By Brianna Heldt/National Catholic Register
As I’m now firmly planted in my (early) 40s, with a grown child away at college, a toddler approaching 2 years old, and a bunch of kids in between, I regularly spend a bit of time reflecting on how I’ve spent my adult life so far — where my efforts have gone, what I’ve done well, what I’d change if I could do it over. I’d like to think we’ve had a pretty good run so far, even if there are definitely some things I’d go back and change if I could!
We married young — I was 20, and not finished with college. Neither of us were Catholic at the time. We really had no clue about a lot of things, but I also think we had some stuff figured out, like the idea that we probably shouldn’t get married if we’re not in a place to joyfully welcome a baby into the mix. We were determined not to be those people who resented what seemed to us, anyway, a fairly natural part of marriage. Even so, I was using oral contraception at first, because I wanted to finish my undergrad and then go on to grad school before starting a family.
But God had other, better plans for me.
The pill made me sick and I stopped taking it only a few months into our marriage. Then several months later it turned out that my fatigue and insatiable hunger for Greek olives and cured meats were not, in fact, the result of school-related effort and stress, but of a most happy cause instead: I was pregnant with our first child!
Truth be told, I walked away from my educational and career goals without looking back. Perhaps that’s a benefit of being young: You somehow manage to possess the optimism and idealism without which you might not do a whole lot of anything worth doing. Regardless, when we got married we knew that this domestic sphere of life would be our priority, the target of our primary efforts. The rest was secondary. We knew, too, that sometimes God’s plans might not align with our own limited, human perspective on what we ought to be doing. And so we trusted.
I’ve never regretted how things turned out. Not once. Our little family started out just as it should have. And it was, in fact, a desire to know how the procreation of children ought to relate to marriage that eventually led us to the Catholic faith in the first place. Because when we began having children, we also began discovering that the cultural assumptions all around us did not fit with our lived experience or with a natural law understanding of fertility. That is not to say that we found, or find, parenting to be easy or without suffering. Far from it. But I will say that babies are a gift. Fertility is a gift. An openness to children is indeed a very natural part of marriage, and the procreation and education of those children is one of the primary ends of marriage.
And I can tell you that all these years in, it is a most worthy vocation. I can tell you that it is both a series of daily yesses, and also a long, over-time yes. I can tell you that I’m much happier and more content the more I’m able to embrace this call, this vocation, this life.
Over this past week I’ve had two different opportunities for beautiful, honest conversation with friends surrounding the subject of children and the marriage vocation. Each conversation included acknowledgment of the challenges of the call to marriage and, more specifically, motherhood. One of the conversations was among a few of us older, more seasoned moms-to-many, the other between my husband and I and a much younger couple due with their second precious baby. Something common to all I spoke to — and I don’t know that this is particularly commonplace in our times — was an overarching and open-handed yes. A desire to answer and fulfill God’s call, even when it’s very hard. A recognition of the staggering beauty of a new baby, a new life, and the gift that it always is.
I walked away from both conversations so encouraged and inspired that, you know, this thing I’m doing is worthwhile, and a calling that God is continually equipping me for. Not that I doubt those things, but it’s a strange place to be where, at my phase in life, as I watch my older kids’ friends graduating from high school and moving on, I still have a toddler — and not only that, God could indeed give me more children if he wished! I’ll be roughly 57 years old when said toddler is finishing high school. It’s a funny thought.
As Catholics we aren’t (or shouldn’t be) strangers to living a countercultural life, but the reality is that the modern world wields a heavy, even if subtle, influence. Our expectations, perspectives and self-identities can’t help but be somewhat shaped by the surrounding culture. The notion that a woman might consider her very calling in life to be marriage and subsequently motherhood, that she would believe this small and humble way to be her path to Heaven, and that she would find her ultimate fulfillment in living out who Christ made her to be even in the mundane work of diapering, nursing and cleaning up after her small children — it is a confounding and surprising idea to much of the world. But then, that is also where the beauty lies.
If you know me in real life, you know I’m fond of saying that I love being “old mom.” Of course I started out as “young mom,” just 22 when my oldest was born. I am consequently younger than most of the parents of my big kids, and older than most of the parents of my younger kids. Being 19 years into parenting (and nearly 21 into marriage) brings with it a perspective and humility I didn’t have when I first took up my vocation. I’ve learned over the years to let a lot of things go. To not despair over the small stuff. To allow space for small children to be, well, small children. To not worry so much what other people might think about my small children. In some ways I’ve gained confidence but in others — in most ways, maybe — it’s humility that rules the day. Each child is his or her own person, making his or her own decisions. I can do my best in my messy, imperfect way, but it turns out I don’t have all, or even many of, the answers.
Fellow mothers of all ages and stages, be encouraged! Our vocation given us by God is one of love, and of beauty. The work we do and love we pour out within the four walls of our homes (edited to add school gymnasiums and track fields, parish pews, and sometimes even cold and lonely hospital rooms) is a privilege, a gift, and worthy of our very lives. There is great dignity in the quiet, long work of mothering, much of which goes unnoticed over the years but that is no less important for its obscurity. The most important things to Christ, it seems, are hidden and small. Barely perceptible, even. He comes to us under the appearances of bread and wine, after all.
There is immense freedom and joy in submitting wholly to God’s will, in living out this vocation. As I continue to discover, accepting the gifts, joys and sorrows of motherhood, over the long haul in particular, is a special kind of blessing.
No matter how old you are, whether young and just starting out, or in your 40s with a bunch of children (and most likely a few years of fertility left) like me, each and every baby is a profound gift. The babies you have in your 20s, your 30s and your 40s will each shape and change you in vastly different ways, infuse life into your family, and illuminate virtue and beauty among each and every member. If you’ve never seen a teen boy dote on a baby or young sibling, I can tell you it is a sight to behold. Consolations abound in the daily toil of family life.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater:
In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.
What a lovely description of womanhood: loving sacrifice, strength to bear sorrows, faithfulness, support, each sentiment quite applicable to the work of being open to life, of being a mother. May God, through Christ and his Church, give us the grace to find a staid and steady happiness in the simplicities of domestic life. Our vocation depends upon it.