On November 26, 2013, I uttered words that still echo in my mind, words which felt true even if everything that followed refuted that feeling. I said, “I don’t want to be a stay at home mom anymore.” I teared up, and then apologized to my friend for expressing the sentiment. It had been a hard two and a half weeks of being a solo mother, during which the loneliness of that experience—of being the sole source of adult support to a large family of children—had taken a beating on my psyche.
The one bright spot for “just me” during that time was a class I’d been asked to teach on the Iliad to a group of students studying that epic. Telling my mom over the phone the same incident, she remarked on how alive I became when giving a lecture and asked me to imagine my dream job. A dream job would involve me writing and talking. I put her question aside. But I did ask the Holy Spirit to give me a shove. “Tell me what you want me to do? I don’t have time for discernment. I need help doing this!” I wanted to feel alive. The problem was that I always seemed to be more animated when I was doing anything other, and even I recognized this always jumping to the other to be a form of spiritual fecklessness, of wanting to be the sparkle and the shine of the room, rather than the glass that let God shine through.
Dream Job Illusions
The rest of the day, God spent showing me that being mother to my children, is a dream job – His dream job for me. My 8 and 6 year old engaged in a hugging fest on me. Granted it was to escape being ordered upstairs to get dressed for bed, but still, it warmed the soul. My toddlers refused to go to bed, until my second oldest daughter and I held them to sleep. Even being laid in their beds, their arms reached out to still be held. The seventeen year old stressed out by school, came to tell me “Thank you” for letting her enjoy the first evening of her Thanksgiving break by going out to the movies with a friend. She even invited her younger sister to come along. My 14 year old son mailed me a “thank you for you” letter as part of an eighth grade project. After reading his heartfelt thank you, I called my mom to say with respect to the God’s real dream job, “Today, I got paid.”
However, I’m a poor steward. I always seem to need more. The quiet beautiful moments, I love them, I crave them, but with ten children, there are a lot more of “What do you think you’re doing?” when they’re rolling pillows and blankets down the staircase and “Who last used the bathroom?” and “Everyone, go to your rooms and stay there for five minutes. Just five, but all five.” Man, those five minutes go fast.
Please don’t think I’m a Pollyanna. I’ve done twenty years of diapers, lost shoes, happy meals that ended badly, fights over pecking order, fights over hand me downs, fights over looking at me wrong while we’re praying the Our Father. All of us are simply, the domestic church, always in need of repair, cleaning, feeding and renewal, always proving we need the whole of the Catholic Church in all of her seasons with all of her saints, with each of the sacraments to keep going, and to be sure that however far we fall, we orient to eventually get back up and keep going in the right direction.
But the process of learning to be actively engaged in seeking Christ came slowly to me, even within the sacramental vocation of marriage and motherhood. As a stay at home mom of 20 years, I can tell you, it is a hard thing to feel as if you are burying your talents and at the same time know this is what you are supposed to be doing (taking care of hearth and home). The pain of that disconnect between what I know in my heart, and my fallen self is normally put off by the little joys of everyday living. But, not always. Some days the bad ones, the lesser angels of my nature win. It is then, [sigh] I wonder why God gave me this particular cross when I carry it so badly. Then I hope tomorrow I can undo the scourges of this day, and that my God and my family will let me once again start over, building whatever it was I tore down.
However, God seldom draws us to Him via straight lines, only sure ones. He heard my lament. He understood the barren feeling of a fertile woman’s heart. He knew to my way of thinking, both in the virtual and actual world, there were tons of moms groups, prayer groups, parenting groups, Catholic groups, Catholic mom groups, but nothing ever quite fit. Nothing ever quite left me feeling like I knew what to do, or how to go about doing it, or why. Emotions and prayers only go so far. Frankly, at this point in my life, they felt stale, not because the people in them didn’t have rich interior lives, but because I didn’t feel I did.
Jesus Christ and I did not have the fuller relationship I knew was supposed to exist. I admit I wanted an easy fix. Read this article or this book, apply, done! But what I really wanted, was answers, or at least a direction. Part of me longed for something that said, “Hey Sherry! Do this!” I told God, I need a big neon sign so I can’t miss it. I wanted to know, how does a Stay at Home Mom fit into New Evangelization? How is the “Feminine Genius” Pope Francis said the Church needed to “create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church,” even possible for people like me who can’t get out the door without coats, sippy cups and no small amount of struggle?
That afternoon, Pope Francis issued forth his Evangelli Gaudium. Reading through it, I came to the section on temptations to pastoral workers. While directed at priests and religious, I found the words equally convicting of myself with respect to the vocation of motherhood and the serious spiritual dangers that face women seeking to take on the daunting task of raising a human soul to adulthood.
“The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue.”
I could easily trace my own failings to undertake activity badly, without adequate motivation, and the fatigue which followed. Pope Francis continued, “This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of things. Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can.”
I knew other moms who struggled against the demon of Pinterest perfectionism, robbing the vocation of motherhood of all joy. “Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven. Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of success.”
Man, did I get snagged on that one regularly, a regular Walter Mitty Mother, always imagining a world where I am noticed, never noticing Others, because they have lost real contract with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself. Get it done. Get it done. Get it done. Oh, that was/still is often me. Others fall into acedia, because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross. I didn’t know a single mother who didn’t struggle with having enough patience to allow maturation to proceed at its own pace. I felt convicted, but it got worse as I kept reading.
“And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.” A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions.” Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!”
I knew mothers, shoot, I knew myself. I’d thrown myself into graduate school, the gym cycle, writing, politics, working, anything to avoid being written off and dismissed by the world, and as a result, I in turn had engaged in a form of shutting off from my children. The gray pragmatism of the daily life threatened on many occasion to wear me down. Indeed, I’d uttered words to that effect in expressing my desire for something “other” which presumably would be “satisfying.” But our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, and our hearts will not be made peaceful by willfully engaging in a hopscotch quest for the next bright and shiny thing to distract us from having to engage in disciplined spiritual soul searching. I was the woman going to the well, wishing she didn’t keep having to return to refill the jug. I even asked for an easy fix, “Give me this water so I won’t have to keep coming.”
God let me have this empty feeling, this gnawing that somehow I was flunking motherhood and unable to stop flunking even as I did all the work and turned everything in, so I would start asking for that deeper water. He gave me so much I could not rely on myself, all to turn my focus away from myself. God had pressed every moment, calling to me, courting, asking that I give my heart away, and all this time, I’d somehow refused to take the calls, trying to show I understood what to do. I was Martha before encountering Jesus’s words, “You are anxious about many things.”
Saint Martha went back to doing what she was doing before, but the why of doing these things changed. I wanted the why of doing to change in me, and understood, it would not, it could not, absent a real encounter with Christ. Anything else was me trying to show the world what I could do, or me doing what I thought was expected of me. All of that, however dutiful, however correct, however generous or creative or even wonderful, was still not getting me past my own reflection.
Pope Francis called for evangelization, and for “feminine genius” in the church. I smirked, “this feminine doesn’t feel geniusy and she’s in the Church. This Catholic wants to engage in the daily evangelization we’re all called to do, but this life doesn’t seem like evangelization, it feels ordinary! How do I evangelize when I’m stuck here watching Team Umizoomie for crying out loud? Who’s evangelized by my making macaroni and cheese and changing diaper #15,972?” And then in the midst of my railing, it hit me. Me. Who is evangelized? Who is brought to Christ in these constant acts of feet washing that she does over and over again until it sinks in deeper?
Me. I’m evangelized by serving them – my family.
© 2014 Sherry Antonetti. All rights reserved.