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.

  • http://cathofeminism.blogspot.com/ Jess@Cathofeminism

    Motherhood is just not easy for all of us. I see women daily that seem to glow and float about their children and everything is just perfect. I can think of maybe once where I was in public with my two and I made it look easy, and if memory serves, one was asleep! I love my children with all my heart, but motherhood is for sure the giant test in my life. I used to think that the convent would be a test I could not endure, but on days when things explode (three times a week) it sounds like heaven. I am so sorry that things feel out of control or just plain chaotic. I don’t know that I have solutions, but I can empathize and pray!

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com darwinharmless

    To a non-Catholic this is so mystifying. How can you give up your own autonomy to a bunch of celibate old men who claim to speak for God? How can you have so little respect for your own brain, your own ability to make decisions? How did they manage to instill such as deep sense of shame and guilt over simply being a human being? I try to feel empathy and sympathy for you. I recognize your suffering. But for Christ sakes, stop doing this to yourself. Take some responsibility. You have been fed poisonous nonsense all your life and now you believe it is true. Why don’t you take the authority over your own life instead of giving it to people who do not have to live your life? Use the birth control and stop even trying to be obedient. They have no right to demand obedience from you, and threaten you with Hell for disobeying them. They are not God. Their threats are empty. There is no Hell. They don’t speak for God. You have as much right to make decisions over your life as they do. More. It’s your life. Now stop whining about how bad you feel and grow up. Being an adult means you make your own decisions. You owe this to your existing children. You don’t owe anything to children you decide not to have.

  • Lara

    I happened to see this reposted on Facebook. You know, there are millions of pious Christians all over the world that believe in contraception. Maybe you need to examine their reasons and their theology before you allow yourself and your family to spiral further downward because of more children you cannot really handle. And I wouldn’t really be able to handle four plus, either, and I am quite a mentally healthy and child oriented person. Do you really think the rest of us aren’t good Christians because we have accepted the gift of being able to space our children without marital strain? A few generations ago, lack of vaccinations, etc., spaced children for us. Thank the good Lord that there is now another way.

    • Heather

      Really? REALLY? SOmeone opens up their heart and shares something so personal, and this is your response?! This is absolutely condescending. Shame on you for making it about yourself and for using this opportunity to kick someone while they’re down. Examine your own conscience.

  • Chantal

    Christmas is meant to bring Peace. I will pray for you that you receive the peace that you need. My 2 children were born out of wedlock. I am now a single parent. These years of no sex have made me very aware of the signs of my body. I know where I am in my cycle by what is going on with my body. That being said marriage with NFP is a total martydom (witness) I have soooo much admiration for those who follow the CC teaching on birth control. I think it is even harder to live nowdays because we no longer have the extended family support. Nowdays it is truly heroic to follow NFP. I usually feel peace is at adoration.

  • mandamum


    I occasionally read your blog but rarely comment, and wanted to chime in with support now.

    First, know that I am praying for you.

    If you lived closer, I’d love to be a place you could drop a few kids (or some frozen foods) while you run that very last crazy-making errand. I hear you on the insanity. I have been that woman too.

    Second – I think you are right on with this, in your last paragraph: “This is what a life of faith can be like”. You know this, I think, but – we aren’t called to do what is within our strength, but rather given strength and grace to do what we are called to do. The first two comments seem to suggest that you step back to relying on your own strength (and intellect) instead of flinging yourself toward God knowing (even while you cry for peace) that He is trustworthy and will catch you. I have heard faith described as “leaning so far over on God that if He weren’t there, you would fall,” and that’s what I read lived out in your life here.

    Third – when you say, “I will pray without hoping, from a place quite near despair,” I would say in response: hope is a theological virtue, just like faith and charity – that means it can only come as a gift from God. So perhaps ask Him for it? Definitely don’t just try to grow some on your own :) because that would only frustrate.

    Fourth – thank you for your raw honesty. I wish I could stop by and *do* something for you, but please know you have already done something for so many of us out here who say, “You feel that way too? It’s not just me? Maybe I’m not just doing it wrong?” I don’t think you’re giving scandal, but rather hope. Living out a white martyrdom of witness to the holiness of marriage and the goodness of children is HARD. Thank you for your witness, even to the HARDness of it, and for your faithfulness.

    I will be praying for peace for you, and in thanksgiving for your honest, faithful witness. Thank you for writing and living as you do, Calah.

    • mandamum

      I missed the pages and pages of replies before this one, LOL. So I guess I mean the first 2 comments on *this* page. Oops! Glad you have such thoughtful readers overall.

  • Gretchen

    I found this column heartbreaking, especially because it reminds me so strongly of myself 20-some years ago. I am a cradle Catholic, I have 4 children, and I found it overwhelming – trying to care for the needs of 4 young children, and work enough to pay for their physical needs, and manage care for them while I was at work, and dealing with the sleeplessness of working when my husband could take care of them. It was stressful, and exhausting, and enormously worrying. I still can’t look at pictures of myself from that time – I look so exhausted, I feel very sorry for that poor, tired woman. I got so angry, going to church and hearing the priest rhapsodize about the beauty of “life”, knowing that he went home to a silent house, which I helped pay for, and slept throught the night, every night. Sleeping through the night was a joy that had been denied me for many years, since my children were not sleeper.
    My third pregnancy ended suddenly and unexpectedly. I gave birth to premature, undiagnosed twins. I had 2 other small children, and my family lived too far away to help me. My mother said to call the Church; they would help me. I said they wouldn’t. She called the church herself. They told her they couldn’t do anything to help, despite being blocks away from me. She ended up pouring out her story to the long-distance operator, who felt sorry for her and connected her with a home-health-care agency, and was able to hire a lady named Vickie who came and helped me until I was back on my feet. I was bleeding so much that I was told not to get out of bed, but I had premature twins and two other children, and my husband had no vacation time to stay home and help me. Vickie was a lifesaver.
    After that, when , during my personal crisis, I got more help from the PHONE COMPANY than my church, I felt very angry when, Sunday after Sunday, the priest when on and on about the sanctity of life, and then went home to a good night’s sleep in his quiet home, that I helped pay for, while I struggled to do my best for my four children, never having enough sleep or enough time or enough money to give them what they really needed. That priest made me miserable until he was removed for having sex with a young man. He was able to dictate other’s behavior, but couldn’t control his own.
    Please, JoAnna, do what is best for yourself and your family, without the strictures of the people who have no idea what your life is like. The people I was listening to were behaving very badly in their own lives, while making me feel that I wasn’t living up to the ideal in my own. I’ve since noticed that conservatives spend a lot of time in the abstract: Natural law, what God intended, what the faith requires, wile liberals deal with: What does this mean for the individuals involved? What does this mean for the young woman who hasn’t slept more than 3 hours at a stretch in years, who is worried sick about paying for the next doctor visit, who hasn’t the energy to preside over a homework project because she never gets enough sleep?
    Please, please take care of yourself. I’ve been there. I know how hard it is, and you really, really need to protect yourself and do what needs to be done to meet your needs as well as those of your children. Your children need you, and a healthy, well-rested you will be a better mother to them. Ditch the abstract, the theory, and do what needs to be done to take care of yourself and the family that you have now. I will be praying for you, dearheart.

    • Gretchen

      Sorry I got your name wrong, Calah. I don’t know where I got JoAnna from. This is my first visit to your blog – very thoughtful.

  • Gretchen

    One more thing. Your relationship with your husband is the foundation of your family. It is the rock that your children’s security relys on. If you and your husband are keeping distance from each other for fear of having another child. that will not help the children you have. And if you have children you don’t have the time/energy/money/patience to raise well, that will also not help the children you have. I think you have to consider how best to take care of the children, and marriage, that you have, rather than relying on the theories promulgated by celibate men who won’t help you when things go wrong. Don’t you think God would want you to protect the children you have now? As my dear Irish mother used to say, often, “The Lord expects you to use good sense”. She also said “If the Pope were a woman, things would be different”. The Church was her rock, but she alse felt that she had to use the mind the Good Lord gave her to protect what he had given her.

  • SLG

    I will be praying for you as you wrestle with this… I will specifically pray that God will put individual people or families in your path that will be able to help you! I am a recent convert to Catholicism and honestly this scares me a lot… My husband and I are just beginning our NFP journey and I am petrified that I will be struggling with these same issues. Thank you for your honestly and openness. My God Bless You and Be with You.

  • Gretchen

    Looking back, I don’t think I was specific enough. When I was in your boat, I made the decision that the vast majority (over 80%) of practicing Catholics make – use birth control. We looked around our church, and saw most of the families have 2 or 3 kids. When we were growing up, families of 6, 7, 8 or more children were very common if not the norm. We asked ourselves what was happening here, and why the priests couldn’t see it. We decided that for the sake of the children we had, who stretched our resources to the limit, and for the sake of our marriage, the stability of which was necessary for our children’s well-being, we would use birth control. I actually talked this over with a priest, who agreed with us. The hard-liners aren’t the only folks in the church – they’re just the noisiest.

    • Kristen

      I wish you were right that people who are faithful to the teaching of the Church are the noisiest. But since I have yet to hear a homily promoting NFP, even thought I attend “conservative” parishes, I don’t think so.

      Your priest was wrong.

  • http://catiesimpson.blogspot.com/ Catie

    Oh Calah… I have enjoyed following your blog so much because of your honesty and humanity! NFP is incredibly difficult at times. Things will get better. I wish I had some words of wisdom for you. I will be praying for you!