How to Fine-tune a Well-formed Conscience

An angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. We all have light and dark, kind and cruel, good and bad impulses.

As Catholics, we’re no strangers to guilt. We know when the devil on our shoulder has won out over the angel, and we feel off when that happens. Remorseful. Ashamed. Guilty.

Unfortunately, guilt can sometimes go into overdrive.

In 2019, I wrote about scrupulosity. The article continues to be a top performer on this blog, and many of its views come from organic search traffic—from readers seeking resources to ease their consciences.

Guilt gets a bad reputation, especially in a culture where “Do what makes you happy!” is the mantra of the day. And scrupulosity is bad. It is a disordered sense of guilt. But a healthy sense of guilt is a natural part of the human experience. It is a tool for the ongoing work you are doing to improve yourself.

The conscience, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn” (¶ 1777). Your conscience gives you a compass by which you navigate toward Goodness—and it rouses guilt when and only when it is needed to show the way.

We call an upright conscience with a solid understanding of moral truth a “well-formed conscience,” and its formation takes nurturing.

So, how does one obtain a well-formed conscience?

“A Lifelong Task”

Also in the Catechism (paragraphs 1784-1785), you’ll learn:

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness, and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Such a wealth of guidance in those sentences. So many hidden tips and tricks.

Let’s uncover them.

How to Be [Up]Right

Inspired by that passage, here are several spiritual habits that can help you develop a well-formed conscience.

#1: Seek to educate yourself on your faith and the issues of the day.

While we are called to trust in the Church, Catholics are also called to continually seek to understand her teachings. Why do we believe what we believe? On what authority?

Unfortunately, the catechesis we receive before Confirmation is not always perfect. And even if your faith formation was excellent, there is much to learn from 2,000 years of history!

In the context of conscience, it’s also important to stay informed on social and political issues that affect everyone’s lives. This certainly doesn’t mean we all must be activists or news junkies, but it does require putting faith and sound morals first in our public lives.

Where to Start: Get reading! Explore spiritual books, blogs, or even diocesan social accounts to put more of this material in your daily life. You can also find a wealth of information via—your parish may have a subscription that grants you free access.

#2: Read the Bible, on your own and with the Church.

As the Catechism states above, “the Word of God is the light for our path.” There are countless lessons in the Bible. Indeed, it is a primary source for all of Salvation History, and it demands our attention.

Pick up a good Bible and read. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order. It doesn’t have to be on a deadline. But familiarizing yourself with the language will only help inspire you to dig deeper and truly understand what God demands of you. It will also help you discover the good person you are made to be.

Where to Start: Reading scripture in a vacuum can lead to a lot of missed nuances, so in addition to personal reflection, it’s important to seek guidance from experts who can provide clarity and guide your journey. The Bible in a Year podcast from Father Mike Schmitz is an excellent source for this guidance.

#3: Attend the sacraments as frequently as you can, and visit Jesus in Adoration when you need extra guidance.

In greater doses than anywhere else, you will find God’s grace in the sacraments—and, when it comes to forming your conscience, the most crucial of these are Confession and the Eucharist.

As someone who once went many years without stepping foot into a confessional, I know this particular sacrament requires a lot of vulnerability—and it can expose a lot of shame. But I promise its comforts can help you right now. Make an appointment with your priest, or simply go during stated confession times, as soon as you can. The more you attend and the more thoughtful your examinations of conscience, the better formed your conscience will be.

And when you are deeply troubled, run to Jesus. Sit with him in Adoration and soak up his presence. It will help you in your discernment of all things.

Where to Start: Find a place for perpetual Adoration if it’s available near you. This is a beautiful sacrifice for Jesus—like watching over him in the garden. This list of Adoration sites may be helpful.

#4: Learn to recognize—and pursue, and continue developing—the gifts of the Holy Spirit in yourself.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—are the foundation of our ethical lives as Christians. They are the intellectual mechanisms by which we seek to understand God and His will for us.

Take a look at your personal passions and consider how those gifts apply. Do you use your personal gifts (artistic abilities, athletic prowess, interpersonal empathy, teaching skills) in a way that enlightens these spiritual gifts? How can you develop both more thoughtfully? How does the Holy Spirit play a role in your personal vocation and the way you live each day?

Embracing these gifts will help you build a better understanding of right and wrong, as well as your place in the world. When we intentionally seek fulfillment and righteousness in our pursuits, we’re much more likely to hear and abide by our consciences.

Where to Start: Volunteer for your parish or a local Catholic organization. Nothing will help you put your gifts into action, and nurture their growth, more than sharing them with others. Look up Catholic Charities in your diocese to see where help is needed.

When All Else Fails

Many times, we are faced with questions and dilemmas that feel like vast chasms of confusion in a relativistic world. We try to understand what’s right, and the answer seems impossible to find. How does one proceed?

When you’re feeling trapped, confused, unsure, alone, or far away from the resources that can help add clarity to such moments, follow these three rules cited in paragraph 1789 of the Catechism:

  1. The ends do not justify the means. You cannot do or condone an immoral act in order to achieve a good result. Evil begets evil.
  2. Follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. This means kindness, helping others be their best selves, and speaking up for those who have no voice.
  3. “Charity always proceeds by way of respect.” When you must correct someone, or object to their behavior, or reject their requests of you—do it with love.

And again, remember: No man is an island. Seek out a good shepherd—your priest, a spiritual director, a parent, a friend—for help. You are loved and you are not alone.

But Why?: Confronting God When You’re Disappointed

“It’s God’s will,” people often tell us when we’re grieving a loss or enduring a trial.

But why?

First things first: Suffering was never God’s will for us. He made us for joy. For love. For paradise.

Pride got in the way, though. And now, still, there is suffering.

This is a difficult reality. The phrase “crisis of faith” comes to mind, and we are especially vulnerable to such a crisis when we feel God is not hearing us. So let me pause here for reassurance, in case you need it.

God loves you no matter what. He sees your pain. He aches with you. He does not begrudge you for your doubt. He does not resent your anger. He can handle your disappointment. He will never punish you for having questions. He will never shun you for being frightened.

If your child was frightened and felt you weren’t present enough to protect him or her, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you open up your arms to that child and fold them into your embrace without a single speck of resentment or anger? Wouldn’t you want to wrap them up in your love so they might never again doubt it? Wouldn’t your heart shatter into a million pieces, wishing only to take away their fear and pain and carry it yourself?

So it is with God. You are His beloved child. He died for you. He would die for you again and again. Run to Him.

Which brings us to the next question: How?

Prayer is a funny thing. It can sometimes seem one-sided or monotonous. Other times, it is like coming up from the depths for a big breath of air.

