Family and Self in a Work-from-Home World

As someone who has been working from home full time for several years, the current conversation around remote work in the time of COVID-19 has fascinated me.

Now, as the pandemic stretches out and companies continue to keep their offices closed, conversations are turning to whether the work-from-home shift is a permanent change.

I’m all for it. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest productivity is just as good—if not better—for employees who work at home, so the hard business data seems to support it also.

But there is a cost. Even if they’re more productive, not everyone is happier at home.

Lowly Workers

There is an immense amount of strain on people in the working world right now. Between adjusting to a new office environment, managing the stress of an uncertain economy, feeling fearful for personal and public health, and under pressure to keep productivity high in order to protect their job security and tackle pandemic projects they never anticipated—it’s a lot. For all of us.

We are all in the unfortunate position of redefining work-life balance—and fighting for what matters most when we’re expected to give a lot more than we have in our mental and emotional reserves.

Some companies are taking this burden on their people seriously and trying to minimize their contribution to it by being transparent with and supportive of their workforce.

Unfortunately, not all companies are providing the same support. I know people who’ve heard little to nothing from their leaders about what the months—even weeks—ahead will look like in terms of working locations, travel policies, job security, and company health.

There is also an unsettling trend of increased surveillance on workers who are logging on at home—a belittling overreach, and a downright unethical privacy violation to boot.

Whether it’s mistrust, mistreatment, or maladjustment, a lot of working adults are just feeling less human when it comes to their careers lately. It’s hard to feel like a unique person of worth when your stability—economic and emotional—depends on some numbers on a spreadsheet.

Now, add in an overdose of collapsing self-worth. Between the unrelenting demands placed on us in a consumerist society, and the increased tendency of people—especially young people—to hinge their self-image on their work, so many of our neighbors are feeling their emotional foundations collapse.

This tendency is known as “workism,” and it’s a plague all its own. COVID-19 has merely brought its effects to the forefront. Why do so many of us place all our self-worth on our careers?

There is an abundance of scientific evidence that the human mind is predisposed to religiosity. (Of course, to people of faith, this makes sense: we were created with an inherent love for and desire to seek out our Creator.) Psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and more see a common desire to belong, understand our place in the universe, and work toward a greater good.

Absent an upbringing or personal perspective steeped in faith, many of us find this sense of meaning elsewhere. Sometimes it’s in our relationships. Very often, it’s in our work. “What you do is who you are” becomes a natural assumption when no one teaches you that “You are who you were created to be, regardless of what you do.”

In times of plenty, the former definition of self is a valuable one. We feel productive and effective, confident and admirable. But in times of want, if your identify is dependent on your output, it’s hard to see your worth when you’re not even “doing enough” to get by.

Lonely Homes

Worse than fiscal fears, and just as devastating as crumbling self-worth, is the pervasive sense of loneliness reported by many work-from-home professionals in the COVID-19 economy.

Just as so many of us have our identities tied up in our work, we have our social support systems there, too. When you hold yourself to high standards of “hustle,” an increasing majority of your time is spent at work. Ultimately, the people you speak to and connect with most are at the office.

Today’s young adults are getting married at later ages. They’re starting families later, too. And, around the world, more and more people are living alone.

So where else are we finding community, if not at work? And even if your network of friends extends beyond the office, it’s not exactly easy to hang out while social distancing effects remain in place all around us.

Of course this is a recipe for loneliness. Who wouldn’t be lonely if they suddenly found themselves alone, 24 hours a day, without the freedom or safety required to connect with anyone outside their household?

Again, intensive economic demand and unaccommodating workplaces make it increasingly difficult to pursue family life for many young adults in the 21st century. It’s a benefit to your employer if you stake your identity and your community within their four walls, isn’t it? Then you never want to leave.

But a move away from family values has also contributed to this shift:

Whatever the reason (and, to be clear, there certainly are plenty of legitimate reasons to delay marriage or having children—I’m not suggesting everyone get married at 18 and start having babies immediately), having a family later in life can mean years of living literally or figuratively alone. And while independence is a good thing, isolation is not.

Balance: The Ultimate Question

At any stage in life, there’s the struggle to find balance—between work and school, school and socialization, work and family, family and self. How you find it and what that balance ultimately looks requires deeply personal reflection and adjustment, which no one else can dictate for you.

But all of us deserve the freedom to find it. Our rights are to life, liberty, and property—and the pursuit of happiness.

This is a defining moment for the next several decades when it comes to our political, social, and economic culture. I hope it swings more toward the human side of the spectrum than the commercial.

Saint Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

Drawing Inspiration from JPII on Reconciling Suffering in Our World

Pain is a reality for us all. It is the sad truth of our world that perfection is out of reach.

(Far out of reach, actually. Most of us can’t agree on what perfection even is.)

And there are many kinds of pain: the sorrow of loss, the sting of hate, the ache of loneliness, the distress of being unwanted. Some of these things I have felt. Some I’m privileged not to have experienced for myself. But each of us has a story to tell, and every one of those stories features pain.

Whatever your experience, all suffering is a tragedy. And all of it has shaped us—for better or worse—into the people we are now.

Sometimes we shroud our pain with silence, feeling averse to vulnerability. Too often, we feel like our pain is weakness—as if we should be able to “let go and let God” or “rise above” or “focus on gratitude.” And to some extent, that mind-over-matter attitude is important.

But it can also negate the redemptive promise of our suffering.

Did Christ not suffer for us, more deeply than anyone? Was he not shamed, whipped, mocked, tortured, and nailed to a cross to pay for the sins of others? Did he not weep? Did he not die?

Suffering is not worthless. Pain is not weakness. No one is stronger than Jesus, and it is by Christ’s trials that we are redeemed. So, by our own trials, we can feel him and the depth of his love for us. And that is powerful.

But Why?

I, as I’m sure you do, sometimes catch myself in abject disbelief in the face of pain. Why does a loving God let a neighbor hate his neighbor? Why does the Divine Physician let a pandemic run rampant?

Why did the Father deliver his Son into the hands of murderers?

