I love babies. I love having babies. I love labor (seriously!) and the six precious "newborn" weeks that follow. I love having four amazingly different children. I love large families. I desperately want more children.
I hate being pregnant. I get depression during pregnancies. I feel overwhelmed daily by the relentless needs (and demands) that four children place on my time, patience and energy. I wonder how on earth we are going to afford to put even one child through college. And some days I just want my body back in the worst way.
Now, to clarify, when I say I want my body back, it has nothing to do with weight or stretch marks or varicose veins, because the kids have been very, very gentle with me in that regard. But I am often jealous for a little physical break from the four little hijackers who have taken over all my bodily capacities. There is hardly ever a point in the day where either sweet baby James (kind of still a newborn) or wee Joseph (not quite two) isn't in my arms. Those guys get heavy after 783 minutes and counting. While holding either one of them (or, often, both of them) I can't fold laundry or mop floors or pick up the endless, endless debris off the floors. Did I mention there is endless debris on my floors? When I melt into bed at night, ever square inch of my back absolutely aches from all the holding. And no one can fathom what it is like to bundle four children (age five and under) against the cold, get them all snapped and buckled into car seats, drive to a destination, unsnap the three helpless ones, strap the baby to your chest, carry the toddler in your arms, try to hold onto the hand of the (unbelievably accident prone) three year old and try to keep hands, or at least eyes, on the (irrepressibly exuberant) five year old while accomplishing errands - and then have to repeat the whole process to get back home. "Is this safe?... or rational?" I often wonder. Truly, no one can understand how very, very physically draining it is - except the woman who has done it with five very young children.
It's news to nobody that very young children need their mothers' body in so many ways. I'm not surprised by the idea of being so physically necessary - I'm shocked at the living reality of it. And then there is the reality of being physically necessary to a husband as well.....but I am so not going to get into that because, like, I have parents and in-laws who read this stuff.
The point is, my body is tired. My body is the center of this home, of this family. I remember early in Maria's life meditating on how beautiful it is that, as the heart of the home, it's my body that provides life, love and complete nurturing to a whole family. And it is beautiful. A very, very exhausting beautiful. I used to congratulate my friends on new motherhood with the words, "Welcome to the most complicated, beautiful, exhausting years of your life!" (I've since stopped. They don't believe me. They aren't tired enough yet.)
Nothing prepared me. My friends never needed my body. True, some of my friends are kind of the hug-gy types, but I am totally not. I'm that awful friend whose whole body goes a bit stiff when you hug her.....who squirms awkwardly in a tender friendship embrace....who plots my goodbyes so that I escape sans physical contact...whose husband has to hiss "HUG HER" when he watches me console a teary friend. I'm totally not into phycial affection. But - and this is true - I am great about it with my kids. I'm a very snuggly mama. (However, that one child I have who likes to mouth my arms and shoulders while I read books aloud....I really have to give it my all to not run screaming from the room....I keep trying to subtly shrug away until finally I burst out, "Honey, couldyoustopthat, please, love, darling?")
These are not "beautiful thoughts". This is not the stuff of an uplifting blog post. But I share them because most of the young mothers I know - even the really really holy ones - are thinking them almost as much as I am. Maybe more. But recently I was given a book called Parenting with Grace by the Popcaks. It's based on the principles of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body and it has completely changed the way I relate my children. Years ago a friend shared with me how, when a nursing baby awoke her for the sixth time in the night, she would pray in Jesus' words "This is my body, given up for you." It sounded so beautiful that I was rather put out I hadn't thought of it myself. But I struggled to really live it. And beyond that one phrase and one situation, I would never have thought to apply TOB to parenting, but I've experienced a profound paradigm shift from reading this book. Because the book has re-ordered my priorities as a parent & changed the way I perceive my vocation as a mother - as well as altering the way I see my children themselves - it has been easy to be more generous to them in ways both physical and emotional. It has been more joyful to give - not just my body, but my time and my attention and my whole life, given up for them. I should not be amazed to find torrents of grace issuing forth from the life and labors of John Paul the Great, even if it comes from him only indirectly. Either way, the grace originates in God and I don't think either the Popcaks or the Pope would argue with that. And what else can you call it but "grace" when you find it easier to imitate Christ? The book is aptly named.
This book is a major component of my plan for Lent 2013. I somehow can't manage to read a book slowly, so right now I am tearing through it, devouring it, racing rapidly from page to page. Over Lent I will re-read it. s.l.o.w.l.y. Over Lent I will read and reread, write in the margins, study it, take notes, deeply absorb it and attempt to conform my life to the points that the Lord chooses to plant in my (thorny, thorny) heart. I've learned (from the Fr Philippe treatise on peace that I have been rereading daily for two years) that this is a far more fruitful way to do spiritual reading.
If Lent is a time to take stock of how well we are responding to God's relentless love, His reckless generosity, then nothing seems more appropriate to me than to make a huge effort to live our vocation, our everyday mission field, our Big Gift from God, in a more generous capacity. After being tested to the very limits during our overseas mission, Richard and I are relishing the graces that have followed since; it's been a lovely season of almost constant joy and tenderness in our marriage since returning home. I don't think the Lord is challenging me (right now!) to live my vocation as a wife with more generosity, gentleness or patience. A little more submission probably wouldn't hurt.... but all things in time.
I know for certain this Lent is my season for growing as a mother. I do not think that the grace contained in this Popcak book is going to take away the tiredness. I think it is going to add to the joy.
That's almost as good.
No - it's better.
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
For those who wish to use Lent as a time to grow in their marriage and are interested in inspiring book on marriage: I've not read it, but in addition to their amazing parenting tome, the Popcaks have a book on marriage called For Better....Forever.
For those not married, there is Emily Stimpson's The Catholic Girl's Survival Guide for the Single Years.
I offer no book suggestions for priests, religious or young men because I am completely ignorant
concerning appropriate titles
and because I suspect I have very few readers
and because I suspect I have very few readers
who fit into the aforementioned categories.
If any wish to suggest other excellent titles for parents, married couples, singles
(or priests, religious and young men!)
please feel free to leave a comment with recommendations!