You are more likely to find that relief when you are open and frank with the Lord about what’s on your mind. Just as a wound needs debriding and open air to heal, your heart cannot be mended behind a steel wall. Even if that wall is erected in an attempt to be respectful.

Jesus may be King, but he is also a man. A man who was born in a barn. A man who was raised by a humble and quiet family. A man who consorted with average people and insisted upon average treatment. A man who died a criminal’s death, mocked and put to shame.

So he’s ready to hear your questions. God is ready to face your doubt and confusion and even your feelings of betrayal.

It is not sinful to say, “Why, God? Why have You done this to me?” It’s not sinful to feel neglected.

As for anger? Of course, you should never speak to your Father with hate. But anger is not hate. Anger is natural. Anger is a fire that can burn away death and clear a path for new life. Anger, managed appropriately, gives us the energy to seek to understand our circumstances and improve them.

Satan wants you to believe: “Who am I to question God? If I can just be more grateful, more unshakable, then I will see that life is good and I will be happier.”

But in reality, faith is eroded when we believe the lie that perpetually grateful, cheerful people are always happier and more #blessed—because suffering is inevitable no matter how cheerful we manage to be, and our mindset alone can’t change that.

So I say it again: Bring your negativity to God. Don’t suppress it. Don’t “turn it off.” Don’t feel you must hide or reject it. Give it to Him instead and He will take care of it.

How? Try these ideas and see where they take you.

Pray in a way that you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with.

Not used to saying the rosary? Give it a try. Never managed to say a novena, start to finish, without forgetting at least one day? Try again. Can’t remember the last time you got to daily Mass or sat in silence for more than a few minutes during Eucharistic adoration? Get yourself there.

It can be strangely cathartic to mirror your spiritual discomfort in your prayer life when you feel you’ve hit a wall in your faith.

Sometimes the extra work brings us up out of ourselves, giving us something different and positive to focus on and learn (and some new perspective on what it is we’re longing for). This can be reassuring and energizing in its own way.

Other times, the sheer effort of embracing unfamiliarity is enough to break a dam inside of us—to let all the sadness and frustration come tumbling out, such that we don’t even finish the prayer as we started it but instead allow ourselves to be vulnerable and more open to healing.

Devote uninterrupted time to vent your feelings, unfiltered, to God.

Step 1: Find a quiet place and schedule at least 30 uninterrupted minutes of solitude.

Step 2: Meditate on what’s bothering you for a few minutes. Consider the disappointment or anger you’re feeling. Recall a recent trigger. Sit inside those feelings for a short time, rather than pushing them down. Allow yourself the mindset of wondering, “Why, God?” so He can see what you need.

Step 3: Talk to Him. Don’t stop for 10 minutes (or just until you’re done—spent). Speak aloud or in your head; write it down if that’s helpful. But just let it out. Say every single thing you think. Tell Him everything you feel. Be angry. Be sad. But don’t just feel it—tell Him about it. Tell Him why you feel that way. Give a voice to everything that’s churning in your stomach and hurting your heart. You need to articulate what you’re feeling to fully understand it and make it known to Him, and to yourself.

Step 4: Be silent. Apologize if you’ve lashed out and feel obligated to do so. But mostly, be silent. Focus on your breathing, on letting go, on handing this pain off to Him and asking Him to make sense of it for you.

Step 5: Conclude. Mindfully say “Amen,” knowing that the air has been cleared and God knows how you feel. Try to move on with your day, or simply go to bed if you feel in need of rest.

Repeat as needed. Sometimes it helps immensely to do this just once; sometimes you need to do it again and again until you feel cleansed. Sometimes it’s therapeutic; sometimes it’s going to rile you up.

As difficult as this may be, any honesty is progress if you are in the habit of leaving your feelings of doubt or frustration unexplored or, worse, suppressed. Don’t make this your only form of prayer, but do use it as a tool. This exercise is for expressing your feelings and reassuring yourself that God has heard them.

Make note of the thoughts and questions this exposes for you, and take those to other forms of prayer or intellectual exploration.

Seek a meaningful conversation with a trusted priest.

As with any type of counseling, spiritual direction can offer a clarifying component to your faith life—especially when you’re struggling with feelings of doubt, anger, or resentment. Priests are ordained representatives of Christ in our world, so seeking counsel from one is an act of faith that God sees and supports.

A good shepherd tends his flock with joy, and so your priest will be happy to meet with you for a conversation (or direct you to another spiritual counselor, if ongoing discussions are important to you and his calendar is a roadblock).

You can get some “unofficial” spiritual direction by scheduling time for Confession (scheduling an appointment is best, so you have enough time for discussion and don’t feel rushed by a line of fellow faithful behind you). In the confessional, share what’s on your mind with your priest, seek absolution for your sins, and ask for his advice on how to see God’s love in your life. Lean on his faith and devotion to help nourish yours. I think many devout Catholics can say some of their most enriching, energizing, and cleansing moments—painful and intense as they may be—come from the sacrament of Reconciliation and the wisdom of a good confessor.

You might also invite your pastor to dinner, treating him to a homecooked (or takeout!) meal with a request for conversation and enrichment based on some things you’re struggling with in life.

In addition to these one-off interactions, be open to ongoing spiritual direction, too. If you’re struggling to understand how God is at work in your life, or to trust Him, you may well benefit from some guidance and support from a person who respects your faith and wants to help it grow.

Soul Food: How to Seek the Sacred in Every Day

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” We shouldn’t be testing God, begging Him to make Himself known to us. We should put our faith in Him no matter what.

Still, faith is fed by seeing—it’s just that it’s rarely in a literal sense. We must learn to see God everywhere, in the everyday world in which we live. The everyday world He made for us.

Exercises for Finding Holiness All Around You

God did make this world for you specifically. Your free will has carried you through the big and little decisions of life, but God knew where you were headed all along, and He crafted your world accordingly—anticipating your needs in each and every moment. Can you recognize His handiwork?

The divine can often be found even in the mundane, and spotting it is a balm to the soul on a weary day.

So next time you’re craving a chance to see God working in your life, give one of these exercises a try.

Record and reflect on three (possibly tiny) gifts for today.

Throughout the day, write down three of the delights you experience while going about your routine—big or small. Capture anything that made you smile: a child’s antics, a promotion, your pet’s warmth, your favorite song coming on the radio, affirmation from someone you love. Anything.

At the end of the day, look at the list. Ask yourself:

  • Why did these things make you happy?
  • What about your personality or history is reflected by them? How are these gifts wrapped up in bigger blessings (e.g., the people in your life or the place you live)?
  • How easily might you have missed these moments if your day went slightly differently, or if you weren’t paying attention?
  • Might any of them have answered some recent prayers, even in a small way?
  • What, if any, major or difficult decisions in your life led to any of these delights?

