When Joe first saw me in the hospital, he said I reminded him of this scene from Office Space:
I had tubes in my nose, a 16-gauge IV in my hand that was causing me constant pain, had just received a daunting diagnosis that left me with a ton of questions about both my immediate and long-term circumstances, and yet I seemed…happy.
Undoubtedly, a large part of that can be attributed to being lifted up by so many wonderful prayers. But there was something else, too, that was responsible for my surprisingly peaceful state of mind:
December was a hard month. I couldn’t seem to stay on top of anything, and my inability to deal with life seemed to get worse by the week. Three days before Christmas I cleared off an entire evening to wrap presents, and quickly became so angry and overwhelmed that I went to bed in disgust instead. I felt like I barely survived the chaos of Christmas day, and in the week before New Year’s Eve I hardly lifted a finger around the house. I was unmotivated to do anything. I began backing out of social events, and felt exhausted by even the simplest tasks around the house.
I was aware of my abysmal state, and knew what the problem was: I’m lazy. And kind of a whiner. Not to mention not being fully dedicated to my vocation, and unwilling to carry my (small) crosses. Christ asks a few simple things of me, and even gives me this lavish, first-world life surrounded by luxuries, and I let a little pregnancy fatigue keep me from getting the job done! If only I were more open to God’s grace, I’d be able to unload the dishwasher without feeling like it was such a big deal.
These are the thoughts that were going through my head for the better part of a month. And so when the doctor at the Emergency Room sat me down and told me that my lungs were full of blood clots, some of them large, and that he was astounded that I’d been able to function at all, I almost cried with relief. To be completely honest, I was more relieved than I was scared. I know the facts about pulmonary embolisms and know how dangerous they are. Later, I did experience worry and fear. But first, relief.
There is truth to the accusations that I’m ungrateful, spoiled, and lazy. No false humility here — I really do posses all those attributes to some degree or another. But it was simply not true to say that those faults alone were the cause of my suffering. I was struggling against a terribly difficult physical condition, and my body was running in the red zone for all of my waking hours. In those weeks when I was unaware of the reality of my situation, I worked under the incorrect assumption that my circumstances were normal, and that therefore the problems must come down to spiritual and mental character defects on my part. Not surprisingly, this caused me to be in a state of constant inner turmoil. In fact, it was reminiscent of the hidden angst that simmered silently within me when I was an atheist: whenever you live under false assumptions about reality, you will live in anguish. It may be buried and only pop up occasionally, or it may burst to the surface in explosions of acute despair, but whenever you try to jam a square peg of your perception of reality into the round hole of actual reality, there will always be friction.
And you know why I bring this up? Because I think I’m not the only one who could benefit from an outlook-shattering diagnosis.
Once I felt like I had permission to admit that one area of my life was legitimately hard, I began to look at other areas as well. And in the process I’ve been reminded of something I’d known for a while, but had slowly forgotten: that 21st-century motherhood is really hard, whether or not you have clots in your lungs.
Yes, motherhood has always been hard, and our ancestors faced more grueling physical challenges in a month than many of us do in our entire lives. I wouldn’t trade my life for that of my great-great grandmother. However, I think that being a mother today comes with exponentially more psychological challenges than moms have ever faced before. A few examples that come to mind:
We live in isolation. From time immemorial mothers have raised their children in close-knit communities, surrounded by their own mothers and aunts and cousins and nieces and lifelong friends. In traditional human villages, women would gather to wash and cook together, their kids running around freely with friends and relatives. Even the more-isolated farm wives and suburban moms of our grandparents’ generation had refuge to the classic sanity-saving phrase, “Go outside!” (My grandfather reports that he and his siblings often only saw their mother at mealtimes and after sunset, since they spent so much time hunting and exploring each day). Mothers were never meant to be the sole people in charge of their children’s wellbeing all day, every day. It is utterly unnatural to go for 12 hours without having a face-to-face conversation with another adult.
