Open Hand, Open Heart: Ministry to Young Mothers

It occurs to me that 21st century realities for young mothers — particularly for young mothers willing to have larger families — are quite different than they were thirty years ago, or fifty. In “the old days” — back when my mother had me, for instance, and my Mother-in-Law had my husband — families were larger to start with, and extended family members lived nearby. My grandmother lived with us; my husband’s grandmother lived a few blocks away; one aunt lived right up the street and another around the corner. A new mother had some resources to help her out, another pair of hands to catch a running kid; someone to sit with for a tea-break and an hour’s adult conversation.

Families are smaller, these days. Those young women who are nurturing “big” families rarely have family members who live within hollering distance; siblings are few and often living in another state and aunts and grandmas are off “having it all.”

Calah Alexander has written one of those brutally honest pieces about the trials, frustrations and fears that go hand-in-hand with mothering small children but she has added to it the twist that obedient Catholicism brings to the drama.

There is freedom in obedience but it can sometimes seem very hard to find when life is a blur of small, unruly people who are in constant states of screaming need and one’s post-partum chemistry is all afoul; a sincere attempt at religious obedience can feel like oncoming death or madness, especially if one is not getting some sound spiritual direction, and a little help. People who have no idea what it’s like to not even be alone while in the bathroom — to have no spare minute in which to collect oneself or re-tether oneself to heaven — cannot possibly imagine the strain.

Reading Calah’s piece, I couldn’t help but wonder why parishes do not have a “young mother’s ministry”. We have Consolation/Funeral Ministry, Divorced Men’s Ministry, Teen-group Ministry, Bereavement Ministry; why not a Ministry of Succor meant to help young mothers who have passed that “new baby” moment when everyone wants to help and are now in the thick of the everyday demands of motherhood — just her and the brood and hours of unrelieved, lonely coping.

I’m envisioning a ministry whereby older moms — perhaps women confronting an empty nest, or those facing retirement with some time on their hands — can simply visit with a young mom for an hour or so, a couple times a week — at home or in a park — and be present to her in a reassuring, and most importantly, confidential way.

I am not talking about babysitting, about some woman coming in while the young mother flees for the hour — and I’m not talking about someone who helps with the housework — I’m thinking about something more in line with a woman able to come in and take one kid into her lap, and maybe rock it to sleep, while the young mother deals with another kid but also has a chance to talk, spill, vent, cry; a woman who might be a prayer companion in those moments; a woman who can identify — who understands that the young mother is neither nuts nor incompetent, just overwhelmed; a woman who can reassure her that things get better — that the job of motherhood never becomes “easy” but it gets more manageable.

So, basically, I’m thinking a mother’s companion ministry; a “mothering presence” to a young mother — someone who might pour them both a cup of tea, hold a hand and say “yes, these small people are little packages of lunacy, joy and sorrow entrusted to you. Aren’t they beautiful? And doesn’t time speed by so quickly…” A voice to bring a little perspective into a life that currently seems telescopically narrowed.

It would involve some training, I think. Some training in “listening” skills, in facilitating and it what it means to simply “be there” for someone else, for no other reason than the love of God. To be Christ for a young mother; to be Mary, and simply hear her, love her, pray with her.

Most importantly, it would require a rock-solid commitment to confidentiality; such a ministry would be useless to any young mother if she felt there was no safety in her venting, or if she had to worry about gossip.

My husband and I used to facilitate a youth group — we took on kids in the 9th grade and they met weekly in our home until graduation from high school, just to talk, to be able to have a free, safe place in which to talk about anything they wanted, address sensitive issues or toss off challenging questions about church and the life of faith. We went through training for it, and yes, we signed a confidentiality agreement and the kids did, too. Barring something criminal or unsafe, what was said at a meeting stayed at the meeting. We did it for eight years, because it was a thing very much worth doing. People need to know they are seen and heard. Young moms need it, especially.

Seems to me, a ministry of succor to young moms might be worth doing, too. And it’s kind of part-and-parcel of “Becoming Apocalypse” for each other.

I’d love to know if such programs are already alive in some Catholic parishes?

