On occasion we have the chance to discuss the possibility of vocations with the college students we know. Though interested, their first response is often a vague, blank look. Religious life? Who-wha-who-huh? What do sisters or brothers do? Pray all day? I don’t want to be a hermit!
Well (we say), as it turns out, they do a lot of things. Religious orders have different charisms and apostolates, and within the structure of an order, each brother or sister has their own devotions and assigned tasks, in obedience to a superior, according to their spiritual gifts, strengths, abilities, and interests.
But (they sometimes respond), I thought you just pick one and they tell you what to do. Meaning, I thought religious life = self-annihilation. As if who I am or what I’m like has nothing at all to do with religious life.
Sometimes I feel like this is the way people approach parenting. You get a baby, you read the book, and you check off the “How To Be a Good Catholic Parent” checklist (whichever variation of that list you have in your possession), which invariably involves you giving up sleeping, eating without someone in your lap, hobbies, and talking about anything other than poop, multiplication tables, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and voila! Perfect, holy, doing-God’s-will parenting.
But, here’s the thing: No one would ever want to join an order with which they don’t jive. Some people thought St. Francis was the bomb-dig-diggity. Some people (ahem, St. Dominic) thought the guy was a little… hmm. Holy, yes, but talking to the birds was just not their thing.
Is the Dominican way of being a religious the “right” way? Is the Franciscan? Is the Benedictine?
Yes. Yes to all. They are all different, and they are all the right way of being a religious.
But whether or not this or that person should be a Dominican, or a Franciscan, or a Benedictine – here there is a “right” and “wrong” answer that only the Holy Spirit can provide. Making the “right” decision has everything to do with the individual person, with their personality, their needs, their talents, their interests, and their virtues and vices. The content of a religious vocation – the day-in, day-out activities, both contemplative and active – will look different for not only each religious community, but for each religious.
Why? Because a vocation is precisely not about self-annihilation. Dying to ourselves does not mean denying who God made us to be.
Guess what? Same with the vocation to marriage. Consequently, the same is true about parenting.
I know. You’re tired of hearing about “being your own person” and “taking care of yourself”. But would we continue to hear this advice if it were not a common and ongoing problem for so many of us? And I believe it’s a huge, huge problem in faithful Catholic circles, especially for us moms. Somewhere, somehow along the road of mommying, many of us have swallowed the Catholic Parenting Checklist Kool-Aid and have given ourselves over the restless chase for vocational perfection(ism)…
…which often leads to co-dependency. And co-dependency leads to death. Death of the soul.
I know. I’ve been there. Before my son was born and for several months after, I honestly believed that all that lay before me was being a mother. Being a mom meant being a mom and nothing else. Thank God, He allowed me to be miserable as – well, hell! – in order to show me how wrong this attitude is. And it was hell – I was restless and bored, with a creative itch I did not understand, and I was more than ready to pout and complain and point fingers. Sounds just like a ring in Dante’s Inferno.
“I’m-My-Kid’s-Mom” did not work for me. Neither did its counterpart, “I’m-My-Husband’s-Wife”. Nope, nope, nope.
On their respective blogs last week, Jennifer Fulwiler (“The Anonymous Stay-at-Home Mom“) and my friend Colleen Duggan (“Motherhood Isn’t Indentured Servitude — We Make It That Way“) both touched on this theme. Fulwiler’s cocktail party experiment of introducing herself as a stay-at-home mom for the first half of the party, and then as a writer for the second half, yielded the expected results: People had more to say to Jennifer the Writer than Jennifer the Stay-at-Home Mom.
