My career as a stay-at-home-dad started when Lisa was due to begin her medical residency. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a physician-in-training to take in-house call every fourth night. On one of those nights, a resident would consider herself lucky to get three hours of sleep. After working this thirty-six hour shift, Lisa would come home and flop into bed. The next morning, she would wake up, drink stout coffee, and begin her usual ten-hour workday at the hospital. Three days later, she would repeat this cycle by taking another turn on call.
At the time, our oldest daughter, Annalise, was three years old, and John Harry, our second born, was a roly-poly nine-month old (Lizzie would come to us four years later after medical training). The expense of daycare, and the things that I had learned in graduate school about attachment theory led us to the conclusion that I should prune back my career to get these little humans off to a good start.
The next thing you know, I had traded my briefcase for a backpack. At our library’s story hour, in swimming classes, at the playground, and at the dreaded crafts table, I was the lone male bobbing conspicuously in a sea of estrogen.
I have worked many jobs in my life. I was a grounds keeper at the Illinois State Capitol. I drove a coffee delivery truck. I sold shoes in stores for men, and then women. I bagged groceries. I flipped burgers. I provided maintenance for a hotel and a grade school. I landscaped, mowed lawns, pumped gas, and waited tables. I counseled drug addicted, law-breaking adolescents. I managed volunteers, and employees. I have constructed and directed retreats, and trainings in many places. I was a door-to-door evangelizer for one summer. I have counseled, thousands of people. “What,” you might ask, “has been your most challenging job?” Hands down…stay-at-home parenting
It wasn’t the mastery of the eclectic array of skills that I found especially difficult. It was the day-in-day-out lack of measurable productivity that I found demoralizing. Many days I remember looking around a disheveled house and asking myself, “What did I do all day?” I remembered a wise old spiritual director who once told me that until a person reaches the age of fifty, he or she should probably steer clear of providing spiritual direction. He believed that until a spiritual director had reached the threshold of fifty years, the youthful needs for measurability and productivity would rob the director of the necessary patience it takes to appreciate the quiet and subtle movements of God’s grace in a client, or protégée. I’m over fifty now. Yet I still find that I’m waiting for the compulsion toward measurability to recede. Some temptations are more tenacious than others.
The Gospel selection for the First Sunday of Lent in my religious tradition told the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4: 1-11). In this account, Satan kept asking him to provide measurable demonstrations of his power. Jesus resisted these temptations to measure out His kingdom by these yardsticks. Rather, he remained in the desert in immeasurable intimacy with God.
In my career as a parent, I have found it difficult to follow this lead. My temptation has been to give myself over to what is measurable, while forsaking the important work, which is not. Back in the day, when I was at home with small children, I discovered that it was easy to obsess over keeping the house clean, and the meals flashy. A clean bathroom or kitchen could be measured. When people bit into one of my culinary creations they would say complimentary things. But the really important work had little to do with productivity. Wasting time with a child, or with my spouse was actually not a waste at all. It built an underground fund of attachment that would provide a fundamental trust in themselves and the world.
Here at the outset of Lent, could you consider choosing a spiritual exercise that is in keeping with this Sunday’s Gospel? If you are a parent, could you set aside a screen-free, half-an-hour a week to hang out with each of your kids? Let them set the agenda and the pace. Could your Lenten discipline involve carving out time for screen-free conversation with your spouse? Let your motto be, “Less to be understood than to understand.” Can you select something that helps you to wrestle with the notion that a clean room, or a fat bank account are not pre-requisites for God’s love? If you are single, is there a neglected relationship that could use more presence? Can you enter into this season with a firm resolve to waste time with a God who is like a really good mom or dad who doesn’t care if things are a little out of place? Will you allow yourself to embrace the truly shocking notion that God’s love for you is immeasurable?