The day I received Catherine McNiel’s new book, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline, I was too tired to even open the package. I already read tons of books on parenting and spiritual disciplines, and I didn’t think this would be much different. I didn’t have it in me to read a couple hundred more pages of obligations and aspirations.
Several long days later I slit open the package and skimmed the table of contents. It included Eating, Menstruation, Sex, and Sleeping. Hmm. Those are not the regular spiritual disciplines I keep trying to practice (like Silence, Service, Secrecy, Prayer). Those are things I already do. Intrigued, I excused myself from family movie night, grabbed my take-out sushi and hot tea, snuck upstairs, and started reading.
A few hours later I finished the book. The pages were marked with underlines, circles, arrows, and notes. The edges of my sleeves were wet from my tears. I felt understood. I felt empowered. I felt respected and valuable as a woman and a mother. I wrote the author that night to tell her that her words were already healing my weary heart, specifically in the areas of calling, femininity, order, and perfectionism.
I’ve been a mother for 13 years, and I struggle with the noisy, anonymous, labor-intensive costs of this calling. I compare myself to women who seem to do so much more. I compare myself to spiritual and corporate leaders who bring epic glory to God in world-changing ways. Catherine offers an alternative in the first chapter called Redemption,
“Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a name for people in this predicament: householders. Recognizing that people can’t just up and leave their spouses or children, these religions give householders a different set of expectations. Rather than become meditating monks, studying under gurus and wandering alone through the forest, householders are asked, for now, simply to be faithful in responsibility.” (p. 9)
Maybe instead of my comparison, envy, fatigue, and shame, I could revel in this season of holding up my house? Maybe that would be good enough? She had my full attention already in the first chapter.
With Menstruation and Breastfeeding in the table of contents I knew that meant we were going to talk about our bodies. That made me edgy. Having a woman’s body has made it harder for me at work. I know in this post-feminist age I’m supposed to feel empowered, equal, and important wherever I go. But I often don’t. I’ve been sexually harassed, ogled, and touched by inappropriate men. I’ve been discredited and dismissed in corporate and Christian places because I was a woman, the person God made me to be.
Sadly, my body made it hard for me to be a mother, too. In my long season of infertility my (male) doctors rhetorically asked, “What’s wrong with your body?” as I lay prone in the stirrups. When it came time to deliver my long-awaited twins the (male) doctor scoffed, “You don’t even know how to push? Your body is supposed to know how to do this.” When I tried to nurse my preemies in the NICU the earnest lactation specialist pleaded, “Just relax, your body knows what to do” as she held my hurting breasts in her hands. I felt shame constantly. Why did God make me this way?
But Catherine’s chapter on Creation reminded me “creation is a sacred center of being female” (p.36). I had somehow forgotten, despite my stretch marks and the baby pictures around the house, my body grew three babies. And then my body made milk to feed those babies. In those things I was mirroring the God who creates and nourishes. Catherine shows us how God did those uniquely feminine acts in the very beginning of the Bible:
“In the first two verses of Genesis, God – in Hebrew the grammatically masculine Elohim – is about to begin creating. Meanwhile, Ruach is hovering over the waters. Can you imagine it? That silent moment before it all begins, and God’s breath of life is ready. Elohim about to command, Ruach hovering as a mother bird prepared to receive and shelter her soon-born offspring. These metaphoric images are deeply evocative of the moment of creation.” (p. 43)
How incredible. My strong, sweet, dedicated husband literally cannot bear, birth, and nurse a child. Only a woman can do that. I did that. And when I form, feed, and grow my children I am like the Lord. Amazing.
Now that I have my children one of my greatest challenges as a householder, a mother, is keeping order. I’m also sensory averse to things that are sticky and smelly, so I’m always buying baskets, shelves, Lysol wipes, and stain sticks to try to keep my life tidy and clean. Entropy always wins, and feelings of futility and anger taunt me. Catherine offers a different perspective in her chapter on Incarnation,
“We are hungry, our hair is oily, our hands are dirty. We are creatures surrounded by creation. We are alive. We are creative and fruitful and fertile. Motherhood is the opposite of sterile.” (p. 59)
I need that reminder. I would rather my children’s friends (and their parents) see our home as a safe place where life, creativity and mistakes happen, instead of a sterile, silent place where order and perfection are demanded. I want to reclaim that freedom and grace in our everyday lives as an intentional spiritual practice.
And, speaking of grace, Catherine’s chapter on Nurture gently confronted the perfectionism that haunts the edges of my view of God. Deep down I still sometimes fear that God is demanding, far-off, and exasperated when I don’t know what I’m doing. But Catherine reminds me God is not like that at all:
“God did not describe himself as someone who arrives promptly to every church service or makes it to the office without ketchup on his jacket. No, God describes himself as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness – like a mother with her child….As a gentle parent who teaches a baby how to walk, who leans down to feed and hold her. As the mother who gave birth and nursed her infant, who comforts and protects her child like a mother hen.” (p. 87)
It’s been eight years since I nursed my last child, but my whole family still needs a gentle parent to guide us with encouraging smiles as we learn how to walk into soccer games, middle school dances, and pop quizzes. Our family life is always going to be ketchup-y and messy, and our patient nurturing God is going to stay with us the whole time, like a nursing mother. That constant grace will cushion and comfort my kids as they make mistakes and me as I make mistakes parenting them.