The answer is not simple. And, put simply, God does not send any evil or ill wishes upon any of us. Our world is broken by our own free will and the imperfections of reality on this earth. Imperfect people just cannot expect to live in a perfect world.

I recently read a book of essays from Saint John Paul II—recently published, though written before he became pope—called Teachings for an Unbelieving World: Newly Discovered Reflections on Paul’s Sermon at the Areopagus. In it, the great JPII discusses the nature of belief in God in a culture of unbelief.

John Paul II explains how God made us in His likeness: “God creates the human being both rational and free, wanting above all to express his image and likeness in the human person. Even at the cost of abusing the great gift of freedom” (page 31).

We are free to do as our rational thought compels us. God wants this freedom for us—because, without it, how can we truly, deeply experience love? Love never arises by force.

That freedom, though, comes with responsibility. It means that God can’t dictate every development in our journeys or the world around us. It means pain is a part of this life.

What to Do?

Central to a handful of JPII’s teachings in this book is the notion that suffering does not separate us from God—indeed, it actually unifies us to Him in a bond that reflects the two-fold nature of Christ, who is both God and man.

God is the creator of both the ultimate justice and the ultimate love—and sometimes, these concepts are difficult for us to reconcile. Isn’t judgment inherently hurtful? Isn’t love inherently joyful?

But this is not so—not at the heart of what these virtues entail. As John Paul II outlines in this book:

God himself is the “reconciliation” of justice with love. … All that Jesus “did” and “taught” testifies to the “reconciliation” of justice with love in the dimension of God himself, just as the Cross and the Resurrection constitute its supreme witness. (51-52)

Take, for example, the sacrament of Confession. Just as God holds us to high standards when it comes to doing what is right, He is delighted by the prospect of wiping our slates clean again and again—no matter how many times we fall—and drawing us into His embrace.

Likewise, God can work joy into our lives through the pain we endure. The way He created us might have allowed for suffering to enter the world, but it also allows for more authentic love between us and Him, and us and each other.

After all, without death, we would have no need for Christ. And oh, what we would be missing if Christ had not come for us.

In the miracle of Christ’s humanity and divinity, comingled in one truly perfect person, we are given a glimpse of what it means to be human and what it means to know God. In his suffering, we can see how justice and love are, in fact, quite easily reconciled—even if the depth of that reconciliation is beyond our understanding. JPII explains:

During his prayers in Gethsemane, “Christ united himself to the Father in a special way, and in a special way drew near to him, entering into the eternal dimension of the redemption of the world. However, it must also be emphasized that in this prayer Christ also drew near to humankind in a special way. The words: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” testify to his participation in the suffering of all people from the beginning to the end of the world. Christ united to the father—“Yet, not my will but yours be done”—is at the same time united to every human being, and is in “solidarity” with the destiny of humanity on earth. In this prayer, Christ opens, so to speak, a special space in which every person can find himself in the most difficult and crucial moments. The prayer in the garden of olives remains the specific paradigm of the “universalism” of Christ in the history of humankind. (104)

I love this. I love how, with faith, we can see suffering not as pointless pain in an empty world, but as an opportunity to grow—into better versions of ourselves, into more principled people, into closer relationships with Jesus, and into gratitude for the salvation that will ultimately deliver us from every kind of pain.

Suffering Quote

St. Paul touches on this in Romans 8:15-18: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (emphasis mine).

May we all endure suffering with our eyes toward Christ, do what we can to lessen the suffering of our neighbors, and offer up our pain for the salvation of the world. It is a heavy cross to bear, living in these times. But great rewards await us. Justice—and love—shall prevail.

Clarity and Confession: Reflections on Penance

You can’t pick a favorite sacrament. You just can’t. Each has its own beauty and wonder and draw. But there is something uniquely moving about Penance.

That’s not something I pictured myself saying back when I was preparing for my first confession. Or in the almost-decade I spent avoiding another one. Or even the first few times I returned to the confessional after that. But it’s a sentiment that’s dawned on me over the last couple of years.

I bet nearly all of us cradle Catholics have vivid memories of anxiety and embarrassment leading up to our first reconciliation. What adolescent, after all, looks forward to announcing their sins to another person—let alone a priest? There’s so much pressure to deny what is “bad” about us at that age, when we want so badly to be liked and loved and trusted.

And for adult converts, faith formation is a process of incredibly personal self-discovery. It isn’t easy to lay bare the ways we fall short to another person.

So it’s no surprise that I have come across some misunderstandings of the purpose of this sacrament, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To be clear:

  • Confession is not an opportunity to impose guilt.
  • Confession is not a mechanism by which the Church holds control over your relationship with God.
  • Confession is not a conspiracy to dig up dirt in order to keep you “on the hook.”
  • Confession is not an exercise in self-defense, in which we try and shore up our value despite our sins.
  • Confession is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, given to or by someone merely for intoning formulaic words like a magic spell.

“The Human Heart is Heavy and Hardened”

Make no mistake: Sin is a heavy burden. We are obliged to live in accordance with what is morally good not for the sake of following rules, but because it is in our nature to want and to be what is morally good.

This is why our conscience speaks loudly when our courage fails to do so. It’s why we like to say that an act of kindness “restores our faith in humanity.” It’s why giving feels good. It’s why love is the pinnacle of human connection.

Catholic or not, most of us believe that someone who is kind and genuinely devoted to doing the right thing is a healthy and well-ordered person.

When we don’t live according to this inclination toward goodness, it weighs on us. We feel depressed. We feel ashamed. We feel lost, or helpless, or unworthy. And that feeling spirals, doesn’t it?

It is painfully easy to look back at the laundry list of things we’ve done wrong and think, “Well, too late now.” We build bad habits and “fall off the wagon” again and again, and eventually, it seems like the only path forward is one big, ugly circle back to where we started. There is temptation, maybe subconscious: “What’s the point in trying to do better? I fail every time anyway.”

Sometimes, we choose to cope with this via mental gymnastics that attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance by convincing us (and others) that our vices aren’t so bad after all. But, when our conscience is well-formed, this self-indulgence rarely keeps us happy for long.

And then there are the burdens that settle on our hearts through no fault of our own. Burdens that weigh heavy on us, interrupting our spiritual practices and our perspectives on ourselves, the world, or God Himself.