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Melanie B

    Yes! Yes! Yes! We need something like this so badly. My parish has nothing for young mothers. Not even anything for the newborn days when you’re just home from the hospital. And most parish activities seem to be scheduled during the hours when we are trying to get the kids fed and into bed. I don’t know about others; but 7pm is the worst time for my young family. So we’ve been at this parish for four years and hardly know anyone because it is so hard to get involved when you have four kids six and under.

    [Seems to me a huge failing. A church that discourages contraception and encourages bigger families should have something in place to support the thing they want to promote. You can't just say "have big families" and then have nothing in place to help out. That might have worked 50 years ago when families were bigger and nearer. Doesn't work now. The church needs to support its folks. -admin]

  • Antoinette Serena

    My parish has MOPS! (Mothers of pre-schoolers.) Not a mom myself but if I were I think I’d be interested. This program occurs in other demoninations, too.

    [Yeah, MOPS is not exactly what I'm talking about. That's moms and kids getting together. I'm describing something much more one-on-one -admin]

  • Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Wow, this is eerie, because I was *just* thinking about this very concept this morning.

    A 50-something lady at my church recently came up to me and said that she loves children and is sad that she’s never around them now that she’s an empty-nester. She mused aloud that maybe she and other empty-nester moms could offer some kind of babysitting service for a very low nominal fee to give overwhelmed moms of little ones an extra pair of hands. My reaction was something along the lines of, “YES, OH MY GOSH YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    As much as I would love for someone to stop by for a more social visit to offer words of encouragement and wisdom, the problem is that I’d feel like I need to play hostess and have the house cleaned, in which case I’d probably be shipped off to a mental institution before she arrived. Maybe this is an introvert thing, but personally, I love the idea of a ministry that’s basically a low-cost babysitting service, so that I wouldn’t feel bad just retreating to a bubble bath with a glass if wine if that’s what I felt like I need to do to survive another week. :)

    So glad you’re starting this discussion!

  • Bethany “B-mama”

    These are beautiful, soul-relieving thoughts. Hearing another “mother-of-many” say that my job is difficult assuages my soul. It can sometimes feel like I’m the only mother in the world who has ever dealt with x or a child who behaves like x, but having the assurance of common experience would be amazing. I would be a happy recipient of such a ministry!

  • E.T.M.

    The MOPS program at my church provides monthly and weekly meetings for moms with childcare, so that the moms have a break from their kids. The meetings include time with mentor moms, adult fellowship time (with food) and teaching time with practical helps and spiritual nurture. None of the MOPS meetings include mother-children time together and we have a part-time staff person whose sole responsibility is this ministry. It is open to all, no matter where or whether they go to church. This is really the only model I have seen, so I wasn’t aware that other MOPS programs included the children in the meetings. For those of you who have that model, how does that work out for the mothers?

  • Gina

    This post–and Calah’s made me weep with recognition. I was there, not long ago. I’ll never forget how, after a similar confession to Calah’s, a priest invited me to come by the rectory later and “just talk.” He made me a cup of tea, and just listened, and comforted me, and blessed me, and I left after 40 minutes. I’ll never forget the encouragement I felt.

  • Dad of Six

    Our local Sacred Heart Home School group has an informal organization where the other wives assist with meal prep, taking siblings in, and just general assistance. Something like MOPS would be a big plus in any parish.

  • Christina

    In the thick of mothering several young children right now, and honestly, I’d rather have the babysitter for an hour so I can run away. Listening skills are great but who can have a coherent conversation in a house full of young kids anyway? I can’t have a decent conversation with my husband when the kids are awake.

  • Heather R.

    Amen, amen, and amen! The $25,000 question: who has the desire/time/energy to put something like this together? Hopefully it wouldn’t be left to the already worn-out Mom of four young children (with one on the way). Oops … My circumstances are showing! At any rate, the enemy loves isolation, and joining women together to support and nurture one another in a tangible way – both physically and spiritually – is the opposite of that. It is love in action. It is Christ’s hands and feet in action. Such support is desperately needed, and I hope a quick note to our parish priest and council (replete with a couple of crayon scribbles for good measure) can help get the ball rolling in my neck if the woods. Thanks, Elizabeth!!!


  • Nan

    My parish has a mothers group that meets, I don’t know if it’s monthly or weekly. I just know that it exists as I see it in the bulletin.

