Some folks have asked if my doctors are putting pressure on me not to have more children. I usually respond with a sound like hoooooo-ho-ho-hooooo (which is not supposed to be a sound like what Santa says, but rather a hearty laugh to indicate, YOU HAVE NO IDEA).
The doctors have said this before, when I was diagnosed with the clotting disorder after getting a deep vein thrombosis during my second pregnancy, but, luckily for my third, fourth, fifth, and sixth children, I knew that they weren’t that serious when they said, “You seriously can’t have any more children.”
But now they’re saying it with extra drama, and there’s nothing like lungs full of blood clots (for me) and lungs full of holes (for the baby) to make me think that they might actually mean it this time.
So what does that mean for me? When I converted to Catholicism, to my great surprise I came to agree whole-heartedly with what the Church teaches about contraception. I do Natural Family Planning (badly), and probably have about eight years of fertility left. Am I still going to stick with it? Am I resentful of these rules? Do I even want to have more kids? If the subject lines of my email inbox are any indication, a lot of folks are curious about this; hey, I would be too if I followed someone’s blog who found herself in this situation.
So let’s go ahead and crack open that can of worms, and I’ll give you my long answer to the question: Your doctors said you can’t have any more kids. What now?
Let’s talk about risk
First of all, let’s remember that when we speak about the dangers of pregnancy or any other undertaking, we’re talking about risk. This is not certainty. Nobody has a crystal ball. It’s all just educated guesses.
This sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.
You hear a doctor say, “You shouldn’t do XYZ because it would put your health at risk,” and it’s tempting to immediately declare, “‘Risk,’ you say? I SHALL NEVER DO XYZ AGAIN THEN!” But it’s critical to do the best we can to identify what level of risk we’re talking about.
In my own case, for example, I have a responsibility to my existing children not to take unnecessary risks with my life. The word to hone in on here is “unnecessary,” though, because the reality is that we take risks with our lives all the time. I’m thinking about taking a road trip this summer that would involve driving for hours down two-lane roads with 70-mile-per-hour speed limits and no barriers separating oncoming traffic. I would be driving on a weekend, when plenty of people are on the road after having beers at nearby lakes. There is no question that my life would be in danger if I went on that trip; in fact, the danger to my health in that situation is probably not even drastically lower than it would be with another pregnancy. Yet we perceive the pregnancy as being so much more fraught than the fun road trip.
For a variety of reasons, we’re always tempted to freak out and get all fearful when it comes to new life, much more so than in other areas of life. A mother setting out to climb a famous mountain as a personal self-fulfillment project would be congratulated and encouraged, whereas another mother being open to pregnancy despite concerning health conditions would be chided and discouraged, even if the risk to both women’s health from their respective activities were the same.
So, especially when it comes to the question of more children, we need to look very carefully at the question, “How big is the risk?” There are times when we’ll take a closer look and find that the risk is real and huge and deeply concerning; but other times we might just find that the risk isn’t all that much greater than it would be with plenty of other “normal” activities, and that the doom and gloom predictions about future pregnancy were fueled as much by our culture’s fear of life than as by a reasonable analysis of risk.
The hope factor
Every risk has a flipside, and this is another area that is too often forgotten about when we’re talking about pregnancy: the benefits of undertaking the risk.
We have this problem in our society of seeing new human lives as burdens. Instead of celebrating new people, too often we chalk them up to carbon footprints and mouths to feed. We deem others (always others, not people we know) to be “overpopulation.” And I’m not using “we” rhetorically: Seriously, I’m not immune to the mentality either.
The soundtrack to all of my pregnancies is the noise of my whining voice. I always forget about the life of the new son or daughter that I’m carrying, and talk about the huge burden that “the pregnancy” is placing on me. Maybe it’s all those years I spent immersed in secular culture, but I am naturally sympathetic to the frame of mind that wants to immediately shut down the pregnancy train as soon as the doctor says the word “risk.” Especially in the case of those of us who already have a lot of children, why not? After all, how many kids does one person need?