In 2020, as a multitude of global and social crises overwhelm us with sorrow and frustration, we know how tumultuous simply living in this world can be. It is backbreaking work, and none of us can do it alone. Deep in our stormy thoughts, it is so difficult not to simply lean into that despair and lose sight of what is still good and true all around us.

“God Must Give Man a New Heart”

How can any of us hold up the weight of the world alone—especially while dragging our own hopelessness along, too, like boulders fettered to our ankles?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t. We’re never meant to carry the whole world alone. But we are woefully incapable of lifting even our own little share in it effectively when we are restricted by sin and the suffering that plagues us when we turn away from the Lord and his boundless love.

If you have a toddler, you know what it’s like to watch someone attempt the same task in the exact wrong way, over and over, while not just refusing your help, but completely snubbing your suggestions for how to get themselves sorted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gently explained to my son that the easiest way to remove a shoe is to push it down his heel first, only to watch him fruitlessly tug on his toes whilst screeching his frustration right back at me.

Think how God must feel when we refuse His guidiance.

As Catholics, the sacrament of confession is our opportunity to turn our ears toward God. He wipes our slate clean, yes—and it’s a delightful relief every time that gift is given—but He also speaks to us in and around the confessional. Through the priest who ministers to us, or the quiet moments of prayerful penance afterward, or the newly opened curtains that let His light shine on rooms in our hearts that had been darkened by sin—He speaks to us.

The grace bestowed through Penance is one that restores our hearts to what they were designed to be. We become white as snow, receptive as Mary was in the moment of her Fiat, unwavering as John the Baptist as he taught bystanders that he must decrease as the Son of God must increase.

Sisters and brothers, I beg you: As soon as you are able, flee to the Lord in this generous sacrament. I promise you won’t be sorry.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong

Have you ever had a real doozy of a day and just collapsed onto the couch to treat yourself to a few minutes of laziness? You open Instagram on your phone, wanting to scroll through bright colors and the happy faces of friends and family.

But soon, all those snapshots of happy faces, perfect ponytails, handmade masterpieces, and messages about working hard and “soaking up every minute” make you feel like an abject failure.

We know that social media plants seeds of damaging perfectionism in our hearts. It is a blessing to connect with others from afar, to be sure. It is a joy to see their joys. But sometimes, when we only see everyone’s most polished moments, it’s easy to feel like every scene of our lives should be tailored toward impressing others. It’s an impossible standard.

Trying to meet that standard crushes self-esteem, triggers anxiety, and even influences suicidal ideation. It makes us feel like we aren’t enough unless we constantly exceed all expectations.

Thankfully, in my circles, friends and family often share the less-than-ideal memories they make each day, not just the perfect ones. We commiserate and laugh at ourselves daily. And I hope this is the case for you, too, so we can embrace social media for its supportiveness instead of defining ourselves by its embellishments.

But another type of perfectionism has sunk its teeth into the social media age. And it is just as damaging.

Social Sanctimony and Cancel Culture

I don’t follow the news closely. This isn’t to say I’m ignorant to the goings-on of the world around me; it’s just that I’m not cut out to be a news junkie.

I dislike the 24-hour, for-profit news cycle. From my viewpoint, it has encouraged journalistic integrity to step aside so that bias (specifically on political subjects) and view-earning drama can step in. I can’t completely trust any single source of news, so I have to peruse many to get the big picture on a story—and even then, I must accept that my perspective is limited.

This is true of mainstream media outlets, many of which have presented consistent partisan leanings in one direction or another. And I can’t even express how damaging it is from downright fake news outlets.

In the same way the idyllic images on social media make us feel pressure to always “live beautifully,” the slanted language of the nonstop news we are served makes us feel obligated to believe a certain way, or form a specific opinion, or hold up one version of the truth without examining every side.

Then there are social pressures like “cancel culture” and imposed relativism, which suggest a need to protect ourselves from perceptions of bias that could hurt us—at least when it comes to biases that go against the mainstream.

So we speak loudly on issues we haven’t fully explored, or jump on board with shaming others for saying something counter-cultural or making a bad joke or being ignorant—while neglecting to seek important context and first-hand perspectives. Then we decline to engage with those who disagree because they are simply wrong, as far as we know. Which is, in today’s narrative, about the worst thing you can be.

To be clear, on some issues, what’s socially acceptable really is the right answer. It’s never okay to be racist, or to kill, or to bully (to use a few examples that should be painfully obvious).

But many other issues—economic policy, education reform, gender roles, social support systems—deserve healthy and respectful debate. Their positive evolution is, in fact, driven by that debate. Too often, though, popular culture labels one or another position as “unacceptable.” And then cancel culture kicks in, or at least debasing comments that all too often attack the individual instead of the issue.

It is a vicious cycle. The inherent bias we ingest from the news and day-to-day conversations gives us a sense of being unwaveringly right in our understanding. Next, social pressure pushes us to demonstrate to other people that we’re right (lest we be ostracized for being wrong, or for being too quiet). This leads us to share the biased content as if it is unbiased proof, which presents it to someone else—and the spin continues ad nauseum.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong (As Long As You Want to Learn How to Be Right)

What we’ve forgotten is that it is downright impossible to be correct in all things, at all times. Just like it’s impossible to be Instagram-ready in all things, at all times.

It is tempting to see history as a line on an upward slant: a neat chart that shows us starting at zero and growing to perfection. We want to see human progress as black and white, beginning with the dark ages and ending with paradise.

But this simply isn’t reality. History, though positive growth is certainly clear, is also a squiggly line of peaks, valleys, progress, regress, goodness, and badness.

We may have markedly reduced poverty worldwide, but we’ve also notably increased the wealth gap in the last century. We may have 216 million fewer hungry people than we did 30 years ago, but obesity is contributing to the premature deaths of 4.7 million people every year. Global violence by genocide has declined over human history, but infant mortality for black babies remains 2.5 times higher than white babies in the US.

Human history is a relentless game of good versus evil, and we cannot expect to achieve perfection.

