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Mother as Steward

by Catherine Malotky

I punched in my password. “Mom,” the recording said. “Sorry I missed your calls this weekend. I was really busy, but I’m around evenings this week. Try again. I’d love to talk to you.” She is 1,400 miles away, going to grad school, preparing for the life ahead of her. She is cooking, and studying, and taking care of her cat. Her cat, not ours. I do not have a key to her apartment.

A text message flashes on my phone. “Mom. It’s a go on the 11th. Let’s do it!” She is 15 miles away, living with her true love, married now almost two years, starting the slow process of making a house a home. She is well into a job she finally landed and loves. She teaches Sunday school and is on the church council. We sometimes watch her dog, and she sometimes watches ours. Her dog. Our dog. Not the same.

These are the daughters I am privileged to walk with, the daughters whose lives are an unfolding miracle, whose love I do not take for granted after the chill of high school vibes (necessary but tough). Back then, their teachers told me how funny and interesting these same daughters were. I asked them to tell me more since these “funny and interesting” daughters did not come home to me. I knew they would someday, and the teachers’ brief stories enabled my patience.

Of course, part of the problem was me. Waves of anxiety would wash over me, worried that they would not know how to do their laundry, or in times of particular vulnerability, a gnawing fear that they would do something in an impulsive moment that would damage their future in some irretrievable way. I could not bear the thought of losing them, or, should they live, of suffering with them for a lifetime.

No wonder, then, that we clashed on occasion. Their job was to grow up, to leave me and my hovering. Their job was to sever the metaphorical umbilical cord that still tied us, to find their own sourc- es of nourishment and their own ways of disposing of the waste that sloughs off life as we make our way through it. The importance of my bloodstream began shrinking at their birth, when the literal umbilical cord that linked us was cut.  (back to top)

 Learning to Release

 Our lives as parents are all about letting go. I speak as a mother of daughters, but their father would have his own angle. I watched him grieve and overcompensate in his own way when they were working their way out of our home and daily embrace. My sisters confirm a similar journey with their sons. I have given witness to my experience with new parents. The first nine months our babies sheltered inside. The next three are as intense but happen outside the womb. These 12 months are all about bonding. Then we spend the rest of our children’s lives trying to release them.

So, when I read about Hannah, whose yearning for a child was so deep and desperate, I wonder how she could let go of her first child as soon as he was weaned. How could she release him to the high priest? As she turned him over to Eli, she said, “…I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’ She left him there for the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:27–28).

Hannah was extraordinary, to be sure, but contemporary women give up their children, too. What kind of courage does it take for a teen to give up her baby, with hopes that adoption might bring a better life for them both? And what kind of courage does it take to live with this decision for a lifetime?

A friend was the son of missionaries. He grew up at boarding school, away from them much of the year for the sake of his education. This was my father’s story in some ways. His father was a pastor in northern Minnesota. One fall, my grandparents drove their 12-year- old son to school in the Twin Cities, miles and miles away from home, so that he could begin the long path to ordination. My grandmother said she looked out the car’s back window at that little boy waving as they drove away and wondered, “Now, how will this go?”

A surprising number of us have had to let children go too soon. Death changes hopes and dreams, whether it happens within days of conception, or to children fully grown. We are not supposed to bury our children. Though it is consoling that God welcomes them into an eternity of love, it is not enough, especially at first. This letting go is visceral, primal, physical.

We are the parents of three daughters, one of whom died after a mere eight weeks. The chaplain in the emergency room asked us whether we had thought of a funeral home that might take her body. Overwhelmed with shock and grief, I responded, “We are not yet done with midwives! How could we have thought of a funeral home?”  (back to top)

Claiming the waters of baptism

Some of us, like Hannah, are robbed of parenthood even before we’ve begun. This is a letting go, too. Monthly disappointment. Tests. Interventions. Infertility treatment has made tremendous strides, but, for those who long for children, the threat to this dream and/or its loss shapes so much of the view ahead.

Hannah eventually had her son, and subsequent children, but there are those who never conceive, those who must release even the dream.

