Cognitive Dissonance: Fear Prayer, revisited

Two days ago, I was having another frustration meltdown. I have never had an infant who so vocally refused to be put down for longer than ten minutes, or whose sleep routine was so hands-on and time-consuming, and having one now, when I also have three other kids, a house to run, meals to make, a blog to write and really important things on the internet that I need to read, is difficult. I was telling the Ogre how unbelievably frustrating it is to have a million things to do and to have to keep stopping to feed, rock, change or play with the baby. My husband, God bless him, tried to make me feel better by sharing what I’m sure he meant as “empathy experience”. He told me about his frustrations with having his dissertation looming and the difficulty he has in balancing teaching and writing, since he can’t allow himself to shortchange his students on time and effort for his writing, but he can’t ignore his writing if he hopes to have students in the foreseeable future.

Big mistake. I got really quiet and wandered off to clean the bathroom. The Ogre assumed his tactic had just failed and sighed, picked up Angry Lincoln, and went to rock him. Meanwhile, here was the soundtrack my mind was playing while I scrubbed the bathtub and the toilet:

Seriously, Calah, what is wrong with you? Your husband is over there killing himself to do actual work, important work, trying to find time where it doesn’t exist to write his dissertation and re-vamp his curriculum and figure out how to help more students at the writing center, and right now he’s rocking the baby (which is YOUR job) because you’re freaking out that you don’t have time to what? Clean the effing bathroom? Who cares about the bathroom? Who cares if you didn’t have time to let the pie crust chill enough and it shrank and the quiche filling spilled all over the oven floor? Who cares that the Christmas tree is still up and that you haven’t had time to blog in three days? All you write about is your latest motherhood non-epiphany or how one of your kids pooped on you anyway. Honestly, literally nothing you have to do is of any importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things, and yet you’re so upset that you can’t get it done that your husband, who does actually important, real work, is spending his time helping you. Could you possibly be any more narcissistic and pathetic?

This morning, I read Leah’s latest post on Ignitum Today, one more of the plethora of amazing responses written to my Fear, Prayer post. This particular paragraph struck me:

I believe that the “Problem” that is silently present in Calah’s piece is a sense of abandonment. At our most trying times we feel as if we are alone with our chaos and that no one cares about us because what we are doing does not seem to concern anyone else.We don’t see our work as mothers raising good human beings as being valued.

(Read the rest here)

For me at least, it’s more than other people not valuing my work as a mother. The real problem is that I don’t value it. I’ve written about it before, and it’s a genuine struggle of mine. That funny meme I posted the other day actually isn’t as sarcastic as I wish it was. Honestly, that pretty much sums up my feelings about the worth of my work, day in, day out. In short: it’s worth nothing.

Intellectually, I know this is wrong. I know, with my mind, how important it is to the future of my children that I raise them to be good, that I spend time with them, that I provide a loving home, nutritious meals, cleanliness and order. I meant what I wrote in my post on the Massacre of the Innocents. And yet, deep down, I still find myself doing what I did the other day. Holding up my husband’s work as “real” work, as important work, as work worth doing, and sneering in disgust at the meaninglessness of my daily existence. Saying, aloud or to myself and for the millionth time, “I wish I could go back to school. I wish I could get a job. I wish I could walk out the door and do something valuable with my time.”

I spend way too much time thinking about the zombie apocalypse and the end of the world, and one of the things I’ve realized is that if the world really ended and my family somehow survived, and we had to eke out a hard-scrabble existence while fighting off walkers, all I would want is what I have right now. A home. Food. Happy children. A peaceful place to raise my family. Tranquil days of rocking, babbling, cooking, reading stories, cleaning, and even laundry. But the cognitive dissonance of having what I know I really want while keenly wanting something else is crippling.

So there’s that. That’s much of what is at the root of the raw despair I expressed in that post. I’ve realized in the past few years that I won’t have one grand epiphany and suddenly be happier in my life as a stay-at-home-mom. It will take a series of epiphanies, endless tea parties, a thousand thousand nights of stories and kisses and prayers before I have peace about my vocation, if I ever do. I’m happier now than I was when I started my blog, and I hope to be happier three years from now than I am now, but it’s only through living my life (and writing about it, which for me are one and the same) that I will find peace.