God made you uniquely you, and then He showered you with these small joys to feed your spirit—ensuring the world came together in such a way that you would feel His love in those moments. Contemplate these experiences deeply until you can see this patchwork of His tenderness for you.

When you can see how He has blessed even the small moments in life, it’s easier to ponder His bigger plans. Are you feeling aligned with God’s hopes for you? If you’re feeling separated, how can you draw nearer to Him based on the strengths and preferences He has woven into you?

Stand outside—no matter the weather.

“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?” – Saint Augustine

Step out the door and stand in the fresh air. Do not let your mind wander. Instead, spend five or ten full, actual, timed minutes and soak up the scene you are seeing in as much detail as possible. Imagine you’re a painter and will need to recreate the imagery on canvas, from memory. Notice the details:

  • What is the precise color of the sky? Are the clouds foreboding, puffy, wispy—or are there no clouds at all?
  • If it’s precipitating, how does it feel? Is the rain a fine mist, or heavy droplets—as if someone is watering you like a gardener with a hose? Is the snow light and fluffy, or heavy and dense?
  • Do you see signs of life around you? Notice how diverse or distracted any passersby appear to be. Look for birds, rodents, insects—anything moving of its own accord. How many miracles has God breathed life into here?
  • Are there buildings or other manmade structures in sight? How much work and creativity went into designing and erecting them? How much care goes into maintaining them?
  • What is the flora like? Is it looking healthy or withering? How many shades of green or brown can you count?
  • What time of day is it? What’s the season? How is this scene different, in this moment, from any other?

Once you’ve had a chance to soak it in, contemplate the depth of the whole world. How many beautiful, complex things are happening all at once, even when no one is watching? Consider that there are more than 7,000,000,000—seven billion!—other human souls on the earth, and each and every one of them can step outside at this moment, too, and see thousands of things that are unique to each of their experiences. Thousands of unique and beautiful things, times 7 billion perspectives.

God made all of this. He knows all of it, intimately, in every single nanosecond. He is with all of us at once, holding our hands and lighting our paths. Can you feel Him?

Pause to actively admire someone you passively admire.

We all have role models, mentors, friends, and beloved family members. There is someone in your life—perhaps someone you directly know, or perhaps an influencer or even a saint you admire from afar—who you look up to.

God’s greatest masterpiece is reflected in the face of each of His children. The human person is His most beloved creation, and it’s easy to see why if we look on one another with love.

So think of someone who you admire—someone who, in your eyes, embodies God’s love and works hard to live according to His design. Look for Him in that precious soul:

  • How did you come to know this person? In what ways have they spoken to you when you really needed it?
  • What do you know of their history? What adversity have they overcome to become stronger?
  • Why is this person, and the part they play in your life, important? How does God speak to you through this person’s influence?
  • What makes you similar to this person? What makes you different? Do these similarities and differences please you, or do they present opportunities for self-improvement? (Remember: You don’t have to completely mimic this person, because you are uniquely wonderful. Consider what you can learn from them, not how you can become them.)
  • Where can beauty be found in this person—and not just physical beauty, but spiritual? Keep in mind that scars and suffering can be beautiful, too, when they foster growth.
  • What makes this person unique? How did God make them different from anyone else you’ve known?
  • If you were to send this person a gift, what would it be? What would suit them specifically and why? (Then send it, if you can!)

Every single person on this earth has been loved by someone—at a minimum, by God Himself. That means every single person you pass by, or interact with online, or hear about through a friend, or whose name you read in the newspaper—each of them can be the subject of this reflection. And no two reflections will look the same.

Again, multiply that realization times 7,000,000,000. How vast is the creativity and compassion of a God who made each of those people so unique?

But First: Seek the Sacraments

To be clear: The best way to find the sacred is to go to church. Run there—do not walk—as often as you can. Spend as much time as you are able with Jesus in the Lord’s house. We should all strive to be like Padre Pio, who told his brothers: “When you want to find me, come near the Tabernacle.”

Immeasurable peace can be found in the sanctity of the church: in the floral scent of the incense, the soothing rumble of the organ, the beauty and detail of the artwork, the stories told by the icons, the ancient significance of the chants, the wisdom of the pastor, and above all, the nourishment of the Eucharist.

The liturgy is the single most profound setting—the most literal connection to Heaven—that we can immerse ourselves into in this life.

So please, always prioritize the sacraments if you are feeling far from God. He is there, waiting for you.

But when you can’t get to church—when you are limited to wherever you are in this moment—then seek out the sacred in the small. In the simple. In the everyday. You can find Him there, too.

Finding Joy in the Bits and Pieces

I recently took a string of happiness and personality assessments that I found online.

I learned that that I am a contrarian optimist. I like to think of bright futures, and have faith that all will be well. But I also have a tendency toward catastrophic thinking that is … less than sunny.

But the bigger thing I learned is that I feel truly fulfilled and happy with my life, even if the day-to-day feels exhausting and repetitive and a bit limiting. And that contradiction was hard to articulate and understand.

A Little of This and a Little of That

At first, answering all those assessment questions, I felt like I had to call myself out a little bit.

I’m not ending every day jumping for joy. In fact, I find myself counting down to the kids’ bedtime many evenings and resisting the sleep that will usher in the chaotic start of another day. The thought of planning endless meals and doing an eternity of laundry is usually so exhausting that, well, I often just don’t do those things.

So why did I sincerely want to answer every question about my happiness at the top of the scale? Might I have been lying—trying to adhere to romanticized images of family life?

After some self-examination, I didn’t feel I was lying at all.

I am tired. I cry sometimes. I have chronically low energy inputs and chronically high energy outputs. I rarely have time in my day to do something simply for fun, just for me or for my marriage or in my friendships. Every day, I do much the same thing—and have very little flexibility in what needs to be done.

But I am also happy. A sleepy, sometimes reluctant, confused, and frustrated kind of happy—but happy nonetheless. And deeply so.

It’s hard to wrap my head around that. And it’s even harder to explain to others.

For example, when I have a bad day and just feel weepy or worn out, my husband often rushes to help. “What can I do?” he asks. And I’ll ask for some things, but then I’m still tired, and I think he wonders if I’m just unhappy. But that’s not it at all. I’m just worn out, or having a bad day.

It’s difficult to articulate how I am existentially happy but also temporally exhausted. But it’s true. It’s deeply true.

Less Hustle, More Humble

We like to think about happiness being a choice. And indeed, we choose joy to a great extent, as Saint Gianna Molla once said: “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day.”

But joy is not simply the absence of suffering. Happiness is not simply the opposite of sorrow.

Take these bits of wisdom from Fulton Sheen:

“Joy is the happiness of love—love aware of its own inner happiness. Pleasure comes from without, and joy comes from within, and it is, therefore, within reach of everyone in the world.”

