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.

5 Reasons Stories of Traditional Romance are Still Valuable for Little Girls

I’ve been watching a lot of Disney movies lately.

(Or, more accurately, I’ve been watching the same three or four Disney movies a lot of times in a row lately. #lifewithtoddlers)

And it’s got me thinking.

There’s an admirable trend in recent Disney princess movies that removes a traditional element from the genre: romance. Moana, Frozen, and Brave, for example, set aside the trope of ending in “married and living happily ever after.”

Moana ends up leading her people into adventure. Elsa settles into her position as queen with no need of a king, while Anna has a love interest that is delightful but still somewhat casual when Frozen ends. At the close of Brave, Merida is a princess allowed to live for herself and find love on her own terms—whenever that may be.

Of course, these aren’t the only ladies who’ve discovered their independence and didn’t end their stories with weddings. Mulan and Pocahantas can relate.

I’m not the only one to notice this evolution, of course. And I agree that it’s a good thing to recognize that princesses—or any women—don’t need to be rescued by or married off to wealthy, handsome men to be happy.

But I also dearly hope we don’t veer too far in this direction with the princesses (and generally heroic young women) who will star in future animated features. Because traditional romance is still a valuable thing of beauty that little girls deserve to see and admire in their fictional heroes.

I have no misgivings about unconsented kisses from strangers or the value of disobeying and then abandoning one’s family for a guy (looking at you, Ariel). But romance is inherently good, because it teaches our daughters (and sons!) some very valuable lessons.

#1: Teamwork

In my favorite Disney princess movies, the girl and her Prince Charming work together to get stuff done—whether it’s defeating the Hun or discovering her true identity.

I like that my daughter and son watch these movies knowing that it’s possible to find someone who’s willing to take risks, go on adventures, and fight for what’s right with you—someone who will stay by your side and add their talents to yours for the betterment of everyone.

#2: Chivalry

It’s not dead. Not every Disney prince has treated his princess as well as he should (*ahem* Beast), and some of them needed warming up, but many of them do provide examples of treating women with respect and admiration.

I, for one, still think it’s appropriate and lovely for a man to hold a door open for a woman, or let her take the last seat on the train, or prioritize her safety even when it causes him pain or puts him in danger.

#3: Complementarianism

Men and women are different. We were made to be different—both sexes fully express the beauty of human nature, but do so in different ways. And not just different ways. Complementary ways. In other words, both generally (across the species) and specifically (couple to couple), we balance one another.

I think it’s wonderful for kids to see examples of traditional—and less so—roles for men and women, and how they showcase the wonderful things about the sexes, the beauty in our differences, and the relationships between us.

#4: Fantasy

Kids should dream! They should put their big, beautiful imaginations to good work, drawing up the futures they have ahead of them and all the adventures they might go on in their lives. And it’s good and healthy for part of those dreams to be about finding true love.

Encouraging big dreams, exciting futures, and wholesome relationships is a good way to raise happier kids. It also gives them the ambition and confidence they’ll need to learn the skills and life lessons that will help them maintain and achieve those goals (even after they learn they likely won’t involve magic or “happily ever after”).

#5: Agape

True love is an inherently good thing. We don’t “throw our lives away” by getting married or starting families—even if we choose to do so at a young age (ask me how I know). Women don’t give into the patriarchy or subvert our independence by pursuing a vocation of marriage, and men don’t suppress women by wedding us.

Can the pursuit of true love lead us to bad places? Certainly it can. But that’s why we need to give our children positive examples of healthy, selfless, self-giving love—even those mired in fantasy. Because I’d much rather show my kids “magical,” healthy relationships than the ones they’ll see on teen TV and reality shows in a few short years. Not every Disney movie offers this, but many do, and I’m not about to think less of them for it.

5 Ways to Be More Vulnerable with Your Spouse

Research shows that vulnerability is key to strengthening a marriage, unlocking greater intimacy with your spouse, and feeling more secure in the most important relationship in your life. But it isn’t easy to open yourself up, even with the one you love the most. We all have trouble overcoming pride and exposing every part of ourselves to another person.

Someday, though, your spouse may be the one to bathe you or help you go to the restroom. Learn to see this as a beautiful sacrifice of service—not as an icky chore to be endured—right now. Because that’s the kind of closeness and self-giving that will get you joyfully through life together. You accomplish that by getting comfortable with being vulnerable.

