AS A MOTHER of young children and a parish priest, I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked: “How do you fit it all in?”
I tend to be dissatisfied with my answer. Sometimes I say: “My husband works part-time,” which does not really answer the question. Sometimes I talk about how family life works, but that is pretty boring: no one really wants to know who does the washing, or who picks up our son from Cubs on a Tuesday night.
The combination of priesthood and motherhood has worked well for me, and I believe that it can be offered as a possibility for young women who are exploring their vocation.
I have started recently to try to reframe the question as one about the enormous change in the place of women in society in the past generation or two. For many people, the model of motherhood with which they are working is the one they inhabited or experienced: a mother who did almost all the child-care, cooking, and cleaning.
I can hear the subtext, which is sometimes articulated: “How can you do everything I did when I was bringing up my children, and be a full-time parish priest, too?” The answer is, of course, that I don’t. My husband does a great deal, too; and, for my generation, that is normal.
My generation does not find my life particularly remarkable. Many of my contemporaries have far more complicated lives than I have. It is increasingly common for both men and women to work shifts involving evenings and weekends, and for child-care to be fitted around those patterns.
The fact that I work from home, can do the morning school-run most days, and am usually home for tea is something that is simply not possible for many working women and men of my generation.
THERE are other crucial ways in which, for me, priesthood and motherhood have worked well. The support I have received from the parish and diocese has been excellent. The reaction to my pregnancies and our growing family from the congregation, the bishop, and my fellow clergy has always been positive.
Another huge benefit has been the excellent maternity-leave policy in my diocese. I had nine months’ leave on a full stipend. Throughout my pregnancy, maternity leave, and return to work, I felt that the Church on all levels valued and supported me.
The things that I have found difficult about being a mother and a parish priest are the flip-side of the advantages. Working from home is wonderful in terms of flexibility and being able to see the children, but it also means that I have to set my own boundaries between working and family life.
As I have grown more confident as a priest and as a mother, I have become better at doing that, but juggling everyone’s needs is always a work in progress. Setting priorities has been easier for me than for many ordained mothers because I did not have my first child until I had finished my curacy. It can be harder for curates, who often have less control over their diaries, and less influence over things such as the timing of the daily Office and evening meetings. For them, the support of the training incumbent is very important in helping to make it work.
THE excellent support I received during my pregnancies, maternity leave, and return to work have also sometimes had side effects. I tend to be perceived as being very busy, which of course I am, but I would argue that I am no busier than many others in the clergy, who are often juggling several different posts.
Occasionally, someone has said to me: “Of course, we did consider you for . . . [a potentially interesting responsibility], but we know how busy you are.” It was frustrating when that happened, and I could not help thinking that if I had been an ordained father of young children, people would not have perceived the same difficulties.
Having said that, when I have been proactive and put myself forward for posts, I have always felt that I have been considered on an equal footing, based on my skills and experience.
IF A young woman were to ask me whether I thought motherhood and priesthood were compatible, I would say: very much so. I would also say that I have experienced a great deal of good will from the local church, the deanery, and the diocese in supporting my vocations.
I hope I would then resist the urge to offer her a torrent of good advice. At the grand old age of 39, I am aware that the next cohort of young mothers will be different again. It is not for me to tell them what being a priest and a mother will look like for them.
My hope is that, one day, ordained mothers of young children will be such a standard feature of the life of the Church that we will no longer be remarkable, and no more likely to be asked the “How do you fit it all in?” question than any other busy parish priest.
The Revd Catherine Pickford is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary the Virgin, Stannington, in the diocese of Newcastle, and Diocesan Continuing Ministerial Development Officer.
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