When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.
That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.
I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.
Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?
Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)
Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a source of both agony and joy for me.
How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?
How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?
How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?
Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.
In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.
I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.
The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.
What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?
Go on – even just mentally.
In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?
And I want to say this.
It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.
It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)
But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.
Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.
And when you do, be kind to yourself.
For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.
I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.
And sometimes not even that.
And that’s okay.