But children are more than a number in the family birth order, and each human life is infinitely valuable. Think of someone you love: When you consider the worth of his or her life, it makes you view the pregnancy that brought him or her into existence differently. It makes you willing to accept higher levels of risk to add a person like that to the world.
Imagine that you were diagnosed with a rare and fatal illness, and you discovered that there was a doctor who had developed a brand new way to treat it. Imagine that this doctor cured you. Imagine the waves of joy and relief that would sweep over you when you found out that he had defeated the disease that threatened to cut your life short. Now imagine that you found out that he was his mother’s seventh child, and that her pregnancy with him went against warnings from her doctors not to have any more children. Would his mother seem crazy for becoming pregnant anyway? Would she seem irresponsible for deciding that adding another soul to her family was worth the risk?
Unfortunately, sometimes we need to remind ourselves what other people can do for us in order to remember the value of their lives.
I’m not suggesting that there’s never a good reason to avoid pregnancy; even aside from health risks, there are plenty of other reasons couples might decide that it’s not a good time for another kid. I only suggest that when we make those decisions, it’s critical that we make them in light of the hope that every new baby brings. When you think of making sacrifices for a nameless, faceless “pregnancy,” it doesn’t seem worth much effort. But the cost/benefit ratio changes drastically when you really think about the worth of one boy or girl’s life.
NFP is worth it
All that said, I do think there’s enough risk in my own situation that I should chill on the pregnancy front for now, maybe forever. In that case, then, wouldn’t contraception or sterilization make everything easier? To put it concisely:
First of all, Natural Family Planning can be an effective way to space children. (I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and clean up the drink you just spilled on your keyboard.) No, seriously, if you’re willing to invest a little time to learn the ropes, it can work just as well as contraception. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy, and that the challenges that come with NFP are very real. However, it’s not like the alternatives offer problem-free solutions either. As the great Simcha Fisher once said, “When it comes to facing fertility, all God’s children got angst.”
I know a lot of other couples who have given up contraception to use NFP, and not a single one of them has ever returned to contraception use. I’m not saying it never happens, but, at least in my experience, it’s rare. That’s totally counter-intuitive since NFP is a sacrifice-based system, but I think what most couples find when they give up artificial birth control to space children naturally (especially when they involve God in the process), is that the high level of personal sacrifice involved is a feature, not a bug. NFP is not just another form of birth control; it’s an entirely new lifestyle. It makes you see yourself and your spouse and your children entirely differently. It makes you see the meaning of life differently. It even makes you see your relationship with God differently. And once you’ve spent a while living that kind of life, you don’t want to go back.
Intellectually, I don’t think that contraception is a good thing. I’ve come to believe that it takes away women’s reproductive freedom, and, on a societal level, fuels abortion culture. But, when I think of my own situation, I never even get that far in the analysis. Like so many other people who have made the switch to NFP, I simply couldn’t be okay with any form of sterilization anymore, whether temporary or permanent. I don’t know how to articulate it other than to say I just couldn’t do it. On a purely visceral level, in that place deep in the heart where the most important truths about our humanity reside, I know as surely as I know anything else that those Catholic teachings about human sexuality are true and good.
So what now?
As you can imagine, I’ve gotten some flack about all of this lately, especially in light of this disastrous pregnancy. Sometimes I catch myself reacting by saying:
“I didn’t know!”
I mean, yeah, I knew that I had a blood clotting disorder that’s exacerbated by pregnancy, and, okay, there was that one just slightly life-threatening DVT in my second pregnancy. BUT! I thought that it would be fine once I took preventative Lovenox. I didn’t know that it was possible to end up with bilateral pulmonary embolisms when you were on blood thinners — I thought that I was stabbing myself with needles every day to prevent that kind of thing! I didn’t know that a one-month supply of said blood thinners would set me back FOUR THOUSAND dollars. I didn’t know that I’d end up having to undergo medical procedures that were like something out of a bad episode of Fear Factor. I didn’t know that one of my veins would turn black from having over 10 blood draws in the same arm over a few hours. I certainly didn’t know that my baby would have his own, unrelated life-threatening lung issues that would put him in intensive care for two weeks. Sheesh, people, I didn’t know!
