Parenting as noble work

By Erica

Note: I wrote this post in January and as I prepare to publish it today, I am thinking about the people who are defending Ukraine. This post mentions soldiers, and I hope it does so respectfully. I also hope that it calls to mind all of the moms, dads, and caretakers who are going above and beyond to keep children safe during an armed conflict. 

“You should prioritize self-care!” my sister urged with the best of intentions.

I had called her to calm myself down after a particularly frustrating morning. I was coming off twelve days of winter break at home with an 18-month-old, a complicated COVID testing procedure, and an incident with my Apple ID. I was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

And yet, as much as her advice to take a bubble bath was appreciated, it wasn’t what I was hoping to hear.

What I wish she would have said is this: “What you are doing is hard – taking care of a child requires stamina and a fair amount of struggle. But it is also some of the most important work there is. Keep going, girl in the arena.”

Indeed, one of the most surprising things about becoming a parent is realizing just how hard the job is and how little reverence there is in American culture for the role.

(Writing about reverence is risky because it can so easily come off as whining. Why don’t people revere me and my life choices??, she writes from the comfort of her living room. Rather, my goal is to point out a broader, cultural misalignment.)

As a society, we know how to celebrate noble work. We regularly salute soldiers and first responders, sports heroes, and others for their courage and determination – and rightfully so. But when it comes to parenting, there is little honor to be found.

Before my daughter, I had no clue what being a parent involved. I had little patience for the toddlers seated next to me on the plane. I didn’t appreciate the chaos and noise that seemed to follow children. And I judged parents for whatever I was seeing. I did not understand what was right in front of me.

Now on the other side of things, I am asking why didn’t I know? What is it about our society that keeps the joys and demands of parenthood so shrouded? How is it that society has taught me more about the virtues of being a soldier than they have about being a mother?

If anything, I have seen the role of mom portrayed as a joke. I can picture the archetype in my head now – a frumpy, anxious woman, filling her days with trips to Target and other “frivolous” tasks. There are, of course, honest discussions about what parenting really takes, but the best conversations go on behind clubhouse walls, within the confines of parent groups and mom text threads.

How might our society evolve if we granted a measure of nobility to something as ubiquitous* as taking care of a child? How different might motherhood feel if it was spoken about with the same gravity and reverence as other heroic undertakings?

In an interview at Yale Divinity School, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks described a central Jewish teaching of “etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness.” When we honor the ordinary efforts of everyday life, we give our individual and collective lives purpose and move closer to knowing God.

In other words, we would be doing ourselves a tremendous favor if we tapped into our communal vocabulary for hard and worthy work to describe something as ordinary as entertaining a toddler on a snow day.

*In 2020, the census counted 63.1 million parents in America—and that is not to mention all the many caregivers who play a role in a child’s life.