The following is an excerpt from Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. The book chronicles the Dana family’s experience of taking a day-long Sabbath every week for a year and provides inspiration and practical wisdom for families of all shapes and sizes who want to make Sabbath time more of a priority in their lives.
Even if you’re not a creature of habit like I am, a lot of parenting is painfully repetitive. I’ve heard that the average baby uses 6,000 diapers before becoming toilet trained. I ponder our family’s 18,000 diapers—I wonder how much landfill space that entails—and I think about how much time Robert and I have spent diapering these last few years.
I vary the lunches I make for Caroline, not because she wants variety—she doesn’t—but because making peanut butter sandwiches for 180 days in a row, every year, might cause me a repetitive stress injury in my brain.
We don’t like to admit to the monotony, especially if we know someone who’d give anything to have children; or someone whose child is sick; or someone who has lost children to illness, accident, or other tragedy. I know all of the above.
But it’s true. Parenthood contains moments of bewilderment and joy, but it can also be deadly dull, punctuated by spilled juice and kid-on-kid hitting. Sabbath doesn’t save us from the dullness, but it does provide a set-apart time—an opportunity to reconnect with the idea of parenting as a holy vocation, even when life seems an unholy mess.
When I was pregnant with Caroline, a friend who’d given birth a few months prior said, “I never knew how much my parents loved me until I had my baby.” As she held her infant daughter and rubbed her fuzzy blond head, I thought about my friend’s newfound wisdom, the realization of the awesome responsibility of parenthood, and the flood of unconditional love that had apparently come to her.
Then I had Caroline, who liked to nurse around the clock, whose hungry cry of “aaa-AAAA!!” bore into me like a screwdriver to the skull.
After dealing with a bout of infant gastroenteritis, including several days of diapers that could have been designated as Superfund sites, I talked to my friend again: “You remember what you said about realizing how much your parents loved you?”
“Was that, like, a fuzzy romantic kind of idea? Or was it that you finally realized how much work parenting is and were amazed at the fact that your parents did it for you?”
“Are you kidding? The second one!”
“Yeah. I didn’t get that until now.”
I feel fortunate that our children are basically content and in good health. The days run together, but they revolve around getting dressed and putting on shoes, not administering medication or visiting specialists. Still, a person craves novelty. There’s novelty in parenting, but it’s embedded in a year-in, year-out slow march of days.
“You’re thinking about this all wrong,” says a friend and mother of two. “Parenthood isn’t repetitive. It’s liturgical.”
I laugh, “You would say that; you’re an Episcopalian. Everything’s liturgical to you guys.” But I know what she means. What we do is sacred work. The fact that it’s repeated doesn’t make it devalued. The work provides stability and comfort. And it makes the deviation from the routine that much more delicious.
Sabbath ensures that one day out of seven, there is a disruption in the liturgy, a break in the rhythm. There is no table set the night before with cereal bowls, because maybe we won’t have cereal for breakfast. On Sabbath, there’s no reason to choose the fastest option. We can eat what our bellies tell us to eat, whatever the random ingredients we find in the kitchen make possible. Coffee cake? Waffles? (One Jewish writer allows his children to eat sugary cereals on the Sabbath, a sweet indulgence that’s off limits on other days.)
Taking a break from the routine changes the way I think about the routine.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is author of Sabbath in the Suburbs and is currently working on a book about “spirituality in the smartphone age.” She is a popular speaker and retreat leader about Sabbath, faith formation and congregational transformation. Connect with her at The Blue Room.