When my first son was born five years ago, my life narrowed and what was truly important came into focus in an incredible way because there simply was not time or energy for anything extraneous. I was so taken aback by the joy I got from watching my son sleep that I did not even think to be embarrassed by the thick layer of crumbs under the dining room table when a friend came to meet the little guy. When I got an Evite to a party being thrown by a second-tier friend, all I could think of is how tiring it would be to make small talk with people I saw once in a great while, adding to an already almost unbearable level of exhaustion. I responded that I was busy… and I as, in a way. I was busy tickling my son’s chubby little legs and catching whatever zzz’s I could. In the hazy fog that are the first few weeks of living with a new baby, I could barely remember a time when my husband and I could take a whole day to deep clean the house and when our social calendar had been packed with multiple gatherings each weekend.
When my second son was born just over two years later, the focus of my life became even sharper. As most people with young children will tell you, a good day is a day when you can sneak in a shower. With the baby secured in his bouncy seat, I could shower (by which I mean take a shower, put on a bare minimum of make-up, blow dry my hair, get dressed, and start a load of laundry) in the twenty-two and a half minutes flat that it took my older son to watch an episode of Dora the Explorer. While I always took the time to pack the diaper bag with baby supplies and snacks before leaving the house, I rarely looked in the mirror on my way out the door, which led to none too few appearances in public with spit-up stained sweatshirts. I gave up shopping for myself almost entirely, relying on online orders placed twice a year to keep me in clothes that were clean, even if they were not fashionable. This mother of two young boys would have been barely recognizable to my high school self, a girl who awoke a full hour and a half before she had to leave for school in order to get her hair and make-up just right; who stopped in front of a mirror multiple times a day to pick and primp; and who tried on a dozen outfits every time she left the house so that the jeans and t-shirt combination she chose would be exactly the right one to fit the sort of hanging out that would be done that evening.
My sons are now three and five, and I still do not keep what many others would consider a “clean” house. (Thank goodness I am married to a man who cares about vacuuming!) I have been dropped from the mailing lists of second-tier friends. I can still completely my entire shower routine in twenty-two and a half minutes, and while I do go shopping in stores for myself and occasionally purchase something that some might deem fashionable, it is still only on a twice yearly basis because there simply does not seem to be time for any more shopping than this.
While letting go of some of these vain pursuits, I have gained greater clarity about what is worth my time and effort and about what is truly life-giving for me. I do not regret one moment that I have spent reveling in the wonder that my children see in the world, as this has helped me to recapture my own sense of the beauty of the universe. I do not regret advancing my education and teaching theology part-time, since this is the work to which I feel called and through which I engage my mind to its fullest. I do not regret putting time in to the most important relationships in my life, as it is in and through these relationships that I see my best self mirrored back to me and also catch glimpses of God’s very self in the love of others.
This is the rosy side of the picture. Life with young children has brought with it a new crop of vanities, like purchasing exciting (but completely and admittedly unneeded and superfluous) toys for my sons. It has also not always been easy to prioritize parenting, teaching, and tending to relationships. Particularly when I attend academic conferences and am among my more ambitious colleagues, my vision of what is most worthwhile blurs, and I am tempted to heed that insecure voice in the back of my head that demands that I write, research, and publish more so that I, too, can be one of the ones the world judges successful.
This week’s first reading from Ecclesiastes invites us to this sort of life reflection, a reflection on what it means to toil in vain in the context of our own lives. As we read in this week’s Sunday by Sunday, in Hebrew “vanity” has the meaning of empty, perishable, nothingness. As you think about your own life,
- What is it that gives you the most energy, helps you be most yourself, and best supports your relationship with God?
- What is it that drains your energy, asks you to be someone you are not, and separates you from God and others?
- What do you currently find to be the most worthwhile pursuit in your life?
- What have you come to see as a vain pursuit over the years? Can you identify any vain pursuits that you have not yet been able to let go of?