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Parenthood as religion


Sarah Kanowski with her childrenFor a girl raised a Catholic, even in the 1970s and '80s, there was always the possibility that one would 'get the call'. Although my dear aunty was a nun, being tapped on the shoulder by God to take up holy orders elicited fear rather than longing in me. A life of service (not to mention a life without boys) was not the future I wanted.

But in my 20s, as my religious affiliation shifted towards Zen Buddhism, the monastery began to hold new appeal. Life there would be calm and ordered, I thought. And, surely, more authentically religious. This assumption, like so many others, has been undone by becoming a parent.

What has been the most important moment of your life? When were you happiest? Those of us who have children often answer that it was when first holding our newborns.

There is a great rush of love and relief in those moments, but that's not all. Bringing forth a baby is a dizzying exposure to the deep core of our being, and in that most mysterious of mathematical equations — when amid sweat and cries one suddenly becomes two — the meaning of our lives is flung open with an intensity I doubt is often achieved by hours of silent meditation or theological study.

In the last few weeks I have been blessed to experience this with my newborn son. Gazing into his eyes I wonder when life entered those dreamy globes. We are born fully human but who can say exactly when we became so? And what kind of consciousness are we at first? One without language or memory, but also fully present and complete. My son stares back at me, alert to the sound of water, the touch of his father's hand, the need for milk.

Ah, milk and more milk. The whole messy anarchy of newborns is inextricably linked to their miraculousness. These tiny missives from eternity come swaddled in equal parts love and shit and grace and sick. Caring for a newborn I am astonished we ever let ourselves be tricked into a false reverence for transcendence: here at the foundation of all our lives is a deeply immanent experience of the sacred. Where then is the boundary between the holy and profane?

The parameters of this experience are not confined to the nursery. In loving her child a parent forms a new kind of relationship with the world itself. These early weeks bring an emotional rawness, a kind of quivering sensitivity which extends to all beings. Violence seems even more unacceptable, war an abomination. It is not only the sanctity of life which impresses, but the sheer dogged effort required to sustain it.

After my first child was born I was overwhelmed by an entirely new appreciation for the years of work required to grow a single human being. Going to buy groceries or walking to the bus I would be awe-struck by imagining all the hours of care, the relentless round of feeding, washing, and soothing which were responsible for every person I saw. It is an enormity of labour which of course begins on day one. History's catalogue of achievements now mean little to me. Man Walks on Moon? Big deal. Each day the headlines should shout, Woman Gives Birth!

In the early weeks of parenthood it is clear that the lay life is, in fact, profoundly religious. Properly perceived, what happens every day in our suburban homes and neighbourhood parks is as sacramental and as grace-filled as the ceremonies held in the loftiest cathedrals or remotest mountain monasteries.

That parenthood, this most earthy and ordinary of tasks, is also the most direct experience many of us have of the spiritual and sublime.  It demands we rethink what those categories actually mean. The great religious traditions have paid scant attention to the experience of parenting; a tragic loss for their understanding of divinity. Christianity, of course, celebrates The Holy Family, but what can it learn from the experience of an ordinary, everyday, secular one?

Caring for babies is over in such a brief instant (even if it feels like an eternity at 3am). Hours spent marvelling at our newborns' perfection are rapidly replaced by ferrying children to soccer practice, earning a living, growing old. So parents need religion to help us embody the revelations which the love for our children brings.

Equally, religion needs the knowledge of mothers and fathers to appreciate the miraculous ground from which we all emerge, and to share in the questions raised when staring into a newborns' eyes.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer and broadcaster with ABC Radio National. She held a Commonwealth Scholarship at Oxford University between 2000 and 2002, and won the inaugural $2000 Margaret Dooley Young Writers' Award in 2005. Pictured: Sarah Kanowski with her children.

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, catholic, parenthood, motherhood, religion, monastery life, zen buddhism, vocation



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Existing comments

Hear hear! I know the feeling of looking at every human being and estimating the number of hours spent nurturing them, and I'm dumbfounded to think that we are all so capable of such huge achievement. On another similar note, new parents are at their most vulnerable and most strong all at the same time, and - despite the pram in the hallways quotes - that's when we can produce our best art (awakeness permitting). From now on, I endeavour to - as anecdoted in Michael McGirr's The Lost Art of Sleep - pop coins in the parking meter for any parent struggling to get a pram out of a car!

Louise Swinn | 24 July 2009  

I heartily agree. My children are 12 and 10 now by at times I still feel overwhelmed by the miracle of their lives. I know the love I have for them is intimately intertwined with my relationship with God. The birth of my children also gave me a new compassion for humanity and the many children who suffer in the world.

A few days after giving birth to my first child I watched a World Vision video of mothers who had to watch their children die in their arms for lack of food. It caused me a degree of raw distress to see that which I probably wouldn't have felt as keenly before becoming a parent. I think that can only be a good thing.

Glynis Quinlan | 24 July 2009  

Thank you very much, Sarah, for your beautiful and magnificent writing on what is, indeed, spiritual.

Bill Dowsley | 24 July 2009  

Chere Sarah, salut ! With tears in my eyes I thank you for this surpassing theological vision that my Jewish mother (1889-1971) also tried to communicate to me in poetical words. Has the Church ever proclaimed this sacramental treasure? Your glory is that you have worded it!
Glory to you, Sarah, for you have enriched theology in a way I shall never forget. Bien a` vous de la part de Kevin Aryeh Hatikvah Smith (aged 88)

Kevin Aryeh Smith | 24 July 2009  

Sarah, it is true that the significance of giving birth is perhaps under-acknowledged in some senses. However, I just can't help wondering how much of the 'spiritual and sublime' is available to a mother living in extreme poverty - perhaps in a war-torn, violent or drought-stricken environment, where the chances of survival are much diminished.

A Perkins | 25 July 2009  

At last! Childbirth = Sacrament.

ethyl | 25 July 2009  

You are so right. And just as awareness of the transcendent emphasises how radically equal people are, one to the other, the awareness of the work required to raise a baby both humbles and ennobles us.
As I, who am fortunate, sat exhausted on a tram, I reflected on the work we parents do. A heap of parents boarded the tram at the commission flats, parents with clean, happy bubs. Some were clearly very poor, alone and, even in some cases, apparently abused. Yet there we sat proudly having triumphed for another day.

Marilyn | 30 July 2009  

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