I’ve been pretty quiet lately. First of all, this summer has been something like… I don’t know… imagine that a glitter bomb went off on your lawn and you HAD to pick up every individual piece of glitter. You wouldn’t have much mental space for, well, anything else.
That’s how I feel lately. But that’s not the whole reason I’ve been quiet. A few weeks ago, Claire Swinarski posted to Substack a piece called “Maybe Jesus Shouldn’t Be Your Job.” Intentional Catholic is definitely not a job. Let’s be frank: Barely anybody even reads this. I certainly don’t make money off it.
But a comment she made in that link really pierced my conscience. She said it’s way easier to write a lyrical, poetic spiritual blast that goes to 10,000 people* than it is to witness Jesus to your family, friends, and children. (*Liberally reworded.)
I thought: Ouch. That is SO true. And it is SO me.
And then I thought: Maybe I need to focus on witnessing Jesus to my children for a little while.
My youngest two children are in that stage of life where they pick at each other all.the.time. In the immediate wake of this revelation, I learned a new response to it. As things are escalating, I say to each of them, “Even now, even in this moment, you are called to be a follower of Jesus.” I need to work on how to make the line clearer. Subtlety is not a hallmark of teen and almost-tween boys. But it’s awkward simply to say that.
So that, in addition to “picking up glitter,” is where I have been lately. But I have laid out a few posts, so I should be back to semi-regular posting.
At the beginning of this year, I set myself a spiritual goal to focus on contentment. I have not been incredibly successful.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to be. Some goals are set knowing they are beyond reach—knowing that the striving toward them brings one closer to God.
Still, it’s been a hard year to reach for contentment. The summer disappeared beneath a deluge of appointments, meetings, and a million other very worthy time constrains that are not writing time. Early July, a friend offered me an open invitation to sit in her screened-in gazebo by a creek—with wifi!—to work any day I wanted. “I can’t come tomorrow,” I said, “but I’ll be there the day after.”
It’s been eight weeks and I still haven’t had time.
Almost right off the bat, she asked a question that stopped me cold:
Why are we demanding that we be content? What if our discontent is a message from God? What would happen if we followed, rather than denied, that discontent? What if that discontent is a holy prompting, calling us to something more?
This question shocked me into self-reflection. I think her primary focus is mothers who feel pressure from the culture—especially the religious culture—to be content with motherhood as their total identity, all the fulfillment they need. That was me, once, but not for a long time. Publishing music, publishing a novel—I am officially on the rolls of working mothers. I used to get squirmy and guilty identifying myself as such. I still hesitate to claim the label; my work is so flexible, it often gets shunted aside altogether. (Hence my recent discontent.) I am not caught between two immovable forces the way mothers who work outside the home are.
But work it remains. And I realized long ago that the gifts God gave me were not given to be stuck under a basket for twenty-odd years until my nest empties, at which point I’d be so rusty it would take another series of years to hone them, if indeed I could at all at that point. So my first thought was that I’m not sure the question entirely applies to me.
And yet… and yet! What if my difficulty finding contentment is not a sign of my own lack of spiritual fortitude, but of the whisper of the Spirit saying, “Something is out of balance”?
Simply giving myself permission to ask the question shook loose some recognitions in the way our family life is set up. There are things we tend to laugh about. Like, Dad is sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday morning and Mom is outside pulling weeds, and yet the kid comes outside to ask Mom for whatever the thing is? Really?
Twice on Sunday afternoon, I closed the bedroom door to do something for myself—write this blog post, the first time, and the second, simply take a nap—and literally within fifteen seconds someone shouted my name. It’s like there’s a radar that says: “Warning! Mom is taking time for herself! Red alert! Stop her at all costs!”
Voice such a frustration in public and a mother will inevitably get variations on one of two themes: 1) “You’ll miss this someday! Enjoy it while it lasts!” or 2) “That’s the nature of the job!” It never occurs to us to say, “Sure, I’ll laugh at this someday, and of course I’ll miss my kids when they leave—but that doesn’t change the fact that right now, people are interrupting my self-care for ridiculous minutiae they are perfectly capable of dealing with without me.”
What if I actually asserted my Godly identity as a human being independent of motherhood? What if I chose to say, “I am a person too, and my needs are more important right now than your Xbox time”?
What if I stopped making a martyr of myself and simply, firmly insisted that others must also be flexible—that I am not always the one who must give way?
The religious part of me rears up at such things. Self-gift! Self-sacrifice! Self-emptying! But these things go more than one direction. Mothers are not the only ones who need to practice them.
