Getting my life back

[This is a Part II to the post Putting Our Lives on Hold.]

This weekend will mark my fourth Mother’s Day as a mom. It’s stunning to think of how much things have changed since that first Mother’s Day not that long ago. Three years and two more babies later, I see now that it was the crucible of motherhood that shattered the fragile life philosophy that I learned from the secular world, made me fearlessly seek truth and, ultimately, taught me the true meaning of life. Here are my reflections.

Back when my first child was born, I had a certain amount of angst about being the mother of a baby. It was odd. I loved my son dearly and saw the great importance of shaping another person’s life…and yet, there was always this voice in the back of my mind that murmured, “What about my life?” Despite my tremendous love for my child, there was a part of me that felt like I’d hit the pause button on my life the day he was born. The full-time care that babies and toddlers require was so wearying, and I frequently commented to my husband that I couldn’t wait until our youngest child went off to elementary school so that I could finally “get my life back!” I felt like there was always a carrot stick hanging in front of my nose, distracting me, promising the glory days to come when I would no longer have little ones around and I could finally get back to really living.

In my mind, the phase of life with babies and toddlers underfoot was drastically different than other phases of life. As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, I assumed that the only way to find fulfillment and meaning in life was to be self-focused. This was the default, the only way to live life to the fullest. Being the mother of little ones was a rare situation in which you were thrust into being temporarily other-focused, and was therefore something to just grit your teeth and endure until it was over and you could get back to the default.

After my second child was born in the midst of painful medical complications, life with little ones got even harder. You’d think that I would have found myself more desperate than ever to move on from this grueling time in my life, and yet, that didn’t happen. This was around the time I had started to take a serious look at Christianity, and in the process of reading up on God and what he’s revealed to us through his Word and his Church, I started to notice something interesting:

My life as a mother started to make a lot more sense when seen through the teachings of Christianity.

I’ve said many times before that reading the Christian explanation of why we are here, what we are to do and how we are to live was like reading an articulation of words that had been written on my heart all long — and this was especially true when it came to motherhood. I increasingly found that my secular, godless worldview offered me no lexicon for describing what was so beautiful about motherhood, and why it was worth it; yet Christianity described it perfectly. I started to find some very interesting answers to that nagging question, “What about my life?”

Christianity was telling me that all those things I yearned for that fueled my self-focused pursuits — happiness, excitement, security, youthfulness, joy, importance — were actually yearnings for God, and that I’d never find peace until I sought him. At first that claim sounded crazy, even after I thought it was possible that God might exist. But when I took a hard look at my worldly pre-motherhood life and recalled the travel, the parties, the socializing, the trendy size 8 clothes — all those things that were supposedly my “real life” that I was so anxious to get back to — I started to realize something: none of those pursuits ever brought me lasting happiness. In my self-focused life without God there was certainly happiness and joy, yet it was fragile. There was always a feeling of restlessness, a never-ending search for the next big thing. I felt like I couldn’t stay still too long, or the happiness might go away.

“OK, I’ll bite,” I thought after contemplating this for a while. “If I’ve somehow been groping around for God this whole time and won’t be able to truly rest until I find him, how do I go about doing that?”

It was when I got the answer to that question that my entire life — in particular my life as a mother — finally made sense.

I discovered that the path to God is the path of agape, of self-giving love. When John wrote in Chapter 4 of his first Epistle, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love,” he wasn’t talking about just any kind of love. I “loved” traveling and sleeping in on weekends and pretty much anything that involved me doing things for me without having to make sacrifices. But that’s not the kind of love John was talking about. The kind of love that leads to God, that God is, is agape: self-emptying, other-focused, inconvenient, sometimes-painful love.

When I started to seek God by seeking agape, everything changed. For one thing, the carrot stick disappeared; that siren song of the self-focused glory days to come when I no longer had children in diapers was silenced, the tension gone. My life as a mom of little ones was no longer in such sharp contrast to my future life without young children: either way, I’d be serving others. I found that this was the meaning of life, the secret to lasting happiness, the hidden key that unlocked the mysteries of the spiritual realm that I’d spent my whole life trying to find.

