Drowning in the miracles of motherhood

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All growing up, if you asked me what I was going to be, I’d answer without hesitation, an artist. Ever since I could hold a crayon, I’ve been drawing. Ever since I could talk, I’ve been telling stories. Ever since I could write, I’ve been committing those stories to paper. I believe that the finest artistic works are akin to worship, I believe the vocation of an artist is a holy one indeed, and I believe that beauty truly can save the world.

Now if you ask me what I do, I’ll answer that I stay at home with babies. I still hold lofty artistic aspirations, but reconciling art and motherhood is difficult even as it is beautiful. The miraculous nature of being a co-creator and steward of human life is one of the most artistically stimulating things that can upset your life. Yet, it is precisely the thing that makes the inner silence needed to be an artist difficult to come by. Every hour of my day I am on-call to a fussy, nursing newborn. Any time I start floating away on an inspired trail of thought I am stopped by toddler screams heralding needs rational or otherwise (if intelligible at all). Welcoming babies means it’s no more simply about fighting my deeply phlegmatic nature to show up and hack at my artistic pursuits whether I feel like it or not that day. It’s about having the luxury of the time or mental space to indulge in them at all.

Often I catch myself thinking about what my life would have meant if it was cut short. What would these years mean–mired in spit up and temper tantrums and me never having really cultivated my talents. And of course, this was not a purely hypothetical situation for so many women throughout history. I recently read that two of Jane Austen’s sisters-in-law die in childbirth after years of having back to back babies. Austen, herself, had the opportunity to marry and yet chose to remain unmarried and free to write novels. But what of any of those women who harbored artistic impulses? What of their ambitions outside of mothering that were laid to rest with them?

Losing your identity to motherhood is something no woman wants, and it is undoubtedly bad to cease to exercise necessary self-care or to permanently and unhealthily become a martyr to motherhood. Yet, despite my ache to fully realize the role of an artist, this losing myself to motherhood, this temporary dimming of my interests and shedding of my individuality, this drowning in babies and being incapable of doing much else, seems to be precisely what’s being asked of me right now.

When I look to another group of women seemingly relinquishing their individuality, I glean some wisdom about the limitations of my life as a stay-at-home mother of small children. Religious sisters revoke their individuality in dress and in name, accepting what is given to them, doing what is asked of them by superiors, becoming one in a sea of women tying their wills to unwavering vows. And the lives, particularly of cloistered contemplative nuns, appear to lack any individuality, freedom, or usefulness to the outside world. But contemplation, while not useful in any worldly sense, is a channel into the divine life of God in which a person finds herself most liberated and fulfilled in her identity.

As I said before, even as motherhood is impossibly immobilizing, it’s just as creatively and contemplatively stimulating. The wise look of my sleepy newborn. The emotional molting of my toddler. His little voice singing–a transcendental sound of hope to my anxious self. Being present to these wonders makes me want to transfix them in art, and perhaps at some point that will be my work. But right now my primary work is just to be present to them. Flannery O’Connor writes in her prayer journal, “I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” This also seems an appropriate prayer for the woman struggling with her loss of identity in motherhood. Right now, I am meant to be hidden within motherhood, to contemplate without action, to push myself out of the way so that I may know God.

Whether I die young and this time, fertile in thought and dry in deed, results in nothing in the way of art, or if I live long, write much and write well to the glory of God, and even my children see me as something other than their mother, I hope I might still say that I was present at this feast, taking it all in, more concerned with being a witness to the great mysteries before me than validating my identity to the world.

Anyway Milton said it well four hundred years ago:

“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

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Drowning in the miracles of motherhood

The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man

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It was our third wedding anniversary last week, and one of the happiest memories from our wedding day was our Best Man’s speech. Since, it really was the best best man’s speech I’ve ever heard, I wanted to share it here.

Hello. My name is Christopher, and I have the honor of being Joseph’s best man this day. Before I truly begin, I have to admit that my toast is pretty ambitious, if you consider the title I gave it to encourage myself: “The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man.” That’s setting the bar high. Pardon me if I happen to crash into it during the attempt. There’s a saying–or, at least there’s a motivational poster that goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” That’s misleading. Really, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll die slowly in the vacuum of space. Hopefully, that won’t happen to me tonight, metaphorically. Or literally, for that matter.

I first met Joe at a theology club meeting for which I, still being of a somewhat slovenly habitude, and not knowing him, thought he was incredibly overdressed. He was wearing a sport coat and wingtips. I think I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Cat on a skateboard” and had a picture of a cat on a skateboard. Somehow or other he knew of me, because after the meeting, he came up and said, “So I hear you write poetry.” Which is not the first think you’d have about a guy wearing a shirt plastered with a picture of a cat on a skateboard.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s cool,” he said. “So do I. We should read each other’s some time.”

