Barbara Mahany on ‘Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving’

ReadTheSpirit Editor

We are publishing this interview with Barbara Mahany before Mother’s Day 2017 in the hope that our readers will order her book right now. When the book arrives, first, read it yourself and jot a personal note in the front of the book—then give it to a mother you love.

It’s that kind of rare book—as thought-provoking and inspiring for the “kids” (especially adult kids) who read it as well as for the “mothers” who will turn these pages. The short chapters are perfect for daily reflection. And, watch out! This book may move you to action. Occasionally, after reading a short chapter, you may feel moved to write a letter—either to a mom you know, or if you’re a mom yourself, to an adult “kid” you love.

This is a memoir spanning many years of maternal experiences by Barbara Mahany, perhaps best known from her earlier life as a beloved Chicago Tribune columnist. Even if you don’t live in the Chicago area, you may have enjoyed her columns via wire services or the Internet. Her columns are perceptive viewpoints on daily life that you’re likely to find someone tacking to a bulletin board at the office—or to a refrigerator door.

So, that’s our main message in publishing this interview with Barbara today: Get the book now and you’re sure to have a marvelous experience sharing these stories in the weeks ahead!


Barbara had an advantage in preparing this 200-page volume. Remember our recent cover-story interview with author Maggie Rowe, who “workshopped” her book by reading aloud sections of her manuscript on stage before crowds in Hollywood?

Well, Barbara had a similar experience with at least a couple of the chapters in Motherprayer. She did not sit down at a blank computer screen and type up these reflections in a matter of weeks, or even months. This book includes pieces that span a decade of writing, including a couple of revised versions of columns she published via the Tribune, before she retired in 2012.

“A few of the essays in the new book were published in earlier drafts in the Tribune and they always got a huge response from readers—so I know that readers appreciate it when I write about these things,” Barbara said in our interview. That’s the same way Maggie Rowe felt confident about how readers would respond to her memoir. Audiences already have confirmed the value of the prose.

Barbara has another big advantage in connecting with readers through her new memoir: These little stories from daily life are artfully written so that they come across as bigger than her own life, and in fact many of them are even bigger than motherhood itself. They are about parents’ deep connection with the next generation. As we all inevitably age and reflect on the all-too-fleeting span of our lives—as Barbara has herself over many years of living and writing—we pin our deepest spiritual hopes on the potential of love. Are we loved? Have we loved others?

A search for loving connection lies at the core of our deepest spiritual yearnings.

“If I had to sum up what this book represents,” Barbara said in our interview, “it’s my attempt to pull together in one record a message to my boys: How deeply you are loved!”

And, as precise and moving as these little daily scenes are in the book, Barbara follows the best of journalistic style by offering each true story in a universal way.

“I realize that not every story in the book will connect with every reader. But the book is quite a pastiche! Here’s a moment. Then, a few pages later, here’s another moment. Maybe this one is the perfect entry point for you. Oh, no? Not a part of your experience? Well, then, turn the page and: Consider this next one,” Barbara said. “My point here is not to put myself and my children in the spotlight. That may sound like a strange thing to say, since this is a book about our experiences. But this book took me more than 10 years to write and it really is my way of offering to readers many ways we can connect and think about our experiences as parents.

“Parents understand that our lives are full of nonstop ephemeral moments. One amazing thing happens after another—and you’re sure, in each moment, that you’ll never forget what happens. But we do. We all forget things. Then, in reading through this book, I hope parents will be triggered to remember and think in new ways about so many experiences we’ve shared.”


If you get a copy of this book, you’ll want to clear your throat. At some point, you’re going to want to read aloud to a friend or relative. In fact, if you’re among the millions of Americans who participate in a weekly small group (ranging from congregations to libraries to coffee shops to living rooms), then you’ll most likely festoon this volume with bookmarks to remember passages you could share with your group.

Want an example? Page 5 begins like this:

Prayer, on my good days, is how I breathe. It’s listening, as much as whispering. It takes the wobble out of my knees and puts the wallop into my heart’s beat. It’s woven into the hours, from cock’s crow until the moment my eyelids finally flutter closed for the day. It unspools without measure or meter. It might be a geyser. Or merely a murmur.

Another example, also on the theme of morning prayer comes on page 30:

When your morning prayer on a particular day—a day that demands much, too much, from its players—seems most aptly punctuated by the stirring of spoon through a muddle of oats. When the first thing you reach for, come dawn, is the grain that amounts to a mother’s amulet. And as you stand there tossing in handfuls of shriveled-up gems—fruits the colors of amethyst, ruby, garnet, or onyx—you imagine yourself some sort of sorceress, arming your brood for the slaying of dragons to come.

And—as she does periodically throughout this book—Barbara finishes this meditation on stirring a pot of oats with her recipe for what she calls “Worth-the-Wait Porridge.”

These early pieces feature scenes interacting with her children while they were young. But, late in the book, she includes meditations written as a parent of grown-up kids. One that appeared in the Tribune is called “Welcome Home, College Freshman. XOXO”

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply. This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn. Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report to the grown-ups back home.

A few pages later, she shares her favorite autumn recipe: “Welcome-Home Brisket.”


In our interview, I asked Barbara why her books are so—well, so read-aloudable. “Do you think it’s part of the backgrounds we share in journalism? I know the best journalism often is written so that it can be voiced.”

But Barbara, as she often does in the book, surprised me with her answer. She said, “I liken it to being a butterfly catcher—and my net is made of words.”

“That’s true,” I said chuckling at the elegance of that line (which appears in her book, too, by the way). “But your net also is made of food, right? Readers can cook along with you as they enjoy these stories.”

“I’m a whole body writer—and I believe that prayer involves the whole body as well,” she said. “And in my relationship to my boys, my prayer naturally is connected with food—just as I describe the morning ritual of making porridge.

“There are times when the deepest way we can feed the people we love is by setting something in front of them that speaks to them on all levels of life,” she continued. “I pay attention and know that my son’s favorite is macaroni and cheese. So, on a particularly difficult day, I know I can’t go with him into whatever he may be facing, but I certainly can put a bowl of macaroni and cheese in front of him, when he returns home. It’s a form of prayerfulness that’s beyond words. It’s a way of filling a deep place in someone’s life. I believe it matters.”

In fact, she added, “I understand the kitchen counter and the dining room table as altars of the home. Putting out food is a form of holy communion at the deepest level. Now, I’m no Martha Stewart! And I certainly have pulled crazy stuff out of the freezer to make an easy supper. But I know that, at its best, food can tap into the liturgical DNA that speaks to all of us on all levels.”

And, finally, this book also is sprinkled with prayers that readers may very likely find themselves jotting down for their own use—perhaps at mealtimes. Simple prayers, often. As simple and nourishing as the oatmeal.

Here’s a wonderful little prayer to start the day.

Dear God, I thank you. Now let us tiptoe softly into this day.


Care to read more?

GET THE BOOKMotherprayer is available on Amazon in hardcover and Kindle.

‘SLOWING TIME’—You might also want to learn about Mahany’s book Slowing Time by enjoying this 2015 ReadTheSpirit interview with her about that earlier project.

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