Fear, Prayer

This weekend I drove into Naples, to a parish I’d never been to before, for an intentionally anonymous confession. I knew it would be a rough confession, and I preferred to seek out the comfort of strangers rather than the well-meaning concern of friends and neighbors here in Ave Maria.

It was indeed comforting to walk into a church and not feel obligated to say hello or make small talk. I found my way to the confession line and began to complete the examination of conscience I had begun on the drive over, and was immediately grateful that I had made the drive. Instead of soberly examining my conscience, all I could do in the line was hold back tears. And more than a few escaped, leaving those obvious trails down my face. The ones that say, “no, I’m not just here for a routine confession…I’m desperate, and a sinner, and miserable, and only here at last because it was this or pulling a Thelma and Louise.”

I thought maybe I could pull it together in the confessional, but all I managed to do was stop sobbing long enough to sketch out for the priest the general reason for my tears. I didn’t even make it to the list of sins I had collected in my mind in the car. As soon as I had given him a rough outline of my general state of mind, I resumed crying loudly while the poor priest, in a mercifully soothing Irish accent, reminded me that God loves me and hasn’t abandoned me, asked me to come see him some time when he didn’t have ten other people in line behind me, and gave me absolution.

I’ve never broken down like that in a confessional before. I’ve cried, sure, but I’ve never been sobbing so hard that I couldn’t even give a coherent confession. The priest asked me to pray for peace for my penance, and while I’ve been doing it, I’ve also been more aware than ever of just how elusive peace is for me.

There are a million reasons for it. A million reasons why I’m not at peace with my life as a wife, mother, homemaker. I’ve explored a lot of them here, on my blog. But I’m starting to realize that it wasn’t as if I had this great, peaceful life and then BAM! children ruined it for me. Actually I was a drug addict before I was a mother so no, not so peaceful. And before I was a drug addict, there wasn’t much peace there either, in my hard-studying, hard-partying college days. Or in high school, when I was a studious, disciplined head cheerleader. Or in middle school, when I was a nerd, the butt of jokes, vulnerable and insecure. Or really as far back as I can remember.

I don’t know why I’ve always been so unsatisfied, so unhappy with my life right now, no matter when that “right now” was. I do know that I’ve never, ever wanted to be like this.

Toward the end of my pregnancy with Sienna, I was starting to feel excited, even a little giddy to meet this new little person, this stranger, my daughter. It must have showed, because once in Target while I was browsing through the tiny pink onesies and impossibly small hats, a woman with three kids hanging off the sides of her cart stopped and snapped, “You won’t be nearly that happy when that kid is on the outside, I promise.” She practically spat the words at me, glaring hatefully, as if my happiness personally offended her. Then she stomped off, barking irritably at her children to shut up, already, and don’t touch that, and leave your sister’s hair alone and sit down right now! I could still hear her sharp voice after they rounded the corner. I stood there, frozen, shocked at her anger but also genuinely afraid. I do not ever want to end up like that, I thought. I will never, ever let myself get to that point.

Last week I had to rush into Target for an unplanned trip. I had been to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s for Thanksgiving supplies, and was planning on rushing home before everything melted when I got a phone call from the doctor. They had been trying to fit us in before the holiday break without success, but they had a last-minute cancellation, and they wanted to see us that afternoon. I agreed and then immediately regretted it, since I had a car full of cold and frozen items and had forgotten our cold bags at home. So off to Target we went in search of a cooler, me with Lincoln strapped to my chest, fussing irritably at all the strapping and unstrapping, toting Charlotte and Lincoln, who were equally irritable after a day of being shoved in and out of carseats. They immediately commenced bickering while Lincoln cried and struggled in the Maya wrap. I flew up and down aisles, getting increasingly more frustrated when I couldn’t find the cheap styrofoam coolers, and finally settled for a regular one at triple the price I’d wanted to pay. I had to get baby wipes while we were there, so we hastily made our way over to the baby section. As we walked toward it, I saw a heavily pregnant young woman eyeing a crib, touching the mobile, smiling that secret last-trimester smile while one hand stroked her belly. Bitterly, I thought, she’s not going to be nearly that happy when that kid is on the outside.