  1. Ask for help.

Staying honest is a huge part of staying vulnerable in marriage. Healthy marriages don’t keep secrets.

It’s not easy to come to your spouse and say: “I’m not handling this well today.” It’s difficult to admit weakness to the person whose opinion and respect you value most. But it’s essential to feeling supported and loved by your spouse.

So, on difficult days, in tough trials, and even just when you’re fighting the worst cold of your life, set aside your pride and tell your spouse that you need some extra help. It’s not that you can’t do it—it’s just that you can’t do it alone. That’s the beauty of marriage: you shouldn’t do it alone.

And by the way, this isn’t just about needing an extra hand on chores or some time to unwind. Ask, too, for what you need emotionally: something they can do to show appreciation for you, or affection, or whatever area in which you need extra care.

  1. Keep trying to make each other laugh.

My husband and I don’t have the same sense of humor, so we don’t always laugh at each other’s jokes.

But laughter is good medicine. It’s a balm for tense conversations and stressful circumstances. So, when I’m feeling good and silly, I think up a joke that might tickle my husband and let it loose. Often, I just get a little chuckle for my effort, but sometimes it’s a big laugh—a big, validating laugh.

Trying to make someone laugh is an inherently vulnerable behavior. It implies trust (that our silliness won’t be mocked or rejected). It seeks approval. It boosts our self-confidence and it delights us to see our partner amused. A husband and wife who work to delight each other, even and especially in this small way, are a more bonded team.

  1. Go to bed at the same time.

It’s almost natural for a man and woman living their very busy, very grown-up lives to fall into habit. They divide tasks; they manage a calendar; they get through each day.

But are they working together? Or are they simply living together?

Complacency is dangerous, in part, because it’s so easy to find yourself in it without knowing how you got there. You might wake up one morning and realize you and your spouse haven’t spoken about anything beyond logistics or the children in weeks. You might realize one Friday evening, while your husband is out with friends and you’re relaxing at home, that you haven’t done something new together in months.

Date nights and deep conversation are important ways to dodge this trap. Another is prioritizing each other in your daily routines. You want to avoid becoming two adults living in the same house on their own schedules. To do that, you build a schedule together—and you are open with one another about what that schedule needs to look like.

Does this mean you can’t have a night or two each week to focus on your own passions and go to bed when you want? Of course not—and that can be a healthy outlet. But if you’re ending most of your days side by side with a kiss goodnight, you’re prioritizing intimacy and vulnerability.

  1. Resist the urge to get defensive in response to honesty.

Sometimes your spouse calls you out. Often, that perspective is helpful. But almost never is it pleasant to hear.

It could be that he’s holding you accountable for a broken promise or an incomplete task. Maybe she’s pointing out a bad habit you’ve discussed before, but fallen back into. There will be plenty of moments like these throughout your marriage.

It’s difficult to face these confrontations because we want to be superheroes for our families. We want to be good at everything we do for them. And yet, deep down, we know we aren’t good at everything—we know we’re far from perfect. It’s hard to face someone else’s acknowledgment of that fact.

So we resort to defense mechanisms: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You’re not understanding me” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” But these things don’t help. They build walls that are hard to break down.

Try very hard to listen instead of lay bricks when your spouse approaches you with a difficult truth. It’s hard to let them open that perceived wound and accept their criticism, but you can’t heal what you refuse to see.

  1. Don’t prioritize “mystery” in your marriage.

Real talk: I don’t like using the toilet or passing gas or inspecting my face for blemishes in front of my husband. Privacy is important to me in these contexts.

That’s not true for everyone, and many comfort levels are okay. What’s not healthy, though, is forcing a sense of “mystery” into your marriage. Are modesty, privacy, and hygiene preferences among your rights, married or not? Absolutely. But these aren’t the same as hiding what’s raw and human about you from your spouse in the interest of “keeping the mystery alive.”

Don’t get me wrong: spontaneity and surprise are important for a happy marriage. You can embrace those by sharing no-reason gifts or conversation prompts, exploring new locations together, and staying curious about one another.