The truth of it is, our children, whether more than a hope or not, whether biological or not, were never truly ours alone. We confess this in baptism, when we publically name them children of God. Like Hannah, who consecrated her son to the God who had heard her prayers, we offer ours back to God in baptism. We name the dangers before us all, sloshing water that can so quickly snuff out a life. We also claim that water—which once protected us in the womb—washes us for rebirth to life in Christ’s love. We do this in public, but it has been true all along. These children of ours are an expression of God’s imagination. We are their stewards.

Perhaps this is the unique burden of being a parent. Our culture and the legacy of our economic systems speak of our children as our own. We have financial responsibility. We are expected to nurture their minds and their bodies, to provide a home, safety, and love. We agonize with them when they are new. Feeding enough? Warm enough? Loved enough? It is so clear this child is helpless without us!

Ironically, the rewards we wait for and celebrate—first smile, first word, first steps—are also that child’s first departure from us. Those smiles will charm others in addition to you and someday will win the heart of a life partner. Those words will become a path into the hearts and minds of friends and co-workers, opening a world of independence and self-sufficiency. Those first steps will someday lead to a school bus, and then a graduation, and then a morning commute.  (back to top)

Remembering to be a steward

We are stewards of our children, as we are stewards of our selves. They are lent to us, as we are to them. Today, I watched a son speak of his father at his funeral. This man, a saint by all rights, is now dead, no longer an aging burden to his children (though they did not think of him in this way). His love and affection is a memory now, rich and lively, but a memory. His children will now learn to live without his presence.

There is a parallel here. If we are stewards of our children’s lives, then we must let them go. In fact, that is the whole point. Those days of profound dependency will one day be in memory only, told in stories of socks left scattered, or a late-night rescue when the gas tank was drained. But there will emerge a day when we realize that they are on their own now, and our stewardship is more about encouragement than direction.

When my daughters were preparing to leave for college, I was bereft. I could not imagine life without them in our home. I wept as we drove away from the dorm building of the first daughter to leave. I struggled to breathe evenly when we walked out of the newly settled dorm room of the second. I could not imagine life without them.

Now I can remember them being with me daily, but it is right that they are not. Now I am blessed by a broader vision of their lives.

I can see them interacting with others who mean a great deal to them, others who will be with them when I am gone. Those smiles, those words, those steps are propelling them into a life I am privileged to watch and admire. Were I to hang on tight, I could not see this—nor feel any assurance that they will go on quite well without me when that day comes.  (back to top)

Walking with them

Even more powerful than my own interests, I can see my daughters interacting with the world, contributing to the common good, flexing their gifts on behalf of others. This is their calling as baptized ones, as it is mine. With wonder, I can ask, “Who has God created here? What gifts? What passions? What hopes?” Perhaps this is some of what Hannah saw in her vision of Samuel’s future. Perhaps this made it easier for her to release him to God’s service. In her prayer, she imagined the power of God in him, an imagination that would one day also fill Mary, the mother of Jesus (1 Samuel 2:1–10 and Luke 1:46–55).

With all this noble talk of callings and stewarding, I am comforted by a small detail near the end of Hannah’s story. Each year, Hannah made Samuel a little robe, and brought it to him when she went up with her husband to Shiloh to offer the yearly sacrifice. He was but a boy wearing a ceremonial linen ephod, (garment) in 1 Samuel 2:18–20. Where others saw a priest in the making, Hannah also saw her son. Like Mary, who whispered to Jesus at the wedding in Cana that the wine had run out, Hannah, even at a distance, shared an intimacy with Samuel.

My mother has said that her mothering never ends. I know this now in ways I could not when my daughters were young. I have released them to the world, but they will always be my daughters. A care package here, a late-night phone call there, the night watch when they are sleep deprived with a newborn, a prayer for their protection as I fall asleep. It is my stewardship of these gifts. I am so honored to be their mother, and grateful to God for the privilege of walking with them.

The Rev. Catherine Malotky, an ELCA pastor, serves at Luther Seminary as a philanthropic adviser. She has served as a parish pastor, editor, teacher, and retreat leader.

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