At this point I thought, “Whoa. Hold on there, slick. We just met. Just who are you?” But sooner than I thought, it was all sonnets and stress verse, and the rest, though not history yet, might be someday. And, before I knew it, the answer to that question. “Who are you?” was, “My best friend.” We have indeed since then become so close that, disturbingly, Don, one of the groomsmen and Dominika’s soon-to-be-brother-in-law, has referred to us as “The Ambiguously Straight Duo.”

I know Joe to be prudent, steadfast, exceedingly generous, and selfless, so much so that he once did a tremendous favor for me, but I cannot tell you about it because he cares so little for any recognition he might get that he swore me to secrecy. That is the kind of man Joe is–Dominika, this is the man you are marrying, a man who does the right thing and more than the right thing, and wants no recompense or recognition for it at all, because love is all the reason he needs to act.

I know that in Dominika’s family, they like to talk about favorite memories, and one of my favorite memories of Dominika is of when we were at our friend’s wedding reception (to which Joe could not come) and he sat both of us at the kid’s table. Dominika and I and about six sixteen-year-olds. It was awkward and hilarious. Looking back, that was fun, but I didn’t know Dominika that well, and I can’t help but think how much more fun we would have had if I had known her as well as I do know. I’d like to tell you all the nicknames I have for Dominika, because they’re hilarious and affectionate. Unfortunately, if I do, she’ll claw my eyes out with what she once referred to as her “harpy talons”, so I’m going to play it safe and–not.

I wish I could tell you that Joe came to me after his first date with Dominika, convinced he was going to marry her. But I can’t. Not because Joe wasn’t so convinced, but because when I met him, they were already dating, and in fact I am incapable of imagining them apart. Indeed, the night before the members of the wedding party threw a couple’s shower, I had a nightmare that Dominika called the wedding off. I literally woke up in a cold sweat.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Is this guy in love with Joe and Dominika or what?”–The answer to that question is yes. I love Joe and Dominika. I love Joe and Dominika together, so much more than either of them is alone. They are two of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and they are surpassingly beautiful together. They are what has drawn us all together in celebration of their own drawing together in the sacrament of holy matrimony tonight.

I myself am not married–that is not an invitation–so I cannot give you two much advice here. Thus I thought it best to turn to another man who was not married: therefore, St. Thomas notes that every sacrament derives its efficacy from conforming to the Passion of Christ–in other words, marriage is a crucifixion.

But, like the Passion, it is also the fruit of charity, a sign of Christ’s love for His Church. You will have sorrows and frustrations, but those are the seeds of indefatigable virtue and exquisite joy. You will die for each other and die to the world for each other. You will die for the children with which God blesses you. I love you very much and cannot wait to see what your love will bring to the world.

To Joe and Dominika. Live beautifully.

The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man

Living the gritty poetry of love.

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Have you ever heard the wonderful Van Gogh quote: “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people”? I’ve seen it beautifully hand-lettered and then shared over and over again on the Internet. It’s the sort of quote that would make for the perfect caption under a bright and dreamy lifestyle family photo.

It also calls to my mind something that Joseph once said while we were engaged. He was having a conversation with someone who was encouraging him not to give up his dreams of writing poetry for a wife and family. He responded by saying, “Well, Dominika’s the best kind of poetry.” Of course it made me swoon to hear that (and still does!), but there’s a weight to it that has continued to resonate with me as I enter more deeply into the mystery of loving people.

Sometimes loving people really does feel artistic and poetic. Falling in love, getting engaged, walking up the aisle on your wedding day, holding your freshly born baby. Those moments are palpably transcendent. And even within ordinary days there are moments that feel sacred and extraordinary. When Leo visibly understands different words for the first time. When he wraps his tiny arms around my neck and squeezes with real affection. When Joe traces the sign of the Cross on his forehead when we put him to bed. Those moments are met with a happy fiat on my part.

But there are a lot of days that feel emphatically unpoetic. Many days, I fail again and again and wish that someone could relieve me of motherhood. When I’m trying to fix dinner and Leo’s clawing up my legs and whine-crying, I’m so quick to lose it and snap at him. Or when I slip into all-day social media scrolling because I feel like it just takes so much energy to be present with him, I become convinced someone else would do this job so much better than I would.

On this blog, I try to write about motherhood honestly and specifically in a way that means to show its sometimes sweet and sometimes stark but ever-redemptive beauty. I do this because so much of the language surrounding parenthood tends to be banal, an exercise in fear-mongering, and generally unhelpful for young people already feeling apprehensive about the commitments of marriage and parenthood.

However, I think it’s important to admit that sometimes the beauty isn’t perceptible and it certainly doesn’t feel redemptive. It really does feel like the trenches. It doesn’t feel like you’re valiantly marching under the standard of sacramental love. It feels like you’re swimming in exhaustion and hailed on by a multitude external pressures.