We are going to be okay.
These are just a few of the ideas that resonated with me from Long Days of Small Things. There are nine rich chapters and 27 practical ideas to try. I will continue to go back to this book for encouragement. I strongly recommend it.
Please continue reading for my interview with Catherine McNiel, author of Long Days of Small Things: The Spiritual Discipline of Motherhood.
Thank you for joining us at Family Compassion Focus, Catherine! Please tell us about yourself.
Hey there! I’m a mom with three kids, and a few part time jobs. I’m a book worm and I’m always trying to learn something new. I love everything about words…reading, writing, researching, talking, listening. I’m entirely addicted to the creation of new life but I find that helping things grow in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy. 🙂
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right there in the midst of it. We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—though dads, grandparents, and other caregivers have enjoyed it as well.
When did you know you needed to write a book about motherhood and spiritual disciplines?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious children took me all the way to the end of my rope and left me there indefinitely.
But even though my life changed in every way, the spiritual prescriptions I heard were the same: Spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord.
But I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself!
As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, study, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or, more likely, opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. And that is 100% true. But as I walked through the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I became convinced that there is no better “boot camp” for my soul.
Each day we mothers create, we nurture. We are pushed to the end of ourselves but we carry on, we persevere, we keep giving, surrendering, sacrificing, pouring out. We empty ourselves for those in our care. And isn’t this place of desperate emptiness, where we must fall back on God, the same place that the spiritual disciplines are designed to take us?
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What spiritual discipline is drawing you in most these days?
I end each chapter of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline with three “practices” that, while perhaps not listed in Foster’s classic (and wonderful) book on Spiritual Disciplines, can be practiced in our actual mommy days. And I confess, I wrote the book but like St. Paul, it’s “not that I have already attained all this.” I’m still trying to remember to practice each of these. The ones that call to me the most are the simplest: Breath. Walk. Be.
What’s the hardest part of mothering for you?
Oh, the chaos. I think I’m a pretty good mother one-on-one. But as soon as there’s a gaggle of people all yelling and crying and peeing at the same time…well, I just unravel.
What’s your favorite part of mothering?
The snuggles! I describe in Long Days of Small Things how stubbornly my kids and I pursue The Good Snuggle, even though we know it always ends with an elbow in someone’s eye. I just love those rare moments of peace and sweetness and softness. I am storing them all up in my heart.
How does the message of Long Days of Small Things relate to compassion?
Well, a few different ways. In Long Days of Small Things I talk about how there is a place in the Bible where God introduces Himself. That’s a pretty big deal, right? I’m more interested in how God describes Himself than in whatever anyone else has to say about Him. And He begins with “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God…”
The compassion God has for all creation is analogous to the posture a parent has to her child. And in nurturing our children we are not only surviving the day and fulfilling our tasks—we are living icons of God’s nurturing, loving compassion. I’d say representing God’s compassion each and every day is kind of a big deal, too.
Also, my heart brims over for moms. Moms are just buried in messages of “shoulds” and “ought-tos.” Nothing is ever good enough. We’re always just one less-than-optimal decision away from ruining our children entirely. We had a natural birth but didn’t breastfeed. We breasted but didn’t’ co-sleep. We co-slept but we should have done sleep training. We did sleep training but couldn’t afford organic food. We bought organic food but we went to work and we should have stayed home. We stayed home, but we should have gone to work. There’s just no way to win.
I’m convinced that if moms can feel the reality of God’s compassionate presence, and the value that He placed in our bodies and their tasks, then we will have enough peace to approach the world around us with compassion as well.
What’s your dream for this book? What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things?
I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are doing so much, and there is value here already. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.
But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is.
If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—my dream will be complete.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Hang in there, Mama! May you see God’s own dignity, strength, and beauty in your body and spirit as you courageously take on this wonder-woman task He has given you. May you sleep through the night, and may you have time in the bathroom without interruptions.
Thank you, Catherine!
I have read dozens of books on parenting and spiritual disciplines, but none that explain, simplify, and expand both topics with the clarity, grace and liberty I found in your book, Long Days of Small Things. I feel empowered and ennobled. I feel respected and valuable to my family and the world. I’m thankful for my body, my story, and my role.
Your words are helping me redeem, reclaim, and rename my history and dreams as a mother and a woman.
Friends, I encourage you to buy and read Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
- If you are in a small group with mothers, read this book together.
- If you go to a group like MOPS have them bring Catherine to speak.
- If you are going to a baby shower, include this book in your gift. And read it beforehand, so you can pick one of the passages to read to the women gathered.
- To buy Long Days of Small Things: amazon link
- Catherine’s Publisher: NavPress
- Catherine’s Website: www.Catherinemcniel.com
©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2017.