The implication there is that I would have done something differently if I had known that I was signing up for a pregnancy that was like something out of a homeric epic.
But would I?
I look down at my sweet baby boy, who is sleeping in my lap as I type, and I am overwhelmed with love and joy at his existence. I am filled with certainty that his life was meant to be. I can barely even remember all the pain I went through to bring him into the world, because that finite amount of suffering seems so utterly insignificant in comparison to the infinite value of his life.
Yet I am also sitting here saying that it would probably be best if I didn’t have more children. It leaves me in a place of strange tension: If this baby was so worth it, wouldn’t that be the case for another one? As a mother, I certainly have a duty to my precious children not to take risks with my health; but if I’d followed that train of thought more closely before, most of said precious children would not even exist.
It is when I ponder these truths that I realize: It’s so freaking complicated.
There are no more difficult, complicated, messy decisions in the human experience than the decisions we make about having kids. In no area of life is there more at stake, more opportunities for suffering and loss, and more opportunities for joy and love and connection that will last through eternity.
I don’t have all the answers; many days, I don’t feel like I have any. I have no idea if I’ll ever have another biological child. Today I’m thinking that I probably won’t…but will I feel that way tomorrow? If I’ve learned anything so far this year, it’s that your whole world can be turned upside down in a matter of hours, leaving you with an entirely different perspective on life than you had the day before. Luckily, with NFP, you make these kinds of decisions on a month-to-month, rather than a long-term basis. I’ll have regular opportunities to re-evaluate my choices.
And so when people ask about whether I think I’ll have more children, I usually respond with a responsible-sounding answer about how I am aware of the risks and currently plan to take the prudent course and avoid pregnancy for the rest of my fertile years. But then I’ll glance over at my little blond-haired son, and sometimes his tiny, ink-blue eyes will catch mine, and I can barely suppress a smile as I think: Never say never.
A couple of weeks ago, a beautiful quilt arrived in the mail. And this wasn’t just any quilt: it was a prayer quilt, handmade by a group of ladies who specifically prayed for me while they were created it. Look at how beautiful it is:
The attached label said it was from the prayer quilt ministry at an Episcopal Church in Arizona. I wanted to assure the lady who sent it that I had received it and tell her how wonderful I thought it was, so I went to grab the card it came with to get her contact info. Only it wasn’t where I left it. I was sure I put it on the ledge by the back door. In fact, I had a hazy but firm memory of reading excerpts from the note to Joe, and remarking, “Oh, this just makes me want to — GET DOWN!” when I saw the baby standing in the middle of the kitchen table, holding a Rice Crispies box sideways. I am certain that I tossed the note onto the ledge in that blur of a moment when I lunged toward my child in an attempt to rescue both her and the soon-to-be-emptied cereal box (I succeeded in one of the two). Alas, the card has not been seen since then.
Anyway, in case any of the prayer quilt ladies check in on my blog, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank them for their kind gift. I also thought this would be as good of an opportunity as any to do one of those “day in the life” schedule posts that bloggers like Ana, Dwija, Elizabeth and Grace have have been doing lately.
I love these kinds of posts. LOVE. Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I find that getting an hour-by-hour glimpse into someone else’s day reveals volumes about their lives (which is why I ask readers to talk about their schedules when they introduce themselves).
So I offer my own schedule below, as it may be interesting/revealing/helpful to fellow armchair anthropologists, other moms, people who must read inane blog posts as part of lost bets, criminals subject to punishment by extreme boredom, and anyone who, like the quilt ladies, may have tried to contact me and wondered why they didn’t hear back.
What follows is my best effort to recreate the events of the day that I received the quilt:
~ MORNING ~
8:00 AM: Wake up. Realize I should have gotten up at 7:30. Remember that that occurred to me the night before, but that I simply could not bring myself to set my alarm for that hour.
8:01 AM: Calculate number of times I had to get up to go to the bathroom night before, stew about how much precious sleep time this cost me. Feel certain that some pregnant woman somewhere has put a stop to this nonsense with a large package of Depends. Think that I totally respect that decision.