But when you’re suffering or recovering from an illness, experiencing the less-than-glamorous details of childbirth and postpartum recovery, or trying to get a better handle on your health, you deserve to have a partner by your side—someone who loves you, down to every last bit, and isn’t squeamish about it. So don’t hide yourself. Don’t be ashamed.

Introverted Moms: You Can Still Find Your Tribe

One of the most beautiful things about Catholicism is its quiet sanctity. There’s nothing like walking into a near-empty church, filled with the lingering scent of incense and the Holy Spirit, with Christ himself sitting in the tabernacle behind the silent but sturdy altar.

I am an introvert—quiet and solitude are almost synonymous with peace for me, especially in the context of my Catholic experience.

But while these moments are beautiful and deeply meaningful, the Church isn’t about solitude. She’s about community. And if you’re like me—no social butterfly, happy to stay home, easily stressed by new situations—that community can be hard to find.

In college I got my first big taste of Catholic community. I attended the University of Dayton, a Marianist institution where the word “community” is used at least as often as “study.” Having gone to college alone, five hours from home, it was difficult to jump into new friendships—but it was also easy, because I was with the same people most days and had no choice but to forge new relationships.

After college, I started working in a tech company and married my high school sweetheart. Though I enjoyed spending time with my coworkers each day, we didn’t have many common interests when it came to extracurriculars. And anyway, as a newlywed, I was happy to simply return home to my husband in the evenings and build our own little community—our domestic church.

It was a fruitful time for my vocation. Dedicating so much time to my marriage made me a better person—a more selfless daughter of God and a more devoted wife. These years prepared me for the sacrifices of new motherhood.

But you know what they didn’t prepare me for? The solitude of new motherhood.

And here I thought solitude was something I was good at.

Bringing home a new baby was surreal for me. It was beautiful, of course, but in many ways, also quite baffling. I would gaze at my sweet daughter’s sleeping face and think, Thank you, God, for giving me this child!

And then, the very next moment, she would scream and I’d think, Oh God, how could You think I could do this alone?

I’d heard that it takes a village to raise a child. I had no idea where my village was.

Please don’t get me wrong. My husband was especially wonderful during that time. Our closeness kept me anchored to myself in a season that was deeply confusing (Am I still me, or am I “Mom” now?). My family and friends were supportive, too.

What I realized, though, was that I knew no one in the same life stage as me. My girlfriends and sisters either had no children yet, or their children were much older than mine. My husband did so much for me but just couldn’t relate to my confusion about breastfeeding or my impatience with my suddenly unfamiliar body. When he was away at work during the day, I was alone with a baby who needed me desperately but couldn’t convey just what she needed.

So new motherhood was rarely the peaceful solitude I expected. Instead, it was something dimmer: it was lonely.

I knew having a newborn would be exhausting and stressful. But I didn’t know that hacking it alone would be so isolating.

I joined a local breastfeeding support group and investigated whether my parish had a mothers’ group (it didn’t, though I later found a neighboring one that did). Even when I managed to attend events designed to help me find my village, I struggled to build any sense of community.

Many of the mothers there were already close, and I’m not skilled at inserting myself into conversations as the “new kid” in the room.

Most of the other mothers were stay-at-home parents, but I was only on maternity leave—in a few weeks, I had to begin my work-at-home mom life. That meant, though I would be home each day, my daughter would be with a babysitter while I worked a full-time job on a rigid schedule. Any daytime playgroups I was invited to simply weren’t in the cards for me.

And the evening meetups? Well, frankly, those meant swapping precious little time with my husband for time spent with relative strangers (either with a newborn who obviously wouldn’t be doing any “playing,” or with the new-mom stress and physical discomfort of leaving a breastfeeding baby at home).

I just couldn’t make any of it work, and it made me feel like a failure. It made me feel like I just needed to hack it out on my own—that that’s the kind of mom I would always be.

As weeks passed and interpreting my daughter’s needs consumed me slightly less, I spent what time I could on Facebook. That was a safe social connection—a way to feel close to my friends and family, on my own time, even when I wasn’t physically with them.

But when you’re checking your phone every fifteen minutes and most of your friends are adults with day jobs, your timeline quickly runs out of new things to show you.

I went exploring and discovered groups—most notably one that was dedicated to support around the Creighton method of natural family planning (which, thanks to postpartum changes and my difficult adjustment to motherhood, had suddenly become a high-stress part of my life).