I have four kids, and each of them is in a different school this year. (Long story.) Two of them are in seat (one because parochial school, one because special ed), the other two are all online so far.
Today is the first day I have to have one of my in-seat kids at home for learning, and since I’m groaning internally about it, I want to stop to acknowledge the great blessing that my two highest-maintenance kids have, in fact, been able to have relatively normal schooling all the way to October 21st. I have been on fire in my writing–laser focused and accomplishing a lot.
At the same time, some really beautiful things have come out of having two kids at home for school. I’ve gone running with my 6th grader a few times. Taken afternoon walks with him at other times. Eaten lunch with my high schooler, who, in an ordinary year, we’d barely see because he’d transition between school and marching band and be gone for ten hours and do homework the rest.
Also, I have a lot better picture of what my kids are doing at school this year. I’m puttering around the kitchen during middle school zooms and for that reason I know all the teachers by voice and name and I know that one teacher has a chirping smoke detector in her house, and I can hear the banter in the class. I can ask intelligent questions about the things the kids are studying, because I have some clue what they are.
It’s a give and take. There are plenty of things that feel constraining about this mode of education, and keeping spirits high… or, well, in the neutral range or better… requires constant vigilance. I feel much more guilty for going to take my hike/bike/sit/pray times when there are kids at home. But there are things to love about it, too.
Late Sunday morning, my teenager was driving us home from church. I had a full docket of things I wanted to do: fold laundry, some shopping, etc. But as we pulled in the driveway, my teenager said, “Mom, we never took that bike ride. You want to do that now?”
Exercise was not on my agenda. I’d done hard workouts 7 days in a row, and my body wanted a break. Plus–obviously–I was busy.
But when a teenager asks you to spend time with him, you drop everything else. “Yes,” I said.
We did not only a full bike ride, but one that was a third longer than a full ride. My legs were crying out for mercy. But that lovely day, I remembered again how blessed I am to be suffering through this time of uncertainty and isolation in the arms of my family. I have people to touch. People to be with. Our family life is fraught with conflict, stress, anxiety, bad feelings. Too much togetherness. Infrequent and insufficient breaks from each other. An ever-shifting landscape that renders arbitrary every discernment of what social gatherings feel safe or unsafe. Kids lashing out. Kids fighting over screens. Kids fighting with each other.
And yet, I am not alone. A few weeks ago, a national reporter had a conversation with the morning show host, saying, “I haven’t touched the skin of another human being in three months.”
I knew then that having my children to hug and kiss, to cuddle on the couch, my husband to hold hands with, is a blessing I need to keep my eyes fixed upon. Because it is a big one.
There’s so much bad stuff going on in the world–and even in our houses, the wearing daily grind of togetherness causes so much stress–that it feels almost insensitive to acknowledge out loud how beautiful some of this stay-at-home experience is.
How can we find beauty in our world when so many are suffering and dying, when so many have had the pain of losing loved ones they can’t even be with in their last hours? Can’t gather to bury?
But beautiful things are happening in our homes alongside the stress of isolation. With the punishing busy-ness removed, creativity has flowered, giving rise to new traditions. My family kind of hopes the birthday parades continue! For Mother’s Day and birthdays this spring we wrote up affirmations and left them hidden around the house for the honoree. We’ve cooked well, regularly eaten together on the deck. Taken lots of walks and bike rides, done lots of work in the yard. All because we weren’t chasing the futility of the rat race all over town.
And for all of that, in the midst of this upheaval, I give thanks to God.
Posting here has become sort of irregular, but I doubt that comes as much of a surprise. We’re all stumbling along through this new reality, experiencing Holy Week and sharing in the passion of Jesus with a depth of experience that gives it new meaning, even while we lack the emotional bandwidth to fully unpack it as it unfolds.
It seems everyone is passing around things to keep us busy and make the time pass in this brave new world, but I don’t need anything else to do! Some structure, a break in the unceasing grind of togetherness? Yes. But not more to do. I’m supervising four kids’ schoolwork now, and I’ve learned that if I take the time to do something of my own, something for the kids is going to be sacrificed. Hence: irregular posting at Intentional Catholic.
Yesterday I managed to do a quick web search for words of comfort from the saints, and this one popped out immediately. It speaks to me about a particular area of my life right now, but it also speaks to the larger situation where we all find ourselves, working from home and supervising children in an intensity of togetherness we could scarcely imagine a month ago. There is a meaning to be found in this time, an opportunity to be embraced.
This is my prayer for my family every morning and every night right now: