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.

  • DMK

    I’ve been there -heck, I’m there right now. Just a couple NFP comments – Marquette Method is the best (in my opinion) for post-partum. I spent days researching this after the birth of my 3rd in under 3 years… Ovacue and Persona don’t work until you’ve started your cycle. Marquette has a specific protocol for breastfeeding and the post partum no-cycles phase, and while there is definitely abstinence involved, it is less than with mucus or temp observations when things are weird during breastfeeding. (If I was going by mucus, my husband and I would have been abstaining for 2 years now, for real.) And you get your questions answered for free on their forum. Its awesome! My kids were all 17 months apart until we started Marquette, and now my youngest is 20 months and no pregnancy yet. Hang in there – and google Marquette NFP.

  • Crystal

    Dear Calah, I am a long-time reader of your blog; though, I have only now found the courage to comment. I imagine that this comment will have loads of people (perhaps, including yourself) angry. Allow yourself the option of using contraception other than NFP. I understand that your moral opposition to it and the desire to be respect life in all shapes and forms. But if you are this miserable and unable to cherish your existing children’s growing up years and to (for whatever lack of resources– time, money, strength), that’s a form of disrespect to life too. Please do not take offense at what I say, I do not mean to imply that you are weak or unworthy. Clearly, you are doing your very, very, very best; but at the same time, you are human. There is no shame in admitting that there are limits to what you can do and your body can bear. I have only the deepest admiration for women who can beat 6, 7, 8+ children- but if you can’t, please don’t beat yourself up over it. Pregnancy does take a real, physical toll on the human body; it isn’t fair to YOU or to Sienna, Charlotte, Liam, and Lincoln if you have to spread yourself too thin.
    But whatever you do, know that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for doing what it takes to be a good mother, wife, daughter, etc to the people who are here now– whether that means NFP or artificial contraception. Again, I hope you don’t take offense at my comments. I pray for your peace.

    • Gina

      Dear Crystal,
      Calah will respond in her own way to your comment, but as a Catholic who also accepts the teaching of the Church against contraception, I just want to reiterate that what you are proposing is a mortal sin for us.

      Your very real compassion and concern comes through your post, and it’s beautiful. You are right that multiple pregnancies, and childrearing as a whole, are tremendously taxing on the human body and psyche, and this must be prayerfully considered, as Calah has. At the same time, the Church teaches that introducing contraception will ultimately exacerbate the problem, and that separating (“fixing”) what God has joined together cannot bring healing and wholeness. But I do understand your perspective and want to thank you for your courage to comment here.

    • http://www.dyno-mom.com Melissa @ Dyno-mom

      I don’t think that contraception is the answer, I think that it would just place a band-aid on a gaping wound. The real issue is not the stress of the kids and the housework and finances, it is trying to find a place where it all comes into balance. I remember feeling that when I had four kids but I can also tell you that I no longer have that stress now that I am expecting number eleven. In the end, it really does boil down to a death to self.

      I was talking to a friend with five kids under eight and we both talked about this need for death in another mother we know who is struggling. The issue is that she and perhaps you are trying to hold onto an older version of herself and is resistant to finding out who she is now. Life is a series of this deaths. The peace that you really need is the acceptance of yourself as you are now and to allow the death of the older self.

      But in the most practical sense, make a list of the three things that are pressing. What things can you actually do something about which cause the most stress? Is it housework? Get rid of as much stuff as you possibly can. Is it the laundry? Get rid of as much as you can. Is it sleep? Take a daily nap. Also, talk to those woman who have larger families than you and ask how they handle the specific things that are bothering you. If you address the actual wound, you can heal and move on. Otherwise, you just pretend it is something else. Pretending won’t heal your pain, it will only compound it.

      Lastly, go to the Latin Mass. I have to tell you, you find more people dealing with heavy crosses there (and doing it with profound grace) than in Novus Ordo Masses. I promise. You will also find larger families and women who have found out to cope with stress. Go to Mass, find a mentor, find peace, and find yourself. I will pray for you!

      • Karen

        I don’t understand your comment. Are you suggesting that if there is too much laundry, that Calah should get rid of her family’s extra clothing? Wear dirty clothing? Do you really mean “get rid of the laundry” to mean “find someone to help do it?” Also, how is “die to self” at all helpful to a woman who is so depressed she drives to another city so that she can collapse in tears to a priest who doesn’t know her? Your comment appears to me to be completely heartless, suggesting that severe depression and anxiety happen because the sufferer is selfish.

      • Lisa

        I agree with everything. Everything Melissa above said. We are all selfish, and we all need to die to self daily, even multiple times daily. Very good advise Melissa. I am sorry you are suffering so Calah. Motherhood is hard. Some seasons are harder than others. You are in my heartfelt prayers. ~Lisa, mama of 12

        • Karen

          So the only thing you have to say to Calah is “suck it up, you wouldn’t feel like this if you weren’t a selfish bitch?” You make me very glad I’m not Catholic.

          • Krista

            Um, no, Karen. It means that sacrifice is hard but comes with grace. They are both saying in different ways that suffering is a beautiful way of being united to Christ on His cross. “Dying to self” means seeing oneself first as a child of God who was created for heaven and then separating ourselves from the ties we have to earth (which can keep us from heaven if we are not careful) one by one, each one a “death.” Severing the connections to earthly pleasures comes with a certain amount of pain and thus is considered a sacrifice.

          • calahalexander

            I actually want to thank everyone in this comment thread. I was pretty taken aback at Melissa’s comment, and was grateful to Karen for the defense. But Melissa is probably right (although I don’t agree that there are better people at the Latin Mass…I’m a Novus Ordo chick through and through). It’s just, you know, tact and timing. I probably wouldn’t say what she said, even if it was 1000% true, unless I knew the person i was saying it to really well and knew that they were in a stable place emotionally to handle hearing that. Although I am sure that a lot of my problems are down to selfishness, because I think most of everyone’s problems stem from that place. I will try to remember that in my prayers.

          • Emmers

            There are plenty of Christian denominations that don’t tell you “suck it up and stop being selfish” (in nice words *or* in cruel words) when you are dealing with PPD and stressed about the very real costs of children.

  • Duane

    Calah, I almost feel like I don’t have a right to chime in, since I am a man. I will never fully understand what you are going through, and won’t even pretend to. I can say that I stood beside my wife, held her hand, and cried with her during very similar circumstances. We had four kids in 5 1/2 years. It can be exhausting, but hang in there.

    Please don’t buy the lie we are sold by culture that contraception is the magic formula that makes everything wonderful. Our four kids were all conceived while using contraception. It won’t solve all your problems. My wife and I were both raised Protestant (our Dad’s were both pastors), and NFP was not even considered. We started using contraception from day one of our marriage, because that is what you did. We did everything we were supposed to, and still got pregnant four times very close together. God had other plans. In fact we conceived our third child not long after I lost my job. Not the best timing. I made less than $6000 that year (11 years ago). Talk about stress.
    Around this time I began a ten year journey that led me into the Catholic Church. We were received two years ago. During our journey we were exposed to NFP and the teaching behind it. We were convicted and went off birth control, never to look back. Our marriage has been impacted in ways I could never have imagined. There was a barrier between us before that I never could have put into words. We had a good marriage, but there was an underlying tension that I didn’t even know was there. When we started using NFP, over time we both noticed a change. For the first time we were truly and fully giving 100% of ourselves in our marriage. Nothing being held back. It doesn’t mean things are easy. Far from it. But our love is deeper.

    Please don’t give up on the Church’s teaching about contraception. Contraception isn’t always the miracle it is portrayed as. God’s plan is better, even though it is hard. The hard rode is the rode to sainthood.
    “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Num. 6:24-26. I will pray for you and your family. God bless.

  • StephC

    Calah, I’d love to give you a hug, or a backrub or a footrub or *something* soothing!
    For now, here’s what I have for you, for whatever it’s worth:

    1. I am praying for you.
    2. When it hurts, then you change.
    (Leave the NFP/contraception dilemma aside for now. What can you change for yourself right now so that you hurt less…and eventually, hurt even less?)
    3. The body always claims its due.
    (We are physical and spiritual beings. What does your body need? Sleep? Nutrition? Exercise? Tend to the physical body you have today.)
    4. You cannot compare your *internals* with others’ *externals.
    (Your mom-friends of many who handle everything with such apparent grace and ease…guess what? They have their crap-hitting the fan moments, too. They have their weaknesses, their failings, their sins. They just probably don’t have blogs, and aren’t as gifted with describing in words their inner demons. You *know* your internal struggles so well. You only know about others what they *choose* – hand-pick – to share with & show you.)
    5. Get your hands on one of those little round ring-type one decade rosaries. Keep it in your pocket, or grip it on your finger. Try these seven words: “Mary, Be A Mother To Me Now.” She will, even if you mutter the prayer, or whisper it, or SHOUT it, as I have often done!
    6. Thank you for allowing others to pray for you.

  • Lynn

    Calah, thanks for having the courage to be so real and so vulnerable.

  • RebeccaK

    Adding my prayers and compassion to everyone else’s! And I’ve been there. So very there. I was angry and terrified (and embarrassed) for like 90% of my fourth pregnancy in 4.5 years. I’m glad I was able to have a VBAC because I didn’t really trust myself not to tell them to go ahead and tie my tubes with a c/s (they always ask). We got very serious about Marquette (but admittedly didn’t have more than 3-4 weeks of uninterrupted abstinence) and that 4th baby is now 3 years old and we’re still not pregnant. I’ve gotten my ‘breather’ but still feel physically terrible (thanks, thyroid!). But what I’m really discovering is what it sounds like you are. . . none of these struggles are really new for me. I find I’m having to fight selfishness and acedia even more now that less is required of me w/o an infant. I’m only now really understanding I must have thought I’d just be a better person so easily right along with the decreased newborn/pregnancy demands. . . HA. Go figure, I’m myself now too. I’ve despaired, real despair, many times in the process of these last 3 years. Faith is hard, hard work. I’ll be praying for you as I work out mine.

    You have a NEWBORN and 3 small children. That is a TREMENDOUS load, and I know you feel every bit of it. I echo everyone saying to do what you need to do, let go of what you can, ask for help, until you can breathe a bit. I was having a lot of anxiety symptoms when we bought a house less than a year after #4, and it did help me to breathe and remind myself that God gives peace and ask Him for it. I almost had a little mantra, like “I KNOW this anxiety is not from you. . . please bring me peace.” I suspect it’s just highly personal, but it helped me get out of my terrifying head a bit.

    Ooh, one last thing: the Marquette forums are helpful for commiseration. There are many, many folks on there who are desperately trying Marquette after several back-to-back pregnancies. Email me if you want – I think we share some background and we’ve had to work out a lot of NFP baggage, especially as my husband is an atheist. You’re not alone. Praying for you and your sweet family.

  • Ange

    Mama of 4 boys with a panicked husband who just had that same confession just a couple weeks ago. You are not alone. I am searching for my place as well. Prayers to you.

  • Ann Gundlach


    I have no idea of your history with NFP methods, especially CCL, but I have worked there for 28 years and would be happy to help you with postpartum charting if you would be interested in that. Between me and another counselor at the office, Vicki (who has a lot of experience guiding women through postpartum Basic Infertile Patterns), I am sure you would not have to experience months and months of abstinence.

    The key is to start right away as the lochia ends.

    If you have questions, you can reach me at CCL at 800-745-8252, ext. 3005, or at agundlach@ccli.org.

    God bless,
    Ann Gundlach

  • Lady Harriet

    If you need help watching your kids sometime, let me know! They know me at least a little from when I stayed with you this summer and I’d be happy to take them of your hands if you need it. Also, my mom would love to make dinner for you sometime. (She’s writing you a comment of her own.) If you’re interested, she spent many years living on very little money (less than $10,000 a year) and has some good advice for getting by.

    I will say that one reason the mothers with 6, 8, or 10 kids seem to have everything together is that their kids are bigger. Even if they still have little ones the age of yours, the eldest in families of 6 or more are almost always at least 10. By that age, you can hand the two-year-old off to them without worrying too much about imminent disaster. Sienna’s not that far off from being able to help with a lot of things, and if you do have more kids, all your current ones will be bigger by then.

    I’m praying for you, and even though I don’t have kids I am very familiar with the feeling of “everyone can handle this with no problem, so why am I falling apart????” What we see of other people on any given day is usually their best side. Most of us don’t let the outside world see the inner doubt and struggles. Don’t compare you at your worst to everyone else at their best! As well, have you considered counseling? It was an idea I resisted for years because I thought it was for people with real problems, not my stupid self-caused ones. I started meeting with a counselor this summer and it’s helped me enormously. I wish I’d done it sooner, but it’s doing me a lot of good now.

    Finally, since you were a lit major, you might appreciate some T.S. Eliot. A friend suggested that I read The Four Quartets when I was really struggling earlier this year and this was my favorite part:

    I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

  • Towel

    Just… use birth control. Non birth control methods don’t work for everyone, full stop. This is why condoms were invented. Because ‘natural’ methods do not work well enough. This is why Women’s Lib happened. Because no woman can bear being chained to an endless stream of kids, with no help,always isolated and alienated in the house, and in a society that forces her to pretend to be happy about it. You are probably depressed, clinically. That means you need medical help. I’m sure a priest can help, but what you need ON TOP of a priest is counseling and therapy with a mental health professional who will help you with depression. And start using birth control. You were not put on Earth by God to be a slave to your family and in a state of permanent unhappiness. Your children will not grow happy if their mother is not happy. Family is supposed to work out for everyone involved, not just for the husband and the kids while the mother suffers in silence.

    • http://grace-filled.net jen

      Except that using birth control is a mortal sin in the Catholic Church and I’m sure Calah doesn’t need that on top of everything else?