Now, I know it may not sound like it, but I am an optimistic person. We should always be striving to make the world a better place for our neighbors and children. I will always try to influence positive change, especially in regards to respect for human life. So I don’t point out these gaps in human progress to make you sad.

Rather, I outline them as a reminder of humility.

People are inherently good.

People are also inherently flawed.

There is no perfection in this life—not until we are saved from the shackles of death. Can we do better for ourselves and each other? Absolutely. But we can’t do it alone, and we certainly can’t do it by diminishing one another in the process.

So if you’re called out on social media for sharing a misleading article, or misrepresenting a counterpoint, or failing to see another perspective on an issue—I hope you’ll listen.

I hope the person who’s offering criticism is doing so thoughtfully, without vitriol. I hope your response is respectful, too.

I hope you don’t feel ashamed for being mistaken. I hope you aren’t scared of hard conversations or challenging research. I hope you know when to turn away from a discussion that isn’t productive without dehumanizing the person on the other end.

I hope the same for me, too. For all of us, growth takes grace.

Most of all, I hope you don’t let the despair of this world drag you down into the pit. I hope, instead, you can look up and marvel at all that is beautiful about this life—and know that you are not alone, and you’re not perfect, and no one should expect you to be either of those things.

You can always join hands with your neighbor, learn something new, and gain a better understanding of the many perspectives. You can minimize the alienation of “us” versus “them,” and unite as people who want to live in a freer, fuller world.

Even if nobody changes their mind.

This isn’t perfection. But it is progress.

Moms Can’t Do It All (But We Can Do An Awful Lot)

It’s widely known that moms tend to carry the bulk of the mental load for their families. Finding a division of labor that works in your marriage is critical to a happy home. If both spouses are good to each other, that division ends up about even—but that doesn’t mean every day or every category is equal.

In my home, I keep track of appointments, monitoring calendars, managing childcare, meal planning, keeping household essentials in stock, watching our future to-do lists—balancing a lot of short-term and long-term needs to keep the family functioning smoothly.

As a result, my mind is usually turning gears on five or six different machines at once in addition to managing my own needs.

It’s a lot. It’s definitely part of what makes motherhood so exhausting. Moms are practical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual. We are phenomenal multitaskers—it’s one of our many superpowers. But it ain’t easy.

Don’t Even Try Doing It All

Much of the advice I see about multitasking is deeply unhelpful: “Don’t do it so much.”

I can’t not do it. If I don’t do it, too many of the balls I’m juggling will hit the floor. Picking up the pieces will be roughly one zillion times more stressful than managing them preventatively, so it’s the latter I’ll continue to do. But how?

How do you watchfully keep so many balls in the air without losing sight of the bigger picture?

Partly, it’s about balance. But it’s also about accepting reality.

Let’s face it: We cannot do everything at all times. No one should hold us to that impossible expectation—including, and most importantly, ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we need to somehow just stop managing the many components of family life.

That’s where the balance comes in.

Some Tasks Pair Well. Others Don’t.

Occasionally, my husband and I enjoy a DIY wine and cheese night. After the kids go to bed, we open a bottle of wine and arrange neatly sliced cheeses alongside salami and crackers on a plate. It’s a fun way to be fancy without leaving home.

Now, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to pairing. But because I love wine and cheese as much as I do—both individually and together—it doesn’t really matter. I just enjoy the eating and the sipping and the bonding with my husband.

Multitasking is nothing like that. It’s not especially fun, and the tasks involved aren’t nearly as delightful as a creamy Havarti or a dry cabernet. It needs to be managed deliberately to be a bearable exercise.

To that end, here are some of my rules for more tolerable multitasking.

1. Combine a little bit from every category as often as you can.

If I’m trying to focus my brainpower on five things at once, they have to be broad so I don’t get too overwhelmed by a single role.

Example 1: I can run a load of laundry (housework) while I respond to emails (professional), with my favorite music playing in the background (self-care) and a few short breaks to check dinner in the Crock-Pot (housework) and go remind my kids they should be napping instead of jumping around their room like monkeys (momming).

This is a typical afternoon for me and isn’t particularly overwhelming. But what if all five of those things fell into the same role responsibilities?

Example 2: I can run a cycle of laundry (housework) while I get dinner prepped and into the oven (housework), cleaning the kitchen (housework) as I go. Meanwhile I’m packing my daughter’s lunch for tomorrow (momming) and folding the laundry from the previous load (housework).

If I have an open afternoon when I’m finished with work, the kids are actually napping, I’m feeling energetic, and my mind is clear, that’s a manageable list. But how often does all that happen at the same time? Almost never. So if I’m trying to do all the housework at once, I’m constantly distracted by deadlines I didn’t get to that day (professional); the kids making far too much noise instead of sleeping like they’re supposed to (momming); and the fact that I haven’t had more than 30 minutes to myself in three days (self-care).

Now, instead of feeling like I’m accomplishing a checklist of diverse tasks, I put all this work into one category just to watch it multiply (that next load of laundry won’t fold itself, and the dishes are piling up)—ignoring all the others even as they nag at me from every angle.

I need to focus on each role responsibility in bite-sized chunks. That way, I feel relatively on top of it all and can compartmentalize everything that needs to be done into separate, manageable spaces of time.

2. Accept that not every pony is going to be in the ring for every show.

Now, combining categories doesn’t mean that every responsibility gets my attention at all times. That’s just not possible. During business hours, for example, my brainpower needs to focus on work—and the other stuff needs to sit, undone, until I can get to it. When my kids are sick, momming must be my priority. Most of the time, I need to let a few things slide to make sure more immediate needs are met.

Combining categories does mean, however, that things come up about equal on a typical day. Maybe none of them is done perfectly or completely, but none of them is neglected, either. So when I have a day or time block that requires my full attention on one category, it’s less painful to stay focused and temporarily set aside the rest.

This helps immensely with a couple of common plagues: mommy guilt, prioritizing time for myself, keeping the house reasonably tidy so that I can hustle-clean if unexpected company comes over, and so forth.