“Pleasure is quick and violent, like a flash of lightning. Joy is steady and abiding, like a fixed star.”

We can own our sense of joy, but we do so primarily by letting go of our need for it. Because joy comes from love, and love can only be real when it is selfless—when we let go of our self-interest and invest ourselves, instead, in the wellbeing of another person, in loving the Lord.

This concept is in stark contrast to the often hedonistic world we live in today. “Do what makes you happy” is a common mantra, and we are often encouraged to prioritize our desires above all else in an effort to “achieve” happiness. YOLO, right?

I have often, in moments of restlessness or boredom or overwhelm, felt like I needed to pick up some valuable hobby or skill to make myself happier—or maybe just to buy something or go somewhere to find a little joy in my day. Surely a creative outlet would make me feel more energized? Or a side hustle would bring me more reward and validation in my talents? Or a trip somewhere sunny will leave me feeling rested and blissful?

So sometimes I try it. And lo: It’s never quite clicked. I didn’t have the energy to consistently put into a creative outlet, or a side hustle, or an academic pursuit. Or I bought the thing or went somewhere—and came back, settled in, and promptly felt exactly as exhausted as before. That’s not a great realization.

But I’ve learned that, even though this season of life—the one where I have small children and grown-up responsibilities and a full-time job and the urgent need to consistently take care of myself, too, in ways that don’t drain me even further—is busy and hectic and exhausting and emotionally draining, I am still a fundamentally happy person.

I’m happy with the family I’ve built with my husband. I’m happy with my relationships and my circumstances. I’m happy to be a working mom with a support system to help make that sustainable.

Little moments of pleasure help bring light to dark days, of course. And new things or hobbies or adventures can offer that. But I’ve had to learn to stop looking at those things as sources of happiness. I must instead understand that real, actual joy is a subtle and existential thing—something that comes more mysteriously and more fundamentally from within me, something that no fleeting fun can replicate.

Joy is Embracing the Freedom Born of Obedience

We are all called to follow the will of God for our lives. That doesn’t mean He makes every decision for us; we have free will. But staying on a holy path, to the best of our abilities, teaches us that temporary, situational happiness is much less important than sustained fulfillment in life—even (an especially) when reaching that fulfillment is extraordinarily hard in the moment. And we ultimately become better, more joyful people for that.

We can choose our attitudes and our behaviors. But we can’t choose every challenge we will face in life (or, often, its perfect resolution). Not every moment can be saturated in happiness, no matter how much we will it to be.

What we can do, in moments of pain, is close our eyes, breathe deep, and center our hearts on the energy that powers us: the knowledge that God loves us more profoundly than we’ll ever know, and that this moment in time—although it may feel truly massive for us—is no obstacle to eternity. We can find solace by resting, for even a moment, in that genuine and salvific love, and try our best to return that love.

The rest will follow, good or bad, and we will survive—eternally—if we do our part in loving God and others first.

So find joy in the little moments. Find it when you set aside yourself and get lost in a charitable endeavor or a gift for someone close to you. Find it in a cool breeze on a hot day, or a warm fire on a cold night. Find it in random acts of kindness and, above all, in God’s presence in the sacraments.

But in the bigger picture, know that you will find joy by seeking to understand God’s path for your life—and following it, even when it’s hard.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:36-40

Jesus did not give us his greatest commandment to impose more rules upon us. He wanted to ensure we take good care of our communities and honor his example, yes. But he was also giving us a great gift: the real key to happiness.

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” –John 15:10-12

Ruled by Faith: A Testimony for Structured Religion

I am a deeply disorganized person by nature. As a kid, my bedroom was always chaos. As an adult, my desk looks much the same. So I didn’t think I’d be a very schedule-focused mom before I had children.

Since my first was a baby, though, I have seen time and again how kids thrive with structure. I have become “that mom” who relies heavily upon a consistent bedtime, specific snack and meal times, and “5-minute warnings” for my children.

And it’s not because I love creating and enforcing rules. It’s because I can see how much happier and more relaxed my kids are with a reliable edifice to guide their day and give them some sense of what to expect from others and themselves.

When I hear questions about why the Catholic faith is defined by so many “rules,” this is the best analogy I can offer to defend the Church. So let’s dig into that today.

Faith and Obligation

Do we Catholics have a lot of rules to follow? Absolutely.

Catholics are beholden to weekly Mass obligations (plus a few other obligatory days throughout the year), highly countercultural expectations of sexual morality, obedience to the hierarchy of bishops on many issues, fasting requirements (although these are greatly limited in the modern era), and, of course, pursuit of the sacrament—to name some of the big ones.

When we break these, we are obligated to go to Confession so that we can act on our repentance and know of our forgiveness from God. This isn’t meant to shame us or give the priest in the confessional inappropriate power over our relationship with Jesus—not at all. Instead, by confessing to an ordained representative of Christ, we give voice to our mistakes in a way that acknowledges how they have distanced us from God, and we are given an opportunity to have that slate wiped clean by God. Each time, He forgives without exception. We are left truly guilt free.

Still, the list of rules can seem like a lot. It might even look like a weight tied to our ankles as we seek out every opportunity for happiness.

But I challenge you to look at it another way: The structure of Catholicism isn’t a weight that drags us down, but the buoy that keeps our heads above water in an ocean of uncertainty.

Lost at Sea

I think the one thing everyone on this planet can agree on is that our world is not perfect. And because that’s true—because there is pain in our world—we are forced to navigate an infinite number of difficult choices on a journey toward fulfillment and betterment. But how? How can any of us find our way across broken bridges with torn-up maps?

From a Christian perspective, we believe that man and woman were made in the image of God, designed for a life of paradise in unity with our Lord.

However, we were also made with free will, because our Creator wanted to give us the gift of real, authentic love. And when that free will was tempted by selfishness, paradise became fractured.

The bad news, now, is that we’re left with this imperfect world featuring great sorrow and suffering.

The Good News? Life is still full of hope, because Jesus has saved us and we are destined for a joyful eternity.

To reach that destiny, we rely on the mercy of God to see past our mistakes, heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves by choosing to do wrong, and welcome us into His embrace. And He is ready and willing to do so. He wants to give us these gifts. We were, after all, made for them and the joy that they bring.

Still, we are capable of rejecting those gifts—or losing sight of them. We are swimming at sea, trying to spot them on a seemingly endless horizon. Very quickly, caught up in the current, we lose track of up and down, left and right, north and south. Sometimes we make a bad call on which direction is best. Sometimes we get tossed into an unfortunate position by the pitching of the water. Either way, it is exhausting. In fact, it’s barely survivable.

We are swimming for our lives. But faith keeps us afloat. The faith in our hearts reminds us that there is an end to that horizon and we will find it, in time.

