IN 2008, I was working full-time as a history teacher. I was mother to a three-year-old and was pregnant with my second child. The job was supposed to be part-time, but I had been asked to double my hours. Not wanting to make a bad impression, and worrying that it might adversely affect my career to say no, I had reluctantly agreed to a full-time working arrangement.
Looking after a toddler at home, working long hours, and struggling with a heavy timetable, I quickly became ill and exhausted. Eventually, I was admitted to hospital at 25 weeks with bleeding, although I begged the obstetrician to allow me to go home. I knew already that my deputy head would be unsympathetic and displeased at my absence. When my husband phoned the school the next morning, to tell my boss what had happened, my boss wanted to know whether I had left any work for my classes to do, and was put out when he was told that I had not. This obviously had not been my priority when I had left for the A&E department, bleeding with a suspected miscarriage.
This was my first experience of trying to juggle family and work demands, and it was far from positive.
Despite real financial struggles, I never returned to my teaching job after my baby was born, and I promised myself then that I’d never again risk my health, my happiness, and my family’s well-being in pursuit of a career. If it didn’t work for us all, then it didn’t work.
ELEVEN years on, and two more children later, I’ve found myself grappling with the same dilemma: how do I remain present to my family and stay true to the call of motherhood, while also responding to a new vocation — this time, the call to ordained ministry?
My response has been to suspend my training for this academic year, despite having successfully completed my first year. The reasons are complex and personal, but they all relate to the struggle of trying to follow faithfully two separate callings without compromising the integrity of either vocation. At times, it has been an impossible task.
I wrote on my blog about my decision to suspend my training, and I have been astonished by people’s reactions. Messages from both women and men in ministry have highlighted the strain that people clearly feel at having to pretend that they have everything under control at all times. I feel very strongly that mine is a ministry of fierce and prophetic honesty; I’m unashamed to admit that I can’t do it all, and I sometimes wonder how much of a disservice we’re doing to one another when we pretend that we can.
Most of the responses that I received from people were critical of the Church. There was a definite feeling that it ought to be possible to have a healthy family life and train for ministry, but that the system made this difficult.
I have received nothing but kindness, understanding, and support from the staff team at my college, and also from my diocesan director of ordinands. People understand how hard it is to juggle the demands of a large family with academic training, and non-judgemental help is available if you ask for it. It is also encouraging that there is clearly a desire and a willingness to support parents. When I compare this with my treatment in secular employment, the difference is stark.
UNFORTUNATELY, many of the part-time training pathways available to people with caring responsibilities still seem to be trying to ape the residential mode of training (still seen by some as the benchmark for ministerial formation).
There is a focus on fostering a community environment and ethos, which is undoubtedly very helpful to the people who have the freedom to enter into that wholeheartedly. If, however, you are training on a part-time basis, it’s very easy to feel on the fringe of things. Also, training pathways that necessitate weekends and study-weeks away from family are very difficult for some parents to accommodate — particularly since these weeks often fall in the school holidays.
I remain unconvinced whether this makes us the best priests, particularly those of us whose circumstances demand that we fit training into already extremely busy lives. The artificial bubble of theological college can feel divorced from our day-to-day reality. It also does little to teach us how to manage a work-life balance that is healthy and spiritually fulfilling — for ourselves and for our families.
I also see too many women who feel torn, guilt-ridden, and emotionally strung out by the competing demands of motherhood and training for ministry, but who feel unable to voice their distress because they see no available alternative.
It is vital that we are honest about what we find difficult, and why, because, if we continue to do it all, all the time, then that is precisely what we’ll be expected to carry on doing.
Among women, there is often an unspoken need to prove ourselves; to show evidence that we are just as capable as our male counterparts (because we are).
But, because most women still perform the majority of household chores, emotional labour, and caring responsibilities, the burden can be too heavy to bear. There is no shame in standing up and admitting that — for it is the only way that things will change.
For me, it is not merely a question of logistics and practicalities: it is also about the emotional toll of being pulled in one way by formation and another by my family. Being told that this struggle is merely “good preparation for ministry” (as I was told by one church leader) is massively unhelpful.
I am also told that there is more flexibility in ministry, as you are more in control of your diary.
Training for ministry and motherhood ought not to be polarised callings, and the stress and anxiety of trying to be faithful to both is not a price that we should have to pay.
The Church of England welcomes candidates from a diverse variety of backgrounds. Perhaps it is now time to introduce a more flexible model of training to reflect that.