And, ironically, after I came to embrace the idea of a life dedicated to agape, I actually ended up with more time for myself. Because in my secular mindset the other-focusedness of the childbearing years was a temporary situation that you would extricate yourself from as soon as possible, my mentality was to just hold my nose and plow through it. I would have thought that to further embrace selflessness would lead to mental and physical collapse! But what I realized, through Christianity, was that a life of agape is not a life of running yourself ragged. To truly serve God and others to the best of your ability is to humbly accept that you are only human, and that there are limits to what you can do. Using the Rules of Life of religious orders as examples (I once posted the daily schedule of the Missionaries of Charity here), I began to see that it was simply not optional that I regularly find time for rest and prayer. I saw that the other-focused life doesn’t mean that you can never take a time for recreation and relaxation — quite the opposite, in fact. It means that you must regularly take time for recreation and relaxation, but that you put these activities in their proper place, realizing that they’re not the meaning of life.

After doing it backwards for so many years, it fit like a glove to live a life that was other-focused for the long term and self-focused in the short term.

As this fourth Mother’s Day rolls around and I look at my life with three children in diapers, I find that it’s a perfect encapsulation of the mystery of human existence, a testament to that most counterintuitive, most important of all truths: that it is only by going through the discomfort of becoming other-focused that we will find what we’re really looking for. To paraphrase the Evangelist John, it is only by knowing agape that we will know God.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m particularly ill-suited for this job: I’m easily irritated, disorganized, sensitive to noise, introverted, and come from a background of being a spoiled only child where I never had to lift a finger around the house. My daily life is not usually what you would call “pleasurable,” at least not in the same way as my pre-kid days. I would almost certainly have reported more days as being overall “fun” or “easy” back when I had a cool career than now. From a secular, self-focused worldview, my life should be worse now than it was before. But it’s not. I wouldn’t say that “my life is better now,” as much as I would say that “my life has started now.”

Through Christianity, I understand that that the tension I used to feel about my life as a mother was the tension of resisting God, of fearing that if I emptied myself of ego and selfishness that there’d be nothing there to fill me back up. I finally understand that the life of a mom of little ones is in such sharp contrast to the typical life in our godless, secular culture because it is inherently a life of self-giving love, of being close to God.

The lessons I’ve learned are objective truths about the human experience, applicable to everyone in every state of life, whether or not they have children. Yet, for me, it took motherhood to teach me these lessons. I am so hard-headed and was so entrenched in my old ways that it took the tidal wave of agape that could only come with a house full of babies to break down layer upon layer of selfishness encrusted with fear, and free me to seek the truth.

Through the beauty of motherhood, I think I now understand what it’s all about. And I finally got my life back.

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Enter the Conversation...

22 Responses to “Getting my life back”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Blogger:

    Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, recently posted two videos on YouTube in which he describes and demonstrates the two most common abortion procedures, using plastic fetal models, the actual instruments of abortion, and the words found in medical textbooks and court testimony.

    You can view these videos at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us_y9GP_-DA (Dismemberment abortion)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBOAPleF1t0 (Suction abortion).

    These videos are part of a new project called, “Is This What You Mean?” It aims to educate the public about the nature of abortion and to challenge public officials and candidates who support the legality of abortion to admit what it is. A full description of the project is at http://www.priestsforlife.org/action/abortion-procedure-revealed.htm.

    I am requesting that you post links on your blog to these two videos and/or to the full explanation of this powerful project.

    We in the pro-life community have been fed up for a long time with “public servants” who can’t seem to tell the difference between serving the public and killing the public. This election season, it’s time for that to change. No matter what politicians or voters or Church officials are or are not going to do, it’s time that we who know what abortion is, draw a line in the sand and give candidates and office-holders alike this challenge.

