Priorities by Mary Walter-Feltner

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This is written by a dear friend of mine.  

I think it beautifully captures some of the tension we experience as women,

trying to make the very best decisions about our lives.  

Thank you Mary for allowing me to share this.  

While the weak December sun rose outside, pink hues brushed the clouds in flowing waves.  As I looked through my east-facing window in Cincinnati General Hospital’s maternity ward, I was conscious of the thousands of patients, employees, and medical students or residents like my husband Rols.  Invisibly, they swarmed around me in the huge building complex.  Steam from the hospital’s heating plant rose in thin columns; light sparkled on the heavy frost covering every building and piece of equipment.  Industrial noise provided a constant background symphony.  But somehow, the dawn light took me out of all that.  For a few moments, I felt suspended between “the real world” around me and an otherworldly dimension.

Nathaniel, only 12 hours old, lay in my arms.  Our first-born child.  His skin was softer than rose petals.  He radiated a magical, newborn baby smell.  He was, as countless babies have been throughout history, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  His swaddling was a standard issue, thin General Hospital blanket, greyish-white, lined with faded blue and red stripes. 

There I lay, a 29-year-old professional who had previously questioned how children could possibly fit into all my ambitions.  Up to Nathaniel’s birth, I had wanted to use my law degree and masters in community planning to end homelessness and poverty.  My husband had wanted to cure all physical ills.  After all, we were children of the 1960’s; President Kennedy had told us: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  And as eager, young Christians, we felt the call to serve the poor as a religious calling.

Our personal histories also called us to something more. I’d spent a lot of my youth nurturing my younger brothers, and Rols had spent a lot of his youth supporting all his older brothers and sisters. We didn’t want our adult lives to be squished by care-taking.  Yes, we’d have our family, but we would not limit ourselves to just taking care of our own.  Changing the world would come first.

Our personal histories had also been touched by judgments that we wouldn’t or couldn’t achieve anything, and we wanted to prove those judgments wrong. We’d spent countless, late-night hours regaling each other with our dreams of all we wanted to achieve.

Now, in the early morning light, our “do-gooder” ambitions felt like ancient history.  As I held my baby, I felt that all I’d been or ever would be was wrapped into mothering this child.  Everything else had fallen away.  I was A Mother, and nothing else.

Priorities had radically changed for me, overnight.

A plastic, infant bassinet sat next to my hospital bed.  Nathaniel had either lain in my arms or in that little bassinet most of the night.  I had dozed, bone-tired after the labor, on and off.  Occasionally a nurse came to take the baby to the nursery for some reason.  When that happened, I fell more deeply asleep, but woke startled, aware of my empty arms. 

Now, as the sun rose, I became aware of the date – December 24th, 1984.  Christmas Eve.  The date we Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the first-born son of Mary. 

“Well, Mary,” I whispered to the universe, “I guess we’re close to celebrating the same birthday for our first boy child.”  I looked around the room and out the window at the pink clouds.  “The circumstances are a little different.  Your hospital room was a stable, and your bassinet was a manger.  You were perhaps an unwed Jewish teenager.  You lived in an occupied country, threatened by all kinds of dangers.  I’m none of those things.  But I wonder …  Perhaps, when you bore baby Jesus, you felt a little how I’m feeling now.  Sore.  Tired.  Full of awe.  Conscious of the mystery involved in bringing a new life to the world.  Worried for your baby’s future.  Dead certain that your little, red-faced, wrinkly little boy was the most handsome child ever born.”

As the sky brightened a little, I got a little irreverent.

“Being protestant and all, it does feel a little awkward talking to you.  I’m not sure we’re supposed to give you that much credit.  We leave all that to Catholic believers.  But what the heck.  You’re named Mary like me. You’re revered by billions for being the Mother of God, and I’m feeling like I should be raised to a semi-divine status, just for bringing a human being into the world.  Maybe Catholics are right to light candles in your honor.  Maybe people should light candles every time any woman does this amazing thing …

Well, for what it’s worth, and from one Mary to another, I honor your part in the story.  I must hand it to you, you sure were brave to bear and love your baby Jesus if you knew anything about what was destined to happen to Him.  I’m not sure I could have played the part you played in His story.  I couldn’t bear to have anything bad happen to him, ever.”

I grew weepy, looking down at Nathaniel.  “In fact, even though you were the mother of God and all, I don’t think you could have loved your newborn baby Jesus any more than I love this baby.  I really, really want to be a good mother for him, Mary.”

No lightning struck me as I whispered all this to the universe, so perhaps my musings didn’t offend the Heavenly Authorities.  Maybe the heavenly host had a nice chuckle.  Maybe Jesus’ mother smiled.

Soon afterwards, someone came in to help me nurse, Rols arrived for a quick visit, and the phone started ringing.  My surreal, other-worldly experience dissipated.  But my new sense of meaning and purpose remained.