3. Keep an eye out for looming existential catastrophes and stop them before they stop you.

When someone is literally juggling, if she’s highly experienced and relaxed, a ball or two may fall to the floor without disrupting her flow. But if she’s new or nervous, seeing a ball fall may throw off her game—and all the other balls might come tumbling down after it. Even if she’s exceptionally centered, she’ll probably need help to put a dropped ball back into the rotation.

In terms of multitasking, few of us can stay completely level-headed when we fail to manage something important. We are naturally and emotionally invested in each of the burdens we bear. So our knee-jerk reaction will be to overcorrect, which means the other things get much less attention—which means the whole routine may collapse. It’s a domino effect. If we let it get out of hand and simply watch this collapse happen around us, we tend to question whether we’re capable of fulfilling our roles and our families’ needs.

Step one in preventing such a crisis is staying humble. We need to expect that things will fall out of place here and there—sometimes due to our own fault, sometimes due to circumstances outside our control. We need to lean on God and constantly remind ourselves that we are loved regardless of our faults, we can always improve with His help, and we are not in this alone.

The next step is self-awareness. It is so important to be honest with yourself and your support system about what you’re managing well, and what may be starting to slip. A frequent examination of conscience (and Confession!) can be helpful in many ways here: you’ll monitor which areas could use some extra attention and take good care of your soul.

The final step is to ask for help. Ask for it early—before things start to crumble—so you can articulate your needs, minimize the burden on others (you shouldn’t feel guilty about this anyway, but don’t we all hate sharing our crosses?), and not have to set down other important priorities to put out fires. Even a little bit of help (from your spouse, or your neighbor, or your older kids) can make a huge difference in getting back on track before things go off the rails.

How do you manage your multitasking? Visit my Facebook page to share your tips and tricks with other busy moms!

Do Not Be Discouraged: Domesticity and Virtue

Note: This article was originally written for and published by Chaste Love. It was an honor to be invited to write for such a wonderful resource, and I’m very happy to share my article again here. 

Growing up, I always felt called to marriage as my vocation in life. I believed that God had a romantic path in mind for me: true love, a happy home, a wholesome family. I never really considered religious life. I just never felt drawn to it.

That is, not until I experienced just how hard family life can be.

Cloistered religious life, specifically, never seemed attractive to me until the noisy, hectic unpredictability of raising toddlers took over my daily experience.

I think we sometimes fail to see the beauty in other vocations until we deeply know the difficulties of our own. But while I may, here and there, yearn for the solitude and quiet devotion of a religious sister, I know in my heart that God made me to be a wife and mother.

Still, the struggles of this life have surprised me. I didn’t realize motherhood could be so lonely. And I failed to anticipate how the devil might trick me into thinking all my domestic labors are empty, circuitous, and invisible to the rest of the world.

Labor of Love

I can’t tell you how deeply I feel like my days are filled with little more than cleaning up messes and watching them be made again.

The work of raising a family is full of monotony and seemingly petty demands. Though the blisses of your wedding day and your children’s first smiles or laughs are enough to make these labors worthwhile, the responsibility of it all remains a heavy burden to bear. It’s difficult not to feel completely spent by the end of every day.

Then, when you’re feeling exhausted and frustrated, it’s so easy to let your spiritual growth fall to the wayside. Tapped out of energy and patience, the silence that fills your home after the kids are finally asleep seems like an invitation to nothing but your own bed. And attending Mass? It’s more about wrangling the children than it is about encountering the Divine.

Before you know it, weeks go by before you realize you can’t remember the last time you uttered a sincere prayer. And suddenly the guilt of neglecting your Father is added to the guilt you feel over your impatience with your children, the tasks you’ve left undone, and the mistakes you’ve made along the way.

Your Work is a Prayer

Know this: These negative thoughts are how Satan exploits your vulnerabilities. The real truth is simple: If you’re living according to God’s law and raising your children to love Him, your every effort is a prayer.

Our world is a busy and self-interested one, and it’s easy to feel like your contributions are miniscule and obsolete compared to the goings-on of the culture around you. But God sees your labors and He loves you for them. He sees your contributions to His kingdom—and there is no greater work than that.

So long as you’re living as His daughter or son, doing your best to fulfill His will and glorify His love with devotion to your family, your life is a prayer and He knows the needs and good intentions of your heart.

But don’t take my word for it. The Church and the saints have much to say on this subject.

Find Assurance in the Faith

In fact, Church history is chock-full of praise for the family. As the domestic church, the family is the most foundational microcosm of what the Church herself should be: a community of devoted brothers and sisters who put one another’s needs before their own, and place God’s will at the center of their life together.

Pope John Paul II, who had many wonderful things to say about the beautiful work of building a family, expressed this so well:

Catholic parents must learn to form their family as a “domestic church,” a church in the home as it were, where God is honored, His law is respected, prayer is a normal event, virtue is transmitted by word and example, and everyone shares the hopes, the problems, and sufferings of everyone else. All this is not to advocate a return to some outdated style of living: It is to return to the roots of human development and human happiness!

There are also plenty of examples in the catechism—a comprehensive catalog of the central beliefs of our faith.

Christ chose to be born and grow up in the bosom of the holy family of Joseph and Mary. The Church is nothing other than “the family of God.” From the beginning, the core of the Church was often constituted by those who had become believers “together with all [their] household” (cf. Acts 18:8) (CCC, 1655).

The home is the first school of Christian life and “a school for human enrichment.” Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life (CCC, 1657).

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society (CCC, 2207).

As for the difficulties of this life? As we Catholics know better than most, suffering can be sanctifying—especially when it is endured for the sake of others. I can’t think of a better way to validate the sacrifices we make for our spouses and our children in this life.

So, rather than descend into complaint or self-pity over these struggles, we can endure them with patience and selflessness and thus transform them into a very special kind of prayer. Lifting up our pain—physical and emotional, petty or profound—to God is a boon to our growth as well as the growth of our families.

What’s more, bearing our trials with humility breeds the kind of virtue this world so desperately needs. “Do everything without grumbling or questioning,” Saint Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world” (Philippians 2: 14-15).

