The very existence of a joyful mother of nine children seems to confound people. Embracing an outdated lifestyle on a traditional, small, family farm has been a struggle through confusion, guilt, and even public condemnation. I finally reached the point where I can now shout loudly,
“This is my call, this is my vocation, this is my witness to the world!”
Any modern woman whose heartfelt desire is to become a mother often feels dismissed and ridiculed for wanting to embrace this sacred, natural role. Even forty years ago, in the late seventies, becoming a mother was hardly seen as a worthwhile life ambition. I agreed with that sentiment as a young person and strove to be different than my stay at home mother. After converting to Catholicism, I wanted to make a difference in the world by studying for a meaningful career. I took a year of pre-med and then an English degree with an eye on teaching because I was struggling to figure out how to serve in some way, anyway I could. I did not even bother dating. What was the point? I only desired to dedicate my life to God and others.
However, God surprised me, as He seems prone to do. He upended my life in a single day when I met Michael, my future husband. Michael says he saw fireworks when he first saw me and knew immediately that I was the one for him. For me, I was secretly disappointed I did not have a heroic calling. Even though I knew without a doubt marriage to this man was the will of God, I was dying to myself when I surrendered my grandiose dreams My decision baffled my fellow students, profs, friends, and family. They incredulously asked about WHO I was marrying after my abrupt about-face happened. I did not know anything about my newly chosen lifestyle and realized I was completely ignorant, lacking the most basic skills required to survive.
Looking back I have to laugh because I soon discovered the truth: a Christian marriage is a heroic, demanding vocation, requiring faith, prayer, and sacrifice. It is a vocation which has the potential to transform couples into saints and change the world around them if they give God permission.
Becoming a Mother
I became pregnant before our first wedding anniversary and panicked instantly because I knew, once again, I was utterly unprepared. I had never even held a newborn. So I prepared in the only way I knew how and read every book I could find on pregnancy, birth and baby care.
However, all my reading did little to equip me to mother a fragile, completely dependent newborn. For example, as I held my baby in a small bathtub for his first bath, I was very nervous. Guess what? I had a book propped open with one elbow awkwardly holding it open to the right page, while my baby was in a bathtub on the table. The book was my security blanket. When Michael peeked into the kitchen, his jaw dropped. “Melanie, some things you simply cannot learn from books”, he sagely advised as he shook his head.
Then, we moved east after our first baby was born which cut me off from daily contact with friends and family.
Although I enjoyed living in the country, raising our own vegetables and later even all our own meat, it was an isolated existence. I felt like Ruth in a foreign land but without family support because Michael’s mother was busy with a huge extended family. In addition, my husband struggled with depression. Worldly opinion screamed we should not have any more children.
My grandfather asked my mother, after discovering I was not only a Catholic but now marrying to a Catholic, “My God, how did she get herself into that mess? Well, tell her to at least not have a lot of children.”
I had no intention of becoming a baby making machine, “Oh mother, of course not!” So, for years I dreaded letting my mum know I was pregnant, yet again.
The question we struggled with for years was, “How could we remain faithful to Church teaching when Natural Family Planning did not seem to work for us?”
Intuitively, I already knew a call to trust in God could not just be an intellectual assent but included entrusting my fertility to God. Catholic teaching stated couples should space their children with abstinence but we slowly discovered I was one of those rare people who could conceive long before ovulation and we were pro-life, abortion was not an option.
My doctor, after considering another unplanned pregnancy told us “Ah, I remember reading about a woman in New Zealand two years ago who conceived five days before ovulation.”
I raised my hand and chirped, “Well, you can add me to that list!”
Then on our 6th wedding anniversary, sitting in a busy pizza restaurant, I was flipping through our local diocesan paper when an article jumped out at me. I was excited as I read a statement by Pope John Paul II which stated that using contraceptives not only damaged a couple’s intimacy but also harmed their spirituality. We were both struck dumb, sensing a powerful Presence of God as this truth pierced our hearts.
The Procreative Aspect
Michael and I try to never let anything hinder our journey into God’s heart, so this truth now meant artificial contraception was definitely not an option. Of course, I cannot find the exact quotes we read that day but the following is close enough:
In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. … Therefore, in such a case, the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.
(St. John Paul II, General Audience, 22 August 1984, 6; italics in original)
Although we could not imagine how large our family would become, the words of John Paul II, resonated with both my husband and me for years. Then, one day when I was terrified I was pregnant with our fifth, I sensed these words interiorly about being a wife and a mother,
“This is your call. This is your vocation. This is your witness to the world.”
I was astounded because I felt scorned and misunderstood, “What sort of witness is that?” I demanded.
The answer was, “Trust me. I am with you.”
That was it for me; I was in “lock, stock, and barrel.”
Guilt lifted off us and a surge of excitement, a sense of purpose welled up from within.
When I Am Weak, I Am Strong
In the ensuing years, eighteen spent pregnant and/or nursing babies, I never slept through the night. With so many children, someone was always teething, sick, or up with a bad dream. I was exhausted, surviving with the help of strong cups of tea, the mercy of God and a wicked sense of humour. I soon learnt a deep spiritual truth- when we are weak we are strong. I found spiritual fulfillment when God placed His Mother in my heart, giving me a mother’s ferocious love and patience.
St. Paul tells us, everything will pass away except Love. I have learnt to smile for the wisdom of mothers which can be practical, intuitive, simple, and clear. I have a painful regret for our hectic, modern society, scrambling for glitter, efficiency, and success while pushing the wisdom of mothers to the fringes of influence. It is time mothers reveal their unique wisdom, joy, and strength to a jaded, cynical world — a world which has forgotten all is fleeting except for Love.
“This is my call, this is my vocation, this is my witness to the world!”