The sheer number of like-minded, thoughtful people who were there to answer questions about NFP and other struggles related to Catholic life was staggering and so deeply helpful. Eventually, I found a larger Catholic group that focused on even broader topics.

I had a place—a safe, not too in-my-face, unscheduled place—to ask questions about my growing family and even my faith. It was rejuvenating, and it made me feel more confident as a new mother.

Eventually, I joined a group for young, Catholic mothers that has since taken up a firm, cozy place in my heart. I consider the other members my friends. They are my tribe now—my village. They’ve been there to answer all my questions, laugh at my jokes, pray for me, and support me both emotionally and physically in the darkest of times. I am so thankful for them. I hope I’ve done a decent job giving these same gifts right back.

Their friendship has also made me more confident in finding friends “in real life.” Having a readily available and supportive social outlet makes me feel stronger and more worthy of new friends when I attend local events for Catholic moms, or see a family I’d like to get to know better at Mass on Sundays. Slowly, I’m building a network of local friends, too, who can add to my village in more tangible ways.

I’m here to tell you that you can be introverted and be a member of the greater Catholic community. I’m here to tell you that you are worthy of faith-centered friendships in whatever context you seek them—whether that’s in online forums of like-minded women, or in-person groups where you might be the only fresh face.

Take baby steps if you need to. Send a text to an acquaintance just to say hello. Compliment a woman you’ve admired from afar (we all see those familiar, happy faces Sunday after Sunday) as you’re leaving your parish this weekend; next week, smile at her as you see her family arrive at Mass; the week after, introduce yourself.

Search for Facebook groups that line up with your vocation. Once you join them, let loose your questions and, even more importantly, provide loving answers to others’ questions. Comment on Instagram posts by people who embody the kind of woman you’d like to be. These platforms can be abused, but they can also be used to give glory to God and to build the Church in today’s always-connected world.

When you feel ready, find out when your parish (or another one nearby) has their next mothers’ or young women’s gathering. Ask for whatever help you need to make attending a reality. Bring cookies or another goodie to share, introduce yourself with confidence, and be an attentive and thoughtful listener when others speak. Exchange phone numbers and make plans right then and there.

If these things are hard for you, I understand. I am right there with you. Turn to Christ and ask for his help in forging the relationships that will make your burden lighter and your journey straight. He won’t lead you astray.

What I Learned When I (Sorta) Stopped Complaining

I gave up complaining for Lent this year, and it was not without some reluctance.

This idea was on my heart for weeks before I formally declared my intention to follow it. I hesitated.

“God, isn’t there anything else I can do to better appreciate You during this season?”

After a lot of prayer and reflection I got a resounding “Nope,” and that was that.

Why did I hesitate? Not because it was going to be a hard habit to break. Not because I enjoyed being a brat. Not even because I was afraid to let God down.

Honestly, I knew I inevitably would let Him down. We all do—and not just during Lent. But by His great love, He forgives us every time.

No; I was afraid because I struggle with trust. I had a creeping feeling that shutting the door to complaint would invite God to challenge me in all sorts of ways. I knew the experience would test me—after all, Christ himself was tempted by actual Satan in the desert for 40 days. If that huge test could be fruitful for him, how could it not be for me?

After all, it’s pretty safe to say I need more practice at virtue and faith than he ever did.

Turned out that creeping fear was correct. During Lent, I faced challenges in almost every area: my home life, my motherhood, my job, my physical health, and my self-esteem. My patience (of which I  have precious little, I admit) was tried again and again.

And, again and again, I let the exasperated sigh slip past my lips and the nasty spiral of self-pity swirl about my mind (even if, to my credit, I didn’t voice it nearly as often as before). I tried to catch myself whenever this happened and replace my complaints with prayers.

It was a frustrating cycle, but it was incredibly eye-opening. I learned to better differentiate negative things and negative thinking. I learned that one doesn’t necessitate the other.

Negative things happen outside of my control. They can be trying, exhausting, or unfair—but they are outside of me.

Negative thinking, on the other hand, is completely within my control. It poisons my mood and my perceptions in ways that are more trying and exhausting than the external event ever was. Worse, its tight grip is difficult to loosen if I let it get away from me.

