I have only been a mother for a little over 3 years, but by a rough calculation, I figured out that I have changed over 11,000 diapers during this time. And this is only the beginning of this mothering gig for me. My mom, who has 11 children and is currently potty-training her youngest, has changed over 50,000 diapers. Assuming each change takes 1 minute on average, she has spent 34 DAYS of her life just changing diapers (compared to me, who has spent a mere week of my life doing the dirty duty). Flabbergasting when you think of it from that perspective and all that it implies. 34 days straight of wiping derrieres. (Of course, in both our cases, we have wonderful husbands who do graciously take on their share of the changes, but since both of us are home with the children all day while the hubbies are working, the bulk of this task falls on us.)
In light of this fact, I’d like to think that occasional complaining about thankless, never-ending mothering tasks (tasks which also include folding laundry and washing dishes) is totally understandable. In fact, it’s almost expected – mothers of several small children are often given sympathetic looks and comments in the grocery store, told “You have your hands full!” and “You poor thing, you need a break!” It’s easy to start to feel sorry for ourselves, to bemoan that our children aren’t sleeping through the night, aren’t potty-trained, and are too young to clean the bathroom.
And yes, motherhood IS difficult sometimes. Not the kind of hard like that college physics class you only pulled a C in. Mostly just exhausting and monotonous. Day after day, doing the same thing over and over, the fruits of our labors often not visible for many years. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are doing God’s work, raising these little souls He entrusted us for His glory, and that He has a plan that involves us becoming saints, if only we can surrender and accept our daily duties.
God gives us what we need to be happy. The oft-repeated phrase is “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!” While it is true that God will never present us with an impossible situation, often it is easy to lose sight of that in the day-to-day struggles. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle with His grace. We are presented with these challenges so we can stretch and grow, because it is only through selflessness that we can experience the joy that is rooted in a peaceful soul.
God allows obstacles and frustrations to cross our path not because He wants to punish us, but because it is something we truly NEED to purify our souls. Because of original sin, human nature is inherently inclined towards doing the selfish thing. But we must strive to be like Christ, which involves carrying our crosses and accepting our sufferings. This is the only way to have true peace in our souls and joy in our hearts.
I have a friend who is working as a missionary in Africa. She has access to an internet connection (albeit a very slow one) and occasionally posts pictures to her Facebook page of some of the people in the village where she is living. One thing that always strikes me is that these people are living in what we as Americans would consider extreme poverty, and yet THEY ARE HAPPY. In each picture, I can see the light in their eyes and the joy in their smiles. These women, who have to cook their family’s dinner in a cauldron over a fire in their hut, smile and sing while doing so. So why should I, who have an electric stove, oven, microwave, crockpot, and toaster oven, complain about making dinner!? Why should my peace be disturbed EVERY DAY at 5:00 when I realize I have to figure out what we’re having? I should be happier than these women, because I have all these modern conveniences! But conveniences and luxury do not make a person happy; joy is rooted in the soul rather than based on “things” around us. (I imagine this is a difficult concept for every woman, but perhaps especially for those of us who live in society so materialistic as ours.) So every inconvenience we encounter is God giving us another chance to be happy – both here on earth and in the next life. We cannot say, “I will be happy when x happens.” We must find happiness in the NOW, each and every day, as we wade through the diapers and the mess and the cracker crumbs.
Our children are not the inconvenience. It is so tempting to get frustrated when our children are doing anything that in some way hinders our goals. I am working on a craft project, a homework assignment, or cleaning the kitchen, and the baby refuses to nap. I am trying to concentrate in Mass and my two-year-old keeps talking out loud and whining, and I have to take him in the back (where I won’t be able to hear). I am just drifting off to sleep when someone throws up. These things are all frustrating, but they are what motherhood is about. In the words of a wise mother, “These things aren’t the bumps in the road, THEY ARE THE ROAD.”
Yes, there are times when we must get something done and our children just have to wait for us to finish. I’m not saying we should be slaves to our children’s wants and hop up at their every whim. If we are in the middle of making dinner and our toddler is whining for attention, it’s fine for us to finish what we are doing, and it’s good for him to learn to be patient. But it’s important for us to realize that this is our job. Caring for our children is our main duty, and everything else is secondary. In teaching our toddler to be patient, we must not lose our own patience!
