My husband has traveled for work since the earliest days of our marriage. On a good week, he might only have one overnight. On less good occasions, he’s gone for two weeks at a time. In the earlier days, when he came home from a trip, there was always a struggle with reentry. I was ready to sit down and take a load off–he was too–and we miscommunicated about who was “on” for the kids.
At times, it seemed more difficult when he was home than when he was away, because when he was home, I was burdened not just by what needed to be done around the house, but also with the expectation that he might do more of it.
It took me several years to figure out that my expectations were not the solution to our maladies, but were rather, the problem.
This little window in our marriage comes back to me now, as I’ve been following a recent conversation with my Patheos neighbors, about what the Church might do to support mothers of young kids. It started with Calah’s very relatable admission that having lots of young kids at home is difficult and stressful, and makes her question how much longer she can remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on birth control. The Anchoress suggested that Parishes might do more to help mothers in Calah’s position. And Calah agreed:
“But I do think that there is a real problem with the Church’s teaching on the morality of birth control. It’s the same problem that many pro-choicers point out (inaccurately, I believe) when citing the Church’s hypocrisy on abortion; namely, lack of follow-through support. The Church says, “don’t use birth control, have big families” and then when we do, and when we find ourselves drowning because of it, there’s no help. No support.”
There have been many comments on both posts expressing a need for some kind of mother’s ministry, and yet little consensus on the particulars of what such a ministry might do. Some have suggested a mother’s group that meets at church to commiserate. Some have suggested a committee that brings meals to families with new babies. Others have suggested recruiting the grannies in the Parish to make home visits and offer respite care or companionship to young mothers. All are worthy suggestions, and I’ve seen all of them done, in different communities at different times, with varying degrees of success.
But when it comes to naming a one-size-fits-all nationwide ministry within the Catholic Church to meet the needs of all mothers of young children, I think we’re grasping at straws. Here’s why:
Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, and at different times in their lives, they need different things.
As one mother said, having someone come into her home would make her feel like she had to clean up and entertain. Many moms feel stressed about getting a bundle of children dressed and out of the house to go to a meeting. And as for a mentorship or companion ministry–well– friendship must come first. I can’t imagine opening up my soul and my challenges to someone I didn’t know well. I would withhold to avoid judgement. Or I would at times just want to vent without my issues becoming ISSUES that need solving. There are good reasons to share our struggles and commiserate, and there are also good reasons not to concretize every negative thought by giving it voice.
After my first was born, my largest complaint was that I felt bored and isolated. I was also very possessive of my first born and didn’t want to leave him with just anybody. I did drive-bys of MOMS and MOPS, and ultimately settled on the La Leche League, which let me keep my baby with me, had flexible meeting times, no spiritual agenda, and it often led to social opportunities afterwards. I had been looking for friendship, and something to do WITH my baby. For my needs at that time, my particular Parish didn’t have the best offerings.
When I had two kids I went on an exercise kick and spent every morning at the YMCA where there was free childcare with my membership. During this stage, I craved alone time, and a way to burn off steam. The Y helped tremendously.
When I had three kids, I started to feel starved spiritually. Mass attendance was a hot mess with babies and toddlers–I couldn’t pay attention from the cry room. I was never alone, and couldn’t find opportunities to pray. I didn’t want to go to a meeting–I wanted time to collect my thoughts and meditate– in silence. Fortunately, I found several other moms in the neighborhood who were in the same boat, and we put together our own co-op called “play and pray.” A couple moms would watch the kids in a room at the Parish, while the other moms could visit the adoration chapel or run errands. We met once a week, then every other week, then we fizzled out–because moms of lots of young kids get tired of packing up crap to leave the house each week. In the end, it was easier to stay home and stay frustrated than to go out and get more frustrated.
When I had four young kids, and I was pregnant with another, I was just exhausted. An elderly lady in the Parish offered to come help out at my house between 2-4 on Wednesdays and I turned her down, because frankly, it was too little too late. I needed a “Me” replacement–a long hospital stay–weeks of recuperation. It had taken me years to get so tired, and a little break on Wednesday afternoons just wasn’t going to help anything.
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. Before that, there were already organizations (not the Church) in place to meet my particular needs, which were pretty shifty from year to year.
It’s probably reasonable to look to the Church for help for young mothers, and yet in hindsight, the best help the Church could have provided me, and did provide me, was Sacramental support and a teaching authority that, while challenging on the whole, has led to a richer life than I would have designed for myself. I’m glad I followed it, even at the times I was most tempted to stray.
Now that I’ve had a chance to catch my breath as a mother and volunteer at my Parish as a catechist, I can see just how much our Parish does with very limited resources. The ministries that are already in place are performed by the same handful of volunteers who make everything in our Parish happen. The Parish council is composed of the same people who do Faith formation. Saint Ann’s altar society also does funeral meals. Knights of columbus IS the Buildings and Grounds committee. Who can do more for the Parish than they’re already doing? We’re all doing the best we can.
This is what I didn’t realize about my husband in those early days of our marriage: he was doing the best he could too. We were both stretched to our limits. When it came down to the wire, and he would ask me, what in particular he could do for me, I was tongue-tied. 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.
When I released him of my expectations for how he should spend his time when he was at home, I also released our relationship of a tremendous burden–that of fulfilling a pie-in-the-sky obligation that I could never properly name.
I think we fall into the same trap when we make demands of the Church, holding that wherever I have a vested interest, the Church must meet my needs. I’m being chaste, therefore the Church must be my matchmaker. I’m not using birth control, so the Church must be my nanny. I’m fighting a culture war, so the Church must provide me with beautiful liturgy, better music, and fine art.
The Church is Christ’s body on earth, and as such, it doesn’t really owe any of us anything.
On the contrary, we owe Christ and his body on earth good marriages strengthened over time by our individual and gradual perfection in virtue; we owe him fidelity even at the times when being faithful causes us suffering; we owe him the best music, art and liturgy we can provide because it’s balm for a suffering body, not necessarily because bad art is an affront to me, personally.
And we all owe the Church our open eyes, and whatever able bodies our family can provide to meet the needs of our Parish community– even if that means interrupting my worship at Mass and going to the one mother in the back of the Church with the noisiest most annoying child and asking, with all the love and kindness I can muster, if I can help. She’ll probably say no the first time, but it might make her feel more welcome, in spite of her fear that she brings chaos wherever she goes. And the next time I offer, she may let me hold the baby, while she deals with the noisy toddler. And the third time I offer, she may begin to consider me her friend.