Having faith gives us a life preserver in this stormy sea. The practice of that faith is what makes us strong enough to hold on and ride the waves until the time comes to rest and find our reward.

How Accountability Bears Fruit

Just like my kids, if I’m left to conduct my life without structure—never quite clear on where to go or when to get there, without guidance on responsible behavior, unsure of what habits and patterns will help me grow best—I’m not really set up for success.

Worse, I won’t be able to tap into the full potential of who I was made to be. Instead, I’ll spend so much attention trying to define my boundaries that I’ll risk blowing past the deeper introspection that will help me nurture my best qualities.

Put another way: If I am too concerned with looking outside myself to sift through ambiguities and learn what good conduct out in the world looks like, there will be no energy left for looking inside myself to foster real growth.

On the other hand, with well-defined guideposts giving me clarity on what “good conduct” means, I am free to look deeper into my own soul and my relationship with God. I don’t need to learn the best practices of life, because I have a structure in place to give me those lessons from the start. There is no “reinventing the wheel” on living well. I am well practiced in discipline and self-control. Thus, I’m not only confident in the way I’m living my external life, but I’m reclaiming the time and space I need to cultivate a healthier and more fruitful internal life.

Faith formation and my initiation into the sacraments established this structure for me. Then, when I dug deeper into that structure as a young adult, I was able to see the truth that motivated all of it—and better understand how the “rules” aid me in blocking out the bad things in life in favor of preserving and exploring the very best things.

It’s also reassuring that this structured faith is 2,000 years old—initiated by Christ himself—and has been deeply questioned, tested, and explored by the brightest theological minds of human history. There is great comfort in leaning on tradition; it lends authority to the rules of today. Plus, there is palpable reassurance in knowing that many beautiful souls have led this life before me, and found God on this path. If I can love God and follow their example, I can be holy, too.

All of this being said, the real key to understanding the beauty of accountability is to seek to understand it for yourself. I could go on and on about what it means to me, but it isn’t likely to be enough for you.

The human mind is a creative, independent, logical, and curious thing—and it is never enough to be told what to do “just because.” God made us this way. He gave us deep intellect and an adventurous mindset so that we could take ownership of this life, exploring its nuances and the motivations of our faith, and becoming closer to Him in the process.

So, if you’re feeling restricted or put off by the structure of religion: Rather than turning away from the rules, explore them. Educate yourself on what they are and what motivates them at a theological level, and meditate on what you learn in light of what you’ve experienced for yourself.

If you want to chat about where to start, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help offer recommendations. And I bet your priest would say the same!

The 3 Tenets of Lent: Because “Giving Something Up” Isn’t Enough

Over the last few years, I’ve reformed the way I observe Lent. Previously, I could see that I was using the liturgical season simply to break bad habits or lose weight or accomplish some other self-focused thing, and it wasn’t as spiritually productive as it should’ve been.

So I started a tradition for myself: I planned out weekly observances—small, changing sacrifices that keep me thinking and meditating—paired with special prayer intentions that remind me to offer up my small sufferings throughout the season.

It’s been really fruitful for me. It has been so helpful in bringing me out of myself for Lent, and inspiring me to focus on the greater world and the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice for me.

But, going on three years of this, I wanted to change it up a little for 2021. After all, it’s important to keep your mind guessing—otherwise, routines become so routine as to almost go unnoticed.

With that in mind, I’m holding myself accountable for following through on all three traditional Lenten observances—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—in new ways.

This led to my personal theme for Lent 2021: Lift Up, Give Up, and Take Up.

I’ve created a free, downloadable worksheet you can use to create a plan like mine this year, if it interests you. Please find it here! And feel free to share, too. The file features a filled-out example, as well as a blank sheet for you to complete on your own.

Now, let’s dive into the theme below.

Lift Up

During Lent, the penultimate goal is to meditate on Christ’s sacrifice for us, and to remind ourselves of our urgent need for that sacrifice. It all comes down to this.

Sometimes, we (or at least I) get so caught up in choosing a personal sacrifice that we forget how it’s supposed to mirror the ultimate sacrifice: death on a cross, willingly endured for the salvation of the world.

That’s why the first tenet of Lenten observation is prayer. We are challenged to lift up our attention to the Lord in a special way during this season. How else can we begin to appreciate the profound sorrow of Good Friday or the unequivocal joy of Easter Sunday?

Give Up

This is the one we know well, right? During Lent, we choose a sacrifice that will help make us better people and reflect the selflessness of Christ.

Lent is a time to intentionally give up a guilty pleasure, bad habit, or vice that draws your attention inward instead of inspiring you to reflect God’s love outward.

This second Lenten observation—fasting—helps cleanse the soul and bring our mental focus onto faith. When we fast, we turn away from our physical demands in favor of the demands of the soul. In this way, we nurture unity between body and spirit, because we’re reminding ourselves that we can never be fulfilled in this earthly life. Only the promise of eternal life with God can do that.

Take Up

There’s one more way to focus on selflessness and sacrifice during Lent: almsgiving.

Becoming better people isn’t just about looking inward and looking up to God. It’s also about doing God’s work in the world around us—so we should take up an important cause and go out of our way to support our neighbors during this season.

Prayer and fasting help us practice the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Practicing charity in Lent helps us fulfill the second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Almsgiving isn’t just about donating your treasure or even your time, either. Donating your time in prayer and spiritual kinship with a particular person or prayer intention is a sort of almsgiving, too.

My Lenten Practices for 2021

For each of the six weeks of Lent, I have chosen a specific fast (something to give up) or a specific practice or devotion to observe for each day of that week. I have a specific prayer intention for each week, too, so whenever I find myself thinking about or practicing that week’s observance, I will lift up that intention to God in prayer.

As I mentioned above, having a different practice to observe each week keeps me on my toes—“what can’t I eat this week again?” or “have I done my devotion today?” become common refrains in my train of thought—and thus gives me more opportunities to pray.

And then, during the Triduum, I try to observe the solemnity of that very special season—to make the holiness of it a central fixture in my mind, so I can thank God for all that He has done for me.

Finally, I know that having a couple of things to practice for the entirety of the season can be fruitful, also. It is always a good idea to establish healthy, lasting habits or help one’s neighbors more frequently.