Finally, in our efforts to see the holiness and virtue-building goodness of this repetitious and often frustrating domestic life, we can pull inspiration from the saints. Their insight on the love of God and the righteousness of submitting to our families’ needs is enough to motivate all of us to greater selflessness:

Know that even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans. – St. Teresa of Avila

I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects—not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues. – St. Therese of Lisieux

They who, by a generous effort, make up their minds to obey, acquire great merit; for obedience by its sacrifices resembles martyrdom. – St. Ignatius of Loyola

The Worth of the Working Mom

The internet is a place for learning and community. It’s a place I’ve appreciated very much as a mother—especially as an introvert—and it’s full of resources I’m glad my kids can access as they grow up.

But it is also a place for jerks.

For example, there’s been a huge debate among Catholics on Twitter this month about the morality of mothers working outside the home. It began with an interview in which a Catholic man made some very sexist comments and radical claims about the Church’s teachings on working moms.

Why this is even a debate is beyond me. We have saints who were working mothers (looking at you, Saint Gianna!); we have popes who’ve praised mothers for their efforts within and outside of the home; and most clearly of all, we have no doctrine stating that mothers must stay home to fulfill their duties toward their children. (On these points, much has been written. Instead of trying to duplicate them, I’ll point you to an excellent read here.)

The Church and Job Discernment

Many of those outside the Church see Catholicism as a laundry list of rules dictating believers’ daily lives. And while it’s true that we hold ourselves to unpopular and often difficult moral choices, a lesser-known truth of the Catholic Church is that she leaves plenty of details up to the discernment of her members.

Such details aren’t inherently rooted in morality or theology. Rather, they’re rooted in how we—as unique children of God, made with specific talents and living in certain circumstances—practice our vocations and navigate the world.

For example, it is up to us to discern how many children to have and when (so long as our marriages remain open to life); whether purchasing a new vehicle is a good idea (so long as we’re not using it as a status symbol); which books to read (so long as we’re not succumbing to immoral or evil thoughts and behavior as a result of their influence); and so on.

Among these topics of discernment is the question of whether, where, and how spouses should work outside the home to support their families. Among the arrangements they may reasonably discern are:

  • Only Dad should work and Mom should be a full-time, stay-at-home-parent (so long as he’s able to provide for his family’s financial needs, his work is moral, he remains involved with his children and devoted to his wife in ways that suit his talents and meet their needs, and Mom can provide sufficient childcare).
  • Only Mom should work and Dad should be a full-time, stay-at-home parent (so long as she’s able to provide for her family’s financial needs, her work is moral, she remains involved with her children and devoted to her husband in ways that suit her talents and meet their needs, and Dad can provide sufficient childcare).
  • Dad and Mom should both work full-time outside the home (so long as they’re able to provide for their family’s financial needs, remain involved with their children and one another in ways that suit their talents and meet their needs, access good childcare, and maintain a healthy home).
  • Dad and Mom should both work, in some unique blend of full-time, part-time, outside, and at-home employment (you get the idea).

Today’s socioeconomic world is complicated. Frankly, it’s a difficult time for families to choose—or even have the option of—living on a single income. Some of us are well equipped for tight budgets and managing debt. Others thrive on stability and have costly priorities, such as sending children to Catholic schools. Neither of these “types” of families is wrong, and parents can fall into either of these categories without either failing to provide for their children or living in gluttony.

Is your family cared for virtuously, well-loved, and supported both physically and emotionally? If so, you’re doing a bang-up job—whether those 40 hours are spent in your house or out of it.

Thoughts for Dads

To any dads reading this, I’m sorry that you are so left out of this conversation. It may be true that mothers tend to be nurturers and have historically taken on the majority of childcare responsibilities. It may be true that your specific talents are best applied to the workforce. And it may be true that your career fulfills you as well as sustains your family.

But it’s also true that you are a parent as much as your wife is. Your contribution to the family isn’t—and shouldn’t be—simply financial. It isn’t simply biological, either. Your ability to spend quality time with your family and help raise your children well is immensely valuable and your effort in doing so is deeply appreciated. You are your babies’ hero.

If you’re following this debate and wondering whether the criticism and insults thrown at working mothers (“How could you spend such little time with your own flesh and blood?”) apply to you, too, the answer is simple: these insults apply to no hard-working, loving parent. Whether you support your family within or outside of your home, so long as they are your first priority and they know how fundamentally you love them, you are doing it right.

Thoughts for Moms

As women, we are fed so many lies by mainstream culture: that our bodies can’t be managed as designed, that we aren’t good enough, that our needs must come last. The lies we hear about our place in the workforce are exceptionally harsh, because they come from every direction.

We are told that our contributions are insufficient if we aren’t working outside the home: that our children will never see what an enlightened woman should be, that we’re sapping resources, that we’re taking advantage of our husbands’ hard work, that we’re lazy.

We are told that our contributions are insufficient if we are working outside the home: that our children will never see us, that we’re abandoning them to irresponsible and unloving caretakers, that we’re leaving our homes in filth, that we’re belittling our husbands’ masculinity, that we’re selfish.

Both “sides” of this debate can lob hateful bombs at the other. As with so many social disputes, the extreme minorities tend to be the loudest. And their aggression hurts everyone in between.

Those of us who are in between simply respect others’ choices and efforts for their families. We tend to be quiet because we’re working really hard and, not having participated in many of these unkind conversations, we don’t always know that our neighbors need our affirmation.

So I think that’s step one toward a better world for all of us: this silent but loving majority should get loud. Pat your sister on the back for staying home full-time and not losing her mind. Pat your cousin on the back for working elsewhere full-time and not losing her mind. Let the parents you admire know that they’re doing a fine job, no matter what their daily routines look like.

Work to Live

Friends, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” For parents, work is simply the means to the most important end: a healthy, thriving family and home life that nurtures its souls into sainthood. Don’t take your work—or the lack of it, if you’re a stay-at-home parent—too seriously, don’t put it first, and don’t let it torture you.

Don’t let other people torture you about it, either. You are doing good work for your family, and that is what matters. Use those labors to bring more fruit home to them, and don’t worry about the rest.

Welcoming the Scary, Sacred Gift of Siblings

I’m writing this as much for me as for anyone else. (Which—I won’t flatter myself—is probably true of much of my blog. But still.)