    What you’re talking about could be part of BeFrienders, which we also have at my parish. It’s a listening ministry with confidentiality. Members go through training, virtus training and a background check. The organization itself is secular but at my parish takes Communion to hospitals, nursing homes and individuals in need. Members are also available in other situations, to listen. It seems like it could be applied to a keeping moms sane ministry as well.

    I know a couple, who befriended a young couple who had nobody around when they were having their first child and are godparents to the child so pairing families with grown children with a young family seems like another possibility.

  • Jenny

    Something like this is needed and I would extend it to cover pregnancy as well. While pregnant (especially the first half), I am basically worthless. Exhausted and sick. My house turns into a pit. Not “ha, ha please excuse the mess,” but a full blown dirty dishes, kitchen, bathrooms, trash on the floor ’cause the vacuum hasn’t been run, pit. It is true that when the baby shows up, everyone descends with a meal, which is great, but I also need help months before when I am not functioning. I surely can’t be the only one.

    Honestly I am not optimistic about the prospects of such a program in my parish. I once broached the topic with the women’s group where the majority of the members are at least 15 to 20 years older than I am. Mostly empty-nesters with young adult children–the perfect age cohort to implement such a program. They were decidedly uninterested.

    Their recommendation was to contact the helping hand committee. A committee that is never advertised and I think consists of one woman. Yeah, so no. Maybe this is my pride speaking, but I am not going to call some random lady at church to ask she come clean my toilet when she thought she was signing up to bring a meal to a shut-in. I think most mothers probably feel the same way. We need something for us so we do not feel like we are imposing. A ministry where an older woman got up and says, “I remember what it was like to puke into a dirty toilet, call me so you don’t have to do that anymore!” I would call someone like that.

    Maybe when I’m older I can be that person, but, for now, I can only dream about it.

  • Hallie @ Moxie Wife

    Just the fact that this conversation is being had fills me with comfort. Calah’s post was such a balm to my soul because so often we mothers of many young ones are too overwhelmed and exhausted to even find the energy and/or words to express our frustration (much less seek help). It can be an incredibly isolating experience and her words made me feel just a little less alone. Despite having moved five times in my nine years of motherhood, I have yet to find a parish with solid support for young mothers in place. As you said, Elizabeth, this strikes me as a huge failing.

  • Rebecca

    Although I’m neither the young mom nor the empty-nester, I know how badly a support system like you describe is needed. If ever there were a “Visitation” ministry, this would surely be it.

    Ministry always begins with friendship–to whom else would we dare entrust a dirty toilet? ;-) Even if we are at parishes where no formal ministry exists, at the very least we can each extend a smile and a warm hello to the young parents in the neighboring pew (especially when the little ones have been particularly trying), those corralling kiddos over coffee and donuts, and perhaps most importantly, to the young families on our own blocks (Catholic or not).

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ tasked us with becoming neighbor to those He puts in our midst. We need to get about doing it, and it often begins in the smallest of ways.

  • http://NA Lorraine

    A young mothers’ ministry in the Church is essential. There are many cultures within the Catholic Church and so ministry needs to take this into consideration. But every woman needs other women to journey with her, especially in her faith. Women stories from Scripture or Saints enrich our understanding of who we are, music and song lifts our souls to God, and prayer – prayer and worship are essential to each of us. We walk the earth much like our ancestors: feeding, teaching, wiping noses, changing diapers, balancing acts of many kinds. We give until our well runs dry – yes, ministry to young mothers is needed if only to know where the water of life can be found so that you can be refreshed.

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  • Another Dad of 6

    My oldest is 9 years old, and I would kill to have a parish that actually did something like this. Ours actually has a good Mom’s group, but it is young mothers supporting other young mothers.

    I honestly believe that the parishes don’t like doing stuff like this because most of the Priests don’t really “support” large families, and don’t care to become associated with that “freakish side” of Catholicism.

    With that said, we are fortunate enough to live in the Arlington Diocese where there is some support.

  • Bethanie Ryan

    I really wish my parish had something like this. I’m very much in that boat. I’m a new mom, our nearest family is an 18 hour drive away (yeah, you read that right, 1-8 as in 10 + 8) and we’re both (my husband and I) pretty new to the area. It’s been a long and lonely road but I know God will get us through. I pray daily that my husband will find a job closer to our old home.