Based on all this, here’s the schedule I’ve planned out for this year:

Periodic Observances

Week 1 (2/17-2/23)

  • Give Up: coffee
  • Intention: the Church Suffering

Week 2 (2/24-3/2)

  • Take Up: daily act of charity
  • Intention: the Church Militant

Week 3 (3/3-3/9)

  • Give Up: condiments
  • Intention: families struggling with infertility

Week 4 (3/10-3/16)

  • Take Up: daily rosary
  • Intention: the unborn

Week 5 (3/17-3/23)

  • Give Up: chocolate
  • Intention: my family

Week 6 (3/24-3/31)

  • Take Up: daily act of charity
  • Intention: the poor and persecuted

Paschal Triduum (4/1-4/3)

  • Give Up: TV
  • Focus: glorifying God

Ongoing Observances

  • Lift Up: At least 10 minutes of my attention every week to stand outside and thank God for the beauty of Creation
  • Give Up: Unproductive complaining aloud (and petty or unkind internal complaining)
  • Take Up: The needs of our local community by making weekly new, material donations to Saint Vincent de Paul or a pro-life ministry

For my daily acts of charity, I’ll be referencing a list of random acts of kindness and try to fulfill one every day.

It looks complicated all written down, but in practice, this is a fruitful and straightforward way to keep focused during Lent and be agile in the mindful practice of my faith.

Now, what are you planning for this year? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’m so inspired by you all! Again, that free planning sheet can be downloaded here if it’s helpful for you!

And finally, please reach out if you have any special intentions that line up with the intentions I have listed above. I would be so honored to include your name, or the names of loved ones, in my prayers during the upcoming Lenten season.

11 Quick Prayers for the Overwhelmed Mom

Parents are busy people—and many, this year, have been busier than ever.

I’m friends with a lot of wonderful moms with small kiddos, and a common refrain for all of us is that the bustle of family life sometimes leaves little time for the deep conversations with God that we so crave in this stressful season of motherhood.

It’s not just the physical effort that keeps us busy (although our hands are literally full most days). It’s the mental load, which occupies our minds so thoroughly that there’s no space left for reflection.

What we sometimes forget is that God doesn’t need a treatise on our faithfulness every day. He doesn’t need long, poetic tributes or formal applications for help. He meets us in the little moments of crisis and joy—the in-between times when we’re looking for the next thing that needs doing. He loves our labors, because every overwhelmed moment is a gift of self to our families and, thereby, to Him.

So I try to say many Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory Bes as I go about my day—to let them be the tunes I whistle as I work. It reminds me that my labors are holy and important, and gives God thanks for the blessings He has given me (even when I’m too tired to really articulate my gratitude).

I hope you give that a try, because it’s been so good for me. And, in those moments you want to express something a little different, keep these brief prayers handy. Remember that you are His beloved child, and He is delighted by every “I love you” and “I trust you” and even every “please” and “thank you.”

For when you find yourself in wonder at the beauty of Creation.

Dear God, please reveal to us your sublime beauty that is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, so that we will never again feel frightened. My divine love, my love, please let us touch your face.

(St. Francis of Assisi)

For when you are lonely.

Remind me, dear friends and intercessors in the Church Triumphant, that there is a place for me beside you at God’s table. All you holy men and women, pray for me.

For when you’ve lost your patience and really, really need it back.

O My God, relying on Thy infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon of my sins, the help of Thy grace, and life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer.

(Act of Hope)

For when you are in pain and want to offer it up for another.

Father, help me to join my suffering to the redemptive suffering of your Son, my Lord, Jesus Christ. By virtue of this self-giving love, bring comfort to [a friend in need] and help us both draw nearer to you.

For when you are among friends, neighbors, or even strangers.

Help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go—let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example—by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you.

(St John Henry Newman)

For when you are full of joy.

God, there is no greater joy than to feel you near me. I thank you abundantly for the abundance of your love!

For when you’re frightened.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

(From the Chaplet of Divine Mercy)

For when you have a difficult decision to make and need guidance.

O Holy Spirit, sweet Guest of my soul, abide in me and grant that I may ever abide in Thee.

For when you are just so very tired.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in Thy love for me.

For when you need some peace and quiet.

My God, close my ears and eyes to the world and open them only to your grace.

For when you need your own mama.

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

(From the rosary)

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Spiritual Clichés

As the saying goes (get it?), every cliché became clichéd for a reason.

We use them to teach, communicate at work, share in solidarity, reference favorite movies. It’s a perfectly fine way to contribute to a conversation in many settings.

The risk, though, is treating clichés as if they have finality. Clichés can help us connect with others or articulate a relatable thought, but they should never be a conclusion—because the only thing a cliché proves is its own popularity. That isn’t the kind of evidence you need in a debate.

When it comes to faith and morality, clichéd thinking is an especially important fallacy to avoid. Discussions on these topics may be heated. Sometimes, a person will want to engage on them because they are in crisis. The issues on the table are critical, and they are complicated. A proper conversation should involve a lot of thought and evidence. But too often, the same oft-cited clichés are treated as if they can stand in as a final word.

They can’t. Clichés may not be untrue, but they aren’t the whole truth, and when you’re talking about something as nuanced as faith or policy, that’s an important distinction.

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

We hear this so much in today’s world. And it’s an important reminder to check our biases and offer forgiveness. None of us can judge the state of another’s soul. None of us can see the interior of another’s heart. It is essential that we know our place in this way.

However, this concept of Christian compassion isn’t an open door to relativism. We can never damn another person, or purport to know how God sees them (except to rest assured that they, as are we all, His beloved children). But this doesn’t mean we must support everything they do or say when we believe those words or actions to be wrong. It’s okay to call out wrongdoing. In fact, it is imperative. And to be shut down with this cliché in response is not to be beaten.

Remember, though, that we are not here to change hearts. Only God can do that. We can (and must) share truth, and live a good example that shows kindness, meekness, and penance—but that’s all we can do.

“Let Go and Let God” (Or Its Cousins, “God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle” and “Everything Happens for a Reason”)

And on speaking of what we cannot do—there’s quite a lot of it. Of course there is. Of course we can’t change the world all on our own, or single-handedly save our country, or even, frankly, guide the precise path of our own lives.

In this way, it’s important to give over our worries and anxieties to God and trust in His care for us. He is our Father, and He will carry us through it all—either on this earth or to salvation—if we let Him.

But we can control our own behavior. We are entirely responsible for the way we live our lives, even if we can’t foresee all of the outcomes of our behavior. So yes, we should be letting God “take control of our lives.” But no, this is not a reason to set aside hard work, or attempt to convince ourselves that deeply important issues are not worth examining and stressing over.

Sometimes we need that stress to remind ourselves of our roles and how we can better help our neighbors, as well as ourselves. And sometimes, if someone is suffering, we need to acknowledge their pain instead of brushing it off as something God will remove from them if only they believe hard enough.

Pain can be cleansing. So can hard work.

“Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and “You Can’t Have it Both Ways”

This is one you might hear often in partisan debates: “If you say you believe in x, you’ve sure failed to show it with real action!” That impulsive response to a difficult statement, or one that appears contradictory, is understandable. It’s so hard to wrap our minds around some of the issues we face in public policy today, and how all of those issues intersect and interact (spoiler alert: neither major American party gets everything right).