There are few changes more difficult than welcoming a new sibling for your child (or children). But there are also few changes more beautiful.

When I was pregnant with my son, I wept often over the thought of losing all the one-on-one time in the world with my firstborn. I ached to think that she might be confused by the amount of time I was suddenly spending with someone else. She was only 18 months old, and while she didn’t often show much jealousy when we were with other kids, I knew it would be different when it was all the time and in our own home.

I was so frightened that she would be hurt by my inability to immediately meet her needs. I have never been a helicopter parent—my daughter was delightfully independent at that age and didn’t need me to fulfill every tiny desire. But, with only her to look after, I was always there to quickly kiss ouchies and play games and read books. What would she feel when a newborn forced me to respond to most of her requests with “Give me a minute” or “I can’t right now, honey” and an exhausted sigh?

Of course, I knew that there would ultimately be more love blossoming in our family. I knew that a sibling would be the greatest gift I could give her. And I already dearly loved the baby boy I carried. But it’s just too hard to set aside the inevitable loss of something you know so well and focus only on the promise of something you can just barely see around the corner.

When her baby brother was born, my daughter excelled in her role as big sister. We had (and still have) incredibly difficult days, and juggling them both was no picnic on any day, but the bright spots far outshined the dark ones. We shared so much joy. It was true that I couldn’t always jump to meet my daughter’s pleas, but I did see her develop a beautiful sense of compassion when it came to the baby’s needs. And while we no longer spent so much uninterrupted time together, the time we spent as a family of four was even more fruitful than I imagined.

Given these lessons, I thought the change would be easier this time. I’m pregnant again, expecting our third child here on earth, and I spent almost the entire first half of this pregnancy afraid for this baby. But we’re 21 weeks along now, with all signs pointing to good health. As I’m feeling this little lady moving throughout every day, the reality of her impending arrival is truly sinking in. And as my fear for her safety begins to wane, my fear for the waves that are on their way to my family is growing.

This time, my kids are well accustomed to knowing that, sometimes, their sibling’s needs are more pressing than their own. They know how to share—toys, time, and treats—and they don’t expect to do exactly what they want to do all of the time.

But, as it turns out, this time I’m afraid and sad for different reasons.

Another baby will mean changing up sleeping arrangements, and I’m heartbroken to think about splitting up my kids into different rooms. They’ve been together for as long as they both remember, and I know it will be hard on them not to be.

Another baby will mean I can’t hold both my kids’ hands when they need me, or when we’re out and about and I need to keep them close.

Another baby will mean a new routine: no more all-at-once morning wake-ups, no more all-at-once evening bedtimes, and no more all-at-once afternoon naps (at least not for a while). My family thrives on routine, and I know the first few months with a new baby—when routines last no longer than a few days or a week before becoming obsolete—are extremely stressful for all of us.

There are birth plans, childcare logistics, feeding demands, sleepless nights, and many other complications to navigate. There are team dynamics to sort out with my husband, patience and sharing battles to negotiate with my children, and self-care routines to rediscover for myself.

As a rule, I’m not good at change. It makes me cry and shiver and stomp my feet. But, despite the challenges that lay ahead, I know that this change will bring great things to my family. Having embarked on a similar change once already, I have the benefit of hard evidence to help me feel more certain of that bright future. Doesn’t mean I’m not scared, though.

So we’ll see how this one goes. I’m sure that, with a lot of prayer and a lot of love, we’ll be okay. Even if we aren’t at every moment along the way.

 

How My Toddlers Break My Spirit (And Then Heal It Again)

Before I became a mom, I knew it would be hard. I knew it would be frustrating. But I had no idea how my own children could—without meaning to, and even though they’re just doing what little kids do—legitimately hurt my feelings.

It’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to feel drained. It’s okay to feel beaten down. We all do, now and then.

What’s not okay is feeling stuck in that mire. Because, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that motherhood is humbling. And that is not a bad thing—difficult as it may be.

So here are the biggest ways my kids wear me down from day to day—and how that pain becomes so fruitful when examined in the big picture.

1: Screaming “No!” over the simplest thing.

It happens without fail: We’re having a perfectly pleasant morning, and then some invisible stone shatters my children’s patience and all hell breaks loose. Whether it’s that I chose her socks for the day instead of predicting she’d want that privilege, or I had the audacity to wipe his nose in the middle of an important game of “vroom,” the chorus of protests begins and is overwhelmingly difficult to stop.

I take deep breaths. I say a prayer (even if it’s only three words—“Help me out!”). I remind myself they have big feelings with little capacity to manage them. Sometimes these things work. Often, they don’t.

But you know what does help? When the simplest thing stops their meltdowns. When I recognize that I’m one of few people who understands them well enough to pinpoint that solution. And when I realize that they fully trust me to fix all the things that go wrong for them. Even if I can’t figure it out every time, the times I can, make up for the rest—if only until the screams begin again.

2: Fighting with each other.

My kids are three-and-a-half and two years old right now, and for so long, they got along perfectly. But a few months before his second birthday, they began testing each other’s tempers. It kills me to watch them hit, fight over toys, and pitch fits when the other comes too close at the wrong time.

I try to interfere only when things are getting out of hand. I think it’s important for them to work out their own dynamic—and excessive chastising only makes the situation more volatile (and encourages taddling next time). So it helps some to let them take ownership of their relationship, inasmuch as toddlers are capable of doing so.

But you know what helps more? How quickly they go right back to joy after an argument. I love watching my son recognize his sister’s sadness over his hoarding of a toy, changing his mind to share in the hopes of making her feel better. It warms my heart to see my daughter apologize and kiss ouchies after she’s taken their playful wrestling too far and her brother starts crying.

3: Refusing the special activity I had lovingly planned for them.

I am not a Pinterest mom. So when I put a lot of effort into a special activity for my kids—cookie decorating, finger painting, planting a garden—only to be met with boredom or outright rebuff, it really brings me down.

I know, I know—toddlers’ preferences are highly unpredictable and their interests change daily. I remind myself of these facts, and try to remember that it isn’t about my ego. But it’s hard not to feel let down.