  • Fontevrault

    My husband and I adopted 3 kids in January. In February, I got pregnant. That I was able to carry our son full term was a compete miracle – something we hadn’t been able to do in 13 years of marriage. Now, I’m home with 4 kids under the age of 5. I am overjoyed to be a mom and have the tremendous privilege of raising my children but I am also often overwhelmed and just plain worn out. In a neighborhood where nobody else stays home, I am isolated. I woud **love** to be able to connect with more experienced moms and feel like there is someone near by who might be able to help. My own family is 3000 miles away and my husband and I are flying solo in every possible sense. Please, please reach out to a mom like me. I had a friend pop by today and just spending a few hours with her made a huge difference.

  • Elise

    Check out They provide the framework to help a parish address the needs you mentioned — and more.

  • KML

    You know how I know this is badly needed? Because I am here sacked out on the couch exhausted by my third pregnancy crying tears of recognition at both the article and the comments. My mom died three years ago, and while it wouldn’t be the same, I can’t tell you what I wouldn’t give for an older Catholic mother to talk to, heart-to-heart.

  • lethargic

    Is this kind of thing part of Elizabeth Ministry? Or is that one out of vogue now? Well, at least, I remember talk about it maybe 10 years ago or so …

  • Mary

    I’m expecting my first in just over a month, so I can’t really speak to need for this in anything but an abstract way, but this comment of yours, Elizabeth, struck such a cord with me: A church that discourages contraception and encourages bigger families should have something in place to support the thing they want to promote. You can’t just say “have big families” and then have nothing in place to help out.

    I am currently struggling with the fact that my very Catholic place of employment — a place that prides itself, very openly, on defending Church teaching regarding the family — offers no maternity leave, no childcare, and doesn’t seem to care or be willing to work with their employees on this matter. It is extremely frustrating to have been with an institution for 8 years, to have supported that institution in their mission, but when it truly counts for me, to be told that the mission doesn’t quite extend to my situation.

    I know my post is very off topic, so thanks for letting me get my frustration out (which is truly fueled by my anxiety of what’s to come) but this is one area that I think just can’t have too much attention drawn to it.

  • Sheila

    Hm, that is a thought. The trouble with young mothers helping each other is that we’re all equally overwhelmed and too busy to come to any meetings. I always feel so uplifted when I talk to an older mom. They can reassure me that yes, their kids DID do that, and yes, they turned out fine.

    The Legion of Mary actually visited me once and I really felt that with one of them. She wanted to listen, encourage, etc. The other one wanted me to join Legion of Mary, or come to a Patricians meeting, where babies aren’t welcome.

    Maybe a broader sort of “visiting ministry” could be the thing. It would be for visiting current Catholics only, not to convert anyone. You could request to visit the elderly (which young moms might want to do), the sick, lonely single people, or pregnant, sick, or overwhelmed young moms to talk or help out. The number of the coordinator would be in the bulletin and anyone who wanted a visit could call and give their info. At the meetings you’d get some training and a list of people to visit that month. Then call them up, set up a time, and do it!

    Man, that makes me want to go out and found it. Except that I’m overwhelmed myself. ;)

  • Ruth H

    This is a great idea and a needed ministry. I think perhaps you and your husband were fortunate to be around so much family. I was born in 1936 in a small town with lots of family. By 1942 my mother had 5 children and we moved away from that family, as did many, many others because of WWII.
    Many families were on the move up the corporate ladder when I was young with my three children. We moved quite a few times, no family anywhere to help on a daily or even monthly basis.
    I know a lot of protestant churches have a Mother’s Day out each week. That is to bring the children to the church and then Mother gets a day off while they are there. That is a start in the direction you are going with this.
    One of the problems is that most young mother’s also work outside the home. It is such a shame, they are missing so much that can never be reclaimed. But that is life as we know it today. I wish it were not so, but it is what it is.
    Yours is a great idea, I hope something comes of it.

