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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.

  • tanya

    I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is I could have written this post. We are due with our 4th child in less than 3 months. Our oldest is only 5. I fully, completely, and utterly overwhelmed and terrified every. single. day. I know its going to get so much worse when the baby is here. No I don’t need psych drugs. I just need some help in caring for all these young children. I will have one child out of 4 that can dress herself and put on her own shoes. ANd even she needs helped wiping her bum after going #2. There is one of me to take care of myself, cook healthy meals, grocery shop, drive the older 2 to k and preschool do laundry, clean the house etc etc. I feel like I am drowning every day. My husband is a wonderful helpful person but as sole breadwinner he is gone at work for 11 hours every day. Our last 2 babies were conceived during pre peak supposedly infertile time. I have been pregnant or nursing or both for almost 6 years straight. Its mentally and psychically exhausting but I dont feel comfortable using birth control. I know children are gifts and if only I had some help I would feel more confidant taking babies as they come. We too have had tons of abstinence in our marriage. Almost 6 months post last baby. And yes it places incredible strain on the marriage. Thank you for sharing this. It makes me feel better that I am not alone. I read these blogs and have friends with 6 + children and of course they are all homeschooled and I just wonder HOW ON EARTH???

  • http://www.better-diy.com Mike V

    Honestly…I am wondering if my wife wrote this! This puts to words EXACTLY what we are feeling!! We want to follow the Church’s teaching because it is based in truth and theologically sound…but everything you list is the back and forth that we have gone through…we have 3 kids now and are pregnant with our 4th. The last 2 were anomalies of NFP and have just increased our distrust of NFP. It doesn’t work for us…so we have long periods of abstinence as well!!

  • Mandy P

    My only comment is that yep, NFP is difficult at times. I am praying for you and the struggles you are experiencing right now. Not because I am holier than you and NFP is always easy for me but because I have felt that frustration and fear that I will never stop having babies until I hit menopause. I think that is more common when you have young ones and see no light at the end of the tunnel. I haven’t read the other comments but wanted to let you know if you need a place to vent with others who practice NFP there is a Facebook group where you can ask questions, vent, and share with others who are in the same boat. There is one closed group called https://www.facebook.com/groups/NFPfans/ and another for Catholics specifically called: https://www.facebook.com/groups/483274698354742/. Because its not easy for any of us. But there are some who find a lot of joy and peace using Natural Family Planning. I have managed to find some times like that. I pray that you are granted some peace because this is weighing so heavily on you. God bless, Mandy

  • Claire

    It was very brave and generous of you to share this. You’ve probably helped a lot of other women who might be suffering as you are and who might think they’re alone. I’ll pray for you.

    BTW, my children are older now, but one day when I was having a really difficult time in the grocery store with fractious babies, a kind older woman came up to me and said “the years go by really fast…but some of the days? REAAAAALLLLY slow”. That might not help you now, but it’s true.

  • Kate

    I’m not going to slog through all the comments because I’m afraid I’ll find the scandal accusations that you mentioned — I just wanted to say thank you for this post, and for me it was the opposite of scandalous. Every time I remember that I’m not alone in my struggles with this life I’ve chosen, my resolve to continue in that choice seems a little less hopeless, a little less crazy. It’s a comfort to hear that I’m not bad at this life because I’m bad, but just because it’s hard. Also to hear someone else admit their experience that living this type of life drains you (at least temporarily) of the very resources you need to live it well. So thank you for your honesty – it’s bleak to lay it all out like that, but better to struggle against an articulated difficulty than just to limp along in a vague cloud of despair. You have helped at least one person.

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  • http://www.littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com Leila

    Calah, I wish I could hug you!! You are such a good soul, and an honest one. You are in the “mommy tunnel” now, with no older kids. I want you to hear that everything changes when your first child gets to babysitting age, and then suddenly half your kids are teens and then it’s like having one nanny for every child! But you can’t hear it now, because you are in the tunnel — all your children are young and dependent on you. I am so sorry that it’s pushing you to the limit, and I will pray for you my sister and assure you that this will change one day and you will barely remember it. Meantime, here is another big hug and lots of love sent your way.

  • Michelle

    I’ve only read your blog a few times, so I don’t know all of what you’re struggling with but have you thought of taking a day off? And by “day off” I don’t mean going somewhere without the kids. I mean a day off of expectations of what your life is supposed to look like. Take a day and just “be” with your children. It sounds weird because aren’t we constantly with our children? But I would argue many of us have detached ourselves from our children. How often do we stop and laugh with them, stare into their big eyes, or drop whatever we’re doing at the moment and just talk to them? I have been doing this lately and I have to tell you, my children are amazing, as are yours. They are absolute works of art from their milky skin and silken hair, to their tear filled eyes when they are throwing a tantrum. I know so many moms say to just wait it out, they’ll be older soon and it will get better. I have to politely disagree, I think God wants it to be better now for you.
    I have gradually over the years become more open to life. Sometimes I take a few steps backward, but overall my husband and I have learned to love the fact that we are co-creators with God. We have four children six and under and today I can honestly say, I look at my one year old who is still nursing and absolutely delight in the thought of another unique, beautiful little life that will live for eternity ( I don’t necessarily delight in the thought of morning sickness, a vaginal birth, etc. but the eternity thing crushes all the rest for me). This is what matters, I say to myself, this is the only thing I will do in my life that is forever. It is an awesome responsibility God has given us.
    Do not lose hope, do not despair. Keep building your domestic church and keep it a sacred place. Let go of all of the crud and the self-deprecation. Remember always that our children are a reward from God, a REWARD (albeit one that comes with bags under the eyes)!

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  • http://www.thefemininegift.org Sarah

    As a married thirty-something deeply affected by infertility I read your post with interest…and much heartache. I vicariously know what it’s like to struggle with small children but I have none of my own and wonder every day if I ever will. Makes me think of something I read by Josemaria Escriva,

    “God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing. In any event, let one accept his own.”

    I don’t write this to make you feel bad or guilty – but to propose a ‘trade’ of sorts. When you are wishing you never had children, never set foot into an NFP class or never heard about the Theology of the Body, think about and pray for me. And when I’m sitting in my barren, empty home crying into my pillow – I will think about and pray for you. Although we can’t physically help each other out, we can at least spiritually support one another.

    • Kristen

      Sarah, this is the most beautiful response to Calah that I have read. We also struggled with infertility for years and have ended up with a small family, by Catholic standards. I’m going to follow your example and when I feel envy for those blessed with more children, I’m going to offer my sadness for a mom I know who is overwhelmed with little ones. Thank you also for the Josemaria quote — I hadn’t heard that.

      • http://www.thefemininegift.org Sarah

        Thanks Kristen! :)