This is a story for Mommies. It may not seem that way at first because it’s also just my own personal story, but if you can stick it out ‘til the end I think it might encourage plural Mommies, not just this one. It is the story of one year, but before I begin you need to remember this one quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’ll make sense later.
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions…. (Virtues) make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.
Generally when we think of our spiritual life we think of the great triumphs or the great failures. This definition of virtue though, reminds us that virtues are good habits. The more habitual an act, the less we notice ourselves performing it. So one possesses the virtue more thoroughly when it’s something we do without thinking, not when it’s something we pull off one time with great effort. Not to knock those accomplishments! Since I think I possess very few virtues in any sort of fullness, I sure want credit for that one time I didn’t gossip, that week I didn’t get snappy at all, and so on. You’ll see where I’m going with this eventually. For now just keep it in mind while I tell the story of the year between two Good Fridays.
Good Friday last year could be used to mark the beginning of a very difficult time. Mike had just left for three months away. A week after he left I found out we were expecting, so I had a lovely first trimester of illness all alone with three other children to look forward to. As daunting as that was, I had just gone through a scary few days where it looked like we might lose this newest baby. It turned out the cause of the problems was a large cyst that might require surgery in the middle of the pregnancy. Meanwhile, two of my children caught a charming little virus called hand, foot and mouth disease. This little character causes ugly lesions on the face and extremities, fever and vomiting, and best of all, it’s contagious for about a month. So where were we last Good Friday? Thoroughly, thoroughly homebound.
I should say that Good Friday is perhaps my favourite day of the liturgical year. It’s the day I most fully “feel” my religion. The symbols and readings are powerful, and the music s the best. If I could have found a way to tie O Sacred Head Surrounded into a wedding, I would have sung it at mine. So it was with a heavy heart that I decided I could not go to church that day and bring our icky germs to share with everyone. We missed the Easter Vigil, the other highlight of my year, and even Easter Sunday. No mass for us for a couple of weeks in fact, the longest I’d ever gone without entering a church. The Easter bunny did manage to show up but I didn’t have the heart, or the energy, for a big Easter feast that only I would eat.
I didn’t know it at the time but that was to be the beginning of a full year’s worth of struggle. Another result of the pregnancy was an end to my anti-depression medication. It never really occurred to me that that might be why I was feeling uninspired, exhausted, and blue. After all I had plenty of legitimate reasons on my plate. Did you know your kids’ fingernails peel a few weeks after Hand Foot and Mouth disease? They do. Did you know a kid can regress from potty training a whole year after he learned? Or that childhood abdominal migraines are a thing? My grandfather died and yet again I couldn’t go to a family funeral. Even if I hadn’t been pregnant, Mike wasn’t there and how was I going to get myself and three kids to Canada? And speaking of pregnancy, for someone who has spent an awful lot of time being with child, and loves the kids I get out of it, I sure do loathe being pregnant. What’s this “glow” everybody is talking about it? Can I get some of that? I do get so pale and haggard I may shed some kind of eerie greenish-white luminescence but it ain’t pretty. All these were sensible, regular person reasons to feel run down.
When Mike got home we had a few months of semi-normalcy and then moved the family from Oklahoma to Louisiana. The move was exciting. We found a great house and everything was green! I still stare out drinking in all the green with a stupid, happy, Pacific Northwesterner in exile smile on my face. With room to spread out we all looked healthier. Even the doggie lost weight and the kids were outside exploring every day. Still, we left good friends behind in Enid, and it was lonely starting out again in a place we knew no one. Seven months into pregnancy is not the easiest time to make friends. Actually, it’s a good time, compared to how much harder it is when the baby shows up and you’re learning to be a busy Mom of four. Here was another sensible, regular person reason to feel run down.
By January, we had settled in well to our new place. The baby, Miss Dulcie, which means sweet, was aptly named. She was a dream baby. Mike was home way more than he had been in years. He made dinner almost every night and I also almost never had to clean the kitchen. The kiddos were all in perfect health, behaving very well, and amazing me with their unique wonderful qualities every day. We belonged to a great parish where I could feel my spiritual life blossoming as I was fed with inspiring sermons, reverent liturgy, beautiful art and music, and vibrant community. So why could I feel myself sinking into a deep sadness all the time? Every time something would make me laugh or smile (which happened often! Like I said, life was good!) I could almost physically feel this weight lift for a moment only to fall back down heavily. I started looking for reasons, which turned into an exercise in finding things to worry over. Was I a good enough wife? Was I a good enough mother? Did I really know anything about my faith? I woke up worrying, and went to bed worrying. I also wanted to sleep. All. The. Time. I would wake up and calculate what time we could do naptime. Then after naptime I would count up the hours ‘til bed. I dragged myself through the day in a fog of exhaustion and stress. Luckily, with kids around, I had to get up and get going and do it with a smile on my face. Somebody always needed something, which did keep me from just quitting, still I felt like I had a certain amount I could give and at the end of each day it was used up to the very last drop. When poor Mike would come home from work I would think, where am I going to find any energy left to care for him? It was like trying to operate on a budget that just can’t quite cover everything, like slowly going into emotional debt. Still I didn’t think the cause was what I now recognize as treatable depression. I knew the cause, the cause was me. I WAS a lousy mom, a lousy wife, a lousy Catholic. Of course I was upset, anybody that lousy would be!
