Can You Seek Enlightenment And Be A Parent At The Same Time?

Lynn Beisner asks: Why are none of our religious role models involved parents?

A friend of mine is one of the leading experts on Gandhi. In a recent conversation, he mentioned offhandedly, “Yeah, Gandhi was a terrible father.”

It took a while for what he said to sink in. At first, it was just a relief. Not even Gandhi did a good job of parenting, so I can let myself off of the hook.

Then it occurred to me that for religious people, parenting is spiritually demanding work. It requires a level of trust, forgiveness, and unconditional love no other relationship requires. It occurred to me that parenting might be such spiritually demanding work that not even someone like Gandhi could not do it well.  

It got me thinking: One of the things shared by most of our religions is that they were founded not only by men, but they were all founded by people who were not actively parenting when they found enlightenment, had their revelations, or wrote our sacred texts. Let’s go down the list: the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to find enlightenment. Jesus was not a parent, and he instructed his disciples to leave their families to follow him. Peter, Paul, and Augustine—all not parents. Abraham was not a father when God first appeared to him. And once he  became a parent,  his parenting is depicted as the only serious challenge to his faith in God. The one possible exception is Muhammad who did have children when he received his visions. But here is the catch: He received his visions during the weeks he spent alone in a cave every year meditating.

The truth is that our examples of enlightenment and the men who founded all of our major religions were not people who were actively involved in parenting. There are a couple of ways we can look at this. The first is that the kind of devotion it takes to become enlightened means you can’t have a family or at least you have to be able to take off for weeks at a time to engage in meditation. You could look at this and say that no one has ever found enlightenment over a diaper pail.

The problem with this is that it reinforces what our religions have taught us, that men have some special access to the Divine. What seems far more likely is that men were often freed from the responsibilities of family so that they could seek specific kinds of spiritual awakenings and record them for posterity.

Another way of viewing this is that it makes a statement about how profoundly difficult parenting is. It is so difficult that even the most enlightened and spiritual human beings in the history of humanity could not parent and receive enlightenment at the same time. In this view any old person can attain enlightenment, but being a good parent, that takes spiritual chops.

Or we can think of it this way: Almost everything that we know about the divine, about what it means to be spiritual, has been delivered to us through the voices of people who were either not parents or who were not actively involved in parenting. So is it possible that many parents do experience enlightenment over the diaper pail, the only difference is, they have not had the time to write it all down and form a religion? They are too busy living out their enlightenment.

Of course, this could be just a side effect of the fact that all of our religions’ founders have been men. But however we interpret the disconnect between our religions and parenting, I think it is important to remember that our religions do not give us parenting role models. Of course we can say that Christianity offers us God the Father. But God the Father never calmed a colicky baby, and his one human incarnation, Jesus, never parented.

I have come to wonder if the point of celibacy in many religions is not about finding enlightenment through asceticism. I wonder if it is actually about avoiding the challenges posed by parenting. I think about the Buddha, sitting under the tree until enlightenment quite literally dawns on him. Now I think of him trying to meditate his way to enlightenment while a baby cried, a toddler ran circles around the tree, a third-grader presented him with a report card to be signed, and a teenager demanded keys to the car. Obviously, that quiet, meditative form of enlightenment is not going to happen.

When we talk about rebooting our roles in families, about creating gender equality, we have to start thinking about our religious role models. When all of them are either childless or are not involved in parenting, men have to wonder if parenting is truly unimportant, since no one has been enlightened by it or written sacred scripture about it.

I think that we have to start digging up some religious role models for parenting—and by that I mean human men and women who have faced the challenges of the diaper pail, of colic, of teenage and toddler tantrums and have found transcendent meaning in it. Perhaps the sort of enlightenment that one can find over a diaper pail is the kind that we should be seeking.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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