Motherhood: How God Pursued Me
One Summer afternoon not too long ago, I wrangled my six children and their mound of stuff to a friend’s backyard pool to swim. I sat under an umbrella, sipping coffee, while refereeing a wicked water war in which 20-some children were engaged. My girlfriends and I chatted about summer plans and the chronic challenge of keeping kids’ noses out of screens and into good books. Every few moments, our dialogue was interrupted by the need to correct wayward pool infractions while simultaneously fetching goldfish and sippy cups for babies and toddlers.
The two women I was with both have eight children, spanning in age from 18 to 1 years old. They are my age, over 40, and have been pregnant, nursing, and parenting children for almost twenty years now. I’ll admit it, in the few hours I sat with them I was reminded of how much work it is to keep up with babies and toddlers. It’s funny how quickly we forget these things—even when we swear we never will. I can’t count, for instance, the number of times I whispered solemn vows to never say to another young, struggling parent the invasive things people said to me in the middle of the store while my children screamed like banshees.
But then one day I recently found myself in the grocery store—kidless because my teenagers can now watch the littles for me so I can procure necessary household supplies alone—and before I knew it, I heard myself saying the very annoying thing I promised myself I would never say to another mama. I found these annoying words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them, but I didn’t intend them in the belittling, critical way I received them as a young mother. No, I found myself repeating the very thing I hated receiving from others in a wistful, longing way, in a way I hope conveyed to the other:
“Sister, I’ve been there and let me tell you, even though this sounds like complete crazy talk—like I just need to go ahead and jump because I certainly have done lost my mind—this time with your babies is a gift. It is hard and demanding and some days you feel like you are drowning and it’s ok not to love every minute of it. Believe me, though, when I tell you this time with a house full of babies is pure, unadulterated and precious gift. Enjoy it, friend. Jesus lives in the little hands pulling on your skirt and yelling in your face and this is perhaps the only time in your life when you will be privileged enough to serve Him in such a tangible, selfless way.”
That’s what I intended to say in those brief moments where I was sandwiched in aisle 5 between the boxes of cereal laden with sugar and red dye number 5 and the overwhelmed mom, and the wailing children…
For so long, I thought those days of sleepless nights and monotonous days filled with feedings and naps would never end.
I was wrong.
My own baby, the youngest of 6 children, is 5 years old. In the fall, he will go to Kindergarten full time and for the first time in sixteen years, I will have all my children gone and out of the house for the majority of the day. In what feels like the cliched blink of the eye, I am in a different season of life and my heart breaks a little when I think about it.
Gone are the round the clock wake up calls from little ones demanding a bottle or to get in my bed.
Gone is the constant need to be vigilant throughout the day simply to keep the toddler alive.
That day I spent at the pool a few weeks ago, observing the loving interactions my girlfriends had with their babies, made me a little envious. I longed to have a pint sized chubby toddler of my own to pull into my lap, tired from the sun and the water and with the faintest scent of Water Babies Sunscreen wafting from their luminescent skin.
I’m 42 years old and for several years now my husband and I have not had to practice Natural Family Planning. We’ve been baby free, even though we would welcome another child into our already crazy mix. If you had told me there would be a time a decade ago when sex without a baby was a possibility, I would have looked at you like you were a monster with three heads.
Sex without a baby was an impossibility for us in our late twenties and thirties, or so it seemed.
We often joked that if we looked at each other, I would get pregnant. There was so much fear and tension around sex, even with the faithful practice of NFP in our marriage. I found my fertility burdensome and inconvenient and…burdensome. I believed my fertility would be something I would always have and there emerged, at least for me, an attitude of entitlement: “I can have a baby whenever I want. I’m so fertile, the problem is not getting pregnant, it’s keeping pregnancy at bay.”
These last few years (where I’ve been fertile but have not achieved pregnancy) have unearthed for me a few problematic attitudes I embraced about pregnancy and parenting during those early years of marriage. The most subtle and perhaps the most egregious of these was one I didn’t even know I carried: the idea I was biding my time raising these children until I could do something better, more important, and certainly more prestigious than changing diapers and filing sippy cups.
This attitude was subtle, insidious, and no one—not even myself—would have identified it lurking in my subconscious somewhere, coloring my decisions.
In theory I was convicted about the value of my motherly presence in my children’s lives. I talked a good game about the feminine genius and touted the truth about motherhood found in G.K. Chesterton’s essay “What’s wrong with the world.” I was, after all, an educated Catholic woman. I valued the reverent attitude the Church holds towards women, all called to motherhood, even if it is not biological. However, when I looked at my actions in those early years of motherhood, much of my time was spent searching for things to do outside of my role as mother. I felt the pull of the world to find value in the rat race, not in my primary identity as God’s daughter. I volunteered at Church, ran Bible Studies, started book clubs, wrote and submitted articles to magazines and online sites. I even wrote a book. I was available to my children but always looked for ways to “keep my feet wet” so when it was time to return to the work world, I wouldn’t have lost my verve. I would still be considered employable.
I don’t think it was wrong to engage in hobbies or work outside of my family. On the contrary, I believe I needed this. These outlets were quite good for me, challenged me, made me a well-rounded parent. I could not have existed in a house full of small children without engaging my brain and cultivating other interests outside of mothering. I would never have survived. It’s not how I’m wired. What was problematic, however, was not the pursuit of various interests, but the silent belief I espoused that my true value could be found in the world (and even on the home I built and the children I raised) and not in God.
I also, I’m ashamed to admit, sauntered around with an interior attitude I was doing God a favor by being open to life. “Look, Lord! Do you see me down here, pregnant with my fifth? Do you see how good and generous I am? Do you see that I’m following Church teaching while the rest of the world contracepts? Do you see how hard I’m trying?” Little did I know, of course, the grace of being open to life is the only thing in my life which has saved me from myself. I wasn’t exactly doing God a favor; He was doing one for me.
Now, after several years of being open to more children but not having any, I see how misguided I was to assume new life is always a possibility and I deserve babies just because I embrace Church teaching about married sex. I see how wrong it was to talk out of both sides of my mouth: to claim I understood the gravitas of my role as mother but then to spend the majority of my time securing other roles in the world in order to feel important. I am slowly coming to learn—over and over again—my value in the world comes not from what I do or who I am or how many children I raise or how I parent them.
My value comes from God and motherhood has been the avenue on which God has found me. This is not sentimental tripe. I am no Saint and the Lord very well knew I would need a constant daily dose of pouring myself out if I was ever going to love anyone well, Him most of all. Motherhood, contrary to what I believed in the beginning, has not been a way for me to serve God, but was a gift God gave me to save me from my arrogant self, to free me from the slavery of my own ego. Saint Paul nailed it when he penned Timothy this astute truth: “But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and sanctity with self-restraint.”
This certainly has been the case for me: Motherhood has saved me. Thanks be to God.
Colleen Duggan is an author, Catholic wife, mom of six, and speaker. She writes about Catholic family life here and her articles have also appeared on Catholic Exchange, CatholicMom.com, and Aleteia. Her new book Good Enough is Good Enough can be found on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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