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Motherhood and Self-denial

In a 2007 article for Christianity Today, Jenell Williams Paris, a mother to infant twins, explained how motherhood cultivates the spiritual discipline of self-denial every single day. Naps for little ones dictate the reality of a nap for the caretaker. A baby's cry for milk tears a carefully constructed schedule to pieces. Sickness demands a steady healing hand. The challenge for the mother, Paris explains, is finding the right balance between self-denial and self-care:

Though his spiritual practice was unusual and mine is mundane, both Simeon the Stylite [a 5th century Syrian monk who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years] and I observe self-denial, a virtue that is just one side of a coin. Motherhood requires a daily denial of good things I once considered essential: adequate sleep, uninterrupted reading time, and leisurely meals, to name just a few. Desert fathers spoke of crushing sin through rigorous self-denial. But for women raised to be caretakers, self-denial can be all too easy and even harmful. Social and family expectations often result in women negating the self before they've even formed a self. Over time, such warped self-denial leads to jealousy, anger, and manipulation as women assert their squished selves in any which way.
Though babies require me to practice self-denial, I also insist on self-care. Asking for help every day—and at this point, I can't make it through even eight hours solo—is at least as difficult as self-denial. I'm beginning to see it as a spiritual practice. Like many evangelical girls, I was raised for domestic labor, raised to be a cheerful giver and never a taker. In the colicky evening hours, however, when two babies are crying at the same time and I'm beginning to cry myself, I just can't do it all. Asking for help, both when I'm at my wit's end and when I just want a break, preserves my health and strengthens my community. It draws my husband into the inner circle of baby care, a sanctum from which dads too often are excluded. It brings friends and family members into my babies' lives in meaningful ways. And it allows me to snatch some sleep—and occasionally even a walk or a shower. Self-care is the inverse of asceticism, but it may be a feminine counterpoint to pride-crushing self-denial. When done for the right reasons, both self-denial and self-care are sanctifying.

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