But Catholicism is a “both/and” faith. So much of what we believe might appear confusing, but nuances often reveal that there is no contradiction when two things—like rejecting abortion and rejecting birth control—appear to be discordant.

The proper thing to do isn’t to accuse someone of failing to act on their beliefs. Instead, ask how they have, or how you might go about doing the same. Better yet, ask why and how they believe those two things at once.

What to Say Instead

People don’t come away from difficult conversations feeling like they’ve learned something if they’ve heard too many platitudes.

That said, we’re not all incredible orators. It’s hard to come up with the right answer to a tough question when put on the spot.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling back to clichés when I’m just not sure how to articulate more detail. I grasp for something relatable and recognizable, and want to offer that to “prove my point” by way of helping someone understand where my head is at. But that’s not the way to teach someone something. And it can be a dangerous cop-out—because, if I feel like I’ve expressed myself in an “easy” way and the other person “just doesn’t get it,” neither of us is challenged to dig deeper and discover something important.

So, if you want to say something but aren’t quite sure how to say it well—don’t take the easy way out. Instead, be honest: “You know, I’m not precisely sure how to give you the best answer for that right now. Let me look into it a little bit more and get back to you with better insights.” Then, actually do that research and follow up as promised.

That is a difficult thing to do, especially if the conversation is heated or it feels like something huge is at stake. But you know what? That’s humility. Humility is objectively good. It’s also so impactful, because it shows people that you are aware of your own limitations and respectful of their time and attention. It also means you can extend the conversation and treat the subject with the care it deserves—and, if necessary, take a pause so everyone can catch their breath and return to the discussion with more information.

Whether you’re talking politics, faith, or ethics (or all three), remember that you are not responsible for having an astute, complete answer to every question. No one should expect that of you—and neither should you expect it of yourself. Check your pride. Be a good listener and a steady speaker. Above all, be open to learning. That’s how we grow.

Challenge is good. Tough conversations can be stressful, but they can also be incredibly productive—not just in influencing others, but in growing our own intellect. Give them the time and attentiveness they deserve instead of bandaging incomplete thoughts with relatable but empty banalities. St. John Chrysostom, patron of orators, pray for us.

3 Conversations to Have During Pregnancy for Better Postpartum Intimacy

Every pregnancy and every child has taught me something new. As the L&D nurse who taught my childbirth class in 2015 often said, “no two mother-baby couplets are the same.”

But one thing is true of every pregnancy and new baby: I have to lean on my husband a lot, and I’ve had to relearn how to do that, again and again, amidst the transitions of new motherhood.

For all couples, welcoming a child is an intense and emotional time in a marriage—in good ways, mostly, but in stressful ways, too.

It will be difficult to have big, emotional conversations during the sleepless and chaotic months of life with a newborn. But if you can lay the groundwork for better intimacy now, you’ll be more prepared to support each other and will feel more loved once baby arrives—and that will make for a much more blissful transition as a growing family.

Don’t forget to touch on each of these topics before baby arrives. You’ll be so glad you did!

1. What are you family planning needs, and how often should you touch base and discuss whether they’ve changed?

Talk openly with your spouse about whether you anticipate wanting to avoid pregnancy for a period of time after this baby is born. Are you hoping to have children close together, or would you prefer to have a bit more time between pregnancies?

First thing’s first: You can get pregnant while breastfeeding. Delayed return of fertility is not a given, and many women conceive before having their first postpartum period. Please don’t assume it can’t happen to you! And don’t assume you and your spouse are already on the same page about whether you want it to happen. A surprising number of couples believe they’re in agreement about this issue without discussing it, or simply don’t think about it until after the birth—and that can make for a lot of conflict.

I have encountered two types of couples when it comes to family planning postpartum: “whatever happens, happens” and “we are not ready.

Both philosophies are valid. Neither is wrong. I, for one, tend to land in the second group. The newborn stage is hard on me, and it takes a lot of focus to stay afloat.

Of course, any baby would be welcomed with open arms. Every child is a gift and will be received as such! But, so far as we can be, my husband and I are intentional about delaying pregnancy in those early postpartum months.

If you’re more the type to go with the flow and conceive when you will, that’s great! It’s good to be on the same page either way.

Most importantly, no matter what you expect to feel or want before this baby is born, be sure to establish some targets with your spouse about how frequently you should revisit this topic after the birth. Things can and do change—either because your feelings are different than you anticipate, or something health-related happens that introduces new factors—so you’ll want to communicate well on this as your family grows.

If you do hope to delay pregnancy, have a good strategy in place. Charting for natural family planning often looks drastically different postpartum and while breastfeeding, so be prepared for a learning curve and some follow-up courses with your instructor—even if you’ve been using the same method without issue for years.

Bring these questions to this conversation to help you cover everything:

  • Do you need to urgently delay pregnancy for a period of time after this baby is born? Or are you comfortable not charting for fertility? Does this differ from what you were used to pre-pregnancy and, if so, are you feeling prepared for that change?
  • What will you do if something about the birth, or mom’s or baby’s health, forces you to change those plans? How can you support each other if this change in plans is upsetting?
  • What NFP method will you use, if necessary?
  • How confident are you in that method?

2. How will you prepare for sex to look or feel different while you’re still healing and your new family responsibilities are placing extra demand on you?

Parenthood changes a lot of things in a marriage. Certainly these changes are beautiful, and a welcome part of growing together with your spouse. But there are also some growing pains involved.

One common challenge is with physical intimacy. The large majority of couples enjoy a normal sex life after the birth of a child, but there can be an adjustment period. Lingering discomfort from delivery (especially if there were complications), the drastic hormonal changes that come with birth and breastfeeding, a lack of sleep for both parents, new stresses, complexity with NFP, and simply less time in the day can mean sex is less frequent, less easy, or less comfortable for a while postpartum.

To prevent hurt feelings and miscommunication in the moment, it’s important to address these possibilities with your spouse before baby arrives. You might have a tough time talking about it in detail in advance—it’s difficult to imagine what all of these complications might be or feel like, especially if this is your first child—but it could be even harder when sensitivities run high after baby arrives, so it’s good to open the lines of communication early.

Be open about your fears and anxieties on this subject—including not just those involving physical difficulties, but emotional ones, too. In particular, talk about how you might help soften the blow for one another on the occasions you’ll need to turn down sex. Encourage one another to be open to intimacy, even if it’s not top-of-mind, when you’re able, because the opportunity to reconnect and draw closer is more beneficial than you might expect if you’re not immediately in the mood.

You should also be comfortable discussing how you can be more receptive to each other’s needs, help each other enjoy sex, and what you’ll do if any ongoing issues arise and need medical attention.

