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.”
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