And here’s a big one that’s rarely acknowledged: it feels like what we do isn’t important. It is important, of course…but the reality is that, thanks to all those wonderful modern conveniences, what most of us do on a daily or even weekly basis doesn’t necessarily contribute directly to anyone’s survival. Pouring effort into my vocation can bless my family tremendously, and makes all the difference between thriving and just getting by. But the reality is that if I were to totally slack off and not do much of anything for a few days, everything would be fine. Nobody would starve. We’d still have shelter and food and clothes and clean water.
Not so for the women of history. I doubt that my great-great-great grandmother and her friends had to remind themselves that motherhood is the most important job in the world: if they didn’t cook, their children would literally have nothing to eat. If they didn’t fetch the water from the well, there would be nothing to drink. If they didn’t launder and mend the clothes, there would be nothing to wear. The daily work that the housewife of 1813 did was of life-and-death importance; the daily work that the housewife of 2013 does doesn’t have anywhere near that level of urgency. And that’s a good thing — I don’t think any of us would want to go back to a time when basic survival was so difficult — but it’s also worth admitting that it’s a little demoralizing to know that most of your day to day work falls under the category of “nice to have” rather than “have to have.”
I could go on: the fact that our isolation means that no one outside of our immediate family ever sees the fruits of our labor; that our kids are constantly lured to become peer-oriented; that the norms of our culture push us to pile way more onto our plates than we can realistically handle…but you get the idea.
What we modern moms do is hard, and not just hard in the way that motherhood has always been hard. We’re laboring under unique conditions that few people in human history have ever experienced, trying to thrive in utterly unnatural circumstances. It may not be hard physically, but it’s a great challenge psychologically.
My point here isn’t to wallow in self-pity, or encourage anyone else to do so. In fact, as odd as it may sound, my hope is to inspire fellow moms to deeper peace and gratitude.
We’re hesitant to admit that our lives are difficult in any way. We feel the pain, but then we look around at our washers and dryers and smartphones and televisions and all the other trappings of our first-world lives, and we feel embarrassed to complain about anything. It feels easier, and certainly more noble, to blame ourselves, to assume that the problem must simply be moral failings and character defects on our parts.
But what I found with my undiagnosed medical issues is that when we refuse to accept real suffering as legitimate, it actually makes it harder to be grateful. We spend so much mental energy fighting the wrong battles and beating ourselves up over phantom failings that we don’t have much energy left to take stock of all the wonderful things in our lives. Living in a false reality is exhausting and demoralizing. It’s much easier to be happy, peaceful, and close to God when we acknowledge the truth, even if that involves acknowledging that some things are hard.
I’ll never forget the powerful, soul-cleansing relief that poured over me when I learned that there really had been something wrong with me for all those weeks. Even though I had not begun to receive treatment and felt no better than before, I was suddenly inspired to do my best despite my circumstances. Almost immediately, I began to approach my situation with joy. Once I stopped lamenting sins I wasn’t really committing, I could take a clear look at the sins I was committing, and made a better confession than I had in months. Even sitting there in a hospital room, I felt closer to God and happier with my life than I had in a long, long time.
I feel like I’ve been given a divine permission slip to stop defaulting to self-blame for all of my little daily difficulties (not just as it related to my lungs, but in every area of life) and I want to share it with you. If you’re a mom and you’re struggling, let me just tell you that the problem is not you. Well, I suppose I can’t know that for sure; if you find that you’re regularly too drunk to put the Cheez Whiz on your kids’ cookies for dinner, then maybe the problem is you. But, short of that, my guess is that your suffering is due to your difficult circumstances far more than it is due to laziness or lack of holiness or ungratefulness on your part. What you’re doing is hard, harder in certain ways than what your grandmothers experienced, and don’t let the voices in your head tell you otherwise.
Just like the medical professionals in the ER did for me, Dr. Jen is here to give you a diagnosis: you have condition called “life as a 21st century mom,” and it’s known to cause fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and conditions mimicking insanity. Your suffering is legitimate, and it’s not your fault.