    If you will help spread the word by posting these links please email webmaster@priestsforlife.org.

    Thank you

  2. Kate says:

    This spoke volumes to me. I NEEDED to read this right now. I’ll tell you why in an email.

    God bless you.

  3. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    “My life as a mother started to make a lot more sense when seen through the teachings of Christianity.”

    You say things that I’ve been feeling for the past 15 years so well! None of the old paradigms made sense, once I started raising kids. But all the things I read written by Christian mothers immersed in their vocation of raising children rang true.

  4. La gallina says:

    Yep, once again I can totally relate, as I sit here typing one-handed while nursing my 5 week old daughter. (Baby #5) And I once said I never wanted children… Then I couldn’t wait to not have toddlers and babies around. Now I just love it, despite the chaos, mess, and noise. Nothing has brought me more joy than motherhood.

    Thanks for ANOTHER piece that I agree with 100%.

  5. Tausign says:

    Your post is a classic description of the spiritual gift of ‘wisdom’ that we’ve been praying for in the Novena. This gift is the one that causes us to base our lives on ‘eternal values’. In this case you described it as selfgiving love and agape.

    In my next post I mention ‘the gift of wisdom’ as “spiritual bifocals given as heavenly assistance to keep us clearly focused on both our earthly pilgrimage and our eternal home.”

    I realize I’m ‘catagorizing or labeling’ your personal experience, but in spiritually discerning God’s gifts in our experiences we move much more quickly in our own ongoing growth and conversion.

  6. Tausign says:

    I forgot to say, “Happy Mother’s Day”

  7. Jen says:

    I just had my fourth child in December of 2006. My oldest was five at the time. Before he came, we had three kids in three years. All by C-section. I have always struggled with motherhood, but each child has taught me something about myself. It has taught me, like you, that fullfillment is not found in ourselves (as my favorite St. Therese says, “I am convinced that self seeking leads to no good”), but in serving others. This is so hard for me, still…I really related to your post because being a convert, and having had a life of parties, travel, etc, like you (and the size 8 pants…or where did they go?), I found my happiness, or what I thought was happiness, in those things. When I mourned my figure after having babies year after year, I asked myself once that even when I was thinner, was I really happy? I think God brought me through these hard times on purpose. I never would have looked outside of myself if I hadn’t been pushed to do so. Thanks be to God, huh? Again, I love your blog. I can relate so much to everything you post. Except the scorpions!

  8. Tertium Quid says:

    Perhaps no vocation is more of a witness of agape than that of a mother. Amen.

  9. Kelly @ Love Well says:

    You just get it, Jen. I love that about you.

  10. Ouiz says:

    From one mom of many to another… THANK YOU.

  11. ladyofvirtue says:

    Wow! What a blessing this post is–and what a testimony. Thank you for sharing your journey, it was an encouragement to me.

    Sherry

  12. Abigail says:

    What a glorious post! Please get it published!!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jen~

    This post is so true. Now, with 6 kiddos, I have a REAL life. I love deeper than I ever did before. I am deeply concerned for people, even those I don’t know. I am a totally different person than I was 15 years ago.

    This post really said it all for me. Happy Mother’s Day.

  14. razzler says:

    Hi. I’ve been lurking for a while and just decided to come out my hole and say that I love your blog. You explain things so well. Thanks.

  15. Christine says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your children and the God that is the essence of all things good. You write what I have felt over the year, since my conversion 15 years ago this year. Wonderful post.

  16. november says:

    Wow, big sis Jen! Once again one of your posts has spoken directly into some of my current struggles in my spiritual life.

    Although I’m not a mom nor even a wife yet, God has really been impressing upon me how I should seek to be used by him more fully, to die to my own desires and rest content in his love in service of others. After a series of unexpected and disappointing events in my life, lately, I’ve been wrestling with feelings of disillusionment with my walk and thoughts of being “so marginalized in my own life”, as I describe it in my worst moments (Yikes! I can’t believe I even call myself a Christian with those thoughts!).

    What God has been trying to tell me all the while (but I’ve been so hard-headed to hear), was that I’m disappointed because I’m still living based on my own generated plans and desires (and I thought I had passed that test years ago). I’m still very me-focused and have yet to give my heart and desires over to him in service of others. It’s only when I do so will I find true contentment, joy and peace and ironically, get my life back as you say.

    It’s been a true and painful, but overwhelmingly worthwhile lesson in humility and learning what love and living life to the full really mean.

  17. Sandy says:

    Amen! I grew up in a Christian home with a Mom who understood Agape love. We never really talked about it, though, at home or at church and when Mom died when I was 18 I went searching for the things of the world. 10 years later, my first pregnancy brought me back to the ways my Mom taught me and I’ve been on a journey with God ever since. In the past year, that journey has brought me closer to considering the Catholic Church.

    My youngest is graduating next week (we’ve homeschooled since she was in 2nd grade) and I’m dealing with the empty nest feelings. I cannot imagine doing anything else in my life that will bring me as much joy as being a mother (except perhaps being a grandmother??). Enjoy every minute of your young ones. (From one who didn’t know how to enjoy little ones, and didn’t truly understand Agape until about halfway through my mothering time.)

    Blessings,

    Sandy

  18. lp says:

    Thanks for a beautiful Mothers Day meditation.

    I was the same way when my oldest was born–he couldn’t even sit up, and already I was longing for a day when he’d be off to school and I could get back to real things. Now I still look forward to my kids getting older, but it’s because I can’t wait to share more with them–have deeper conversations, play football in the back yard, share in their individual hobbies and interests. It’s a completely different perspective!

    Although I have to admit, I am still looking forward to their teenage years, when presumably they will sleep well into the afternoon and not wake us up at 5:30AM!

    Happy Mothers Day!

  19. SuzyQ says:

    This was a wonderful post.
    So inspiring !
    Thankyou for your honesty. Your experiences are something so many mothers can relate to.
    God Bless you!
    BTW) I’m adding your site to my blogroll if that’s okay.

  20. Heather says:

    Just stopping by to say have a blessed Mother’s Day.

  21. 'Becca says:

    This is a great post about an important truth, and I’m so glad you’ve come to understand it!

    To me, agape is a natural part of life and always has been, thanks to my parents. I don’t mean just that they set selfishness aside to care for me but also that they demonstrated agape through frequent volunteer work and helping friends and neighbors and relatives. I spent many hours of my childhood quietly playing at the fringes of meetings, helping prepare bulk mailings, and helping with the housework. I never got the idea that life was SUPPOSED to be all about parties and self-indulgence; that’s always seemed strange and pathetic whenever I’ve encountered it, even when I was little.

    Of course I do think about mySELF to some extent, and of course there are times when agape is temporarily drowned out by my selfish desires. But overall, the idea that helping others is a primary goal of life is just sort of obvious to me. Sometimes I have trouble understanding how other people CAN be so self-centered; doesn’t it just FEEL WRONG? How does anyone get through a week without volunteering for something?! :-)

    I have my parents (Unitarian, only two children) to thank for this foundation. Having started from that, I found becoming a Christian and becoming a parent relatively easy transitions. My “life” didn’t stop when I had a child; my child became part of my life. Partly that’s because my self was small already so there was room for him, and partly it was because I assumed his self was small and would fit in. (Does that make sense? It’s hard to explain.)

    I’m sure you’ve thought about how to build into your children’s lives the values you’ve had to learn as an adult. I urge you to remember that they need to see agape not just within the family but in many contexts, as an integral part of life in general. Being selfless for your children can too easily lead them to think the world revolves around them (even if it’s “them” in a group, not individually) and conclude that selfless love is something they deserve to receive all their lives rather than something they ought to emulate. So get them involved in helping others as soon as you can, and don’t forget that you are an “other” too!

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