Ten years ago, I gave up my career as a publisher to be a stay-at-home mother. My first few years as a mother of three young children were, in a word, miserable. I was stunned by the unrelenting neediness of our children.
I had a non-Christian friend in a similar domestic situation, so we took turns talking each other down from the ledge. While we both were committed to the importance of staying at home with our children, my friend made it clear that all she could see in the sacrifices was pointless misery. Life would be great, she imagined, if those tedious and menial sacrifices were replaced with predictable pleasantness most of the time.
There’s only one problem with that line of thinking: with marriage and parenting, it’s all about the sacrifices.
As a Catholic, I know this. Theologically. But knowing the path and walking the path are different things. The truth is, I become angry, disappointed, or discouraged because my husband or children do not allow me to do what I want. I want a cup of coffee, but they want breakfast. I want to read a book, but I have to discipline someone. I want to go shopping, but my husband has to work overtime.
Would my life be more pleasant and easier if my children were always well-behaved or independent? If my husband always met my needs?. Of course. But would I be a better human being? Definitely not.
Unlike my friend, I know that the key to life is not pleasantness, but dying to selfishness. It’s hard to think of our desires as selfish, because we don’t see anything wrong with wanting a cup of coffee. And on its face, there isn’t. But we can easily pervert even a good desire. In my case, having coffee is a fine idea—until I allow my desire for it to take precedent over the needs of my family. Then the care I could have offered my family as their—and God’s—loving servant becomes instead a resentful obligation rendered by an embittered slave.
On the days when family life seems especially hard, it can seem like God sold us an oyster with no pearl. We hear the world whisper its opinion about our vocation and we begin to wonder if it’s really worth all the trouble to raise these kids or stick it out in this marriage. The burden can seem so heavy that it’s tempting just to set it down. It took me years to understand that I am not actually responsible for carrying this burden. All I really have to do is get my pride and selfishness out of the way and the Holy Spirit will gladly take over.
Unfortunately, there is no formula that will effect a final surrender to God, that will help you give up the “I can do this just fine on my own” once and for all. But the first step is changing the way we think about our vocation. We want to believe we’re strong enough, that we only need God to swoop in and give us a boost once in a while. And we can even get angry with Him when we do all the “right” things like go to Mass, pray the rosary, and read Scripture and STILL struggle. But the problem isn’t God, it’s us. It’s our desire for control and desire to indulge our own selfishness. When we really surrender to Him—not just minutes at a time, bookended by our own will—we are able to be the loving, patient, amazing wives and mothers He intends us to be.
Surrendering to God does not mean using prayer as a talisman, thinking that a rosary will give me saintly, adorable children. Or even that I can exchange Bible-reading time for super-human strength to endure. God gives us nothing less than his own life, his own strength, if we will take it. Those days when I am a truly loving, patient mother, it is not of my own strength, but God’s. In my surrender, I become weak…and freed from the chains of my rebellion, the Holy Spirit loves my children as I cannot on my own.
Giving up control and the love I have for myself is the most painful experience of my life and it is a battle I never saw coming when I entered my vocation. I finally understand why Jesus said that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” When I surrender my will, and with it my sometimes all-consuming love of self, there is room for me to sacrificially and joyfully love others—and God.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, St. Paul says,
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
For the sake of our families and ourselves, may Christ grant us women the grace to be weak. Only in surrendering to Him can we ever truly be free and “love one another as I have loved you.”