I wish for you that same moment I had, when I was hooked up to wires and IVs, dried blood splattered down my arm, tubes all up in my nose, and yet was so profoundly relieved to know the reality of my situation that I gave my husband a big grin and a thumbs-up sign as if to say, “Life is awesome.”
Two weeks ago, I was scheming about moving. I was tired of trying to fit seven people into three bedrooms, tired of the fact that issues with our back yard mean that the kids won’t play out there for long periods of time, tired of scorpions stinging my children in the face. Also, a few weeks ago my seven-year-old son and a boy his age who lives nearby had been involved in what they thought were humorous pranks on our neighbors, but turned out to cause serious property damage. After the humiliating experience of having to knock on doors, introduce ourselves, apologize, and write checks, I was ready to get out of here. We can’t exactly afford to run out and get a bigger house, but I was determined to make something work. I picked up flyers from local houses that had just gone on the market, and trolled real estate websites, hoping against hope to find a spectacularly good deal.
Then, a week ago last Saturday, I was driving home from my mom’s house at 8:45 at night after dropping the kids off for a special spend-the-night with her and a visiting aunt. Her house is within the same connected network of subdivisions that we’re in, and so I was winding through neighborhood streets. Shortly after I turned onto the main drive of our own subdivision, I saw a motorcycle zoom past me, headed the opposite direction. I had just come around a corner, and when I looked at his trajectory and considered how the street curved, my heart sunk. He’s not going to make it, I thought. I hit the brakes and looked in my rear-view mirror. The darkness erupted in a spray of sparks, and I heard a terrible crash.
I turned the car around as I dialed 911. I parked by the accident site and jumped out to check on the rider. I could never have been prepared for the horror of what I would see. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that it was like something you’d see in a war zone. One officer commented that it was one of the worst scenes he’d come across in 20 years. I had trouble breathing, and immediately started going into a state of shock.
After I got off the phone, there was a surreal silence. I was standing next to this horrendous scene, with no authorities having yet arrived. It was just me and this deceased young man, with a couple of other stunned witnesses across the street. For a brief moment, I was pulled out of my shock and given a specific, very clear message: I was supposed to be there, on behalf of this kid’s mother. I was her envoy, there to look after him, to pray for him, and to send him off on to his journey in the next life. A feeling of calm, as thick and palpable as a fog, enshrouded the scene, and I was given the words to say a short prayer for him and his family — specifically, for his mother.
Police sirens broke the silence, and within minutes the street was filled with police, paramedics, neighbors, all walking around in the glare of headlights and flashing red and blue lights. I fell back into my state of shock, and was told by officers to go home.
At my house, I sat with my husband on our back porch and told him everything that happened. As I spoke, I felt a connection with the victim’s mother. “I feel like I know her,” I said. It was an irrational thought: The drive on which the accident happened was one of the main arteries into a large network of neighborhoods that contains hundreds of houses. I don’t know that many people around here. Also, the victim could have been here to visit friends for a Saturday night get-together; he may not have lived anywhere nearby. And yet I felt this sense of connection so strongly that I ran out the front door and stood in the middle of the road and looked down the street toward the house of my neighbor friend who has a teenage son. Her house was dark, and so I went inside.
The next morning after Mass, I got the call. We did know him. It was Cameron, the gregarious 21-year-old son of my neighbor a couple of doors down. When I was standing in the road the night before, I was turned the wrong direction; if I had turned around, I would have seen his mother’s house bustling with grief-stricken visitors, and I would have known.
As more details came out in the following days, it seemed that everyone on our street was involved in this tragedy in some way. Cameron had stopped by one neighbor’s house just minutes before the accident. Another neighbor was the first person he’d shown his brand new motorcycle to. Another neighbor had gone with him when he bought it. I was the first person to find him. Another neighbor was just arriving back from a night out when I came home from the scene, and cried with me as I told her what happened. Other neighbors had been outside because of all the sirens, and were with his mother when the police arrived to deliver the news. Still others were good friends of his.
