I came up with this letter to you while rocking my 11 month old for the fourth time today as I tried to help him go to sleep – my arms contorted in an intricate holding position, moving my hips in a figure eight pattern, needing to scratch my cheek because there was a stray hair on it. You know how it goes.
First of all, congratulations. You have not only helped bring new life into the world, you now work to sustain and cultivate it – ultimately helping it attain sanctity. As a new mom, I remember asking myself a few questions: Does someone need a background check, my fingerprints, or a diaper-changing demonstration before I can do the whole “mom thing?” How am I supposed to keep this tiny person alive?
Life changed in an instant. Suddenly, someone was dependent on me for their existence. Pregnancy prepared me a bit for the stretching. My body stretched to make room for this new being and nourish it; my mind stretched as I found myself thinking more about this little person and less about myself; my spirit stretched to offer prayer and sacrifice for their well-being and health; my heart stretched to love the most precious thing I’d been privileged to carry for nine months.
The stretching in motherhood only continues. My muscles stretch in the maneuvering and carrying of this little person and all their gadgets and gizmos. My tolerance stretches as I attempt to live life on less sleep and time. My patience stretches as I change my daily schedule to accommodate the needs of another. My dance repertoire stretches to include tangos, hip motions, and dozens of swaying maneuvers. All this while I work towards attaining a diploma in sneaking out of a room containing a sleeping child without being noticed. Some days are harder than others.
I don’t write to you today to complain about motherhood or commiserate on its challenges. They are there. I write to you today in the midst of the rawness to remind you that you’ve got this. And the vocation to motherhood is incomparable, priceless, heroic. I’m learning more deeply in these first few breaths of motherhood that we are called to live and thrive in the beauty and chaos of our vocation. We are needed in our families and in our world – what a beautiful and daunting thing.
Yes, there have been many days when I felt like Peter thrashing in the water and yelling, “Lord, save me!” None of my siblings or close friends had little ones, and I felt like I was navigating choppy, stormy waters primarily on my own. So many questions bombarded me, but the two I faced most often were “Am I doing this right?” and “Are others doing it better than me?” Though the first of these questions is often well-intentioned, it left me feeling inadequate, anxious, and unsure of my capacity to “do motherhood correctly.” I found myself second guessing my actions and feeling dissatisfied. “I’m so ill-equipped!” I thought, “Can I really do this?”
In our culture, it’s easy to start comparing yourself, your child, and your parenting to others. This threatens to take away the beauty and spontaneity of motherhood, which is a lifelong learning process. In these short, eternal months, I have learned to look to others for guidance, ask questions, and seek advice. Surrounding myself with seasoned vets, trusted friends and family, and my parish community has been crucial to the process. So has daily prayer. God does not call the equipped, but equips the called. Like Peter, we just need to call out to him and reach for his hand.
In prayer one day, I realized just what it can mean to open our hands and heart to God as Peter did in the water and as Mary did in her fiat. We don’t walk up to someone with our hands wide open. It’s a posture of vulnerability, literal openness to whatever the other gives you – be that a beautiful lily or a thorny rose. Instead, our hands are often closed, clenched in my case. Throughout the past few years, God has been asking and helping me to slowly open my hands to him and his will for my life. He’s done this most notably through my long-distance relationship with my now-husband, a cross-country move, marriage, pregnancy, and now— deliberately and perhaps most uncomfortably—through motherhood.
In opening my hands, I’ve found that motherhood has also given me deep joy. I remember during the first few months of my son’s life nestling in bed and closing my eyes while he was sleeping only to have an unlikely thought: is it time to be needed again? I yearned for it. In the midst of exhaustion, an infection, unkempt hair, and the general chaos, I realized how good it felt, how satisfying, to be needed – to serve. I realized I was capable of so much more, able to give so much more, and that the stretching I’ve experienced has led me to become more fully who God intends me to be. The transfiguration is real. This transfiguration is slow. It doesn’t always go according to plan. But if I open my hands to God and his grace, then it can be luminous.
So let us show the world the wonder and power of motherhood in the way we live it imperfectly. We do not have to read all the right books, know all the answers, or look like perfect Stepford wives. What matters is how fiercely we love our children, our husbands, our families, our neighbors, our enemies, our world. How nobly we wake up every morning and change the millionth diaper and wash the millionth dish. How hard we work in our jobs outside the home. How selflessly we serve. How widely we open our hands to others and to God’s plan for our lives. How much we allow ourselves to be transfigured.
The works of mercy you do right now may only be for your immediate family. Do them well. The prayers you utter may only be the groans and sighs of everyday life and chores. Do them often. This is a beautiful and sacred time. Motherhood may make you a stressed out crazy person sometimes, but it will also make you deliriously happy. If we’re lucky enough, it might even make saints out of us. Savor the moments that make motherhood what it is; give thanks for the complexity of the journey; and, as Pope St. John Paul II calls us to do, let us help our families “become what [they] are.”
Go get em, mama.