Awful things happen. They just do. Something I’ve discovered about myself recently is a deep-seated, unhelpful myth of control that ultimately makes me weak in the face of adversity. I stubbornly want to believe that I can foresee and control the things that happen in my life; I want to believe that, despite all indications to the contrary, I can keep my life under control by some impossible exertion of will.

As a result, I have a hard time facing trial without really just diving deep into that trial. I hold onto my faith at my core, but my perspective narrows into despair. I struggle to see the good on the horizon—to see the good that’s right beside me even during such trials.

Complaining is voicing that despair. It’s an attempt to offload some of that despair onto whomever might be near enough to take it from me, in the hopes it will ease the pain.

But it never does. Despair doesn’t divide; it multiplies. Sharing it with someone else doesn’t make my struggle any smaller—it just makes our mutual struggle even bigger.

When it comes to day-to-day habits, it’s hard to be less productive—and less Christian—than that, right?

So 40 days without complaining (let’s be honest: with minimal or at least more mindful complaining) taught me that giving in to my own despair is hurtful not just to me, but to those around me.

That being said, negative events still suck. And sometimes we need help to get through them.

I struggled, early on, to understand how I was supposed to ask for help if I wasn’t allowed to complain. That sounds ridiculous now.

Now I see that there’s a glaring difference between complaining and seeking support. One is selfish; the other is an important way to participate in community and humanity, especially in the context of our own families.

God Himself said: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Even when things were perfect in Eden, we were not meant to live this life on our own.

Now, long after the Fall, how much more must we need the companionship and support of our neighbors, friends, and family?

So I’ve learned to ask for help, honestly and lovingly, instead of complaining about my circumstances and hoping someone overhears and steps in to lend a hand.

And I’ve learned that that’s how things improve—that’s how I feel better on a tough day. Not by venting my frustrations or offloading my despair, but by approaching people I love with an honest expression of my struggles and asking for a shoulder to lean on. They always provide it. And I always feel lighter when I stand upright again.

Have you tried to set aside negative thinking and complain less? Find me on on Facebook and tell me how it’s going. I’d love to hear about your experience!

Why I’ll Teach My Daughter Real Fertility Lessons (Which She Won’t Get in School)

We all remember sex ed, at least in bits and pieces.

The giggly trip to the health center as elementary schoolers, separated by gender and learning about “our changing bodies.”

The awkward days in middle school health classes, when we cringed at the thought of walking around with cotton sticks up there and didn’t know how to ask the questions that were really on our minds.

The stiff conversations in high school health, where at least one class clown made crude jokes and cackled immaturely when the middle-aged (or, even worse, young adult) teacher first said sexual intercourse.

And do you know what I—and so many of my peers—took away from those classes?

That’s mostly it, actually.

The awkward memories and sort of icky feeling of it all. Some vague understanding of sex, of contraception, of “being safe.” The difference between boys and girls. A deep-seated fear of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. A certain sense of taboo curiosity about it all: What does that feel like? Who’s doing what? Why can’t we just be adults already? Why can’t we just go back to being kids?

I learned that boys were “slower to mature” than girls, and that girls could take the Pill to treat acne and painful periods (even if they “didn’t need it” for contraception). I learned that “miscarriage is when a woman thinks she’s pregnant, but then she isn’t anymore.” (Yes. Seriously.) I learned that boys were driven by their hormones and girls should take good care of themselves.

What a load of junk.

Because you know what I didn’t learn?

How my body actually works, independent of how it may be of use (or at risk) in sexual intercourse.

I did not learn about the patterns in which several different hormones rise and fall during my cycle, ensuring my health and ability to carry a pregnancy. I did not learn how cycles are naturally irregular early on, but tend to normalize over time—and, if they don’t, doctors can help achieve proper function instead of just slapping on the bandage of hormonal birth control. I did not learn that hormonal birth control often causes depression. I did not learn that taking birth control could have lasting effects later in life, or that menstrual problems likely won’t be “fixed” when I stop taking it. I did not learn that there are many ways to understand my own fertile patterns instead of assuming I’m fertile all the time, always.

And I certainly did not learn that all of this is worth knowing well before you decide to have a baby, and regardless of whether you’re sexually active. Because you’re entitled to understand how your own body functions, even if no one else is using it at the moment.