  • Rose Fontana

    26 years ago when my husband and I moved across the country I was happy to learn that the church parish we moved into to offered a “Mother’s Group”. I quickly grew to love my time with my Mom friends and all the kids. We’d meet once a week in an unused meeting room in the parish community buildings and the kids played together while the Moms (about 6-10 of us) nursed the babies and talked: about childrearing, pediatricians, NFP, prayer time (or the lack there of). We all brought snacks to share and celebrated holidays, holy days, birthdays, etc in small kiddie ways on our days together. We babysat for each other on the days we were not meeting as a group. Sometimes those of us who went to early morning mass sat with the kids for the other mothers who would attend thenoon mass. Ultimately, we all grew out of baby-preschool years and no new mothers came to replace us and the group died of attrition. It was a sad day when I realized that. I knew how I had appreciated my group and I was sorry for all the next Moms who would miss out on that same experience. I’m sure “The Parish” would welcome another group, if the mothers would step up. The Moms don’t have to wait for someone else to start a group. THEY are the someone elses.

  • Kim

    YES! The closest thing I have in terms of support is MOMS Club (Mothers Offering Mothers Support). I love it but I would love (even more) to have a mentor mom come visit with me and share pointers, tea and just *listen*. I only have three but boy, it feels like I have 30 at times.

  • adb.point

    Although a parish ministry might be one solution that could alleviate some overwhelmed young mothers, I think an obvious solution is being overlooked. Ms. Scalia recounts in the “old days” when multiple generations of a family lived nearby and were there to share their lives and support one another.

    Why now, in the 21st century, has this model of family life (grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all living close to one another) withered away with no concerted effort to reclaim it? A parish ministry can only do so much. Acquaintances can only help so much an hour or two at a time. Family is a constant that can be relied on, especially when parents and grandparents live in the home.

    As I anticipate, many of the responses will be that it is simply impractical to keep families in close proximity. How can we be expected to settle in the same town our parents raised us when we want to go to this college on the other coast, or want to take this job in this state thousands of miles away? And of course our brothers and sisters and parents want to do the same.

    Many will say, it’s not a choice to move away, it’s a necessity to follow the job market and opportunities. But if that continues to be the reality, then the isolated family and the isolated young mother will continue to be a reality. Maybe the real, long term solution is to begin raising our children with the expectation of staying close to home and one another– and to begin asking and expecting our parents to live close to us, or in our own homes, as they grow older. A parish solution cannot solve the bigger problem of physical distance between family.

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  • Gwendolyn

    In the twice-over postpartum hazes that I’ve gone through, I often wanted (wished for, prayed for) something like what you’ve described above. As a woman who suffered from depression and social anxiety (but still determined to live my in obedience to the Catholic faith), I was not one who found it easy to join into things like mother’s groups and MOPS. The idea still gives me the willies, and my children are school-age now. But in those quiet moments when I was rocking a child and wondering what the heck I was doing, I wanted someone to be THERE. Just be there. Not clean my house or counsel me. Just chat (or not even that). Something like that doesn’t happen naturally, I think, the way a group does. You need someone to do the pairing. A good idea. It’s got the cogs turning.

  • Cheryl

    Our church has Elizabeth Ministries. We’ve had groups of moms-older and younger that meet for adoration. women take turns going in for adoration and sitting with kids in nursery to talk. this gave us the opportunity to meet later if more help was needed too. As a mom with older kids/ teens, I would love the opportunity to be able to hold and play with babies and toddlers again. We just need to reach out to these young moms at Mass. Smile and talk.

  • sarah

    I totally get what you mean, Elizabeth. Some of the (good in many ways) groups mentioned by commenters don’t really fit your description at all, and as I am very much in the shoes of Calah/others, I can sadly speak with all too much experience here. Mom’s lectures/blogs are full of well meaning advice but often leave the worn-out mom feeling like a failure. Making meals or helping with housework helps with logistics but not as much with the struggling soul. Mom’s Morning’s Out sometimes acted more like a band-aid for me and often I spent more time wondering who was watching my many children and whether they were really safe, only to return home to the same depressive house I left that morning.
    Instead, you are speaking of someone to stop by and live in the trenches with you for a while. A person willing to look past the messy house, screaming children, etc. and just say, “How are you doing?”. This would have helped me more than anything.
    The fact is that I and almost every woman I know was brought up and prepared for a hard charging career. When we gave it up for our families we knew it would be a battle but did not know a.) how difficult it would be, b.) that we were not prepared for it and c.) that the battleground was virtually empty, i.e. you would fight alone.
    I love your idea. Perhaps when I am out of the thick of this battle, I will try to help in this way, somehow.

