Mothering by the Support and Grace of God/dess and Friend Circles
By Laura Stivers.
I don’t often put an image to God/dess, but when I do I see God/dess as a circle of women of all races in multi-colored dresses, swirling around, laughing, and holding up within their circle whomever is in need of their support. I’m not exactly sure when and from where I conceptualized this divine image. Christian feminist theology’s emphasis on embodiment, interrelatedness, diversity, and solidarity was certainly an influence. My ex-husband’s embrace of the Yoruba tradition and its pantheon of strong female orishas, many of them related to nature, might also have contributed to my image. Whatever its roots, I have called on this God/dess circle many times in the past years to embrace and lift up both myself and my daughters as they deal with chronic illness and I try to be there for them.
Both of my daughters look perfectly fit, happy, and healthy. As is true for many people with chronic health issues, their exteriors don’t always match what is going on internally. My older daughter has suffered from extreme intestinal problems from a young age. In addition, she copes with obsessive-compulsive disorder. For years, doctors told us she simply had irritable bowel syndrome, and they often insinuated that her constipation, bloating, and pain were connected to emotional issues. My younger daughter suffers from daily migraines and 3-5 second blackouts, and most recently from anxiety. Additionally, she has a vision impairment that requires accommodations.
A year ago my oldest, at the age of 17, was finally diagnosed with Hirshsprung’s (the bottom part of her colon had no nerve endings to push stool through), and in March 2017 she had four inches of her diseased colon taken out. We had high hopes that after surgery she would be able to go back to school after being out for three years, but continued intestinal issues and major weight loss means that she is missing her senior year of high school.
While parenting isn’t easy for anyone, supporting children with chronic physical and/or mental illness brings its own set of challenges. I can’t count the times I’ve thought, “Just give me a normal teenage issue to deal with instead of chronic illness!”
The hardest aspect of raising children with chronic illness is the helplessness. When my kids are in pain and there are no clear solutions, all I can do is listen. While generally an empathetic mom, the chronic aspect of their issues drains me, and on more occasions that I’d like to admit, I’ve made them feel like they did something to cause their pain, such as blaming my daughter’s problems on her not taking a medication the doctor prescribed. The inability to make my daughters better is also anxiety producing. On the mornings I wake up with knots in my stomach, I try to still my nerves and imagine myself being cradled by the circle of God/desses, but it doesn’t always work.
Another difficulty of raising children with chronic illnesses is finding the balance between letting things go when they are simply too depressed or in pain and cheerleading to keep them going. Wanting to be empathetic when my daughters couldn’t go to school or felt too sick to do homework or chores, I also knew that their illnesses were not temporary and that they would have to learn to plow forward even when they didn’t feel well. I wasn’t always sure when to push or to let up. My daughter’s OCD further complicated things and put best parenting practices to the test. When my kids were young, my mom sent me the book 1-2-3 Magic. The technique sounded so simple until I tried to use it on a child who was battling OCD! I just thought she was stubborn and that I simply didn’t have parental stamina to stand my ground, until I later understood how her brain was obsessively resisting certain things.
Lack of space and time for myself has been still another struggle of raising children with chronic illnesses, compounded by the fact that I’ve raised the girls single-handedly since they were ages 8 and 4. Not being in school and never knowing how she will feel means that my older daughter doesn’t have a group of friends, and my younger daughter needs extra help with reading and writing because of her vision impairment. I always wanted to be a mom, and I see parenting as my most important life job, but I didn’t bargain for the reality of needing to be home as much as possible outside of work.
I rely on my theological belief that I’m given grace to be an imperfect mom who doesn’t always know how best to parent. I need this grace, support, and self-acceptance when the anxiety and impatience get the best of me, when I feel like I am ignoring my daughters’ pain because I literally can’t focus on it 24/7, or when I go to conferences simply to escape and have some friend and party time.
Having studied and taught feminist economic ethics also helps me put my experience into perspective. Our culture does very little to support single mothers, many of whom are raising children with various physical and mental issues. I know I am fortunate to have a supportive family, a good education, and a flexible job with benefits, but even so, I have often felt overwhelmed.
Not only do I call on the circle of God/desses to support my daughters and myself, but my real-life circle of friends has also been crucial to my spiritual and physical wholeness. There is very little my friends can do to make anything better for my daughters, but knowing that they are alright with my broken-record litany of woes, and that they still think I’m fun and worth hanging out with, means the world to me.
My experience of parenting children with health needs has forced me to reframe some of my expectations. I’ve mourned the things we have missed out on: my oldest not having a high school experience; not being able to do as much travel or outdoor activities as we’d like; and my youngest daughter not ever being able to drive. The truth is that all families have their struggles. While our particular issues have put us through the ringer, they have also shaped and defined us in positive ways. Our experience has made us exceptionally close and given us deep empathy for others. We have also come to know and value the importance of interconnectedness; that we rely on the care of family and friends and the grace of the God/desses. May we all have a circle of God/desses and many good friends!
Laura Stivers is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education and Professor of Social Ethics at Dominican University of California. Laura received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She is the author of Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches (Fortress, 2011); Co-author of Earth Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Orbis, 2015) Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Orbis, 2012); and Co-editor of Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World (Westminster John Knox, 2006). For fun, Laura swims, reads novels, and spends as much time as possible in the outdoors.