Why young mothers should read Amy Julia Becker’s newest book
by Jen Pollock Michel
Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most
Amy Julia Becker
Paperback: Zondervan, 2014
She kept a list. She wrote reminders. Something to ask. A story to tell. An opinion to solicit. My friend’s list was our only real hope for sustaining thought in the sitcom quality of life during the years when our children were young. We suffered the constancy of commercial breaks: to change a diaper, to zip up a jacket, to retrieve Buzz Lightyear who’d been mercilessly thrown into the toilet. To think that our friendship survived the bleary-eyed years of that episodic sanity, when we were cycling and recycling through the states of pregnancy and nursing and potty-training is a testament to the great mercy of God.
I’ve almost forgotten how harried those days actually were. My friend’s list of conversational prompts remind me, however, that it was once an Olympic feat to finish a sentence, much less see to the cohesion and conclusion of a conversation. I can take for granted the long stretches of quiet I now have to myself to write and study in the middle of the day when the children (all five of them!) are off to school. I even make uninterrupted phone calls.
Recently rereading Amy Julia Becker’s lovely book, Small Talk, reminds me that young mothers need a special kind of compassion. I don’t at all mean that they should be pitied. But I do mean that they should be granted special dispensation: for falling asleep in church, for failing at the spiritual disciplines, and, on occasion, for throwing pillows.
“Do we really need to have a fight right now?” Becker asks her middle child, William, in the chapter entitled, “Forgiveness.” Having refused to get dressed, “[William] throws his pillows.” Becker confesses, “I throw them back.”
This scene is like so many others in the book: humorous, a little discomfiting, perceptibly real. Becker writes about motherhood in all of its humanness, and the short chapters are well-suited for the distractibility of mothers with clamorous little ones. Subtitled, “Learning from my children what matters most,” Becker’s book offers spiritual lessons that are simple without being simplistic. In fact, what I might like best about the book is the insistent need to defend the holy beauty of materiality and the idea that we can find God in the kitchen as well as the cloister. Becker does this, not be waxing eloquent for pages about ethereal ideas, but by embedding theological truth in the sights and sounds of the everyday. For example, when struggling alongside her children in the tension between, as Becker calls them, “American Christmas” and “Christian Christmas,” she begins conceding the division may not be as discrete as she might have once thought. Why not sing ‘Holly, Jolly Christmas?’ she wonders. “It strikes me again,” she writes, “that the whole point of Christmas, theologically speaking, is that the abstract become physical, the conceptual became concrete.”
Becker avoids being overly ponderous in her book, which I can’t help thinking, for her audience, is salvific in approach. Young mothers have enough anxiety-producing literature they’re supposed to be reading. What they may most need is reason to laugh. A favorite scene in Becker’s book, which produced my own laugh-out-loud moment, is the occasion Becker describes of trying to acclimate their two young children to sharing a bedroom. William (oh, William!) needs considerably less sleep than the rest of the household, and eventually, Becker and her husband decide to use baby gates at the bedroom door to prevent his dangerous wandering. But once the parents are settled into bed, Penny (oh, Penny!), Becker’s delightful older daughter, concocts a strategic plan of escape.
“‘WILLIAM BECKER! You push that part right now! Push! Push! Push it down!’ One gate topples. Penny’s tone shifts. ‘Great job, William. I knew you could do it. Let’s take a break and then we’ll get the other one.'”
Teaching us to teach our children, Becker’s book grounds lessons about life with God solidly in the soil of family life: sure, there’s mess. But there’s sun-drenched goodness, too. Small Talk is a book for learning to speak of the Holy as “you sit in your house, and you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” But it doesn’t just teach us to teach. Maybe more importantly, it teaches us to learn: to laugh and to love, to fail and to forgive. For the patient instruction of our children, we, along with Becker, return our gratitude.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”