I am three years out of coursework for my doctoral program, and I have just finally taken (and passed!) my comprehensive exams. This is not something I share lightly. In fact, I normally avoid communicating this to others – especially other academics – at all costs. Why has it taken so long? I could list any number of factors… in fact, I could get quite hung up in guilt and shame over the whole thing: my procrastination, my need for down time, my distractibility, my slow reading skills and ever diminishing memory. Those are the places I go in my low moments.
But in other moments, I see another reality, and it complicates that first picture, the one shrouded in self-blame. When I recall the activities that have taken up my time and energy over the past three years, most of them involve caregiving. Shared primary care of three children. Supporter of a spouse who directs a nonprofit. Homeschool teacher for one year. Advocate and caregiver for a beloved uncle dying of cancer in a federal prison thirty minutes from my house…..No, seriously.
My husband and I don’t have a “traditional” marriage, by any means. We moved halfway across the country for me to pursue graduate work. For four years he was the primary caregiver, home full-time with our youngest and working part-time from home. From the beginning of our marriage we determined to co-parent and share household duties.
But then our youngest entered kindergarten, my husband transitioned to full-time work, and I finished coursework. And somehow, I found myself in that role again: caregiver.
My husband and I would meticulously divide up the responsibilities at the beginning of each school year, setting up a detailed schedule: Who will take the kids to school on Mondays? Who will cook dinner on Wednesdays? Who drives them to soccer practice?
But then there were all the little things. The things we didn’t think to divide up. Who remembers to register the child for soccer practice? Me. Who helps the 7th grader with her math homework, when it is utterly overwhelming? Me. Who researches summer camps? Me. Who remembers the dozens-of-little-things-in-any-given-week-that-need-to-get-done-but-will-slip-through-the-cracks-if-I-don’t-do-them-but-it-would-take-as-much-time-to-ask-my-husband-to-do-them-as-it-would-to-just-do-them-myself-so-I-don’t-even-ask? Yes, me.
And did I mention the depression?
It took me nearly two years to finally seek a psychiatrist and get on medication. One of those years was consumed with my dying uncle’s care, and it was difficult to disentangle my true emotional state from the stress, anger, and anxiety involved in navigating the prison system on behalf of someone so frail. After my uncle died, I kept waiting to feel better. I also began justifying my depression by the ongoing stress of external circumstances. The turning point came when a fellow doctoral student narrated her own decision to go on medication: “I kept thinking that if only I could get my exams done, or finish my dissertation, or get a job…. then I would feel better. But the problem wasn’t with my external circumstances. The problem was internal.”
On one hand, my friend was right, and that proved to be the critical moment: I could finish my exams, and I would still feel this way. This tipped me over the edge to finally seek help. On the other hand, my depression is intertwined with my circumstances in complex ways, particularly when it comes to gender roles and expectations.
My academic interests revolve around our limits as humans and what they mean for us as creatures of God: mortality, suffering, emotions, bodies. I like to delve deeply into what I call our “creaturely limits.” There is a long history in theology and church practice of seeking to transcend those limits: bodily asceticism, control of the emotions, idealization of the mind and reason. These creaturely resistances to being (mere) creatures often include misogynistic overtones, as women are associated with bodily appetites and out-of-control emotions, set in contrast to masculine reason.
At the same time, I find resources within the tradition and in Scripture for combating our resistance to creaturely limits, particularly the uniquely white, North American form of that resistance. We have our own bodily asceticisms and efforts after immortality: diets and detoxification, idealization of youth and beauty, and the medicalization of death, to name a few. But perhaps most pervasive is the capitalistic push for productivity. In the pursuit of ever-increasing gains, a core aspect of our creaturely life in community must be denied: caregiving.
Caregiving points directly to our limits as humans, at a number of levels. We will not always be young and beautiful and able-bodied. Whether it is from growing older and frail, birthing babies, or becoming ill, we all require caregiving at multiple points in our lives. Even more disturbing to our American sensibilities…. we will all die.
The quality of a society is marked by its care for the most vulnerable. The early Christians were known for their willingness to care for the sick and dying and orphaned. Matthew 25 and its call to recognize Jesus in the hungry, naked, and imprisoned has played an important role in the church at its best moments. Our society, on the other hand, is plagued by its utter disregard for the vulnerable: failing public education and low pay for teachers and childcare workers, practically nonexistent paid parental leave, neglect of the elderly, and the isolation of the incarcerated.
And so caregiving gets pushed to the margins. Of society. Of our lives. As an academic I fight to keep pace with my colleagues in a setting that was designed for a man with a spouse who could care for children and home. I fight to keep pace when depression drags me down, when self-doubt paralyzes my ability to write. But increasingly, I allow myself to be cared for – by friends, family – and to embrace the care I give to others, all as part of this fragile embodied thing we call human living.