I recently participated in a training course for the International Federation for Family Development, where families met from all over Europe and a couple from the United States. One of the goals of the courses that this Federation (IFFD) organizes is to transmit the idea that joy is possible in family life. I am totally on board with this mission. Now that I am six years into marriage and my children are getting older, their problems are more complex and frustrating. I see how difficult it is to maintain joy in family life.
I Understand Divorce
I never understood how anyone could possibly think that they, their spouse or their children would be happier if they got a divorce. Don’t they know that second marriages have less of a chance to last than first marriages and that third marriages have less of a chance than second marriages? Don’t they know that elderly people live longer and better if they have happy marriages that last? Don’t they know the dramatic effects of divorce on children, whether they are young or grown? That couples with divorced parents are more likely to get a divorce themselves?
Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society (CCC 2385).
Now I see divorce can be an escape mechanism for some people: An escape from your family. The family is meant to a way to holiness, for mutual help to becoming a better, more perfect, more joy-filled person. However, how do you acquire any character trait, whether in sports or in your career? By overcoming difficulties and obstacles, resisting adversity, training things in yourself in a sometimes painful way. The family is an image of the Trinity, of God’s love, of the community that awaits us in Heaven, but the Christian way to joy and Heaven is by the way of the cross. If you try to escape suffering and avoid it, instead of passing through it, you will not reach joy.
Now that my children are getting older, not turning out as I wanted, and exhibiting problems I never counted on, I want to give up most days. I am terrified it will only get worse. I am scared of failure and want to get out before people attribute any more of this failure to my own shortcomings. I am disappointed in myself for the anger I have toward them and embarrassed by the things they do. Finally, I feel guilty for not being able to do better and seeing my mistakes more and more clearly. I have so much supernatural help, encouragement and consolation. I can only imagine people who don’t have any supernatural help and have nowhere to take their negative feelings. Of course, they want to escape.
Social Media is Misleading
My favorite Instagram accounts are about family life, homeschooling, baking and decorating. However, I increasingly see how unrealistic these pictures of “joy” are and how they don’t help in the relationship with my husband. I want to base our family life on these pictures, some of which are nice, but most of which are completely superficial and materialistic. I have no idea how virtuous these women are as wives and mothers, how healthy and holy their kids are, how profound and self-sacrificial their love for their husbands is. Those spiritual realities are what I should be focused on, which come about regardless of how much money you have, how pretty your house is, how delicious your cooking is, what method of education you decide, what trips you take, what activities you do, etc.
Social media creates these false paradigms of what joy is. It is a more materialistic, immediate, visible pleasure void of pain and suffering. You start thinking your marriage and family should be perfect and always ready to be on the cover of a magazine. You have to be a shining example to the world, without vulnerabilities, sorrow or any negative feelings whatsoever.
It’s All About the Husband and the Wife
So how do you find true, inner joy and peace in family life? Is it possible?
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:24).
The sacrament of marriage confers a special grace, to be constantly renewed, that helps spouses in a real, concrete way to make decisions together and find solutions together. One of the teaching points in the IFFD courses is that if the husband and wife are okay, the kids will be okay. The spouses love is primary, the education and love for the children are secondary. The spouse’s love is the foundation of the house and of the family and that is what needs to be a top priority for everything else to be joyful and peaceful.
I learned in a Theology of the Body conference that a married person should wake up in the morning and ask, “How can I love God first today? How can I love my spouse second?” Everyone else (including children) comes after. A consecrated or religious person should wake up and ask, “How can I love God first today? How can I love the people with whom I cross paths today?” The religious vocation is more available to help others, while the married vocation should see Christ in their spouse firstly. If your priorities are not in order, the whole house will fall. Your whole life will be disordered.
Is it possible to find joy in family life? Again, the answer runs counter-culture. It is possible to find joy in family life, just as it is possible to find joy in the Christian life. They are two different ways. The world is pleasure-seeking, serve yourself, materialistic and escapist. The Christian way is to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Colossians 3:2), serve others, be brave when facing suffering and be brave enough to be vulnerable.