I was overwhelmed with the limits on my time and body: with four small children aged 6 and under, and as the primary caregiver, I was the sun around which they orbited. My limbs and body were the rays that nourished them. While this beautiful slowing-down was welcomed, it also involved a litany of tasks that never ended: Breastfeeding. Diaper changes. Sleep schedules. Snacks to make and sweep up under the highchair. Preschool and elementary school drop-offs. The tantrum to deal with while the homework needed helping with. Ad infinitum.
Sometimes, when I had a moment between wiping down the high chair and nap time, I’d wonder: where had that curious, imaginative younger woman gone? This version of motherhood felt like clothes that didn’t fit, in a style that was slightly off and I desperately just wanted a new wardrobe. It was easy to kick against the goads of this full life, feeling myself ill-suited to the tasks at hand than to welcome what Graham Greene calls the “grace of aridity.” Kathleen Norris reminds us, borrowing Greene’s lovely turn of phrase, that grace, too, can feel barren: “for grace to be grace it must give us things we didn’t know we needed, and take us to places where we didn’t want to go.”
My womb had been full. But I was parched. I did not know what I needed. I needed to learn the lesson of constraints — the beauty of limits — as an entrance into grace. I’d missed it — not because I didn’t recognize my children and my mothering as gifts, but because I’d swallowed the wrong idea of freedom in the first place.
In our search for significance, we imagine that the key is found in more freedom — freedom to define who we are, freedom to work hard, be safe, make money, freedom to opt in or out of neighborly and Christian community: to define for ourselves the boundary lines of pleasant places. Freedom, in our Western 21st century version, hangs on the phantasm of the isolated self. Deeply embedded in places, in families, and in communities, we nevertheless assume that it is up to each of us to define who we are.
Even for people of faith, we’ve defined freedom as freedom from constraints, to pursue happiness in whatever method we see fit. The freedom-to-create-your-own-life is encapsulated in what one bestselling Christian writer tells her readers: “This is your life. You are meant to be the hero of your own story” and, “Only you have the power to change your own life.” This is the power ballad of our secular age and it scratches the itch from the Garden:
“You will not die. You will be like God.”
Meanwhile we’ve removed the guardrails of tradition, thick community, historic faith, virtue, and even the goodness of being a small part of something larger than yourself. We look at our lives like a pie chart and find a small slice where Jesus can fit. Jesus is not our self-actualization plan, a garnish on top of our deified personal autonomy.
Even as we pursue this version of unfettered autonomy, we find ourselves stuck. Newbigin writes about this world of choice, a “plurality of worlds” from which we choose, that ultimately leads us to anxiety and doubt.
But if freedom isn’t freedom from constraints — and when we follow this line of thinking we find ourselves kicking against the goads of good, yet constraining, gifts — how else might it be understood?
Freedom, like other things we look to for satisfaction, can never be an end in itself; it is rather a mode, a way of being, which leads us ultimately to union with Christ, the telos and aim of the good life. If it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), it is not so we can construct our own “best life now.” The freedom Christ holds out is to be freed from the tyrannical master of sin and death; it is freedom to get off the moving walkway where we use shame to atone for guilt or we hide the truth about ourselves. It is to be welcomed back as prodigal sons and daughters, united back to God, the author and perfecter of our faith. It is to be restored and redeemed and invited into the kingdom work of the Father, Son and Spirit.
Freedom wasn’t so much about the circumstances of my life — being free to choose what I wanted, when I wanted. Freedom was learning to call what God called good, “good,” and then choosing to abide with Christ through the real limits of my body, time, attention, and care.
Which brings me back to those early mothering years. As a mother, while I wanted to remain a child with every option imaginatively available to me, I was being invited into adulthood. As a child instinctively casts herself on her mother’s breast, knowing that here is the source of all animating life, I, too, through the grace of aridity, was being invited to cast myself onto the bosom of Christ. Only as I practiced that “genuinely human act of trusting self-abandonment to a future that is not at one’s own disposal” was I made both into a child of the rightful King and, beautifully and painfully, into a mother.
There is a spacious life right in our limits.