This is a Part II to the post Putting our lives on hold, and it was originally published on May 8, 2008. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!
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.