I found myself reflecting on the small matter of the myriad difficulties of this present life while wrestling an IKEA bookshelf into submission while being swarmed by preschoolers in Avenger’s costumes on the basement floor this morning. Sweating, with a small, chubby Batman strangling me by the shirt collar, I pressed on into idiot territory, confidant that I could complete the task without another adult present and in a timely and non-traumatic fashion.
(Maybe you are finding this scene I’m painting to be endearing or even rosy, but let me assure you that it was neither. The noise of Luke snapping in two one of the precious too-few twigs the Swedes had included with my shelving unit echoed off the wall and you would have thought it was my tibia he’d snapped based upon my reaction, which sufficiently chastened the 6 year old to reproach me with the disapproving “mom, a baby’s feelings are more important than IKEA furniture” at which point I had to agree with him and held the bawling offender in my sweating arms for a minute before continuing on.)
At any rate. Life with little kids (and, I suspect, also bigger kids) is not easy. I sometimes read words written by other mothers and I scratch my head a little and alternately hang it in shame because if I’m being brutally honest with you, as I am wont to do, I must confess that the precious, blissful “this is what it’s all about” encounters with the divine reality of the work I’m doing are few and far between these days.
I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy my children, and I certainly don’t mean that I don’t love them, but I often fail to find common ground with the “seize every moment, cherish every experience” genre because I struggle mightily to do both of those things.
I am immensely grateful for sweaty, fevered brows that respond to Tylenol and mommy’s murmured assurances in the dead of night, but my weak flesh quakes and resists the calls from down the hall at 3 am, every time. I find my footing on the floor beside the bed and tamp down feelings of anger, of resentment, of entitlement – above all else – that whisper into my brain promises of more leisure, more order, more comfort, if only…
If only what? If only I hadn’t had them? If only they numbered 50% fewer? If only I swore up and down that we were “done,” that I was “done,” that I couldn’t handle one single other demand made on my too-small, crowded to suffocation plate?
There is a lie present in our culture today, and maybe it’s The Lie that has been plaguing humanity since the beginning, just neatly adapted to look modern and scientific and reasonable-like. It’s the lie that whispers things into your ear like “you deserve this. Treat yourself. You’re not getting the best deal. Look over there at what she has, at what he does, at how they live.”
Envy. Resentment. Defiance. All bound together by a common thread of self mastery in the disordered sense. The belief that I am the master of myself, of my universe, and ultimately of the happiness that this life has to offer.
Almost every difficulty I encounter in this difficult, exhausting season of marriage and family life stems from a warped perception of Whose life it is, actually. That I am entitled to a certain number of consecutive hours of sleep per night. That my body can (and should) look and perform a certain way despite having been laid down 4 times in the shallow grave of self-offering and co-creation with God. That Dave and I have the right to a certain amount of leisure time in the evenings, almost as if we deserve some kind of cosmic ‘atta boy’ for our openness to life and obedience to the Church’s teachings, and therefore everyone should sleep peacefully for 11 solid hours, 7 nights a week.
This is folly. And when I see it all spilled out across white space on the digital page, I can smile and nod my head that of course it is. But that doesn’t prevent me from whipping myself into an internal frenzy of hijacked control.
And, if I may be so bold, I believe we live in a time which uniquely encourages that illusion. Packages it up and sells it back to us in fact, beautiful and pixilated and oh-so-enticing.
Yesterday as I made small talk with a service man who’d stopped by the house to do an estimate, he gestured to the 4 precious people flopped on my couch watching Pound Puppies (yeah. But it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing heavily) and winked at me, asking “are you done?” And I lowered my eyes to the ground and my cheeks reddened because this answer is never easy, and this question is never one I get out of gracefully.
“We’ll see,” I mumbled with the faintest of smiles.
“You’re not!” He slapped his thigh with the heartiest of guffaws, and I braced myself for the coming “so are you crazy AF??” stream of consciousness about birth control, etc. but suddenly he got serious and his eyes, I kid you not, moistened a little.
“I admire this, what you’re doing here. Not too many people willing to do it these days. To put in the hours and make the sacrifices. But they’re worth it. This is worth it.”
And with a nod and a tug on the brim of his hat, he disappeared out the front door like a belated Santa Claus in coveralls with a utility clipboard, and I looked over the scene he’d exited, dirty dishes piled in the sink and still sick kids languidly consuming Netflix and me in my kerchief and … you get the idea. And I could have wept for having my seemingly idiotic and irresponsible-in-the-eyes-of-the-world lifestyle reflected back to me in a luminous, undistorted picture by a perfect stranger.
Not because I needed him to agree with me that what I was doing was worthwhile, but because there are days, moments, hours when I question it myself.
Caught between a culture enthralled with youth, beauty, momentary pleasure, and wealth, and living knee deep in a Faith that calls for self denial, cross carrying, and yoking up alongside a God who does not broker an existence without pain, it’s a weird ride.
But it’s worth it, He whispers in the hard moments, bent over a budget spreadsheet that won’t balance or leaning beside a sick child vomiting for the fifth time since midnight. It’s worth it to give your life away. Even when it looks and feels and smells like death. It is the only thing of value we have to give to Him, and it’s all He asks of us.
I cringe a little over these words because their complaint reveals my real poverty, which is a deficit of gratitude. I live in a rich country and enjoy freedoms many people literally cannot dream of, and will never enjoy in this life. I have beautiful, healthy children who are safe and have food to eat. My marriage is a blessing beyond measure and utterly undeserved.
And yet, I still struggle. I struggle to make sense of a life freely chosen of self giving and offering of first fruits and a nagging interior revulsion to surrender. I cast longing glances at 2 child families in the play place and wonder whether the graphic that has been circulating frantically via text message among my girlfriends of a Utah study detailing “total weeks spent with viral load in home vs. number of children” is accurate, and what it must be like to go a whole month without someone barfing. Never mind that those families may well be suffering from the heartache of infertility, or a spouse who won’t budge on going for number 3, or are simply caught up in the convincing web of contraception.
Man, this piece is aaaaaall over the place, isn’t it? Sometimes that’s what happens when they nap together (or destroy the basement silently.) But all this to say, I don’t have it all together. And while I may write “Catholicism” professionally, I struggle mightily to live it out, day by day. And I’m trying to figure out the right balance of authenticity vs. this is some kind of nightmare vs. impersonal theoretical stuff. So, onward. Into 2017. Into a year of more self offering that is willing and done smilingly, even when teeth are gritted a little and tears are threatening.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Lk 9:24