All last week, I spent most of my time with the people on my street. I wasn’t online at all, and directed all of my energy to interacting with the people whose lives play out just yards away from mine. We stopped and hugged one another on the way to the mailbox, stood and cried on the sidewalks, sometimes right in the middle of the street. When we gathered to walk to the candlelight vigil at the accident site, the first person to greet me was one of the women whose property my son and his friend had damaged. The last time I had seen her I was standing on her doorstep, humiliated and chagrined, thinking that we’d probably never speak again. She walked up to me with tears in her eyes and asked if I was okay, we embraced, we cried, and we walked to the candlelight vigil together.
The night of the funeral a bunch of us gathered outside, sitting on the curb and talking until past 1 AM. We toasted to Cameron, we prayed, we laughed those raw and intense laughs that don’t quite cover over the grief, we cried, and we asked ourselves why we never got to know each other before now. The next day another person approached my house with the biggest bouquet of flowers I have ever seen. I could tell it was a neighbor since there was no car in front of my house, but couldn’t see the person’s face because of the size of this tremendous gift. I opened the door to see Cameron’s mother, accompanied by his sister and step-father. In an act of graciousness almost too shocking to comprehend, she had come by to give me this gift as a token of thanks.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the day before the accident, my husband and I stumbled across an idea for creating some more space in our house that took a lot of pressure off of our overcrowding situation. I had been so fixated on my plans that I had never paused to consider whether it was God’s plan for us to move on from this place. That time may come one day, but this week it was as clear to me as few things have ever been clear to me in my life, that that time is not now. I knew that God sends us to just the right time period in human history, that he sends us our families, but I don’t think that it clicked until this past week that he sends us our neighbors too.
As I talked with Cameron’s family, his mother and I in tears as we spoke, I noticed that his sister was sitting in the same place in my living room that she sat almost four years ago to the day, that afternoon when I first met her and my other little friends. And I had the same feeling that moment last week that I had those years before: this is exactly where I need to be.
As I mentioned back in February, closing comments for Lent gave me a lot of insight into the role that the internet plays in my life. I didn’t want to get into too many details in that post since I knew it would lend itself to discussion, so here is the promised Part II.
Back in college I spent a couple of semesters as an anthropology major. I found the study of different peoples and cultures fascinating, and drank up all the material in the courses. One thing that always jumped out to me was that in almost every group of people we studied across time and place, one thing they all had in common were clear, cohesive communities: whether we were studying the ancient peoples of the Fertile Crescent or villages of medieval Europe or modern-day tribes in the jungles of South America or even early 20th century American neighborhoods, one thing almost all these peoples had in common was that they lived around people they knew — the same people, including all their family members — for their whole lives.
I think often about how different modern American life is, particularly for those of us outside of the workforce. Many of us experience the historically new phenomenon of living around strangers: we don’t know many of our neighbors, don’t run into people we know at the grocery store or the post office, don’t live close to immediate (or even extended) family members, etc. If we feel part of any kind of close community at all (e.g. a church group), it is often not people who live close to us, whom we run into casually. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, other than planned, scheduled meetups, I could probably go a couple of weeks (or maybe months) without running into anyone I know in the course of daily life.
I’ve talked a lot about this phenomenon with friends who are immigrants from places where cohesive communities still exist (e.g. rural France, Mexico, India) and have come up with a lot of thoughts on the subject. And, hey, why have a blog if you can’t write up this sort of stuff and tell the internet about it? So, for your reading pleasure, here is my little theory about social interaction and modern life, based on extensive studies and research (read: I thought about it while washing dishes):
I feel like I need four different types of social interaction (broadly defined) on a regular basis. In order of importance, they are:
- Quality interaction with others — forming new friendships and strengthening existing relationships with friends and family members
- Casual interactions with people I know where my expected participation level is flexible
- An awareness of the events and concerns of my community as a whole
- Simply running into people I know in the course of daily activity, even if we don’t have much direct interaction
I feel like regularly having opportunities for each of these types of social activity is ideal for my psychological wellbeing; and, looking at human history, it would seem that we’re designed to have these things as natural parts of our lives. Yet here in my part of suburbia, I only have #1 (and even that is with great effort). So what am I to do about #2-4?