It is the sweetest thing, though, when my kids light up at the little chores I do for them. My daughter gushes with thanks when I present her with clean laundry and ask for help putting it away. My son lights up when I take his hand and help him down the step into the garage that is just slightly too big for comfort.

Those moments remind me that motherhood is in the little, day-to-day moments much more than the big, Pinterest-inspired ones. It’s the little moments that inspire confidence and encourage growth.

4: Being unkind to others.

Sibling bickering is one thing, but when my kids level an angry look or refuse to share or say something unkind to others, it cuts deep. This is especially true when they do it to other family—like their dad, who does everything he can to support them; or their cousins, who just want to play.

They’re still learning good manners, and how to control selfish impulses. They’re still learning the world can’t revolve around them. They don’t mean anything by it, and every teaching moment is immensely valuable. But still.

What I absolutely love, though, is how they care about other people in their world—even strangers. My son loves waving and saying “hi” and shaking hands with everyone he encounters. My daughter is so observant, whether it’s spotting (and wanting to comfort) a sad child at the park or recognizing another mother’s loving care of her baby. Clearly these kids are growing up with compassion—it just takes practice to make it a habit (and don’t we all know it?).

5: Acting crazy during Mass.

I want so badly for my kids to grow up full of faith, knowing how much God loves them. Faith has helped me through life—to be true to who I was created to be, even when it wasn’t comfortable or convenient to do so. They will need that, too, in today’s world. I believe the most basic way I can help nurture that possibility is to dutifully bring them to Mass every week.

It is a righteous exercise, but it is also a chore. Almost every Sunday, the kids are noisy, distracted, argumentative, and/or hyperactive during Mass. I try to ask them to point out Jesus around the sanctuary, or listen for God, or say their prayers. But for the most part, my husband and I must simply manage them while trying to absorb what we can.

When we get home, though, where the kids are comfortable and not overstimulated, I can see the fruits of this labor: sweet prayers at bedtime, well-recited blessings before meals, and excited recognition of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and others in art and books. That easy joy brings me hope for their bright, engaged futures in the faith. And that makes it all worthwhile.

When Pregnancy is Scary: Motherhood After Miscarriage

I am pregnant with my sixth child. But I’ve only met two of my kids.

Three were lost to back-to-back miscarriages, and while I’ve come to cherish the babies I’ve never held and the lessons they taught me, the pain of those losses has left me scarred. I am desperate to meet the beautiful child I’m carrying now.

For some time after the miscarriages, my husband and I chose to delay conceiving another pregnancy and focus on making sure I was healthy. It was a difficult choice, but it felt like the only choice. We were terrified of another loss. We were paralyzed by the thought of more grief. And I did not trust my own body.

After months of work and close consulting with a specialist, we regained enough confidence to try and grow our family again. My husband was stronger on this front than me—I was still so frightened and so distrustful of myself. Though our first two pregnancies were perfect and healthy, the next two were anything but, and I had no idea what to expect next.

It took longer to conceive this time than it did for any of our other pregnancies, and the waiting was very hard on me. The stress over timing and taking precautions just in case and not knowing for several weeks at a time, followed by the disappointment of failure, did a number on my anxiety and my self-confidence. Overall, our struggle was hardly that—it was only a few months more than we expected. But it gave me great empathy for those couples who face infertility. Those families are now in my prayers daily.

When we did confirm pregnancy this time, the real unease set in. I was hard on myself—strict about how optimistic I should feel, how far ahead I should think, how secure I should be in this new possibility.

I promised myself and my husband that it would be better after 5 weeks, when we lost Gabriel; it wasn’t. I made the same promise about after my hCG levels came back strong. After an initial ultrasound. After 8 weeks, when we lost Karol and Julian. And on and on.

It hasn’t gotten much better, although it has improved some. I still find myself guarded when I talk to this new child or rub my belly or think about plans for our expanding family. I’m currently telling myself I’ll feel better once I start feeling him or her move more consistently, but who knows?

The truth is simple: You can’t trust an anxious mind to find peace in anything. Even the most natural thing in the world. Even something you’ve done well several times before. Even a pregnancy that your doctor tells you seems, by all accounts, perfect.

Anxiety—especially maternal anxiety—isn’t about rational thought or logic or coherence. It’s about the dread of danger for your children. It’s about the fear of pain. It’s about feeling out of control. And it’s disordered.

Pregnancy after miscarriage is never the innocently beautiful experience it was before a loss. I can’t see the big statistics I fit into anymore—only the small, scary ones that might catch hold and drag me down. I can’t rest in this new motherhood. I complain about the nausea and the fatigue and the moodiness, but in some primal part of my soul, I am also deeply grateful to feel these physical reminders that my hormones are doing what they should be.

Instead of trying to hide my quickly growing belly under loose clothes, I take time to look it over in the mornings and hope it’s bigger than yesterday. I cannot stop questioning my body and its strength—cannot avoid a small, squeaky voice of panic every time I head to the bathroom or feel a twinge.

But I want very desperately for this baby to know that I love him or her more than words can say. I plague myself with guilt over my fear of connecting with this tiny, sweet person. I hate that it’s more scary than exciting to buy and start filling out a pregnancy journal this time. I hate that the first gift I’d like to buy for this new child is still sitting in my Amazon cart, waiting for some immeasurable milestone to embolden me enough for its purchase.

So, to this new life in my womb, I’d like to say some important things:

I am so sorry, little one, that my heart is too guarded to open the floodgates and let loose the love and devotion I already feel for you—that I’ve felt since the moment I knew you existed. Please know that the love is there, nonetheless, and behind these walls, I’m bursting with it. I promise to do my best to break down the barriers, brick by brick, so that I can show it to you.

The fear isn’t your fault, baby. It is no reflection on you.

I pray for you every moment of every day. I can’t wait to meet you. Hang in there.

From here, I want to be positive. I want to cherish every moment of time I have with this baby, even though I know none of them can be taken for granted.

So this is my honest confession about how it feels to be pregnant after loss. But this experience is still all about love—even if it’s the scary side of love most days. And I want this baby to know that.

If you’re a mom like me and you’re feeling guilty over feeling frightened, please don’t. I’m here with you. You’ll be okay. God and your baby are with you.