Proof positive of my lousiness came with the arrival of Lent. You know you‘re in trouble when someone posts a funny about hair shirts and scourges and you think it looks easier than going without chocolate for a day. Honestly, by this time it felt pretty penitential just to get up every day. School was going well, kids were getting fed and loved, chores were being done, but underneath it all was this vast weight, this feeling of being all used up. Instead of any serious Lenten sacrifices I did some vague work on my personal foibles and kept planning to give up candy… tomorrow. The only thing that salvaged the season was the drama in Rome. I decided to read some of Pope Benedict’s writings, and then also enjoyed getting to know Pope Francis through his words as well. I was most struck by how tangible his language is, or, because I can’t think of quite the right word, how incarnational. His focus on faith in practice comes out in his words too. We are a sacramental religion, a religion where the physical world—already a great gift from God—is made sacred by His entrance into history, His union of divinity and humanity. Pope Francis’ preaching is full of imagery and adjectives that appeal to all our senses. After reading his words I would see everything through this prism, and was reminded that every action is good or evil.
So that’s about where I was as this year’s Good Friday approached. My head was full of a huge soup of thoughts all boiling along together: The regular joys and sorrows of life, the burden of my unrecognized depression, the spiritual awakening from the events in my church both local and global. This Holy Week I was determined that after a mediocre Lent I would finish strong. I arranged to meet Mike for Holy Thursday Mass after he finished work. Preparing to load up the kids, I set them in a row on our kitchen stools so I could tie all the little pairs of church shoe laces. They had been playing outside all day and their feet were filthy. I was struck by this very appropriate moment on a Holy Thursday. How full every day as a mother is with little acts of service similar to Christ’s washing of the apostle’s feet. How many times we kneel before our children and serve them. I think it was this last thought that set me up for the realization I had the next day.
On Good Friday, the service is in the afternoon and Mike never has the day off; but remembering my sadness the year before when I couldn’t go, I decided to brave the two hours alone with all four kids. As anyone who has tried it knows, church with kids is a full body workout. It began before we even entered the building: lugging an infant car seat with an impressively chunky four month old in it, holding a cranky, freshly awoken toddler by the hand, and trying to marshal the boys through the parking lot without getting anyone run over. Inside Gina performed her usual hair-raising gymnastic routine. She is very quiet in church. She quietly stands on the pew, quietly flings her upper body forward to catch the pew in front creating a bridge, and then quietly inches her toes forward until her legs swing out into space to land neatly on the kneeler. This is even more exciting when the kneeler is in the up position. Meanwhile Dulcie, the ever growing baby, needed to be nursed. The nursing shawl would snag on my chapel veil, which I had foolishly decided to start wearing just this week. Thank goodness the boys were reasonably well behaved. Then came the veneration of the cross. Dulcie in one arm, Gina’s hand in mine, that hand on JD’s shoulder, and Gus holding JD’s hand, I headed up to kiss the cross. Suddenly I thought of something I haven’t before.
Good Friday is a day where we put ourselves into the Passion narrative. We speak as the crowd. We relate to Peter’s bitter tears after he denies Our Lord. What I have never done, out of a sense that it would be presumptuous, is to put myself in Christ’s place. After all, who am I to compare my sufferings to his? I have a fabulous life. We have enough money, I have a loving marriage, and we are all healthy and happy. We have a life almost untouched by tragedy. Yet somehow, at that moment in the aisle of the cathedral, chapel veil askew over tangled hair, arms aching from holding kids, head full of worries, it felt like the road to Calvary to me. Which is when I was struck by this thought about motherhood: it’s a shortcut to the Way of the Cross
Alright patient reader, remember way back when I quoted the Catechism on virtue? Here’s where it comes in. Suddenly I noticed not all the big triumphs and failures of my life but all the day to day habitual things I’ve done. Kids got fed and clothed and educated. Husband got cared for. House got cleaned. Laundry got done. I got out of bed every day and did something for the people I love. I did it without thinking because we are hard wired to care for our children. Look at Jesus’ Passion. It wasn’t pretty. He begged His Father to spare him. He stumbled and needed the help of Simon of Cyrene. Yet we know that “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The catechism goes on to say about virtues that they “are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts.” If we say yes to motherhood, the virtue of love is a gift that comes with it. Without even a thought we are naturally disposed to lay down our life for our children. It sure isn’t pretty. We’re tired. We’re cranky. We need help and we cry out for relief. But it never occurs to us to stop. Not only that but, this cross is a joy to bear. From the moment you find out there’s a baby on the way that baby demands that you lay down your life, yes even your body. Yet you love this new little person so much that you smile at the ultrasound even while you struggle with morning sickness. The thought of losing your little crosses is unbearable. We cling to those tiny, lovely, unique crosses entrusted to us with fierce love. Nothing would separate us from them. It would not be easier to lay them down, it would be impossible. Those kids kept me going when nothing else would. They put a smile on my face with their funny sayings, with their interesting thoughts, with their beautiful faces. Of course I took care of them. I was happy to. Not happy to be tired, not happy to be lonely, but happy to be their Mom? Yes, every day. So on those days where every moment seems a desperate struggle to stay afloat, be encouraged. You are close to Jesus in those times. You may be struggling with the virtue of patience, or trust, or generosity, but even then you are habitually, unthinkingly, practicing the virtue of charity. Your love for your children will help them to know God’s love for them. You may not have every virtue, but you’ve got one and you’re doing a good job. Hang tough.