At Your Service: Thoughts on Downton Abbey, and Life

I dread my kids getting sick–and not just because I hate to see them suffer. […]

I dread my kids getting sick–and not just because I hate to see them suffer. So much for empathy, right? 

dowOur latest cavalcade of illnesses–recurrent ear infections, nasty colds, and a violent stomach virus–coincided with the wrapping-up of the series Downton Abbey. And don’t think for a second that the deep cosmic significance of that timing is lost on me. I’ve been a fan of the show since summer of 2011, when I tuned in via Netflix from the couch and fought off waves of morning (and afternoon, and evening) sickness by escaping to early-20th century England. I gasped at the machinations of Thomas and O’Brien, rued the endless personal toll of the Titanic’s sinking, teared up at Mr. Bates’s leg trouble, and guffawed at Violet’s unfailing zingers.

Over the next five seasons, I escaped to the Abbey while nursing my first son, assisting him in his recovery from neck, then spinal, surgery, nursing my second son, and enduring this year’s Virus-Fest. Each season seemed to coincide with a pivotal time in my life as a mother. The diversion was welcome; the characters, friends; the story, consuming. For an hour a week (more, if you count re-watches–and there were many) I was drawn away from caring and cleaning and into watching as servants took on those tasks and the Crawleys enjoyed fresh dinners and shiny floors.

a2fee60a-e3e6-4154-8bc7-3c2451af5c6f-2060x1236Parenthood is a slog, ya heard? And no, that’s not a direct Dowager Countess quote, but she did winningly say that “one forgets the on and on-ness of it.” I remember watching one week as the tradition of children being brought to their parents for a mere hour a day was reenacted. I suppose the audience was meant to disapprove of such limited interaction, but I found myself wondering if our society might re-implement it.

I have two young boys and recently decided to stay home with them, which means I have changed the profession on my LinkedIn profile to “Human Jungle Gym/Bodily Fluid Sponge.” I am kicked, poked, sneezed at, peed on, and farted upon countless times a day. It’s offensive. And, at times, wonderful. But mostly exhausting. I often feel like one of the downstairs crew at the Abbey–and my taskmasters have never even been so considerate as to help me hide a dead body or come for tea to clear the reputation of my bed and breakfast. Am I overdoing it with this comparison? Maybe–but don’t assume so before you walk a mile in my soon-to-be orthopedic shoes, with my back pain, on my amount of sleep.

A recent conversation with a friend revealed some kinship on this subject, as we bonded over our aversion to so many of the historically lauded characteristics of children. “Everyone talks about how great babies smell. I think they stink,” she said, and I reasoned, “That’s because they’ve usually just crapped their pants.” “They’re just so needy,” she continued, and I mentioned how my one-year-old remains annoyingly unemployed.. I’ve come to realize that this is an attractive feature of parenting to some–this being needed. Much like the couples on House Hunters who are ALWAYS looking for a home that’s good for entertaining.

What’s so great about stuffing your living quarters with people who want constant refills and keep asking where the bathroom is? There’s a weight that comes with knowing where all the cleaning supplies are (spoiler alert: under the sink, Mr. Wolf) and how to use them, and though I often feel like a rock star after getting the baby to take his medicine, I find myself resenting the fact that I’m the one who’s best at it. It’s hard, is what I’m saying–this season of life in which I’m training small people to behave like human beings (a skill I haven’t mastered myself), and I’m not carpe-dieming all over it, nor am I finding the outline of Jesus’ face in every dirty diaper. Most of the time I’m breaking promises about doing better while secretly being proud I didn’t speed off alone in the night, leaving a car-sized hole in our garage. Where’s my medal for that?

But there are moments. I write about a lot of them, if only to document the fact that they exist and remind myself that grace also does, often wrapped inside the toughest moments–and don’t think the cosmic significance of that pairing is lost on me. A giggle paired with a kick to my ovaries from the changing table, a vomit-soaked face buried in my shoulder, a whine from a former nonverbal kid that gives way to my current calling card: “Mama.” This is servanthood, not slavery, and my privileged self often has a hard time not conflating the two. I suspect I’m not alone.

A_Free_And_Secure_ServantA life of service is typically seen as something to rise above in our culture: we love the narrative of the waitress who was “discovered” and became an Oscar-winning actress; we laud the nurse who went back to school and became a doctor. Even Matthew Crawley (RIP), circa one hundred years ago and early in Season One, called out the absurdity of one man helping another get dressed. But what could have been a singular commentary on outdated customs, a “rise above this and stick it to the man!” chant, became a moment revealing one character’s ridicule of the other’s livelihood. The idea was forged early on in the show that while service was populated by the relatively optionless lower classes, it was not a life devoid of pride or purpose.

Also quickly established was the existence of deep relationships between the upstairs and downstairs characters. If anything, Downton Abbey chronicled more the enmeshment of the two groups rather than their exclusivity. The bridge between the two was formed not by shininess of shoes or a perfectly-risen souffle but by years of loyalty and confiding and just doing life together–in the same location, if not wearing the same clothing or eating off the same plates. The aristocracy and the servants displayed a surprising mutuality of relationship given their upstairs/downstairs division, which creator Julian Fellowes says he drew from his own aristocratic ancestors’ relationship with their staff. In a podcast recently, Fellowes said: “What I got from them was that sense with some servants of that kind of interdependence and sort of friendship that some people deny ever existed. ‘Oh this is so sentimental; nobody was ever nice to their lady’s maid,’ but of course that’s nonsense. I mean, how could you be dressed and undressed every day of your life by someone you disliked? You wouldn’t. You’d get rid of them because the situation is too intimate.”

a5902735ab9597d3037c156e425c029bThere is an inherent beauty in giving of ourselves–our comfort, our freedom, our time–for another’s well-being. Moments of this beauty are often personified among the relationships seen on Downton Abbey, but these are and must be shadows of a deeper sacrifice. Coming closer, perhaps, is the “on- and on-ness” of parenthood, filled as it is with endless repetition and curtailed desires. In a recent interview, Adele had to audacity to speak of the purpose she’s found in being a mother, to which several media outlets responded with a horrified collective gasp, busily scrambling to reconcile her statement with a feminist worldview. They’d be apoplectic over Kathleen Norris, who wrote that it’s the routine–the daily slog–that is truly redemptive:

…the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of the litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor.

Now, me? I’m struggling to find that transformative potential from the bathroom floor, or bent over the washing machine. I’m even clinging to Adele’s purpose-finding, because many days I wonder if a robot might do it all better than I do…and with less emotional turbulence. Which is why I need something more than motherhood and its virtues–nay, even more than Downton Abbey and its!–to get me through the day without an empty bottle of bourbon hidden under the bed. “Something more” being the code words that always point me to grace and its perfect embodiment:

Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.

In The Great Divorce, C.S, Lewis wrote, “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Jesus made it clear that he came to bring freedom. He also made it clear that sin, not servanthood, is what leads to slavery. Servanthood is painful because it’s a form of death: a death to ourselves. And if it weren’t for the servanthood lived out perfectly by Christ, my own resentfully-practiced, imperfect version of it would lead nowhere and mean nothing. Which I will remind myself next time the kids get sick…or just need dinner. May God have mercy by continuing to allow me to in some small way emulate the servanthood of his Son in the lives of both of mine.