8:02 AM: Check email on my tablet. In the middle of a snarky reply to a friend, remember that I promised myself I’d do morning prayer first. Discard email and speed read Lauds from the Divine Office app while still in bed. Recite the Canticle of Zechariah like it’s one three-hundred-syllable word. Remind God to look at what’s in my heart and not the quality of my prayers.
8:10 – 9:00 AM: Get the two preschoolers up; get them breakfast; try not to think of how very far away this food is from the food I would like to be serving my children for breakfast; wonder, in fact, if this processed substance even qualifies as “food”; marvel at how long it takes children to eat; throw together the two girls’ lunches (quesadillas, mildly wrinkly cherry tomatoes, and strawberry apple sauce, a.k.a. the Mommy Hasn’t Been to the Store in a While Special).
9:00 AM: My dad arrives to shuttle the two girls to the parish preschool. Thank God for having such an awesome dad. Remember that back before my health problems I always took the girls to school myself, which meant that I had to get all five kids up, dressed, fed, and out the door on time. Shiver at the horror of such memories.
9:01 AM: Make a cup of coffee. Add lots of heavy cream. Assure myself that today I SHALL treat myself to two cups.
9:10 AM: Go upstairs, get dressed, sit on bed to give myself my morning shot of Lovenox. Pick the box of needles up off the floor, realize it’s probably the most expensive thing I own.
9:11 AM: Spend a ridiculously long time trying to find a good injection spot — not the easiest task in the world when you’re eight months pregnant and giving yourself a shot in the stomach. Just when I’m finally about to do it, hear baby cry in next room. Set shot aside, go get baby.
9:15 AM: Holler at my two oldest (ages six and eight) to wake up. Try to put shirt on my
insane spirited 20-month-old but she yanks it out of my hand and flings it across the room. I see that she is trying to engage me in a battle of wills. She wins. Take shirtless baby downstairs for breakfast.
9:20 AM: Gasp for a while after carrying baby down the stairs. Wonder if it’s because of pulmonary emboli, anemia, pregnancy, or generally being out of shape. Try to boost my energy with another cup of coffee. Have one sip, feel instantly nauseated. Realize that, once again, my body has shut off some sort of coffee intake valve. Calculate number of minutes until the end of this pregnancy.
9:50 AM: Supervise the kids’ foraging for breakfast food, tell the big kids to keep an eye on the baby, go upstairs to get this shot out of the way.
9:51 AM: Just as the needle approaches my skin, a knock at the door. Set shot aside again, run downstairs, see that it’s a package. Open package to see a beautiful prayer quilt. Open the enclosed note. Before I can read it, see the baby run into the living room with her bowl of cottage cheese. Wish that she had not just dropped it on the shag area rug. Wish that she had also not just stepped in it.
10:00 – 11:45 AM: After an “A for Effort” cleanup of the cottage cheese (which the carpet beetles undoubtedly appreciated), do homeschool lessons with the two older kids. Try not to mentally calculate how long it’s going to take us to clean up what the baby has destroyed during this time.
11:45 AM: Set the big kids up with their independent school work (worksheets, reading, etc.) Put baby down for nap. Try again to give myself shot. Half way through process, hear shouting that involves the word “BUTT!” coming from the supposed-to-be-working kids downstairs. Can’t yell threats at them because baby is trying to sleep in next room. Rush through shot, inject medicine too fast, feel like I’ve been bitten in the stomach by a snake.
11:50 AM – 12:00 PM: Grabbing stomach in pain, I get kids back on track, then go to read the note from the quilt ladies. Just as I reach for the card, the phone rings. It’s Yaya. She is furious, demanding to know why she can’t click on the box after she mashes the button where you type the word. After a few minutes of tech support she can open her email again, and we chat about neighborhood intrigue.
12:00 PM: Stomach still throbbing from shot. Calculate number of minutes until the end of this pregnancy.