Bring these questions to this conversation to help you cover everything:

  • How long is too long without intimacy? Are you willing to be generous with each other in this way, while respecting each other’s need for rest and space?
  • What will you do if sex is initially painful once you’re postpartum? How can you emotionally support each other through it?
  • Do you have medical resources lined up to address painful intercourse if necessary? Will you want to pursue them right away, or take more time to heal on your own first?
  • What insecurities or concerns are you feeling about how sex might be different after the birth of a child? How can you help soothe them for each other?
  • How can you ensure you’re communicating openly and often with one another about this subject? Can you agree on some codewords or phrases to help break the ice before discussing it, in case you find it difficult to bring it up in the moment?

3. What types of nonsexual intimacy will help you stay close to one another if sex is not an option?

Whether you need to abstain in support of physical healing or NFP, or simply aren’t up for sex as frequently for a while, it’s absolutely critical not to let the separation get between you and your spouse. Sex isn’t everything, but it is good for an awful lot of things, and that’s not something to be discounted—especially in a time as stressful and exhausting as life with a newborn.

It is especially beneficial to discuss this one well before your due date. As pregnancy progresses, sex may become uncomfortable or self-conscious or tricky. Even if you have no restrictions during pregnancy, your medical provider is likely to instruct you to abstain for the first six weeks postpartum. That may be a longer dry spell than you’re used to as a couple, so being well prepared will help.

The biggest thing here, as cliched as it may sound, is to deeply understand one another’s love languages and how to fulfill them outside of physical intimacy. Practice your skills in other areas: kind words, helpful gestures, exchanging gifts, and spending focused time together. Be open about what helps you feel loved and appreciated, and what you tend not to notice.

If one of you has physical intimacy as a primary love language, but the other doesn’t, talk about that in detail. Does cuddling or other physical touch help during periods of abstinence, or do you find it frustrating? If you’re at odds on those preferences, how can you compromise so neither of you feels rejected in the moment?

This is also a good time to talk about what it means to feel “touched out,” and how the physical neediness of a baby might interfere with your physical closeness as a couple. For Mom, it can be simply exhausting to hold, feed, and rock a baby all day and night. For Dad, the messy diaper changes or looking after older children solo while Mom tends to the new baby could zap a lot of energy. These are normal feelings, and it’s okay to want some additional personal space during this season. But it’s important to be gentle and generous with one another about communicating and fulfilling that need, so no one’s left feeling unwanted.

Bring these questions to this conversation to help you cover everything:

  • How can you connect with one another when you’re feeling distant but can’t be physically intimate?
  • What good habits can you establish to stay close as you adapt to your new roles as a family?
  • How can you express the need for space or time to yourself without being hurtful or feeling guilty?
  • What sorts of physical touch help you feel close when sex is not an option, and what’s too much?
  • Which love languages do you share, which differ between you, and how can you better practice them for each other starting right now?

Life Stages of a Healthy Marriage

My husband and I are celebrating our eighth anniversary this week. Naturally, my mind is full of memories of our wedding, honeymoon, and the almost 16 years we’ve spent together.

Every year, our anniversary is also a time to reflect on how much we’ve grown over the course of our marriage. This marriage is still young, but we’ve experienced a lot in that time.

How do you think healthy marriages age? I see it lining up pretty closely to human years (which makes sense, of course—we’re not dogs!). I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s the metaphor I like best—maybe because it’s so deeply relevant to our life right now, with three kids at three different stages.

It seems apt, though. Consider:

The first year or so is full of awe and rapid growth and sleeplessness, setting the stage for lifelong bonding and changing everything about your life. Just like babies, newborn marriages need a ton of care and attention to mature well. Sometimes that care and attention are difficult and take a lot out of us. Often it’s an absolute delight. But always, we are rewarded tenfold.

Then there are the toddler years, full of youthful energy and excitement about new experiences together. Spouses in this stage need to talk through feelings often and have those feelings validated, as well as learn to listen to one another with respect and restraint. It’s a great time to learn each other’s languages, and start communicating in big ways.

In the preschool years, new settings are both exciting and, at times, overwhelming, and we have great fun and some shaky moments, too. The playful adventuring is how we gain confidence in ourselves and trust in each other after the newness of life together wears off, and the challenges of the real world start to look bigger. There’s still so much reliance on one another for support and guidance, but expectations are higher, too.

The school-age years of marriage are busy and creative, as we learn to look beyond our relationship and see how our family unit plays a broader role in the world around us. Many couples have children at this point, and/or greater commitments to their careers or local communities, and juggling these responsibilities in addition to managing their own emotions and relationship can be tricky at times. It’s much like a school-age child learns to pursue new interests and gain more independence—but still needs a restful home and loving family to recharge with. If a marriage is nurturing, it’s a comfortable place to call home in stressful periods.

I imagine the adolescent years as busy and transformative. These will be the years when we have older children in activities, a bit more freedom to pursue our own interests, and maybe career moves and retirement planning to think about—that sort of transitional phase where so much of our focus is on near-term stress for long-term gain (just like high school, right?). I think it’ll be easy to feel like teenagers who want to be independent and taken seriously, which will make it all the more important to check in and reconnect frequently. We’ll need to harness the intensity of it all for good, and not let it spiral without structure.

And maturity in marriage? Those will be the years when things feel a bit more steady. Certainly plenty of circumstances will come along to rock the boat, and, like any long-married couple, we’ll need to continue practicing all the skills we’ve learned to help us stay sharp. Maybe there will even be a crisis or a curveball that will force (or inspire?) us to change and grow more than we thought we’d need to, so far in. But above all, being ourselves—together—will come a little more naturally, and there will be an even stronger foundation to lean on when the world feels shaky.

Anyway, this is how I imagine it. At eight years, our marriage is firmly school-age. We haven’t encountered the rest yet. But I find myself really anticipating the adventures ahead and looking forward to the growth that remains before us, as well as the comfort.

What I do know is this: None of the beautiful qualities of any of these “life stages” in marriage are a given. Just like people of all ages can lose themselves if they and their loved ones aren’t invested in their health and wellbeing, so, too, can marriages at any stage. I pray every day that my husband and I receive the grace to be selfless, attentive, and patient enough to keep investing in each other.

Marriage is the foundation of society. It’s the most central way we build families, lift up our beloved, help each other get to Heaven, and instill faith and compassion in the next generation. It is a privilege to live this vocation. It is also a lot of work.

Sometimes we take this critical relationship for granted. We see and work with our spouse day after day, and we may find ourselves expecting their help more than their affection. It’s so easy to fall into that trap—to make the beautiful normalcy of marriage into a thing that fades into the background. I pray it may it never be so, for my marriage or for yours. Because our spouses deserve better, and it is our great privilege and duty to give them the very best of ourselves.

There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. After the Holy Eucharist, it has a power beyond anything that we can imagine. – Cardinal Raymond Burke