A lifelong evangelical, I once believed that daily quiet time dialed the only number God answers. In urban ministry as a young adult, I came to see the active life of service as another spiritual practice. My current church, a postmodern "emergent" congregation, encourages ancient Christian spiritual disciplines such as contemplative prayer and lectio divina. My faith has been enriched through these diverse practices, but they have never replaced my quiet times with God.

Becoming a mother, however, ruined my ability to be disciplined about spirituality. As I write this, my twins are two months old, and my initial sense of life with children is that everything is going to be rearranged, including the way I seek intimacy with God.

Spiritual disciplines that have been important to me are no longer possible, at least not in these early months of my babies' lives. I could only walk a labyrinth if its paths were wide enough for my double stroller. Anything approaching silence or solitude puts me to much-needed sleep. Pilgrimage? Only if I could bring along a pack-n-play, diaper bag, and washing machine. Even church gatherings have been crossed off the family calendar, because our boys were born prematurely and must avoid crowds for a while.

Many of the spiritual disciplines were developed by monastics who valued regularity and solitude; words like order and rule describe them. Family life, while no less holy than monastic life, makes consistent order impossible. The wild rhythm of parenting persuades me that monastic life cannot provide the only model for spiritual discipline. In fact, some seasons of life may be better suited to spiritual undiscipline. In contrast to the stability of monasticism, motherhood offers a catch-as-catch-can spirituality. I'm doing just that, and I'm catching more than I thought possible.

Spiritual Indulgence

Though breastfeeding will never be considered a standard spiritual practice, it's the most disciplined thing I've ever done. The boys have been taking their meals every three hours, around the clock, for nine weeks. That's about a thousand feedings so far. In these early weeks of my boys' lives, I don't meet with friends for prayer, read devotional books, or enjoy quiet times. Breastfeeding is my daily office, giving structure to my spiritual life.

This spirituality is not ascetic. Many say that spirituality is about denying the flesh, but nursing moms like me indulge it. Along with my babies, I like the softness of blankets and bodies. I sniff my boys' scents and stroke their backs while they nurse. I encourage them to stuff themselves and become plump. I, too, eat as much as I please, packing in calories to maintain my milk supply. In an attempt to deny himself and seek God, the desert father Simon the Stylite lived on a small platform high in the sky for decades, reputedly subsisting on water and grass. In contrast to this asceticism, my boys and I revel in the comforts of life: milk, warmth, sleep, and touch. Feeding babies is a reminder to indulge the senses, to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8).

Article continues below

Though his spiritual practice was unusual and mine is mundane, both Simon the Stylite and I observe self-denial, a virtue that is just one side of a coin. Motherhood requires a daily denial of good things I once considered essential: adequate sleep, uninterrupted reading time, and leisurely meals, to name just a few. Desert fathers spoke of crushing sin through rigorous self-denial. But for women raised to be caretakers, self-denial can be all too easy and even harmful. Social and family expectations often result in women negating the self before they've even formed a self. Over time, such warped self-denial leads to jealousy, anger, and manipulation as women assert their squished selves in any which way.

Though babies require me to practice self-denial, I also insist on self-care. Asking for help every day—and at this point, I can't make it through even eight hours solo—is at least as difficult as self-denial. I'm beginning to see it as a spiritual practice. Like many evangelical girls, I was raised for domestic labor, raised to be a cheerful giver and never a taker. In the colicky evening hours, however, when two babies are crying at the same time and I'm beginning to cry myself, I just can't do it all. Asking for help, both when I'm at my wit's end and when I just want a break, preserves my health and strengthens my community. It draws my husband into the inner circle of baby care, a sanctum from which dads too often are excluded. It brings friends and family members into my babies' lives in meaningful ways. And it allows me to snatch some sleep—and occasionally even a walk or a shower. Self-care is the inverse of asceticism, but it may be a feminine counterpoint to pride-crushing self-denial. When done for the right reasons, both self-denial and self-care are sanctifying.