  • Ikilope

    Does everything need a ministry? The proliferation of ministries and ministers is so out of hand that the church feels more like a social club than a center for worship.
    If you need a support group contact your family.

    [Wow, that's great "loving others as yourself" there. Lots of folks don't have the sort of family support that used to exist for young moms. But thanks for playing! -admin]

  • anniebird

    I am the mother of six whose ages range from 2-13. I visit you almost daily, Elizabeth, and you have been this voice for me. I think what you suggest is a wonderful and important ministry, and I thank you for all the ways you have been a channel for God’s voice for me and other readers:)

  • NJ Pastor

    My parish has a “Mom and Me” group, which, by the way, includes a few stay-at-home dads. It’s led by our preschool director, and a group of young mothers. It’s a terrific ministry!

    After reading some of the comments above, I need to point out that a parish ministry – any parish ministry – doesn’t happen without the involvement, commitment, and support of the people. If there is a need for a Moms’ Group in your parish, talk with your pastor. But don’t go to him and present a problem, without offering him a solution. Father has enough on his plate. Start talking to other young/new moms (and dads, too) in the parish; find out what they need, and what parish resources exist to help serve the need (does the parish have a kindergarten or preschool that might be a resource? Are there retired people or others who might be willing to help in some way or mentor young women? etc.). Be realistic in what you hope to accomplish- young mothers don’t have a lot of free time to do other things. Then go back to him with a plan. Believe me, he’ll be very grateful! Most importantly, be willing to get involved and make it happen!
    In my experience, I have often found that the reason why many things don’t happen in some parishes is simply because few are willing to help make them happen. Conversely, the reason why other parishes seem to have such diverse and vibrant ministries is because they have the direct involvement and support of the people.

  • Jill

    I’m glad to see this topic addressed and your ideas. Actually, I’m not a practicing Catholic. My husband converted to catholicism several years ago (we currently attend a protestant church as a family and occasionally we may go to mass with him). Anyhow, I have noticed in the Catholic Church that there seems to be a lack of support for mothers with young children. Many protestant churches offer more programs and support but that can vary as well.

    It does seem that one of the Catholic Churches stongest messages to the world is that it is Pro-Life. It does so much good in many ways. It seems somewhat ironic that it doesn’t have more supports in place for families carrying out that pro-life message.

    My husband and I have been blessed with two children (and we have lost two due to miscarriage and pregnancy complications). I have experienced post partem depression in the past and we have moved mulitple times due to my husbands job. In addition, my husband is a reservist and we will be experiencing his third deployment this March. So yes, I have my fair share of moments of lonliness and isolation. I’ve been blessed with some great neighbors through the years as well.

    I know this comment is getting rather long and I’m not trying to ramble but just a few thoughts: One of my old hairstylists went to a small country Baptist church. I remember her telling me about a group of older women in her church who would regularly serve the young mothers. They would have a dinner or lunch every month or so at the church for the mothers. The older women did all of the food preparation and work and provided child care as well. All for free. The mothers just had to show up and enjoy their hospitality. The mothers got to know one another better as well as the older mentoring women. I’m assuming that as relationships developed it was easier to figure out ways to help one another as needed. THat stood out to me because so many times there are programs (good ones at that) that offer involvement for mothers, but they require work, dedication, etc. When mothers are completely overwhelmed it can seem like another thing to have to do.

    One more question/thought: I don’t really know how it works in the Catholic Church but it seems like the best chance of success for mother mentoring/support programs would be if there is both bottom up and top down support. In other words, could/do the priests/bishops recognize this area as a true area of need? They could perhaps help to bring more attention to it and help garner support as needed in conjunction with members of the parish?

  • LeAnn

    My parish does this for mothers in crisis pregnancy, Gabriel Project. So I wonder why not for mothers in a marriage, but just lots of kids? This is a great idea. I think my church does it in an informal way, there are mothers groups for the school at our parish and stuff. Personally, my deacon and his wife have been a huge help. I only have 2 daughters, but it has been overwhelming due to some mental illness and I lean on Deacon’s wife just as a woman who will listen.