~ AFTERNOON ~
12:30 PM: With the baby down for nap, the six-year-old and eight-year-old doing school work, and the toddlers at preschool for another hour, I have some time to get a few things done. Sit down in front of my computer in a confident and purposeful manner, some important thing I needed to do firmly in my mind. After the third time I have to yell out into the living room that “THAT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE SCHOOL WORK TO ME,” I’ve forgotten what I sat down to do. End up listlessly replying to a few emails.
1:20 PM: With 10 minutes to go until the two girls are home from preschool, remember that I have a post due for NCR tomorrow. Thaaaat’s what I sat down to do. Frantically dash out a rough outline with my remaining time.
1:30 PM: Preschool kids home. Thank dad profusely for his chauffeur services. See note from quilt ladies on counter, but the toddlers are tired, and the big kids need me to look over their work before we can declare school over for the day. One of the little kids has begun scribbling over the six-year-old’s spelling worksheet; six-year-old reacts as if these scribbles had been placed upon an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. After trying to simultaneously break up that fight while grading worksheets, have forgotten about card again.
1:35 PM: Kids expressing desire for food. Rioting breaks out in pantry. Oh, that’s right, lunch! Somehow I always forget about this meal. The prospect of making real food that all five of the children will eat overwhelms me. Scatter some cheese sticks and crackers on the table, dump out the fruit basket, tell the kids to go crazy. Snicker that even though half of this stuff is processed and full of dyes and preservatives, I can count it as a “paleo” meal for the ambiance alone.
2:00 PM: Beginning to feel profoundly exhausted. Muscles ache with a weird, lack-of-oxygen kind of feeling. Daily bout of painful nausea coming on. Eat something. As always, food makes nausea worse. Wonder how I’m going to survive the day. Calculate number of minutes until the end of this pregnancy.
2:30 PM: Babysitter arrives, which reminds me that I have an appointment with my obstetrician. Startle older kids by telling them to get their shoes on NOW-NOW-NOW because we have to leave in three minutes. Run around frantically looking for my purse, a sweater, and my tablet as the kids ask in vain where we’re going.
2:33 PM: Drop two of the kids off at Yaya’s (since all five is way too much for any mortal babysitter to handle), rush to OB’s office.
2:45 – 3:45 PM: See OB (the high-risk specialist I’ve been seeing for years, not Dr. K whom you met in Minor Revisions). Visit is nice, though the contraception / NFP issue is becoming an increasing source of tension as this epic pregnancy nears the end. We’ve been dancing around the details, but I have the sneaking suspicion that at least one of my doctors’ heads may explode when the cards are all on the table. Once again, I boldly defend my principles by…making a few vague statements and asking if we can talk about it at the next appointment. Leave office feeling stressed.
4:00 PM: Pick up kids from Yaya’s. Go back to house. Walk in door, behold noise and chaos, wonder how I ever do this. Nausea and shot-in-gut feeling now getting severe. Tell babysitter through exhausted gasps to holler if she needs anything, drag myself upstairs, flop onto bed, and stare at the ceiling while thinking about what to write for my NCR post. Calculate number of minutes until the end of this pregnancy.
5:00 PM: Babysitter needs to go home. Lie on bed, unable to move. Am reminded of that Jerry Springer episode where the guy was so heavy that they had to tear down a wall and back an ambulance basically up to his bed to get him out. Think that might need to happen here. Realize I’m on the second floor. Try to imagine the extensive system of ropes and pulleys that would be required to hoist me downstairs.
5:00 – 6:00 PM: Eventually drag myself to the living room to say goodbye to babysitter, resist urge to stand in front of the door and forbid her to leave. Some kids go outside to play, some watch Netflix. I hope that this means that I can zone out and/or work on my NCR post. I am wrong. Every fives minutes I have to jump up and stop the baby from destroying something and/or pulling someone’s hair. Every time I feel a little closer to death.
~ EVENING ~
6:00 – 6:30 PM: The kids do their evening checklist of chores, which includes picking up toys, sweeping, and vacuuming, with only minimal yelling involved. I clean the kitchen (read: finally put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher). House looks great. Think of how amazed Joe will be when he sees how tidy everything is.