This even applies to the spiritual life of a mother. One day in the distant past, we were able to attend daily Mass in peace, pray our rosary and meditate on the mysteries each morning, pray many novenas and read our Bible daily. Suddenly we blink, and find our prayer life withering away as we attend to the cries of our newborn around-the-clock, the demands of a toddler, try to make time for our husband, and keep our dirty dishes from rotting in the sink. It’s difficult to go to Confession frequently with little children, let alone quiet our minds enough to pray. Recently after a Sunday Mass, I told a friend, “I don’t think I had one single prayerful thought that lasted more than 3 seconds.” I did, however, feel as though we should win a prize for “Most Active Pew.” And yes, I was discouraged, and had the fleeting thought of, “Was it even worth it to come?” But that was the cross God wished for me to bear that day – cranky, restless children during Mass. He didn’t want me to meditate for 15 minutes after Communion – He wanted me to grow in gentleness and patience. My children, far from being a hindrance to growing in holiness, were helping me!
This isn’t a license to become lax about our prayer life – the more demands we have placed on us, the more we desperately need to beg for God’s grace to get through each day. But we must strike a balance between spending time in prayer and doing our motherly duties. St Frances of Rome said, “It is most laudable in a married woman to be devout, but she must not forget that she is a housewife; and sometimes she must leave God at the altar to find Him in her housekeeping.” I would add that as mothers, we must sometimes leave God at the altar to find Him in the faces of our children. We should not get discouraged when a new baby prevents us from making our usual 3 a.m. Holy Hour. In place of Adoration, we can offer up our middle-of-the-night wakings and pray the rosary while we feed the baby. Taking care of our children shouldn’t replace our prayer life, but motherhood may require that we alter it slightly. And that is the beauty of the Morning Offering – we can resolve to offer up our “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” of each day, so even our little acts of love towards our children because prayers unto themselves.
Grumbling changes nothing. We are going to have difficult days – there is absolutely no way around it. Everyone does. It’s easy to pout and to feel sorry for ourselves, to think about how others have it easier than us, to become resentful of our children, and to wonder if we picked the wrong vocation, and maybe God actually intended for us to become cloistered Carmelites?
The Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “Each of us makes his own weather, determines the color of the skies in the emotional universe which he inhabits.” When we can’t control our external circumstances, we must accept these challenges and be INTENTIONALLY positive. If we want to be a witness to our Faith, we can’t go through life with a sour expression and complain about the crosses God has given us! We don’t want others to think, “Well, her life is pretty hard, that religion thing (which is probably the reason she has so many kids anyway) obviously isn’t working out well for her.” Instead, when they see us struggling with something and yet our hearts remain at peace, we want them to think, “I want what she has.” We want our love of Christ to shine through us, and to lead others to Him through our example.
It’s helpful to think: God knew from all eternity that this [annoying, inconvenient, sad, discouraging] thing was going to happen. He wishes to use this to purify our souls. For how can we grow in patience if we are never tempted to be impatient, or grow in perseverance when we never have to wait for anything? It’s not these events that speak to our character, but our reaction to them. And if we can emotionally detach ourselves from stressful situations and look at them objectively – how absolutely silly it is to complain about changing another diaper! What is a diaper in the scope of our life? It’s not even a blip on the radar. And yet changing it with love can be eternally meritorious, for as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in that action.”
I was discussing this with a dear friend recently, and she had simple but wise advice: “THIS IS YOUR LIFE. Do it and be miserable, or do it and try your best to be happy.” We can’t escape the un-fun parts of motherhood. Why not at least try to do it with a smile? What do we want our children to remember about us: our complaining or our cheerfulness? As mothers, we are a tangible example of the Culture of Life. If we want others to realize the value of human life and the beauty of parenthood, we ourselves must show the world that WE realize it and that we LOVE it and embrace it – yes, even the bad parts.
This does not discount the very real struggles that many families face: health problems, death, deployments, financial issues, sleep deprivation, family crises, lack of spiritual direction. It is not meant to make light of the difficulties we face as mothers. But for many of us, the majority of our life is composed of a series of small sacrifices and sufferings, and we simply cannot change these. So let us accept them; embrace them, even. For surrendering to our daily duties will mold our souls into the saints God wishes us to be, so that these words of Scripture may come to fruition for us. “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little things… Enter into the joy of your Lord.”