If “What To Expect,” “Traveling Mercies,” and “I and Thou” had a baby: A review of Hopes and Fears

It takes a certain amount of fortitude to read a book on the joys and challenges of parenting when you’re single and childless not by choice. To do so during the holidays takes flat out bravery. So I sat down on a Sunday afternoon, girded by a burrito in the mission district following a holiday concert by the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (both things I can do on a whim, so that I was stocked up on the joys of being accountable to no one) and read Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People. I read it partly because I am friends with the authors, Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses, but I read it more because I know both of them to be compelling writers who don’t meander or border on the narcissistic, and because when they take on theology, they do so in very smart, never knee-jerk, accessible ways.


They did not disappoint. I jokingly described it to a friend as “Anne Lamott for people in traditional family contexts,” because it’s that honest, fun, smart and vulnerable, and that comforting. My  ministry places me in a very different context than the authors. But their “social location” as middle class White folks living in houses with backyards and biological kids and husbands who fathered those kids within the parameters of marriage is not a barrier to their message. Hopes and Fears will resonate with the parents I call friends and colleagues, many of whom aren’t White, most of whom are adoptive, some of whom are single, some of whom are gay couples, some of whom are or were teenage moms. I remember my own Scottish mother talking about a college class she took to re-certify as a teacher in the United States. She was in her late forties, and while most of the 20-somethings in the class were White and from her socioeconomic background, she gravitated towards the African American woman in her class who, in her mid-forties, was earning a college degree. The reason they gravitated towards each other was partly age, but it was mostly that they had kids the same age. Parenting in a nuclear family context with little support and few healthy models (and very little willingness to admit our struggles and failures publicly—thanks, Calvinism) can be very isolating, and when we find partners in the struggle who can relate and sympathize, we are wise to hold fast. Bromleigh and Lee serve as partners in that parenting journey. (I do wonder what their next book might look like in even deeper and richer conversation with people from a diversity of family models—probably not very different in content or theology, since they are so solid, just different in illustrations that might be even more universal.)


I will not lie. As an almost-37-year-old woman who had assumed that by this point in my life I would have a partner and family, I read the first half of the book with a lump in my throat about the world these friends inhabit that I simply don’t and may never get to (although prepare for the book I’m going to get Chris Dorsey and Tami Groves to co-author with me when I eventually adopt as a single person). But once I got past myself (something that parents get daily practice at), I recognized that there are some core ontological issues Hull Moses and McCleneghan wrestle with—issues core to the center of our being as people, and particularly as people who believe in a loving God. Parenthood invites them to reflect on those issues from a new location but with the same core conviction that our belief in a God of love means some significant things about how we engage each other. A chapter on how-to baby books is actually about what it means for us to move into a postmodern era (the past 500 years since the reformation and renaissance being defined as the “modern era,” where science, facts and definable truths were at the core of the human pursuit).

“We disagree about what makes something true and what gives someone authority,” writes McCleneghan in the chapter “I’m the Mommy, That’s Why: on authority, and experts, and looking for truth.” (And yes, all the chapter titles are that good.) “My shelf of parenting books is a pretty clear demonstration of this; the parenting rack at a bookstore would render the differences of opinion even more obvious…. It’s bewildering if not outright frightening to chip away at the one conception of truth we’ve held to. Human beings experience change as stressful. When a change in the things we consider authoritative accompanies the change of bringing home a baby, it’s a wonder we don’t all just crawl into the cradle, adopt the fetal position alongside our progeny, and join them in whimpering.”

How do we foster stability and comfort in a context where everything is up for grabs, without reverting to a “This is how it is—don’t argue or you knock down the precariously balanced stack of blocks” approach? Each chapter wrestles with big questions like that–questions big enough to hold and challenge and nurture all of us.


McCleneghan and Hull Moses would probably want me to be really clear that this isn’t a how to book, which is how many people responded (enthusiastically) when I mentioned on facebook I was reading an excellent parenting book. Friends and colleagues commented to me that they often feel like they’re not doing parenting right, or that it is isolating and there are few really solid resources out there for folks who feel like they’re drowning. Now’s not the time for my diatribe on how the Victorian era really screwed us by creating this dysfunctional model of family that isolates nuclear families and then blames us for struggling with parenting and managing the demands and call of work at the same time. Instead, I can’t wait to point many of my parenting friends to this resource not as a how-to, but as a you’re-not-crazy, and as a source of hope and comfort and inspiration by two VERY smart, and equally fun, women who are great feminists and advocates for justice who are learning where God is in the midst of the poopy diapers and the evolving relationship between spouses when the family expands and how to respond to the simultaneous callings of work (for them, pastoring) and parenting.


And I can’t wait to give this book to my very smart, faith-filled feminist mother when she visits me next week, which is the biggest compliment I can give a book. Besides the compliment of saying it’s in the vein of Anne Lamott.

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