6:30 – 6:45 PM: Start dinner (a frozen meal brought by a friend), rummage through the pantry for a side dish. Have to sit down three times to rest and catch my breath.
6:45 PM: Go back to the living room, see that the baby has dumped out a box of toys, removed most of the books from the kids’ bookshelf and thrown them around the room, and scattered the carefully-organized shoes from the shoe rack. Before all-consuming rage takes over, have a brief flicker of awe that she could undo half an hour’s worth of work in just a few minutes. Call Joe, leave an impassioned voicemail that begins with “I DON’T KNOW WHY I EVEN TRY,” and ends with a solemn promise that I am “never, ever even attempting to clean this house again” and a suggestion that maybe I should legally change my name to Sisyphus.
7:00 PM: Joe home. After I’m done seething, show him the beautiful blanket. Remember the card, go to read it. The kind words bless me so much, and I say to Joe, “Oh, this just makes me want to — GET DOWN!” Baby is standing in center of kitchen table with a box of Rice Crispies. Throw card in the general direction of the ledge, grab baby, but not before she dumps the contents of the box onto the table. Look from the pile of cereal to Joe, confident that this vindicates my dramatic voicemail.
7:00 – 8:30 PM: Clean up mess on table. Eat dinner mostly standing up, as Joe and I have to play waiter since someone seems to need something every two minutes. Send big kids to shower, give little kids bath. Getting to pick the bath water color with these dye tablets is the highlight of the evening for the three-year-old…though it’s a little weird when she picks yellow.
8:45 PM: Three little kids in bed. Big kids want to watch a show, but house is so small that they’ll wake the little ones if they watch it on the main TV. Send them to the pantry/laundry room with my tablet to watch Netflix on it, since that’s the only downstairs room that’s away from the bedrooms and has a door they can shut. Realize that the pantry has become a sort of rec room. Wonder if that’s a sad statement of the overcrowding in our house or a Pinterest-worthy example of efficient use of space.
9:00 – 10:00 PM: Joe cleans kitchen by himself while I give myself my evening Lovenox shot, then we head to the living room to hang out. When we realize that we’re both watching an episode of Barney that was left on from earlier, we give up the charade of having quality time together and call the night a loss. Joe goes to bed and I get back to my NCR post.
~ NIGHT ~
10:00 PM: Send the big kids to bed. Finally get to work on post. As usual, being able to write effects me like Valium or a good glass of wine. Am so, so, so thankful for blogging, as blog posts are the one thing in my life that I can create that will not subsequently be destroyed by the kids five minutes later.
10:10 – 11:00 PM: Big kids come downstairs approximately 9,887 times while I’m trying to finish my post. At some point they remind me that we never did night prayers. I close my laptop and do my best impression of a spiritually mature mother who is delighted to have her long-awaited and desperately-needed down time interrupted so that she can send up prayers to the Lord with her precious children.
11:00 PM – 12:00 AM: [Fall into a time warp where this hour mysteriously disappears.]
12:00 AM: Schedule NCR post to run. Look at the clock and am shocked to see that it’s midnight. Admonish myself to get to bed immediately. Remind myself that this is serious: I really need as much sleep as I can get. No joke. Really. I must get in bed and turn out the lights this instant.
12:00 – 1:15 AM: Read blogs on my tablet.
1:20 AM: Just before I drift off, think of those wonderful ladies who took the time to make the prayer quilt for me. Remind myself to thank them. Realize with an ominous feeling that, just before I went to bed, I did not recall seeing their card on the ledge where I thought I left it.
* * *
There you have it! For those of you who have not fallen asleep or committed seppuku, you now have all the details into a typical day around here.
So thank you to the ladies who made that beautiful quilt for me, as well as all the others who have sent me kind emails, letters, and gifts. It blesses me more than you know, even if I am often so overwhelmed by the craziness of daily life that I’m terrible at expressing it.
This week Joe and I celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary.
We also found out recently that we’re expecting baby number six! (For those of you who need a refresher, we have an eight-year-old boy, and four girls ages 6, 5, 3, and 15 months.)