Article continues below
Women's Work

The spiritual value of women's work has been given little credence in Western Christianity. As in ancient Greece, men are still often seen as more capable of sustained philosophical and theological reflection, while women are tied to earth in the messy physical work of childbearing and raising. In Breathing Space, Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark describes her friend's first interview with a church committee. Members of the committee were concerned that the woman's mothering would get in the way of her pastoring. The candidate's reproductive giftedness was cast in competitive terms against her spiritual giftedness, and the church wanted only the spiritual goods.

If this spirit-body dualism were true, then mothers of babies and young children would have to put their spiritual growth on hold until they were able to seek God in quiet study, silent prayer, and uninterrupted conversation. For their part, male theologians and pastors would also have to maintain a false separation of family life from spiritual life. Augustine, for instance, left us to speculate about how his experience of fatherhood fit with his theology of women. Though the tradition of elevating the esoteric over the experiential continues, parenting offers both women and men an opportunity to integrate living their faith with thinking and speaking of it.

I've been influenced by the dualist tradition enough to fear it's true. But when I look down at my suckling sons, there's no doubt in my mind that this is holy work. In contrast to her friend's experience, Neumark was interviewed by an inner-city Puerto Rican church committee. They also asked questions about mothering and pastoring, but with a tone of anticipation instead of anxiety: "'Pastor, when are you and Gregorio going to start a family?' Instead of seeing pregnancy and childbirth as inconveniences and obstacles to job performance, they considered motherhood a natural and joyful part of life that they hoped I would share." Church folk got what they asked for: concurrent opportunities to receive Neumark's leadership and to support her through pregnancies and early motherhood.

Mothering teaches me that spirituality is not only about folding hands and closing eyes. As my daily life has become more physical and immediate, so has my experience of God. My favorite undiscipline, nursing, offers me reason to sit in a glider rocker for eight hours a day, one or another babe at breast. This sitting—a meditation of sorts—encourages generosity and patience that I hope will bless my sons and others I encounter. Changing a hundred diapers each week cultivates endurance; crankiness can nurture quick forgiveness; exhaustion calls for humility and community. And, best of all, babies themselves provide unlimited chances to live in gratitude and joy. Practicing conventional disciplines, when we're able, prepares us to simply practice the presence of God—to borrow a phrase from Brother Lawrence—in seasons of life filled with disorder.

Article continues below

The Benedictine rule describes its purpose as "seeking the grace of God with the help of many brothers." As a married woman with children, my spirituality looks little like that of a monk, but I seek the same grace. I do it with the help of two wee brothers, Oliver and Wesley. And though the life of my spirit as I've known it is impoverished, I feel rich. I'll see a spiritual director, read the Psalms, and enjoy solitude again as soon as I get the chance. For now, I'm practicing the spiritual undisciplines.

Jenell Williams Paris's twins are now 23 months old. These reflections were written 2 months after their birth. Paris is associate professor of anthropology at Bethel University and the author of Urban Disciples (Judson, 2000) and Birth Control for Christians (Baker, 2003).

Related Elsewhere:

Paris has more information about herself at her Bethel University page. She blogs at The Paris Project, Parisbabies, and the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank.
She wrote more about motherhood in The Morning News.

Previous articles by Jenell Williams Paris include:

When Mother's Day Is Hard | Taking solace in Scripture's difficult and unsentimental image of motherhood. (May 1, 2004)
Has Natural Birth Control Been Proved Impossible? | "Don't believe the media reports, cautions the author of Birth Control for Christians" (July 1, 2003)
Community and Conscience | Catholics and contraception. (Books & Culture, May/June 2005)
The Truth About Sex | Even Christians get seduced by the sexual lies our culture proclaims (November 12, 2002)
Sex Ed. For Adults | God-given longings in a broken world. (Books & Culture, September 1, 2004)
Beyond Integration | Two recent books on race (Re:generation Quarterly, July 1, 2000)
Why I No Longer Live in a Community (Re:generation Quarterly, April 1, 1999)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.