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.)


  • JoAnna

    Regarding your last line – I work full-time outside the home, and have for nearly a decade. And yet all I’ve ever wanted to do is stay home with my kids, but it’s never been financially possible. (And unless my husband can find a job that pays substantially better than what he is making now – nigh on impossible in this economy – or we win the lottery, that won’t change anytime soon.)

    The grass is greener, and all that.

  • Suzi

    The fog is sometimes so thick and painful you not always sure which way to sink. I remember those days. Last night I posted a fb picture of my home project: a picutre wall. I had so much fun walking down memory lane when I was putting it togther. 18 weeks of bed rest for the youngest, then colic for 4 months, on top of pain from endometriosis so intense, every day, that it required surgery and the lump on my thyroid too. I had to keep up with the 10.5 year old, seek special attention for the 2 year old that did not speak yet, and run a business with my husband. My dear husband would work an average 14-16 hours a day and come home and wonder why I was crabby. Fast forward 12 years: we look at each other with nothing but love and can see the hand of God working in our family. The fog will lift, but it is a painful process I will not sugar coat it. You know my otherside of the pain. I love your posts Calah, keep venting, keep writing, keep being you and growing at your pace. Blessings!

    • calahalexander

      Thanks, Suzi. I love your comments!

  • KK

    Thanks for your honesty. We are in the same boat. I do find it helpful to hear other women say that it was or is that same way for them when they are in the phase of having all little ones.

  • Mel

    Here’s the thing I want to say. It really really really really does get better. I’m not just saying that to make you feel better. It. Gets. Easier.

    Second. Do the work.. Right now, that’s all it is. You are in the trenches digging a freaking ditch. You are not going to like it, but it’s necessary so that someone someday can lay down a sewer pipe essential to the to the functioning of a small town. Dig the ditch, don’t expect to enjoy digging it. But expect that if you do a good job, your small city is going to work a hell of a lot better later on because of it. Stop beating yourself up for not loving the ditch digging. You don’t have to love it. Nobody said you did.

    Third, carve out some time for yourself. However small, find things that heal you on a daily basis and give you a small little feeling of joy and control. It can be anything. I used to have one room in my house I kept clean, no kids allowed in there. I went and sat in there. Even 10 minutes in that room put some gas in my tank to keep going. Gas your tank. Do the work and I swear it gets easier….with love and prayers.

  • Marie B

    I have never commented before, but I wanted to chime in that I have been reading some of your posts related to motherhood and being a stay at home mom and I have found them very insightful. I am on the completely other end of the spectrum in some ways. Kind of like JoAnna above, with the grass being greener and all that – I was laid off this past June from my $85,000 4 day a week financial analyst job that I did enjoy very much. But after 3 years of infertility and 2 miscarriages, we finally were able to carry to full term a beautiful little girl who was born on 12/26/11 (thank you Napro doctors!!). I had 4 months of maternity leave and the day I had to go back to work, with her in tow no less as my company had day care onsite, was one of the hardest days of my life. I ached with every fiber of my being to stay home with her full time, but I was the primary breadwinner, my husband’s salary is around $30,000. I was back for 2 months and then a huge surprise hit our company (very well known company, hadn’t had a layoff in over 20 years – never saw it coming kind of thing – 850 people let go). I was one of those let go. At first I freaked out because I didn’t want to look for a new job – even though I am a CPA and there are a lot of tax related / accounting related jobs out there. But then I viewed the lay-off as a blessing. I got a 4 month full pay and benefits severance package – basically they were paying me my full salary to stay home with my daughter. God definitely has a sense of humor! Two weeks after I was laid off we found out I was pregnant…cue euphoria, joy, unbelievably happy – no special Napro services needed, wasn’t even on the radar as something that could happen! It actually happened the way it does for normal people! LOL! At that point I could have cared less about the lay-off, we had a new baby to plan for. Yeah, I would need to get a new job to continue our health insurance, but who cares – we had another baby coming – they would only be 14 months apart!!! And then the bottom dropped out. Another miscarriage at 12 weeks. Cue heartache, despair, sadness…is God punishing us? Seriously, we are so freaking open to life and we continue to miscarry? Where is the sense in that? I was so miserable and my husband and I agreed that I just needed time to grieve and not worry about the job search and hey, I was still getting paid from the severance package so no need to find a new job right away.