In short, sex ed taught me that my fertility was a burden to be managed with birth control and feminine hygiene products, until the time came that I chose to become pregnant—at which point, everything will likely function normally and conceiving will be easy as pie.

But that’s just not how it works. Fertility isn’t always “typical” when we decide to take advantage of it. And conceiving is not easy. In fact, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting or staying pregnant—and 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage.

So many women end up in an awful position as adults. When they’re finally encouraged to become familiar with their fertility for the very first time, the stakes are as high as they’ll ever be. Their dreams are spreading out—or being cut short—in front of them. Their family is on the line. Their marriage is being tested. Their unborn child’s life is at stake.

I don’t accept that path for my daughter.

It is nuts just how many circumstances must perfectly align to achieve ovulation, let alone conception. The interplay of hormones, physical function, emotion, and general health is staggering. We should not feel obligated to interrupt a perfectly healthy process so that we can minimize inconvenience, for ourselves and especially not for others. If that process isn’t functioning perfectly on its own, we should feel entitled to medical care that will find a root cause and fix it.

If my heart wasn’t working well, I would find a doctor and he would want to help me fix it to restore good health. If my ovaries aren’t working well, I should be able to find a doctor who would want to help me fix them to restore good health—not just turn them off because “I’m not using them right now anyway.”

Fertility, perfect or otherwise, is not something to be squashed like a nagging bug.

So when my daughter hears about the birds and the bees, she won’t just hear about what’s convenient or inconvenient about her changing body. She won’t be told only how her fertility needs a man’s fertility to make a baby.

She’ll learn how her body performs a quiet ballet each cycle, and how that function affects other aspects of her physical and emotional wellbeing. She’ll learn to observe how it’s all working, and what understanding she can take away from her unique patterns each month. She’ll see how my fertility has changed over time, so she can be prepared for how hers will, too, and ask me whatever questions she may have.

And yes, she’ll learn that sexual intercourse makes babies and, if pursued improperly, can put us at high physical and emotional risk. But she’ll also learn how intimacy means loving a whole person—not just the pieces that are convenient at the moment—and why she deserves so much more than what’s being pushed in her face by a broken and lonely world.

What do you think about this? Join the conversation on Facebook and let me know!

How to Stop Complaining and Start Being More Honest

I was accused of being a complainer as a teenager. To be fair, I think many teenagers are—but I heard it often enough to become self-conscious about it.

As an adult, I figured I was better. But then I started paying more attention.

Every “ugh” muttered under my breath, each text of anger or anguish sent to my husband during a hectic spell at work, and all the “vents” shared with my mommy friends on tough days with the kids—they added up.

I don’t think of myself as someone with entitlement issues or a pessimistic attitude or a lazy disposition. But that’s the person I sound like when much of my self-expression comes out as a complaint.

So, for Lent this year, I promised God and myself that I’d give up complaining. Here are the tricks I picked up to help me catch myself before I complained—and turn those thoughts into something productive instead.

#1: Just breathe for goodness’ sake.

I forget to do this in difficult moments. I rush from one thought to another without pausing in between, jumping to conclusions and recalling missed expectations and wishing for different outcomes. It’s not helpful and it’s a ticket straight to Self-Pity City.

So, when I can feel my thoughts start to spiral, I try to pause for a second and focus on breathing instead. It’s impossible to empty my mind completely (at least for me), but it can help to pace my breathing and give my higher intellectual functioning a break. Then, I can make a conscious decision on how to step forward—so it’s easier to move in a positive direction.

#2: Before you voice your thoughts, bleach them of entitlement.

I realized during this exercise that so many of my complaints come from a place of entitlement:

  • “Why won’t these kids sleep when they’re supposed to? I need a break!”
  • “I can’t believe this appointment is running so late—I don’t have time for this.”
  • “Couldn’t he/she have just done that one thing right? It shouldn’t be on me to fix it.”

Sound familiar? I have never sensed this about myself so acutely before, but it’s huge. Huge. And I hate hearing it come out of my mouth.

So, when I’m frustrated over a situation that isn’t going the way I’d like, I’ve learned to examine the source of that frustration. Is it because I feel I deserve something better? Or maybe an unspoken expectation I had for someone else was not met?