On the way home from the doctor I called the Ogre, crying. I told him what had happened in Target, how horrified I was at my knee-jerk reaction to the woman, and how much I hated the person I was turning into. A person who is so stressed and overwhelmed by the demands of young children that I can’t even enjoy them. A person so unhappy that I can’t even let other people be happy without wanting to destroy it, somehow. To make them understand how hard life is, or will be.

And here’s the worst part, I told him. The worst part is, I blame the Church. I blame the ban on birth control, the fact that NFP doesn’t work for us, the reality that I will never, ever have a chance to get a handle on things because I’m constantly pregnant or nursing. I can’t crawl out from under the pregnancy-and-postpartum rock because the rock follows me everywhere, just waiting to smash me again. Intellectually, I believe the Church. I understand the arguments against birth control. I agree with them, even. I just no longer think I’m a good enough person to follow the rules. There are mothers around me who have 6,7,8, 10 children and they do it with so much grace and love that it is beautiful to see. But I’m over here, doing a terrible job raising my own four, barely scraping by, hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails, and turning our home into a place of anger, frustration, bitterness and fear. All the grace and love and joy that I want to raise my children with is being suffocated by my own sheer terror at the thought of another pregnancy, and another, and another.

The Ogre didn’t say much. We’re in the same boat, me and him. Me terrified of the physical, mental and emotional toll wrought by more children, and him terrified of the financial weight on our already sinking ship. To tell the truth, I think he’s equally terrified at the thought of losing me to a complete nervous breakdown, or a heart attack or stroke brought on by overwhelming stress. And neither of us have any answers. We know what the Church says. We know that we ought to have faith, and trust. Personally, I don’t think I have any faith or trust left in me. I think that well was depleted by the last two pregnancies, immediately following courses in new methods of NFP. Ones that, we were assured, would really work. Is it possible that we did it wrong, that I misread signs, that it’s all down to user error? Absolutely. I’d even say it’s probable. But there’s only so much perfection in reading signs and charting that can be expected from a sleep-deprived, over-stretched mother whose every bathroom break is accompanied by a toddler or two. And there’s only so much abstinence that can reasonably be expected of a couple not in a Josephine marriage. Seven, eight months last time? I lost count. How long this time? A year, two? And how do we deal with the incredible strain that so much abstinence places on our marriage? The frustrated desires, the feelings of rejection, the guilt, the anger, the loneliness?

So, pray, the priest tells me. Pray for peace. Yes, I will pray. I will pray without hoping, from a place quite near despair. And I will write about it, even though perhaps I shouldn’t, because someone will certainly tell me in the comment box or over email that I am giving scandal, that I should set a better example of Catholic faith in this very public forum. But this is faith. This is what a life of faith can be like, what it very often is like, even for people much holier than I. And in this Year of Faith, I suspect that everyone’s faith will be tested. So I’ll add an addendum to my prayer for peace…that when the Year of Faith ends, I still have mine.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    And this is why I asked you to come write for me, Calah. Because while some people wear Catholicism with the ease of a sweater, most of us find ourselves wrangling with an unruly shawl–loving the truth of the church, accepting it and yet constantly struggling with the way the thing slips away in one place or is wrapped too tightly in another, or slides under the wheels of our chair as we work at our desks. The priest says “pray” and I know you will (and I will pray for you, too) but I hope other women will read this and realize they’re not alone in the struggle, or can share how they got through it. And I hope you will go see that priest. There is great freedom in obedience in the teachings of the church, but that’s not always obvious, largely because of what we throw into it from our own perspectives. In the Rule of St. Benedict, he cautions Abbots to reprimand and instruct his monks with care, and not to be too harsh in correction, lest the vessel he is trying to free of a small stain ends up crumbled in his hands. I hope commenters can keep that in mind and not hector you about giving scandal. Meanwhile, you have been gifted with a formidable sense of humor and a way of seeing the ridiculous in things. I wonder if there is a way to apply them, somehow, even as youre struggling.

  • Ted Seeber

    There is a version that everybody will tell you not to try, that worked amazingly well even when we did not want to:
    Don’t move the child to a crib. Cosleep in the family bed.

    Nothing forces abstinence like a kid who even when he is 9, begs to come back to the family bed for special occasions. And unlike the forced abstinence of following NFP charts, it is completely natural and is in fact the primary birth control method of any culture where single room houses are common (which, let’s face it, were most of them up until about 500 years ago).

