An Ignatian Spirit for Parenting in Our Current Times

Image credit: Creative Independence by Nattu

Image credit: Creative Independence by Nattu

As our family marched in the Women’s March this past January, my four-year-old daughter proudly displayed a hand-written sign, complete with backwards letters and misspellings, that read “Annie for President 2056!” Her cowgirl boots clapping the pavement alongside the energized feet of thousands of marchers, she raised that sign high, smiling at the many strangers who were uplifted by her confidence and spirit. It wasn’t just her buoyancy that drew them to her—it was the hope that one day a woman will claim the highest role within our nation and lead it with the grace, authenticity and competence it deserves. Just as important to me as my daughter’s aspiration is my son’s response to her declaration of candidacy. When he saw the sign, he exclaimed, “it’s the beginning of her campaign!” and we brainstormed together what he might do as her campaign manager. All of our girls deserve no less than for everyone around them to cheer them on toward the leadership that our organizations, our churches and governments so desperately need, and for the men in women’s lives to offer their enthusiasm and support.

It is an immense responsibility to parent in these times. I am confident that for my parents (and for their parents before them), parenting was not easy. But the challenges of parenting in 2018 make many parents with whom I speak feel overwhelmed most of the time. The lives of working parents are as demanding as ever, alongside the very difficult realities of racism, the fear of people who are undocumented and those who love them, the realities of climate change, and a national and ecclesial narrative that continually re-inscribes white male dominance. It’s no wonder today’s parents feel overwhelmed! What I’d like to offer are three practices from the Jesuit and Catholic tradition that tether the family unit together as a source of honesty, love, accountability and belonging amidst turbulent times.

Check in with each other regularly. The Ignatian Examen, a practice encouraged by St. Ignatius 500 years ago, offers a family-friendly structure for creating space to connect and share honestly our experiences together. Each family member shares the “roses, thorns and buds” from their days, echoing Ignatius’s call to review the day for consolations and desolations, as well as to name a hope or intention for tomorrow. The space to name both the “roses” and the “thorns” makes it possible to be grateful for the goodness in our days, but also to be authentic about challenges, confusion, loneliness, or loss, helping children know that all of these feelings and experiences “belong” at the family table or at the bedtime tuck-in. Social researcher and author Brene Brown says “feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human. It’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.” When family members can bring our most authentic or broken selves to each other and to a loving God who accompanies us, we can create space to honor our own lived experience and to respect the lived experience of another.

Decide where you “stand” as a family. St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises includes a “Meditation on the Two Standards,” an invitation to reflect on where one stands before Christ. It invites the participant to notice his/her values and where they are not in alignment with the teachings of Jesus. The #MeToo movement may inspire families to consider the foundational values that serve as standards for how they treat others. A couple of years ago, we sat down together and developed a list of “Tilghman-Havens Family Values.” We posted them on our wall and they remind us, in our dozens of daily trips through the kitchen, what we stand for and to what we hold each other in loving accountability. The list includes: “caring for our bodies, minds and spirits,” “hospitality and generosity,” “learning and growing,” “honoring the earth,” and “expressing feelings.” Every few months, we put them in the center of our table and decide what to add or where we’ve forgotten to live that value fully. “Expressing feelings” calls us to listen fully to one another and to remind one another when behavior transgresses a boundary. We are especially insistent that our boy listens to his sister’s voice and respects her space and her body, and we encourage her to express her needs and desires. These “standards” can also help a family decide what is or is not aligned with various media that children encounter. When the lyrics of a current pop song referred to women as “hot,” my husband and I talked with our son about how this term makes girls and women into objects, therefore not honoring their bodies, minds or spirits. A family’s guiding principles serve as a guide for how they encounter the world.

Strive toward justice within family roles. The rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which honors human dignity and justice, can inform family roles. The division of family responsibilities sets gender expectations and can either constrain or free family members from unequal roles. Research on women and negotiation has found that one source of the unjust gender wage gap is the very earliest division and compensation of labor within the home for boys and girls. Girls often are tasked with the “daily” chores which go largely unnoticed and uncompensated. Boys take on discreet projects like lawn-mowing or snow-shoveling, for which they earn payment. Girls learn at an early age that they are meant to be “of service,” while boys associate work with compensation. For two years now, our ten-year old son has been in charge of the family’s laundry. Despite one or two shrunken wool sweaters and the occasional resistance to the mounds of folding, he has taken this on as a source of pride and has even shown his friends how to work the washer and dryer! 

While we can have influence over our norms at home, what my daughter and son learn about gender roles by attending church each Sunday gives me pause. I am deeply heartened by the recent commitment of the Episcopal church to commit to inclusive language for God, and I pray that the language and leadership within Catholic churches can evolve as women’s voices and truths are acknowledged as sacred. My daughter trusts that she can be this country’s president one day if she sets her mind to it. I entrust to the Holy Spirit my hope that perhaps women’s gifts as preachers, leaders, and ministers can be fully received and celebrated by her own Catholic community as well.


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Jennifer Tilghman-Havens

Jennifer Tilghman-Havens is a teacher, writer, facilitator, and spiritual director at the Center for Jesuit Education at Seattle University, and the creator of the “Parenting in an Ignatian Spirit” group through the Ignatian Spirituality Center.  She is humbled and inspired daily by her supportive partner and two children.