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.)


  • Laurel

    It.will.get. better.
    You. will. survive.
    God bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.

  • Lena

    It’s not all peaches and cream at the office either. Sure, there’s no poop except for that one time . . .But I remember the isolation of sitting in a cubicle all day, just me and my computer. There’s backstabbing, boredom, no sunlight, repetitive work, power struggles . . . Then I would come home to my empty apartment, exhausted from the commute. I would think, “Is that all there is?” And the money wasn’t that great either. I too wondered if my work mattered. And if management is unethical, then you get upset and chest pains. People at the office can be toxic and psycho. Those who were especially soulless, stupid and psychopathic would be promoted to positions of power. In the morning, you are afraid to go to work because you are either going to get belittled or fired. And on those days, rocking a baby to sleep sounds very relaxing and peaceful. It’s a different kind psychological stress at the office or wherever you work. Your bosses just happen to be very short and young, and at least, you can influence their moral development.

    Oh, sometimes executives can be like whiney toddlers and extremely demanding and unreasonable. Grown men having temper tantrums is not a pretty sight or there is the passive aggressiveness of certain women and YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR PEERS and BOSSES IN TIME OUT AT WORK. I think I need to write an essay and compare the way some senior executives and preschoolers are the same.

    • calahalexander

      True, Lena, good point. I guess everything seems so much more appealing when you’re not in the thick of it.

  • Mom

    God is preparing you to help young mothers somewhere in the future. Also whether it feels like it or not, your children will value your mundane tasks as labors of love,but only when they are in the trenches. So take heart, God honors your valuable day to day work, honor Him in everything you do!

  • Jane Hartman

    As a college professor with no biological children, only step kids, I would change places with you. But wait, no. Don’t we always perceive that something else is grander, happier, nicer, richer, easier, etc, etc, etc. It’s our human condition. Be happy – you have so much. The Lord has been so gracious to you what with your darling family, Ogre, and vicious wit. The greener grass on the other side is compelling, but much of it is a lie.

    • calahalexander

      Thanks, Jane! Isn’t that the truth. The grass is always so much greener.

  • Theresa

    A couple quick thoughts…
    1. You aren’t called to your vocation of wife/mother by yourself. You can’t do that vocation without “the Ogre.” Try not to think of it as your job v. his job- despite what the IRS may say. You know that (cheesy) Footprints poem? The big point of it is that there are times when Christ carries us. Within marriage, we are often called to be Christ for each other- there are times when your husband will have to help carry you and others when you will have to help carry him. Don’t focus on the times you get carried as failures on your part, but rejoice that your husband was able to act as Christ for you. It’s part of how you work together to get your whole family to heaven.
    2. As much as I love reading your blog, consider taking a really serious inventory of whether blogging is really part of your vocation right now. It would be one less external yardstick for you to measure yourself against. Is it possible that the perceived obligation to blog adds one more thing on your plate and fuels some of the resentment you have towards your current situation? (Those feelings aren’t bad; even Christ wasn’t thrilled about the cross He had to bear. Christ wasn’t called to do all things at one time. He tried to jump start His ministry when He was 12 and lingered in the Temple. As we grow in wisdom, we learn more about what God calls us to and WHEN!) I know that you say blogging brings you peace, but you have brought it up a couple times now about being one more thing you’re juggling. Writing can be a powerful tool in our prayers and discernment- is God calling you to journal privately for a time instead of blogging? Your readership would understand.

    Hang in there- you’re gold being tested in fire! :)

    • calahalexander

      Thanks, Theresa! I have considered not blogging, but honestly it helps me work things out so much, and I always have a fresh perspective after getting lovely, helpful comments from my readers. It’s also the one thing that gets me “out” of my day-to-day life, so to speak, even though I usually write about my day-to-day life.

      • Theresa

        Good- I’m glad the process is a value added for you! You aren’t alone even when you feel like it. So many of us are struggling with the same feelings and very similar situations. You’ll get through these trials and be all the stronger and more prepared for the next. I know it sounds silly, but you really are an inspiration. Too bad Naples is so far from Tampa…

    • calahalexander

      Thanks, Theresa! I have considered not blogging, but honestly it helps me work things out so much, and I always have a fresh perspective after getting lovely, helpful comments from my readers. It’s also the one thing that gets me “out” of my day-to-day life, so to speak, even though I usually write about my day-to-day life.

