things she describes are stereotypically maternal.
But, guys, this book is for us, too.
“If we pay attention”
One other point: That word “prayer” in the title may scare off some potential readers, female and male. Don’t let it.
We live in a secular age when many of the smartest among us tell us that religion and the belief in God is nothing but superstition. But even the smartest among us will learn something from Barbara, even non-believers.
Consider her chapter on prayer, “The Cradle That Is Prayer.” She writes about how prayer has helped her through the many daunting days of being a parent, and explains that, for her, prayer isn’t simply those rote prayers most believers are taught as children.
For her, prayer isn’t just words, but also actions, such as baking a cake, or wiping a snotty nose. These can be dismissed as mundane, but there’s also a way of seeing such actions as mystical. Barbara writes:
Prayer, if we pay attention, if we deepen, breaks out of linguistic binds. Takes flight. Bores deep. It’s free-form verse. As near as our next breath. I’ve come to believe that prayer — the prayer I love best — is the practice of paying attention.
Think about that. “Prayer…is the practice of paying attention.” So, for Barbara, is living — and parenting.
Paying attention means being present — being present and aware and involved with what is happening around you. As a parent, it means being present and aware and involved with your kids. It means seeing your kids and listening to your kids in a deep, clear manner. Not teaching — although there are times to teach — but listening, hearing them, hearing their questions (without having to give answers right away or maybe never), hearing their hopes and visions and insights. Barbara writes:
One of the breathtaking truths of motherhood is that you’ve got a rare, front-row seat on the naked work of growing up and learning to be brave.
In a chapter titled, “The Hours That Matter the Most,” she looks at the importance of listening and hearing — and keeping quiet. During the hours when her boys were wanting to talk, “those holy hours,” she writes:
The boys I love are sifting through their own hearts, laying their troubles on my chest, at my heart. They are trusting not my mouth but my ears.
Just listen, you can hear them hoping.
Just hear all my words, spoken and not.
Just listening alone will heal, will soothe, go a long way toward fixing.
Anyone who has done any amount of parenting — but especially anyone who has watched a baby grow into a toddler and into a preschooler and into a teenager and into a young adult — knows how fleeting childhood is.
This four-year-old girl in front of you with the ratty hair and the pink Minnie Mouse shirt will be a school teacher before you know it. Barbara knows how that happens, and so she writes about paying attention to each of her two sons all the way along their journey of growing up. She writes:
So, right now, and right here, I have every intention of cupping it all in the palm of my hand. Like sweet and cool waters, there at the edge of the stream on a day that’s unbearably dry.
I’ll suck it all up, every last drop before it slithers away, slips through my fingers and back to the stream, where it rushes away.
I won’t get it again. This water comes once, comes in a rush that at first feels too much, too hard to swallow, even in gulps. But then, as it goes, as it trickles away, down your wrists, down your arms, back to the stream, you feel, already, that parch in your throat.
A parent drinks up such moments, yes, because there will be a time when the child is no longer a child. Even more, though, the parent drinks up such moments because this moment in life with this child is precious, as precious as every other moment in life, and to be recognized as such.
It’s hard with all the distractions of life, as Barbara notes. But this is what it means to be a parent. To listen. To see. To pay attention. To show up.
“Life lived at attention”
Like sitting, quietly, maybe silently at the kitchen table with your child over cinnamon toast as an after-school snack.
Barbara, as a believing Catholic, sees this sort of moment as a touch of the divine, but you don’t have to subscribe to any belief system or to the existence of a God to know that the moment is sacred. She writes:
It is grace gathering, pure and simple.
And its holiest spark is how it comes, cloaked in the plainest cloth. Doesn’t come at your blinking and beeping and flashing bright lights. You just lay down a footstep and find that you’ve entered compartments of grace….
Grace is balm for the soul…Grace is the prayer beads we string in a row. The rosary of life lived at attention. It’s the layer of the soul tied to Divine.
And it comes unannounced every time.
Barbara notes that her children bring her “grace by the gallon.”
No parent paying attention would dispute that.
Patrick T. Reardon