Unexpected, however, is Fulwiler’s explanation of this phenomenon:
I used to feel insulted by this kind of thing. I felt anonymous and overlooked when I received blank stares in response to saying that I stay home with my kids, and I interpreted people’s reactions to mean that they thought I must not be interesting enough to talk to or didn’t see the value in my work. But over the years I’ve come to believe that the problem isn’t that people don’t respect my answer that I’m a stay-at-home mom; instead, I think the problem is that my answer doesn’t give them the information they were actually seeking…
…I know that a lot of moms who are out of the workforce feel that their vocations are undervalued by society, and there’s certainly plenty of truth to that. But I think that at least some of the time, the negativity that we at-home moms sense surrounding our work is not due to people looking down on us as much as it is due to the fact that we live in a society has come to use people’s work as their primary social identifier, and being a stay-at-home mom is a catch-all kind of job in terms of personality types. (emphasis mine)
“Yes!” my husband said when I shared Fulwiler’s point with him. “I’ve had that experience. Someone tells me they stay at home, and I tell them how great that is–” (and he means it) “–but then, I’m not sure what else to say.”
Exactly Fulwiler’s point, and from someone who does value motherhood. How many of the world’s population are mothers? A lot. Like she says, the Mom label doesn’t tell us a whole lot. What we really want to know is what’s special about this mother – a unique person fashioned by the artist-Creator, gifted with this spouse and these children, who loves these causes or those callings or that interest.
Perhaps you not only parent your beautiful children but love to contemplate the means and meaning of parenting. Great! You’re a Philosopher of Motherhood. That’s what makes you unique. That’s what makes your eyes sparkle and your mind churn. That’s what you have to share with the world. “Hi, I’m Susie-Q. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and – I know! I’m a bit crazy – one of my favorite hobbies is reading up on parenting and education methods. Ever read any of that stuff? I especially like the way Montessori folks work with little ones – so insightful, early potty-training, blah blah blah blah blah.”
Of course, this doesn’t happen without taking the time to be yourself and take care of yourself. Which brings me to Colleen Duggan’s post:
She [another mom Colleen met at the park] didn’t answer. She’d made her point, maybe unintentionally, but one which communicated she, a martyr in her family’s cause, had no time for self-indulgent frivolities like reading or any other enjoyable activity.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes but the conversation left me wondering: when did the warped Puritan work ethic seep into Catholicism? When did Catholics–and women in particular– accept the idea that we must slave away in life in order to earn our salvation? It’s like we’ve bought and played some distorted tape recording that says:
“Have lots of kids, cook, clean, and labor and by God–don’t have any fun while you’re doing it! Don’t enjoy your life. The true and good example of an honest to goodness Catholic is one who toils, sweats, and sheds lots of tears.”
Catholic moms, we don’t have to be martyrs. We don’t have to be women so burdened by our lives, we can’t take time to do things for ourselves. That isn’t true martyrdom anyway–it’s garnering attention through complaining so others will feel grateful and/or sorry for us. (emphasis mine)
As Colleen says, our attempts at (or succumbing to) self-annihilation in the pursuit of being the Perfect Catholic Mom can actually be attempts at (or wallowing in) self-aggrandizement and false humility. This is not Deny Thyself, Take Up Thy Cross and Follow Me. This is ME-ME-ME-ME-ME.
I’ll tell you, it was and continues to be hard – very, very, very hard – to ask others to watch my son so that I and my laptop can slip away to a coffee shop for a couple of hours. I think I don’t deserve it. I think I’m being selfish. I’m afraid of putting others out. I’m afraid of being offensive. I’d rather try to figure out some other creative solution so that I don’t have to ask for help.
Do you hear it? ME-ME-ME-ME-ME.
Asking for help – even for “me time” – is denying myself and taking up my cross.
I hate it. Oh, but it’s so necessary. So very, very necessary.
When I write, I am happy. My husband is happy to give me time alone to write, because he sees this happiness translating into the rest of our life together. Writing makes me happy, which makes me a happier wife and mother. My vocation to marriage consists of being a wife to this man, a mother to these children, and a woman who loves God in this way, feels a special affinity for these suffering people, and perks up when reading, thinking, and writing about this and that.
The content of my vocation has everything to do with who God made me. And who God made my husband. And my children. And so on.
Self-annihilation? Not on your life. Thank God for that.