Long Days of Small Things opens with a quote from CS Lewis about how we don’t have to leave the world to find God, but rather to become awake to Him in our world. Catherine McNiel has written it for mums. She’s careful not to make being a SAHM the ultimate in motherhood, but many of her reflections on motherhood are tied up with things like laundry and mopping and doing the dishes, so the book is skewed towards the experience of the SAHM, or at least the working mum who does a ‘second shift’, with the added assumption that inherent in motherhood is the bearing of the mental load.
McNiel suggests that spiritual disciplines for mothers ought to suit the world and life stage in which they find themselves. “The spiritual life is not only for those with freedom to sit quietly and meditate, but also for those of us who are called away to continue giving deeply of ourselves.” And so McNiel looks for the spiritual in the ordinary: chances to reflect on the Creator as you notice the earth under your feet, or feel the dishwater swirl around your hands, or breathe. Each chapter has actions and practices to implement. McNiel is not advocating that women go around in some kind of zen-like state. A discipline is a practice, not a constant state. The point is not to do it all the time, but to do it a bit, and that has an effect.
Alongside leading mums through spiritual disciplines for their lives, McNiel also encourages them that “motherhood is in and of itself a spiritual practice.” For me, this was the strength of the book. The mindfulness exercises were in my view still beholden to the idea that it is in the quiet or the stillness that we encounter God, that it is not merely enough to be and do, if we are not also engaged in contemplation about this, however fleeting.
In contrast, I found myself intrigued when she said, “You may have lost the free time you once used to pursue God, but you are studying him hands-on through an intensive internship program developed just for you.” I wanted McNiel to push this idea further, to explore how our rhythms and work affect us in ways we may not be aware of. Recently elsewhere I read something about how children doing chores grows their brain so they are better able to tolerate the mundane. Likewise we know that boys and girls can be socialised into certain gender roles through play. My experience of language learning is that it happens best when I am not trying to learn it, but when my brain is kind of forced to grow by being thrust into immersive Swahili situations. Tanzanians often speak this way: they don’t naturally lean towards planning or theory, so something we’ve seen people do is to throw people into situations and expect that that is how they will grow. I felt like McNiel was heading in this direction in seeing the practicalities of motherhood as part and parcel of discipleship, but that she couldn’t quite de-couple it from the need to be intellectually engaged.
The best thing about this book for me was the theological reflection on mothers as icons of God: “In nurturing our children, we walk in God’s footsteps, just as we did in creating new life… In nurturing we bear the image of God.” McNiel expands on this with concepts such as service, sacrifice, perseverance and celebration. She is not arguing for the dignity or value of motherhood (which all too easily ends up in culture wars) but instead dignifying those who are mothers, and giving them theological resources for their lives.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.