And then there’s the other thing, the doubt. The question mark that hangs over the heads of Catholic women who follow the Church’s teaching on birth control. The absolute state of unknowing in which we live our lives. And for that, there is no answer. I can try the fertility monitor and hope. I can throw faith to the wind and go buy the biggest box of condoms on the planet. I can go to my OB and ask for all the birth control, and still there are no guarantees. Knowing my luck (and God’s sense of humor), I’d end up pregnant with twins and have only gained the knowledge that my faith is fair-weathered, and that I too would betray my Lord for thirty pieces of silver or a diaphragm.

I’ve received so many offers of help, so many kind emails, and so much love and support since I wrote that post. I’ve been amazed to watch the blogosphere unfold in discussion about the best way to help young mothers, without even the tiniest debate about whether we need help. I loved the Anchoress’ suggestion for a ministry, but when I thought about it honestly, I knew I would never take advantage of such a thing. It’s one thing, writing about it to people I don’t have to look at in the face; it’s another, sitting across from someone and having the guts to say, “I’m drowning, and this is why.” There’s also a sort of immobility that grows inside a mother of many young children. We cocoon ourselves almost, struggling and suffering through this time, practically unable to break out of our shell daily life until one day, God willing, the shell breaks and our family emerges, refined by these early years together into something beautiful to behold.

I loved Jared’s post, asking what husbands can do. I think husbands can do a lot to help, but in the end they can’t do everything for us, and when we’re completely overwhelmed it’s impossible to say, “if you do the dishes tonight, that will solve all my problems.” I agree with what Elizabeth Duffy said in her post, “I wanted him to do it all. I wanted him to do it my way. But more than anything, I wanted him to appreciate me, and how hard I was working. And he wanted the same from me.”

I loved Dorian’s post about what her parish does well and Melanie’s post about the meaning of Christian brotherhood. And I loved  Jen’s post at the Register, especially the part about how nobody likes to accept help from strangers. It was easier, honestly, writing about my struggles; when people started to offer help I found myself dodging, looking for a way out, even absurdly insisting that I didn’t really need help. Having the humility to admit you need help and having the humility to accept it are two very different things.

And yet, Elizabeth Duffy’s post resonated with me the most.

Time ultimately did the trick–but I remember those years as sort of a dense fog with no good options. I had too many to take out and was too tired to leave home, but also too bored to stay there. I slept a lot, as I recall, and the kids watched TV. My prayer life languished.

Now, I’m expecting my sixth, and my oldest children can be left at home for short periods of time. All the kids do pretty well at Mass. My biggest challenge is getting my own voice heard over the noise. I never would have believed anyone five years ago who told me six kids would be easier than three, but it is for me. The bigger kids are helpful. I’m less stressed about leaving the younger ones in childcare when necessary, and most of my friends are the same ones I’ve had since our kids were babies.

I’ve been thinking back over the years, and trying to figure out where exactly the Church would have come to my rescue. At the time I needed help the most, my needs were greater than anyone, even my husband, could have supplied–much less a few elderly volunteers.

(Read the rest here)

A dense fog with no good options pretty much sums it up. “The Tunnel of Parenthood”, that’s what I’m in. And my own deeply-ingrained prejudices against stay-at-home-moms only compound the difficulties and the struggles. All mothers struggle at this point in motherhood, but not all mothers have serious doubts about the value of what they’re doing. I’m starting to believe, to really believe, instead of just saying, that this struggle is my particular cross to bear. I could try to put it down and run off hand-in-hand with my BFF contraception, but like the picture above, that way isn’t actually an exit. I’ve fought hard for my soul over the last eight years, and I’d rather not lose it just now. The only thing for it is just to bear it, to do it, to live, one endless day at a time. That being said, this day is not remotely as bleak as the day I wrote that post. I am more at peace and less on edge, and I feel sure that much of that is because of your prayers. So thank you all, for everything.

