I met Bromleigh McCleneghan at a Collegeville Institute writing workshop in 2009. That same week I also met Lee Hull Moses. They were close friends working on a book together. We were all writing about parenting and theology and such, which is to say that we could have ended up being all weird and competitive toward each other. Rather, Bromleigh and Lee have become some of my closest friends and colleagues. They did indeed write a book together, and a fantastic one at that. I heartily endorsed Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People with these words:
Moses and McCleneghan have crafted a theology of family that is smart, faithful, and wonderfully expansive. There's a place for the how-to guides that cover the logistics of parenting. But there's also a place for Hopes and Fears, which reflects on the soul of parenting: the top of the bedside stack.
Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of the book. It makes an especially good Mother's Day gift!
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Last weekend, I travelled to St. Paul, MN to spend a few days with one of my best friends. She’s recently relocated to the Midwest from New York, and this change removed the last obstacles of cost and distance that had kept us from an in-the-flesh visit over the past five years.
It was a fantastic weekend; Megan practices hospitality like nobody’s business, and she took me and another friend to the coolest restaurants, the best bookstores, the most interesting local theaters and museums, and the nicest spots for enjoying nature. We drank good beer, and nice wine, and ate long, leisurely meals, and stayed up talking into the night.
As we perused the shops of some trendy neighborhood, countless signs cajoled: “May 11th is Mother’s Day! Pick up something for your Mom!” A few of the displays were of those little gift books on mom-related themes, and coffee mugs and wall hangings pronouncing the owner “World’s Best Mom.” Many were really lovely; good gifts for my mom: eco-friendly household items, antique glass pieces. I texted my husband for his approval of several items. “Would she like the bamboo printed placemats?”
Though we were having a conversation, aided by the many wonders of the digital age, it struck me as strange that I was preparing for this “holiday” – whether one with origins in the nostalgic consumerism of Hallmark, or more nobly reminiscent of Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day for Peace” – several hundred miles away from my own children, from my own home.
This trip was far from the first I’d taken away from my husband and kids: I’d been to see my dying grandfather; been on ordination retreats as a participant, and confirmation retreats as a leader. I’d spent weeks in July in Minnesota, just north of the twin cities, working on my writing and forging collegial ties. I’ve been to California, and Austin, and Atlanta and North Carolina, leaving them behind, for better and worse. I weaned my youngest all in one go one summer; taking my pump with me, and wishing my beloved husband luck. It was remarkably more painful for me; I do not recommend going from five daily feedings to zero overnight. My breasts were huge and rock hard.
This weekend jaunt to see my friends, though, was the first time I had left them for a just-for-fun trip. I was not obligated to go, I just wanted to see my friends.
I got carded a bunch – asked to prove that I was of legal drinking age, and I was floored. This amused me. I am rapidly graying; I have not lost the “baby weight” I gained while carrying my “three year old.” In my mind, I am so obviously a mom. In my mind’s eye, I look like a mom. And not a teen mom, either, but a suburban, thirty-something mom.
But here I was, spending three days attending to a part of myself I don’t spend nearly enough time cultivating. Sharing drinks with women with whom I shared my first drinks ever; sharing a bed with friends I have considered as close as sisters, with whom I shared a bathroom and student housing for years. Talking of travels and love and books and politics and activism and writing and work, revisiting conversations I began with them when we were eighteen and were talking of these things as those just beginning to be adults.
I share all these things with Josh, my husband, and with my biological sisters, and with my friends who are local. But there was something particularly marvelous about seeing them again, about rekindling my love for these dear women, these dear friends.
In the list of identity markers I give, in introducing or describing myself to people, I tend to say “Mother, wife, pastor, writer.” I rarely say friend, though I have worked to cultivate friendships, though I would be lost without them. Why is that, I wonder?
It’s hard for me to hold all these parts of myself together sometimes. I don’t linger over dinner and a bottle of wine very often, because there’s usually a kid or two to go home to. I don’t always know how to talk about my children and my marriage to single friends, or those without kids.
Two things about this weekend were revelatory for me, though: first, my husband and children were happy to have me go. Josh knows I need to care for these other relationships, just as I know he needs (needs. Really.) to be able to talk fantasy football with his friends and give time to those connections. The girls missed me, as I did them, but they got special attention from their dad, a trip to the Frosty Penguin for ice cream on a school night, and a “late-night” adventure to pick me up from the airport. They were also relatively assured there would be a gift coming their way on my return. I didn’t feel guilty about going – and that surprised me. I thought I would feel bad abandoning them. But Josh is a great and fabulously competent parent, and I needed this. Rather than incessant, low-level guilt, I was relaxed and happy.
The second revelation was one uncovered in a book I read on the plane ride up (another joy of traveling alone: time to read interrupted only by easily ignored announcements by flight attendants!). Called In Praise of Love, the book is written by a French philosopher in dialogue with a cultural critic. I’ve been reading a lot about love for months for another project, and I’ve been carting around this slim volume for much of that time; on the ride up I cranked it out. The author, Alain Badiou, reminds readers that love is not simply about identifying with another, but about relating to an Other across difference. We love people who are not us, not the same as us. And that love, if it is really love, will bridge difference and endure trials.
I went up to Saint Paul a little worried. Would we still be friends after so long? Would we still be close, though our lives have gone in some diverging directions? Badiou prompted me to relax, and to remember that love endures across distance and difference. I’m a better mom when I remember this about love, when I am reassured, and can reassure my family about its truth. I can remind my children that I will always love them, even when I take a short trip away from them. My husband can show his love for me, by caring for our kids so I can have some time and space. My friends and I can still share love, even though things haven’t gone the way we once imagined. This is maybe what makes us a Christian family, the reminder that love is available in abundance, and is meant to be shared, in our little nuclear family, and beyond.
I’m still needling for a kid-designed card, and a husband-purchased bouquet come Sunday, but really, they’d be icing on the cake. This weekend was the best Mother’s Day gift ever.
After serving two United Methodist churches outside Chicago, and being ordained an Elder along the way, Bromleigh McCleneghan recently began as the Associate for Congregational Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She is a graduate of Boston University and the U of C. She and her husband Josh have two daughters, Fiona and Calliope.
(Don't forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People.)