    And then unusual and interesting things started to happen. My husband got a new job. Less pay, but health insurance. He never had that before. The parish business administrator at our church asked if I would work one day a week helping them with accounting stuff. My husband works a full time 4 day a week schedule. He could watch our daughter on the day I go to the parish office. No daycare needed. I had time to do a deep dive on our budget and came up with a bunch of savings that I had never had time to investigate when I was working. I love numbers and this was a huge thrill for me to do this! I started couponing and we eat at home 95% now. No more having to go out to eat because neither one of us had time to cook after a busy day at work. I am not planning on going back to work full-time. It might be the craziest thing we ever did – reducing our income by 70%, but hey, if we don’t try, we will never know if we can do it on our own.

    Some members on my side of the family think I am absolutely crazy for not going back to work. Sometimes I think I might be crazy for walking away from the earning potential that I know is out there. But deep down, I am the happiest I have ever been. We have relatively low monthly expenses – partly because of where we live and partly because of other choices we made earlier in our marriage. Also, a very real possiblity that both my husband and I recognize is that our daughter might be the only one we are blessed with this side of heaven, she will be in school in 5 years and I can go back to work then if needed. I want to spend every moment with her NOW.

    I know not everyone has the ability to stay home with their kids and I know there are stay-at-home moms that desperately want to work and the situations are not going to change for either group anytime soon. And I don’t make judgements on anyone because my default premise is that everyone is trying to do best for their own family and that is going to look different for every family. My husband and I think that it is best for me to stay home with our daughter right now, but could that change in 6 months, maybe…but for right now, this is where God seems to be leading us and I am ecstatic!

    I am not sure of the point of this comment and I am sorry if it is too rambling and if you just want to delete it – I understand! :) However, I just wanted to say that I will be praying for you and your family and that I earnestly hope the Lord gives you peace of heart in the midst of your struggles with NFP. I don’t mean that to sound facitious at all. I honestly think being super fertile can be a cross just as infertility is a cross. Very different crosses of course, but crosses nonetheless. Yes, I will honestly admit to being jealous at times of women that have no problem having children, but maybe both groups can pray for each other? Infertility is such a pervasive loneliness like none other that I have experienced. Especially being a practicing, faithful to the Magisterium Catholic. The lack of children is a wound that never seems to completely heal over. Yes, I am grateful for my daughter, but I also ache for the children that I have never gotten to meet. God Bless you for being open to life, even when it is a struggle. You are an inspiration to all of us to keep on trusting God – even when it hurts. -Marie B

  • Kevin


    If you haven’t seen the DVD called the “Happiest Baby on the Block”, you should check it out. Somebody gave it to us as a shower gift when we had our first baby and it was probably the best gift we’ve ever received. It’s about how to trigger a newborn’s calming reflexes so they can chill the hell out.

  • Dinka

    Yes, that. I could’ve weiten thus post, but most of all the part about not valuing my own work. I wished so badly to be at peace with myself! I could’ve gone to work, but I just couldn’t leave my kids to be taken care of by someone else for days, months, years….and so i stay home while fretting about the years going by while i do “nothing”.
    On the upside, my kids are now 9,6,4 and 5months and i am beginning to reap the fruit of a lot of those dark lonely years. I have conversations with my oldest, i watch my 6-year old dance his tiny behind off in michael-jackson-style..they all talk and communicate and they love to have me around which is a huge surprise to me, believe it or not. It really is a process and like you said, it won’t be a moment, but years that will weld us into who we reluctantly chose to be.

  • Caitlin

    I have that same struggle about intellectually appreciating SAHM, but not feeling it. I gave up (I say pridefully) an impossibly amazing career because intellectually I knew that I wouldn’t be happy being away from my children all the time. In other words, it wouldn’t have been amazing after all. But still, I am so focused on the work that I do for other venues (writing etc.) as if being paid is where the value is. A constant struggle I guess…

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  • Lisa

    It is exhausting, draining, depleting and,I think depressing – being a mom of many young children. I resented how much my children demanded of me. I did NOT enjoy doing things with them or delight in mommying. And each of my children had physical suffering of one sort or another that made them all “Angry Lincolns”. Don’t underestimate how much your own physical and emotional exhaustion impacts you right now – and will for some time to come. But, Hallelujah, one day you will pick up your car keys, tell your eldest you’ll be back soon, and you will taste freedom again! And how sweet it will be! Anyway, maybe the emptying of self is more difficult for those if us who need the emptying more than those who are already habituated to living “this is my body given up for you” as opposed to “this is my body and it’s tired!”. Some day, you’ll see real fruits in children who are approaching some level of maturity, and you’ll be grateful that you stayed the course.