  • Amy

    My husband sent me this post. I believe he was trying to educate himself on how I felt now, being at home with an eight-month-old and not employed otherwise. I so appreciate his desire to understand how I feel, but I read your post and it depressed me. I certainly know that my life is not the same as yours; you have four children to my one. I have been blessed with a baby who naps several hours most days and I can have precious time to myself. And, although my husband is one of the most passionate, motivated, entrepreneurial individuals I know, he sacrifices a lot of his time to make my life easier.

    But, we are Catholic, and we do Natural Family Planning, and I have thought to myself many times that I wasn’t adding much value to the world by spending every waking hour with a baby. So those things we have in common for now.

    Maybe you wrote this post in the midst of a day when you just didn’t think you could put one foot in front of the other. We all have them. Trust me, I’ve had them. I’ve been on some kind of anti-depressant for years to avoid having them. While I’m sure the Prozac I’m on can’t hurt, I stopped having those days when I truly let God into my life. Instead of waking up wondering why I couldn’t have happiness (seemingly like everyone else I knew), I am now in constant awe of the incredible blessings in my life. A healthy AND happy baby? A husband who loves me even when I tend to lash out at him for no reason? Family and friends and a steady income to rely on? For a long time I wondered if this was all just a tease; that the ball would eventually drop and my life would unravel. Then I realized that God wasn’t showering me with gifts and good fortune because I went to church every Sunday and had made the decision to make Him a priority in my life. The good things in my life were a result of my allowing them to happen. I shut them out before and I was missing out.

    I know I’ll have to deal with death, loss, sadness, frustration and struggles that are a result of my environment. It is not beyond me that God could choose to challenge my husband and myself with a child with a mental or physical handicap. But my approach and my attitude is not going to change, and neither is my faith.

    I have gone on a tangent and you are probably shaking your head at my optimism and calling me Pollyanaa. I wish you could have met me 10 years ago. I won’t go into details, but it was a far cry from a blonde in pig tails playing the “glad” game.

    What I’m trying to say is, your life is what you make it. NFP isn’t supposed to make you feel like you are not in control of when you get pregnant. If that’s how you feel, then you didn’t have a very good teacher. I, in fact, feel extremely empowered by the knowledge I have about my own fertility. Please look into learning more about it.

    Secondly, if you are unhappy in your vocation, change it. It will make you happier and help your family. If it is in fact a “grass in always greener” situation and you find yourself pining for home, you’ll at least know you tried.

    • Melanie B

      Amy, I’m not sure what point you were trying to make. Maybe you didn’t really have one. You seem to be saying that Calah must be doing it wrong if she’s unhappy and struggling. I think your response is too glib and not very compassionate or thoughtful. It doesn’t seem to really consider what Calah actually wrote. Like Calah said, maybe it would have been better not to leave a comment if you couldn’t say something that advances the conversation.

    • calahalexander

      Amy, I deleted my original comment because I felt it was too snarky. But honestly, this comment was at once the most unhelpful and most irritating comment I’ve gotten in a while. I’ve always thought that having one baby was harder than two or three (although this, my fourth, is the hardest by far) and yet I would never have felt myself wise and experienced enough as a mother of one to tell a mother of many that her problem is that she’s doing everything wrong. You clearly have never read my blog before, based on your ill-informed comments on my NFP knowledge, and know nothing about me. I can’t imagine what you’re trying to accomplish with this comment except to make me feel bad. Certainly you must have enough common sense to know that a comment like this, from a complete stranger, would not inspire any kind of epiphany, or even the willingness to listen. It is blisteringly condescending, and quite frankly you haven’t earned the right, by a long shot, to condescend to me.

      • momof2boyz1

        Well said! Calah, you are in my thoughts and prayers. I enjoy your blog tremendously.

