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Motherhood and God

This was published in the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican, in a column called 'A book that changed me'

A friend sent me a copy of Margaret Hebblethwaite’s book Motherhood and God in the post. It was the beginning of 1988; we had two children under two, and I read it with fascination and wonder. Some time in the next year or so, I preached my first sermon at the country congregation where we worshipped at the time. It was Mothers’ Day; my husband, the minister, organised for mothers to lead the entire service. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Well, I think some people were expecting Motherhood and Apple Pie, but you gave them Motherhood and God’.

It changed me, that book and I recently reread it, reflecting on how and why it had.

Hebblethwaite, an academic and theologian, had recently had her third baby when she wrote this, which is impressive in itself. I would be interested to read what she might write all these decades later, now that she has endured early widowhood and the inevitable ups and downs of parenting teenagers and young adults.

The book changed me because, although I had been a devoted Christian all my life, I had felt, if I ever thought about it at all, that theology should be left to professional theologians who tended to be people who had spent long years in academia, and were mainly white, privileged and male.

Motherhood and God showed me that any believer can do theology, which is simply reflecting on our experience in the light of what we know about God and reflecting on God in the light of our experience. It showed me that my utterly ordinary lot of being a mother could teach me about God just as surely as could undertaking a degree in theological college. It also made me think seriously about how the mother metaphor for God, rather than the traditional father one, might be a whole lot more useful for a whole lot of people.

Hebblethwaite’s reflections on parenting have power because she is brutally realistic about how demanding it is, even for people like her and me who had children by choice with a loved and supportive partner. After a euphoric and blissful time with her first child, following the birth of her second the older became so difficult that she simply could not take him anywhere. Her account is harrowing, as is an unforgettable six-page passage in which she describes, detail by torrid detail, a fairly ordinary evening with two small children. Nothing too terrible happens – no one dies, no one is maimed, but when I read this, I am catapulted back into the frequent tedium and exhaustion of parenting little ones, the overwhelming knowledge that their very survival depends on my vigilance.

It was Hebblethwaite who introduced me to the feminine images of God in the Bible. Prompted by her observations, I started perceiving God-ness in what I did every day. When I became pregnant with our third child, I thought of the little stranger inside me, living, moving and having his being in the utter safety of my womb. When I was feeling vulnerable and desperate, I started to visualise myself in God’s womb – all my needs met, surrounded by sustaining love - even when I was unaware of it. After he was born, I was sitting in church one Sunday, breast feeding him when the elders came around with the Eucharist and the extraordinary words, ‘This is the body of Christ, feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving’. There was I with my son feeding on me, as I was feeding on Christ. The language of broken body and spilled blood that ultimately gives life put me in mind of what happened to me every time I birthed a baby.

It was eleven years after I read Motherhood and God that I had my first article published. My second was a faith column about how I loved going to stay at monasteries, and that was it for me. I discovered something I felt deeply called to, a vocation, which was writing about ordinary life in the light of what I had learned – through worship, learning, tradition, conversations and also from my own lived experience – about God. The hundreds of pieces I have written in the years since (the majority of which are not ostensibly religious but which I hope are shot through with a sense of wonder and mystery) have given me the most joy and satisfaction in my life apart from the love I have forged with my husband and our now adult offspring.

I am grateful to Hebblethwaite for giving me a vivid picture of the motherhood of God. I am profoundly in her debt for planting the seed of the idea in my mind and heart that an ordinary person could do theology, thus helping others in their relationship with God.


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