    The one danger- SIDS- can be contained with being *very* watchful, and letting the child use you as a bed.

  • Ashley Mutschler

    Calah, you are so brave. Thank you so much for sharing this and for being so honest. I feel this way too, and I only have two kids. We will keep you guys in our prayers. Please do the same for us :)

  • Mary

    I was just wondering about one of your points. Why do you have to abstain for that long? If you’re postponing pregnancy, don’t you only abstain during the fertile period in each month? I wanted to email you but I couldn’t find your email address on here. It seemed kinda like a personal question to ask you in a comment section. I’m a Catholic mom, I’m 53, I have 4 children, ( 6 pregnancies), and we used the Billings method. Please hang in there. You’re doing an amazing job. Remember you only have one day to get through. This day.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

    Mary, I think the problem is that her fertile period is hard to discern because she’s breastfeeding. NFP while postpartum and breastfeeding is difficult no matter what method you use.

    Calah, many prayers. I know it is SO hard to do what is right instead of what is easy, especially when you can’t see an end in sight. You’re in the tunnel right now and it is pitch-black. I can promise you that it WILL get better, and you WILL get the grace you need to get through it. Stay close to the sacraments, whatever you do.

  • Karen

    I don’t have much advice, because there are times I find myself despairing and wondering if I’m fit to raise these amazing creatures God has seen fit to entrust me with. I would suggest that you look into the Marquette model of NFP. We were using it before it was a “thing”–we just cobbled it together with the monitor and watching for fertility signs. The charting method never worked for me because my body temperature doesn’t change much, if at all, due to ovulation. We’ve been married 13 years and have four children, four pregnancies. May God bless you and like Mary said just get through each day at a time.

  • Pnkn Moonshine

    Prayers and love.
    “If this is how God treats his friends, no wonder he has so few…”
    PS Now is not a good time to get a puppy.

  • Jocelyn

    Thank-you for writing this.

  • Kristen inDallas

    As much as I’m sure it will suck to hear this, I really do believe it’s true and feel compelled to say that with or without NFP, you wouldn’t have exactly as many children as you do if God didn’t have some reason up his sleeve. Maybe he knows 3 or 2 or even 1 child would consume all your energy and stress you out but that at 4 or 5 (or whatever the tipping point is) you’ll be instinctively forced to adapt some lower stress way of approaching the world. Or maybe he knows that, even though Jesus already died for us, some of us (at least myself) almost need a really harsh reality in order to allow ourselves the possibility that we’re worthy of forgiveness. Or, heck, maybe He just gives you a lot more credit (at being an awesome mom) than you do.

    Hang in there!

  • http://www.fountainsofhome.blogspot.com Christy

    I can fully relate Calah, and I have fully felt/feel those feelings with you. I don’t know if it feels like this for you, but I feel somehow that God’s put me here, but has now just left me here alone. It feels awful to have no faith or trust left in how God’s treating you in this position. I don’t want a faith based on feelings, but at the same time if God’s asking you to do incredibly difficult things, could He at least throw a small bone of feeling peaceful? Supported? Anything? I don’t know. I keep having these “discussions” in prayer and theres been no epiphanies for me yet.
    The NFP thing I understand. I’m pregnant with my fifth baby and my oldest is 5 and my youngest isn’t a year yet. To say we’re being pushed beyond our limit is an understatement. I have a good working knowledge of NFP, and all the methods. My husband and I haven’t broke a “rule” since 2009. The fact is that although I believe that NFP is great science and works, NFP is also susceptible to so many different health abnormalities within a woman’s body. I know that I obviously have deep underlying issues that aren’t coming out in any other symptom other than I can’t read my signs clearly. And no monitors, or method have changed that or prevented pregnancy even though we’ve been more than extremely careful. I think of the months ahead where we have no other choice but abstinence until this health issue is resolved and treated and I feel really hopeless. I fear for the health of my marriage. I fear for my husband’s faith, and frankly mine. Besides of course all the stress of caring for another baby. It feels impossible to have faith without trust, and I just don’t know when I’ll ever have trust in God again.
    Sorry this is so long! Just know I’m praying for you and shed tears over this post with you too!