There are “tidy” sins we mothers contend with — sloth that keeps us from cleaning the play room for the millionth time, impatience and the occasional swear word. Then there are the sins that fester, wound our hearts and disrupt the peace at home. In my first few months of mothering, I didn’t even recognize my sin as sin. After all, I was the one who sleep-deprived, sore from childbirth, bored, lonely and heroically staying at home to tend to our little one. Every time my husband walked out the door, took a shower by himself, rolled over when I got up at night and ate a hot meal using a knife and fork at the same time, I secretly and self-righteously nursed a bit of…what? When I finally realized that envy was destroying what should have been the first joyful days with our precious baby boy, I very nearly despaired. My husband held me while I cried in his arms one night. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop keeping score. Even though my husband worked a night shift, slept precious little and bent over backwards to care for me and our child, I still resented his apparent freedom.
When a friend, mother of a one-year-old, told me how she too had struggled with resentment and envy, I bit my lip and dug my toes into the carpet to keep from crying again. The relief of knowing that I was not the only patient in this ward of the One, Holy and Catholic hospital for sinners was tremendous. I vowed to be more honest with other mothers because sharing our weakness gives us strength. What follows is a list of little epiphanies God has given me along the way, primarily through the wisdom of Fr. Jacques Philippe (I cannot recommend Interior Freedom highly enough), that I hope will be a source of encouragement:
1. The only suffering you have to endure is the one of the present moment.
Mixed in with my envy was a tremendous fear that everything would stay as it was forever. My husband and I are in our early twenties, and likely have many child-bearing years ahead of us, but only God knows. Only God knows if we will be blessed with more children. Only God knows if the next child will be colicky or pure sweetness. Only God knows if I will be a stay-at-home mom or will return to a career. My only task is to meet and love Him in the present moment: “For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.”
When you are concerned only with the here and now, the crosses of mothering don’t seem so burdensome, and the joys are magnified. When you meet God now, He frees you from the burden of yourself and offers the sweet and light burden of His love.
2. Take away envy, and what’s mine is yours.
In marriage, we are called to be one; to give all of our self to the other without reserve. There is no mine and yours – every success of my husband’s is mine, every suffering of mine is his, every joy and sorrow of this life is ours. In the words of St. Augustine: “If you love unity, whoever in it has anything has it also for you. Take away envy, and what I have is yours; let me take away envy, and what you have is mine.”
3. Recognize the battle.
I went to reconciliation a few months after having my son, and confessed to my jealousy. The priest gently suggested that even if I was the one working while my husband stayed home with the baby, I would still be envious. He was so right. The problem wasn’t with my husband or our situation at all. My dissatisfaction came from my fear of the cross of mothering, a fear that my identity would be swallowed up, fear of the sufferings that might be: “What really hurts us is not so much suffering itself as the fear of suffering…The worst kind of suffering is not that which we experience; it is represented suffering that grips the imagination and makes us adopt false attitudes.”
4. Choose to love.
In order to combat envy and resentment, I have to stop and ask myself what really is at stake. What will I lose by choosing to love and serve in this moment without any expectation of reward? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, the suffering of being turned in on one’s own wants is truly terrible. Indeed, some theologians consider total self-absorption the lot of the damned and self-giving love the joy of the Saints.
5. Be honest.
The devil loves secrecy and pride. The Holy Spirit works through openness and vulnerability. It took me awhile to admit to the envy that was gnawing away at our peace. I feared that my husband would take my struggle as some sort of criticism of him or that he would love me less for failing. In actuality, my husband wanted to help me carry my cross and was willing to talk through my fear and anxiety 100 times a day if that’s what it took for me to keep calm and carry on.
6. Find your identity.
Mothers need to be reminded that who we are isn’t what we do. You aren’t just the woman who rocks a baby at 3 am, or the person who juggles a career and family, or the homeschooler who values academic rigor – who you are is a child of God. Whether you become the paragon of generosity or battle envy and resentment for the rest of your life, who you are in Christ is unchanging: “Human beings are more than the sum of the good they can accomplish. They are children of God, whether they do good or cannot yet manage to do anything. Our Father in heaven does not love us because of the good we do. He loves us for ourselves.”
7. Nothing is fair in love.
It’s not fair that you suffered through 22 hours of labor to bring a child into the world. It isn’t fair that all your husband could do was hold your hand and pray for your pain to end quickly. It’s not fair that you can calm your baby in 3 seconds after your husband rocked, shushed and jostled the arch-backed hellion for 2 hours. God didn’t call you to a life neatly split down the middle. He called you to be Christ to your spouse and to your children — to empty yourself; to be the gift. Give up your expectations of fair sharing and pour yourself out.
8. Look what God has done.
I thought my husband couldn’t be any more amazing, and then he became a father. He makes sacrifice look easy, lives to make our son laugh and always, always makes time to spend with his wife. I am in awe of the man he is and is becoming. It dawned on me that although it may be excruciatingly slow progress, God is working the same transformation in me. Where I might have passive aggressively slammed doors in the middle of the night a few months ago, now I can get up with half a smile and a smidgen of patience. Be patient with yourself, because the God who loves you is infinitely patient. Celebrate the little victories, because nothing done out of love is little in God’s eyes.
The thing about motherhood is that it requires a sudden and instantaneous death to self. Perhaps in your single years you worked at the soup kitchen or volunteered for the parish – you looked and felt pretty holy, but it wasn’t the same. In the life before babies, you could put your feet up at the end of the day, and now there is no end. This calling is 24/7. Some days are so filled with emotion, frustration and exhaustion that virtue feels impossible.
Dear mama, know that God is working in you and be at peace. You may not be able to see beyond the blood, sweat and tears of this dying to yourself, but He can and His vision is glorious.
This is what I shall keep in mind and so regain some hope: Surely God’s mercies are not over, his deeds of faithful love not exhausted; every morning they are renewed; great is his faithfulness! (Lamentations 3: 21-23)
C.S. Lewis; The Screwtape Letters.
Raniero Cantalamessa, Contemplating the Trinity, (Ijamsville: The Word Among Us Press, 2007).
Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, (New York: Scepter Publishers, Inc., 2007).