And Then…

John came in 1987, via labor and an emergency C-section, followed by a cross-country move 10 days later.  Alanna was born after a difficult, life-threatening pregnancy and about nine weeks in the hospital, in 1991.  Katherine came in 1994.  Along the way, we did foster care for kids ranging from two to 17 years old.  We ended up adopting Peter and Evie through the state’s foster-adopt program, in 2009.  Rols and I continued to work and do a lot of volunteering. 

Our ambitions to solve world problems were pushed aside by our drive to nurture one-on-one.  Rols and I enjoyed the personal nature of our small practices and our volunteer work.  And — despite or because of – our caring for brothers and sisters when we were growing up, we ended up loving the parenting role.  We became enamored with the idea of having a big family.  Rols liked the idea of having the same number of children his parents had borne – eight.  I like the idea of having 12 children, because that was the number of children in my favorite book as a child, The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Grigsby Doss.

Well, we sort of failed in that area, along with falling short in the Sphere of Great Achievements.  We ended up with “only” six children.

In addition to my 1984 “talk” with Jesus’ mother, over the years I’ve talked with relatives, bosses and friends about priorities and children.  Sometimes those conversations touched on the conflict between work ambitions and the desire to have a big family.  Feedback about our priorities was often very critical.  I agreed with some aspect of every point raised by the critics.

Although I usually enjoyed VIP status with my grandmother “Mama,” she was highly critical of how I gushed over the prospects of having lots of children.  She archly sniffed and urged me to limit child-bearing to two children.

“But Mama,” I protested, “You had three children, and my mother – your daughter – had four children.  What’s so wrong with having more than two children?”

She evaded my question, countering with, “Mary dear, you are not a brood cow.  You need to have time for a social life and time with your husband.  Two is enough.”

My mother didn’t criticize me for having more than two children, but constantly told me how wrong it was for me to work at all.  She shook her head and demanded: “Why have children if you’re not going to be there for them?  They need you.  Full-time.  They’re your primary responsibility.  Stop acting like such a — woman’s libber; nothing is more important than being a good mother.”

“But Mom,” I countered.  “You and Dad pushed me to achieve in high school.  You scrimped and saved so I could go to a good college.  You said you were proud of me for going to graduate school.  What was the point of all that education if I don’t actually use it?”

Mom’s response was that my educational achievements enabled me to be an awesome mother, and gave me skills to rely on if something happened to Rols.  And, she concluded, “If I’d known how — irresponsible you’d be about motherhood, I would never have supported all that education.  I assumed you’d know how to assess your priorities.  I can’t believe how — self-centered you are!”

Mom’s position was like those of friends from our church in eastern Washington in the early 1980’s.  Most of them found it difficult to imagine a mother working outside the home with small children, unless the husband died.  Sometimes I was given a little heart-to-heart talk, a Bible verse, or an article about the benefits of full-time mothering.

On the other hand, my close friend Sandy, an environmental activist, supported my idea of working, but lambasted the idea of having a large family on ethical grounds.  “If rampant procreation was ever acceptable, today it’s downright sinful to have more than one or two children.”  She and her husband had chosen not to have any children.  She gave me a package of condoms after Nathaniel was born. 

The senior partner in my practice in Okanogan scoffed at trying to practice law and have children.  He would angrily snuff out his 50th cigarette of the day, lean back in his old swivel chair, and present me with Life Lecture #67: “With kids, you’ll just end up playing at the practice of law. You probably won’t be a good mother, either.  You’ll end up doing a half-ass job at everything.  Look at my daughter.  Laura was going to be an architect.  Now she works part-time as a nurse’s aide and the grandkids run around our place, half-wild.”

“Am I doing a half-ass job here?” I asked.

He’d light a cigarette as his bushy, gray eyebrows scowled at me.

“No.  You’re doing fine.  But having to take care of the kids like you do, you’re sure as hell not going to end up at the top of the legal ladder.”

I remember nodding at him.  He was probably right.

Then again, was it that important to climb to the top of the legal ladder?  The cost, in terms of time, would be very high.  Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to forget the ladder, and just try to contribute some value along the way?

My old friend Rachel from the joint graduate program went the farthest of all the critics.  Back before we had any children, she lectured me: “I just don’t see how you can do any good in the world if you’re tied down by relationships.  You’ve got to be free to give 120%.  You made your first mistake when you got married.  Now you’re talking about kids.  Your life, Mary, is going to devolve into bourgeois mediocrity. You won’t be able to accomplish anything of any worth in your life the way you’re going.”

Along with all the other critics, Rachel had a point.

Thirty years later, many things have changed.  My grandmother is gone now; my mother, presented with three daughters-in-law who also work, has toned down her rhetoric.  While my activist friends gave up on me, other friends share my angst about balancing work, mothering, and contributing to the universe. 

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