So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Funny thing about human beings, we can’t ever get anything exactly right. We tend to extremes. So in pursuit of one good we often diminish another. For example, as we have emphasized the importance of higher education, and sought to bring about equal opportunities for everyone we’ve actually devalued other jobs and skills. It is definitely good to let young people know they can be whatever they want to be and go to college. But not everybody wants to study the liberal arts, and not everybody is cut out for them. In pushing the doctor, lawyer, teacher careers we’ve failed to present many laboring jobs as options. This suggests that these jobs are undesirable, even perhaps shameful, yet without them society does not function. They are skilled jobs although not intellectual ones. They require hard work, dedication and attention to detail. They are jobs one can find fulfillment in doing well.
For women particularly, this problem of prizing one good thing at the expense of a another is perhaps more clear. While fighting to open careers and education to women, we have accidentally, or for some deliberately, devalued traditional roles. Thus women who wish to be homemakers feel guilty, ashamed, or at least defensive about what should be seen as an entirely legitimate “career move”. Then of course, the pendulum must swing the other way as full time moms defend themselves. This manifests itself in several ways. Some women seek to make motherhood more complex, more like a real job, and take on all sorts of obsessions or grand projects to fill their time and prove they work hard. Other women, feeling bored or stifled at home, feel guilty. They are letting down their side if they don’t love every minute of it. But we’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Because being a mom all day isn’t rocket science. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t intellectually fulfilling. And that’s the glory of it.
Now there is nothing wrong with higher pursuits. In fact they are great goods. And certainly mothers should pursue those things that enrich their lives as they can. However, there’s no need to glamorize what we do. In fact we will be happier if we embrace the reality rather than feeling constantly disillusioned. Being a Mom, day to day, is 90% drudgery. We change diapers, make food, clean up vomit, potty train, nurse, wash clothes and dishes. It’s not skilled work. You can be a great Mom without a college degree, without being a culinary genius, without making fabulous crafts. Anybody can do it. The only real requirement is love. Is that shameful? No! The servile nature of what we do is not the unfortunate downside of a job that’s value lies elsewhere, that can be excused because of other pleasant aspects of the job. It is the greatest dignity of motherhood!
In a different foot washing passage from the New Testament, when a woman anointed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her hair, some of the disciples whispered against her that she had wasted money which could have gone to the poor, a better use. Women are told that their talents are wasted when they stay home and instead care for their children, an unskilled job. I was once told it would be an insult to those who were not as gifted in school if I did not go on to use those gifts in the world. Now I hope that in some ways I do use those, in my writing, in what I teach my children, in what I do in the community. Yet, if I “waste” my talents caring for my children and through them for Jesus then this is no waste but a beautiful pouring out.
When Jesus washed his apostles feet they were appalled, but Jesus was not ashamed. He told them they too must serve. This is an important direction to all Christians, and mothers are given the special opportunity to live it out. We are honoured to spend half our lives on our knees serving others. We should not see this as something to be excused, or glamorized. It is what it is: hard, slogging, dirty, unpleasant work. For the good of those we love. None of us will be judged on our resumes. On how interesting what we did each day was. Rather we will be asked what we did for the least of our brethren. Our children give us an opportunity each day to practice such service. We can then emulate Jesus twice over: by serving, and, through our example, by teaching our children to serve. As mothers could we ask for anything more? Let us strive to give thanks for the least appealing parts of our work, as a great gift of love we can give our families.