Too bad, bub. If I want to feel any better or improve the odds at a better outcome next time, I need to get rid of that sense of entitlement and make an effort instead of demanding more effort from others. (Especially from toddlers.)

#3: Request help instead of demanding it (and that goes for passive aggressive demands, especially).

Speaking of demanding, I also learned that I used complaining as a crutch. Although negative feelings are natural and allowed, I saw that I would give voice to them—subconsciously—in such a way that some small, ugly part of me thought might procure sympathy and, thereby, help.

This is passive aggression at its finest. I’m not here for it anymore. It’s petty and it’s icky.

Instead, if I find myself in a difficult position and I need help to get out of it, I ask for it. So this:

“This day has been an absolute nightmare. Everything went wrong and all of my energy is gone. I need to go cry with a glass of wine for a while.”

Turns into this:

“I’m having a tough day and have a lot going on. Could you take this task for me so I can recharge a little before I need to get started on the next thing?”

Who knew I could sound so human when I feel like a complete zombie?

#4: Make it a habit to be positive first.

The best offense is a good defense. I try to block complaints completely by making a habit of thinking positively and praying without ceasing during times of trial.

Frustrating encounter with a stranger? As soon as things get tense, I utter a quick prayer for them (even something as simple as “God, send Your love” helps). Who knows what they’re going through?

Endless tantrum from the toddler? When I feel my temper coming up short, I ask Mary to remind me of her shining example. She’s a tough act to follow, but God’s grace can help me close a tiny bit of the gap.

Car trouble in the middle of a busy day? I thank God for getting me where I am safely, and ask for a little help taking the next step to hold onto that safety.

It doesn’t always work, but I’m learning to make this kind of positive, prayerful conversation my first reaction to stress (instead of the typical anxiety/disappointment/fury).

#5: Don’t complain about your complaining.

This one seems obvious, but it isn’t. Scrupulosity is real, and it can destroy your confidence while subverting the love of God. It’s easy to get sucked into feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy when you’re failing at trying to improve yourself.

The thing to remember? You’re not failing. You’re actively walking on a path of progress. Even if you stumble, you’re still moving forward.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to complain about ourselves. Interiorly, there is no one to defend us from our own attacks—making self-criticism a resistance-free outlet for negative emotions. Expressed aloud, self-deprecation can be funny and others may miss what we’re inflicting on ourselves.

I learned that, when I stopped giving myself permission to complain about my own shortcomings in this oh-so-easy way, I started complaining about things outside of me much less. I changed the shade of my mind to something more pleasant and forgiving, and that was easier than expected to share with others, too.

Think this is something you’d like to try? Hit me up on Facebook for questions, prayer requests, or support. I’m here for you, friend!

7 Reads Every Catholic Mom Needs on Her Bookshelf

I love learning about the rich traditions, history, and teachings of the Church. But let’s be real: it’s difficult to find formal educational opportunities when your schedule is mandated by two rambunctious toddlers and a full-time job. (And even when I have the hours available in a day, my inner introvert rarely has the energy for more than an occasional retreat.)

Still, I don’t want that learning to go undone “until I have more free time.” So, a few years ago, I decided to devote part of the time I spend on my favorite self-care activity—reading—to my faith.

Committing to more spiritual reading has been incredibly fruitful for me. Along the way, each of these titles has had a profound effect on me as a Catholic woman and mother.

#1: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

The constant sleeplessness of the newborn phase or the piercing, repeat tantrums of a toddler—worse, the pain of seeing your child in pain—can sometimes dim the light of hope in your day-to-day.

When you haven’t had time to invest in devotions or prayer, that burden can sometimes make Christ and his sacrifice for you feel like a distant dream.

These are the moments I turn to Revelations of Divine Love. Julian of Norwich’s God-given insights into the profound love Christ has for each one of us are uplifting and life-changing. Julian’s humble, joyful words make me feel closer to Christ and more attuned to the many ways he is present and loving me each and every day.

#2: The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order by Scott Hahn

Marriage is the foundation of the family—a little community so important we call it the “domestic church.” But the significance of marriage doesn’t end there.

In this book, Scott Hahn uses his well-learned yet down-to-earth style to illustrate the many ways in which marriage has been an underpinning of civilization as we know it. I particularly enjoyed the way he describes how the sacrament’s graces enable us to live well not just within our families, but among our neighbors.