And at the end of the day, after failing time and time again and wondering just how much I’m messing up my child with my impatience and harshness, all I can do is offer up a reluctant and frankly pretty sucky fiat. It usually goes something like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to get up in the morning and do this all over again. I just want a friggin break. So just make me want this. Because I’ll keep choosing it, but only because I have to.” Not really stuff of “Behold, handmaid of the Lord here” caliber, but I think God accepts and works even with my crappy fiats.

And I know He works with them, because eventually, in a calmer moment, I’m able to say with a little more grace than before:

“Now I accept the cross You have sent me, which I at first rejected, and I accept not having accepted it right away.”**

Then when I hold my sick child who cries if I move at all or look at him or dare to breathe, and I’m able to do it patiently even if I’m not feeling patient, I think it might even more poetic than when I beheld him miraculously as a newborn. When I let Joe give me a kiss when he comes home instead of swatting him away because I am so touched out by sticky toddler embraces, it’s perhaps more poetic than the kiss we shared on our wedding day.

I’ve barely been able to blog lately and I haven’t been able to write anything else. March has been the month of never-ending sickness for this aspiring-and-usually-failing-at-being-holy family (admittedly I’m generally the one dragging us down). But March also has ties to The Holy Family, since it contains both the solemnities of the Annunciation and of St. Joseph. Mary and Joseph aren’t remembered for the great deeds they accomplished in brazen acts of independence (deeds they could have been accomplishing if they didn’t have to take care of each other and baby Jesus, dang it.) They’re remembered for their humble receptivity to will of God even when that will involved fear and sorrow and the Cross. And yet, their lives have been lauded for centuries in poetry, art, and music.

It’s a good reality check for me to remember that writing blog posts or poetry about motherhood–writing poetry at all–isn’t comparable in real sense to actually living it. Great poetry might be recited till the end of the world. But really living the gritty poetry of love, living it well, even if it’s not remembered, endures eternally.

And I know several more years and children might make me look back and think a. I had ONE CHILD. One healthy, pretty easy going child. I had no idea what it’s like to really struggle and/or b. geez the death grip I had on my time and my right to a certain level of sanity was just not realistic and no wonder I was struggling.

It should also be known that I got a free chunk of babysitting this week (yes I was pinching myself the whole time) and wrote this from a cafe. Some people dream of traveling to Bora-Bora or the Amalfi Coast. I dream of traveling alone to Corner Bakery Cafe for a couple of hours.

**From I Believe in Love, a book that’s been invaluable in my daily life.

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Living the gritty poetry of love.

Wednesday’s Words

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Last week was staycation thus the blogging silence, but it was a heavy-hearted one with all the turmoil in our country. I found this to be a good reminder that even when you’re at a loss for words and just hold your baby and quietly pray for peace, it’s okay to delight in the slobbery kisses he plants all over your face.

Painting: Vase of Roses, Henri Fantin Latour, 1872

Wednesday’s Words

more on the mystery of motherhood (or things you can’t prepare for)

motherhood-postpartum-poetry-reflections

I wasn’t prepared for the intense fleshiness and the intense poetics of it all.
For words witnessed by God and man, words of fidelity and love, to be made into the flesh of another human.
For body and soul to be crafted and to converge under my heart.

I wasn’t prepared to be assailed by a meteor shower of metaphors
for every flash of movement I felt within me,
for every red rippled mark that I found etched onto me,
for every glimpse I caught in reflection of that round and silent world I carried.

I wasn’t prepared to be struck dumb and made to submit a breathless fiat
as I was riven slowly and frighteningly.
But this sweet, damp, dark, purple thing emerged and I cradled him in my shudders and sobs and the room quieted in reverence.

And then I wasn’t prepared to have to learn to speak again,
because what words could I have found in the midst of such mysteries?
Conceiving and growing and birthing a child,
with sparks flying off the white hot welding of creation,
is, after all, close to something confoundedly divine.

But during the weeks of bathing in milk, in tears, in sweat, in blood,
and wanting so much to profanely kiss the scratched shower floor in gratefulness for the water that felt baptismal against my stretched skin and sore bones,
and during the weeks of awe over that small body hewn out of our bodies,
I remember how good it felt to say familiar, ancient words.
In that blurriness and bareness of newborn, new-mothering life,
They felt so whole, so nourishing
like daily bread.

more on the mystery of motherhood (or things you can’t prepare for)

Seven month sweetness

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My little lion is seven months sweet and every time I touch his soft, tufted mane to my lips or am felled by his magnificent smile or hear a long string of onomatopoeias bubbling off his lips or watch him happily gagging himself on the legs of his best, his dearest friend, sophie the giraffe, I think I might die from joy. I love that we were all at one time seven months sweet.

 

Seven month sweetness