And to the many other mothers who emailed me and left comments about their similar struggles…well, I wish I had an answer for you, but it seems that this is the life we have to live, in this particular time and place. It would be awesome if we could all move to a remote town in a swamp in Florida and raise each others’ kids…oh, wait. I forgot, I live there. And guess what? I have wonderful neighbors, who take my kids for hours and sometimes days, who drop by unexpectedly, who offer help and sympathy and listen to my cries of woe. And I love them for it, more than I can say, and it truly does help, yet no one can be the primary cook, housekeeper, laundress, story-teller, Lego-builder, and butt-wiper except me. This is my life, and even when it seems unbearable it’s really the only one I want to live right now. (Right this second, at least.) (No, really, self, if you were in school full-time and writing your master’s thesis, you’d complain that you miss your kids. So stop it.)


  • Lena

    Maybe every now and then we all could do a Freaky Friday thing where we trade places and jobs and families and lifestyles (for a day or two) just for a change of pace and to get some perspective. Maybe some moms would like a quiet day alone in a plain cubicle, and I would like to read Frog and Toad Together and do laundry. Maybe too much of any activity, whether it is work, homemaking, practicing for the Olympic team, farming, leading an army, negotiating with hostages, climbing the corporate ladder, is going to be dull, overwhelming, boring, routine, seemingly endless, and just plain tiring after a while.
    Dave Barry wrote a book about babies being a hazard of sex. Pretty funny.

  • Sarah M.

    I haven’t commented on your blog before, either, but you’re a part of the personal time I carve out for myself while my kids are relatively peaceful (only 3 for me, oldest is 4). Thanks for sharing your journey!

    This is an article I ran across a while ago, but I printed it off and hung it on my fridge for when the tunnel starts to feel like its collapsing on me. This post made me think of it, and I thought you might enjoy it, too. (You know, more for you to do with that infinite free time some people think stay-at-home moms must have) :-)

    p.s. and I keep thinking about your snotty-nosed kiss post, I have *so* lived that moment… Great post!

  • Campbell

    take credit for what you have accomplished. I’ll screw up if I try to expound further but reading your posts struck a familiar chord and this is what came to mind.

  • Abigail Benjamin

    I totally get this!

  • Lily

    I feel everything you are saying. I have four children also, whose ages are close to yours. I have commented one other time before and all I really said is that it will get better. Your post is actually very truthful. I didn’t see the value in what I was doing as a mother. I actually kept working full-time through the first 3 children, then God had other plans and the rug was pulled out from under me. I was forced to stay at home. I had a fourth child and I was TERRIFIED to be home alone. The house would not be vacuumed for months, I mean like 6 months (who lives like that). What I am trying to say, is that when I read your posts I see you having the same journey that I had. My story ends happily, I had the same thoughts, same ups and downs, I slowly learned to let God in and trust Him and He has not disappointed me. What you feel now is part of the journey to the happiness you are looking for. This post is one of your great epiphanies, and even if you still don’t feel the value in what you do, now you recognize it. Your peace will come, just keep trusting God, praying and loving your family.

  • Christine

    Calah, I just found your site and, although I am a little afraid of committing some heinous grammatical error that will make you cringe, I wanted to say thank you for your posts. They are lovely – funny, honest, refreshing. I am devouring your site.
    I am the mother of 4 (all boys): 15, 13, 10 and 4. I am constantly struggling with the value of what I do as a SAHM. Most days I see little fruit. I am Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the mountain every single day.
    Sometimes it helps just to know there are others out there with the same doubts, fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, joys.
    Thank you!

  • Debbie Qalballah

    When the kids are really small it’s like an insanity, it really is. And we lose perspective because we are so dog tired. And we panic because we think that this is what life is going to be like FOREVER. But you know, they grow, you get your brain back, or at least the part still functioning, and you forget how insane the small years are. But we are doing something really valuable – we are raising a generation, so cut yourself some slack. But one day they will be occupying themselves and you have really interesting conversations with them that don’t involve pirates or thomas the tank engine – and, this is the cool part, they get old enough to reach the taps and do the washing up!