We’re so busy and tired, I’m not sure if we’ll even do anything to celebrate. Between homeschooling, dance class, soccer, scouts, general chaos management and me feeling astoundingly exhausted and vaguely sick all the time, I think that what we’d both like for our ninth anniversary is the opportunity to get 12 straight hours of sleep (that is the traditional nine-year gift, right?).
This is not the easiest phase of life I’ve ever been in. The baby spends about 30% of her waking hours yelling at the top of her lungs (which is a huge improvement from the six-month period she spent yelling at the top of her lungs for 90% of her waking hours, otherwise known as THE LONGEST SIX MONTHS OF MY EXISTENCE and OH MAN HOW AM I STILL ALIVE). Depending on the whims of the Insurance Fates, which are even more temperamental than the poop fates, we may end up spending more than our mortgage payment each month to get Lovenox to treat my clotting disorder during pregnancy. Our three-bedroom house is crowded, with people as well as terrifying arachnids, and we somehow have both an extreme night owl and an extreme morning person among our children, which makes it feel like there is someone who needs something from me 24 hours a day.
I forgot to get an anniversary present for Joe, and was looking through old pictures so that I could print one for a makeshift card (look out for my tutorial about how to print a photograph on office paper and fold it in half to be the next hot thing on Pinterest!). I laughed out loud when I saw some of these old shots. Ah, yes, there was the time we swung on down to Argentina to tour the vineyards of our favorite winery…
And that elegant weekend in San Francisco…
And that time we sipped champagne and watched the sun set in Florida…
We were seeking the good life, and we thought we had it. Yet even at the time, we felt a sense of emptiness. We wouldn’t have labeled it as such — we were so convinced that we were doing everything that we needed to be fulfilled, we never stopped to ask ourselves if we were actually fulfilled. But the emptiness was there, and it manifested itself as a carrot on a stick. There was always “just one more” thing we needed to own or achieve or do, and then we could rest, then we could be happy.
We put most of our energy into thinking about ourselves and what would bring us most comfort and happiness. We created a museum life, and said that we liked it. After all, we would have seemed ungrateful to have all that we had and say that it wasn’t doing what we thought it would do. But the truth was that our museum kind of started to feel like a prison. Thomas Merton captured it well when he said, “To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.”
It would take us a few more years and a profound religious conversion before we realized that the way to be happy isn’t to amass nice stuff or go on awesome vacations or even to think about yourself much at all. The way to be happy is to love. And real love always involves self-sacrifice; in fact, love and self-sacrifice are basically the same thing.
It was scary to take that leap from a philosophy of “happiness via self-focusedness” to one of “happiness via self-sacrificial love.” What if all this Christianity stuff was wrong? What if we underwent this massive lifestyle change, stopped chasing dollars and material possessions, lost our condo and our nice car and our ability to travel, and ended up with a lame and boring life?
It didn’t take long to see that there was nothing to fear. Immediately upon our conversions, our marriage experienced an explosion of life: we became open to life, which led us to see children completely differently than we did before. Not only did we start having more kids, but we were surrounded by the people of our parish, our diocese, and the entire Body of Christ. Our new suburban house suddenly became a hub of activity, with kids and friends and neighbors in and out all the time — none of which would have ever happened in our old life. It was loud. It was chaotic. It was messy. It was more work than I’d ever had to do in my life. It made us wish the original owner of our house had not installed white carpeting. But, interestingly, we never yearned for our old way of life. Not once.
One day we looked around and saw that our museum was gone. All the stuff that we’d arranged so carefully to suit our tastes had had to be rearranged to accommodate other people’s tastes. The hustle and bustle of so many other people running through our lives meant that things got knocked down, broken, and moved. Life was no longer about just us anymore; we had to consider other folks’ comfort in addition to our own. And it was a wonderful feeling when we realized that our museum was no longer there…because it had been transformed into a home.
Tomorrow night Joe and I will probably celebrate our nine years of marriage with a quick toast, in the approximately four minutes we will have between when the last kid goes to bed and when one or both of us falls face-down on the floor from exhaustion. And when we do we’ll toast to the good life, and thank God that we finally found it.