I remember back in those anthropology classes, I noticed that a common community setup was that there would be a central area where people, especially women, would gather as part of their daily work, e.g. a tribe might have one community fire pit for cooking, or there would be one spot on the river where the women would all gather to do the washing. In particular, one visual that stuck with me was that of the village water well: in some long-forgotten textbook I read the description of a tribal village that had one central well where the women would go to get the family’s water. There was some sort of central oven nearby, and this area, of course, became a bustling hub of social activity.
By virtue of having the community water well area, women didn’t have to separate their lives into “work time” and “socializing time” in order to get needs #2-4 met. Socializing would be interwoven into their daily tasks, rather than something that had to be sought as an entirely separate endeavor. I’ve often imagined how helpful this must have been: when you arrived at the well, you could listen to the conversations and jump in if you were feeling talkative, or hang back and mostly listen if you were feeling tired or reserved. Unlike the carefully-orchestrated playdates of today, casual interaction could be just that: casual. You had an opportunity for social interaction, to hear what others in your community were talking about, without an obligation to be “on” if you weren’t feeling up to it. Ever since I read about that village well I’ve often wished that we had something similar today, a community gathering place that would meet our desire for casual interactions, to fill needs #2-4 in my list above.
This, I believe, is where the internet can be a great thing.
In the past few years since the explosion of blogs, I’ve come to feel like my laptop is my village well. In between loading the dishwasher and vacuuming the living room, I can stop by the well and see what folks are buzzing about. Simcha’s children are seeing if they can sustain life on Easter candy alone, Ann is finding beauty and deep symbolism in an ordinary task, BooMama is having technical problems like mine, Abigail shares a lesson she learned about parenting, Danielle Bean reflects on being a mom and an introvert, Veronica Mitchell is undoubtedly vowing to never mention Esperanto again (ever), and Maggie’s son still won’t take naps.
In a five-minute scan of some of the blogs I read, I can get a quick pulse for what’s going on with women who have similar values and lives to mine. It’s wonderfully unpredictable: sometimes I might be challenged intellectually, other times I might be moved to tears, and other times I might laugh out loud. I see the familiar names in the comments at other blogs, often people whose blogs I follow as well. I can join in the conversation by leaving a comment, or just sit back and listen. In addition to following others’ stories, I can start a conversation of my own by writing a post for my own blog and inviting comments, or I could just check email to see what friends and family have to say today.
This is, ultimately, what I was getting at in my last post on the subject: for a lot of us, I think the internet is the closest thing we have to the community water well. It’s not necessarily a good place to try to form deep friendships, but it is a place where we can quickly, casually throw out the question “You ever have days like this?” in the midst of our daily work; a place where we can just listen to what’s going on with other people we “know” when we’re feeling too tired to make conversation ourselves; a way we can feel like we have a pulse on what’s going on in a larger community throughout each day.
To be sure, I don’t think it’s a replacement for real-life friendships, and I don’t think that virtual communication can or should ever replace fostering quality friendships with people whom you see in person. It’s not even a perfect replacement for a thriving community center. But, when you have three kids in diapers and you’re the only person on your suburban street who’s home during the day and you never see anyone you know at the grocery store, there are some days when it’s all you’ve got in terms of opportunities for casual chitchat with other adults. And on those days you feel really, really blessed to have your own little water well sitting on your kitchen counter.
So those are my little musings on the subject…what do you think?
UPDATE: A part II to this post is here.