  • Michelle

    “This is my life, and even when it seems unbearable it’s really the only one I want to live right now. ”

    Yes, this is the way I have felt over and over and over and over again. and here I am, 6 months away from embarking on another 12 months of newborn, and I know that it will be hard and I’m scared. (I’m not saying your lot only feels hard because you have a newborn — although, I would imagine it’s part of it.)

    The fact that I have to go back to work full-time 12 weeks after giving birth is another one of those…”well, this is my life” moments, too. and then, when I’m listening to my 11.5 year old tell me that she’s not getting enough of me and I have the 7-year-old “momma’s girl” clinging to my leg begging me not to go anywhere that she’s not included and I hear the 18-month-old boy causing mischief among the 4-year-old and the 9-year-old — well….then I simply say to everyone, “This is the life God has BLESSED us with!!!” and simply follow-it up with “and you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” (yes, I’m very mature that way)

  • Michelle

    oops! I meant to add at the end that you’re in my prayers. The first year is always the hardest for me. I know it’s not that way for everyone, but I always breathe a sigh of relief when the baby turns 1. I know that doesn’t help you because you’re several months away from that, but I wanted to let you know that I commiserate from afar in blogland.

    • calahalexander

      ME TOO. I look forward to that 1-year mark like a drowning man looks forward to breathing again. Thanks for the prayers, and prayers for you with your new one!

  • Betsy

    I followed Jen’s link to your blog, as will many more I’m sure. I just wanted to add my own perspective that has shifted (is shifting?) the way I look at “my mom work” vs “his ‘real ‘work.” I’ve begun to see things differently – to see that it is I that get to do the “real” work: the work of life, of living, of being and loving. He, wonderful, intelligent, holy man that he is, works to provide *for us* – essentially it is he that is the servant of the family. This has opened my heart to truly caring for him even after I’ve had my own long day. It has also allowed me to let him care for me and the children. We are a family. We are one unit striving to love one another and the Lord. This has also come from his occasional comments that he wishes he could stay home with the kids – not because he wants to get out of work (he loves his job and he’s great at it!), or because he thinks I have it easy (!!!) but because he really does miss out on so many real life moments that I am blessed to be there for. It is this that he sacrifices in serving our family.

    • calahalexander

      Betsy, that is a great point. Honestly, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you for that perspective.

      • Jenny

        I have to concur with Betsy. My husband stays home full time with our children while I have a full time job. I definitely feel that he gets to live ‘real life’ while I am stuck behind a stupid computer and stuck making a long, stupid commute. When my oldest was born, I stayed home with her for the first year and was completely overwhelmed by it. I felt alone and abandoned. We had no family nearby and the neighborly help I thought I would get never materialized. When she was one, my husband and I switched places. In hindsight, this was a terrible mistake, but I have also learned so much from it. I never would have appreciated the work and duties of being the one at home as much as I do now if I had always been the one there. Previously I chaffed under the responsibilities and now I long to be the one responsible. I admit there is a little bit of the grass is greener in my attitude, but I have spent time on both sides of the fence and now have clarity on which side is truly meaningful. We now have three little ones with another on the way and I can only hope that one day I will be able to come back home again.

  • Kate

    I’ve been through it and am now at the other end, approaching 50 and the prospect of grandchildren. My sixth child was so very needy and clingy that my husband dubbed him “Mr. NFP.” Thankfully, my eldest daughter was 12 when he was born and became very adept at pacifying him while I at least took a shower.
    I wish I had some wise words for you to fix it all, but it really is about changing the mindset. Being melancholy, I have a tendency to brood. I had to get past that and stop thinking about myself in what included things like your private bathroom cleaning rant. That kind of stuff just feeds itself – like yeast and sugar. Don’t go there. I’m the last person who could do a pollyanna imitation; however, it does help if you at least stop yourself and say “I’m not going down that self-pity, self-loathing road” (think of it like the first drink of an alcoholic). Do whatever you need to do to get your mind on something else – play music, listen to a kids’ audio book, sing, eat chocolate, read an Agatha Christie novel (really dates me) – whatever. Think of it like lust – temptations of the devil. He loves for us to focus on ourselves.