In the busy routines of life, it can be dreadfully easy for a husband and wife to forget to invest in one another. This book reminded me just how important that investment is.

#3: A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

On stressful days filled with noise, I sometimes long for the quiet of single life. Plagued by guilt in those moments, I don’t doubt my vocation—but I do doubt whether I’m fulfilling it as well as I’d hoped.

Flannery O’Connor is an icon in literature, and for good reason. Her writing broke norms and pushed readers to contemplate important subjects that were rather controversial in her time.

She was also a devout Catholic and deeply spiritual woman. Reading her prayer journal gave me insight into how she lived her faith in the context of her vocation—and how even the most admirable, successful women are plagued by moments of self-doubt and “what if” thinking.

#4: One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both by Jennifer Fulwiler

A well-known personality in Catholic media, Jennifer Fulwiler is funny, insightful, and relatable.

Adding to her very honest online presence, Jennifer shares, in One Beautiful Dream, the story of how she grew into her writing and speaking career not in spite of her vocation as a wife and mother, but in cooperation with it. Like all of us, she faced disappointments, but by engaging with her passions and serving (and being served by) her family, she found harmony for the many “categories” of her life.

Jennifer’s story taught me that the seemingly incompatible interests of person (myself) and place (my role in the family I’ve built) don’t have to conflict at all. When we stop pitting them against each other, we learn to see how complementary they can be.

#5: Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar

I’ve spoken on this one before (specifically here and here), but I can’t emphasize enough how lovely this little book is for any Christian—especially mothers.

Covering scripture, theology, and tradition, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes about what Christ meant when he urged us to “become like children” (Matthew 18:3). His insights are powerful reflections on the beauty of childhood, the gifts and wholesomeness of divine grace, and the nature of faith.

The lessons I’ve learned from this book have given me an even greater appreciation for the devotion and innocence of my children, and inspire me to emulate them in my conversations with the Father.

#6: Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love by Edward Sri

Also appearing in a previous post, this book by Edward Sri is a primer for Catholics who find themselves needing to defend their beliefs, their lifestyle choices, and their stance on the issues of the day.

So, basically all of us.

Edward Sri is an inspired mind of our time, and his insights on why the most prevalent nomenclature in today’s typical debate—for example: “That’s not the choice I’d make, but why would I limit someone else’s choices?”—are eye-opening. If you’ve ever felt backed into a corner by someone who insisted your moral framework just can’t be universal, this is the book for you.

#7: The Assembler of Parts by Raoul Wientzen

Full disclosure: this book is a doozy and should come with trigger warnings on loss and childhood illness.

That said, The Assembler of Parts made me cry incredibly cleansing tears. Though some of its philosophical nuances must be taken with a grain of salt (it is, after all, the only novel on this list), the story is profound and moving in ways that are important for humans in general, and mothers in particular.

The overarching themes I pulled from this novel echo the cardinal virtues that are so critical for every vocation: faith, hope, and love. Add in a good dose of trust in the divine will of God and steadfastness in the face of adversity (two qualities I have an especially tough time emulating), and it’s difficult to tug at my heart strings any harder.

 

Have you read any of these titles? If so, what did you think? And please let me know what must-reads that I’ve missed, either in the comments or on Facebook!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 2)

Prayer is a skill with which we are all born, because each of us is naturally inclined to seek God. But, as with all things, practicing will help us engage in prayer more effectively—and help us better see the fruits of our prayer in our daily lives.

Think of developing your prayer life like learning a language—not a secondary language, but your very first one.

A child spends the first few years of her life absorbing the spoken word of those around her. She takes this in like a sponge, learning the sounds of the words, what they mean, and what changes they affect when uttered aloud. Then, as she gains confidence and the physical ability to do so, she begins testing the words out herself.

At first, only her parents may understand her unique combination of slurred syllables and physical gesturing. But, as time goes on, her language becomes clearer to others—she joins in the conversations of her community.

Prayer is much the same.

At first, we must immerse ourselves in the language: attend Mass, read the Scriptures, study the saints. We listen closely to what prayers and insights are uttered there, and watch for the effects and insights they have not just on us, but on the world around us.

Participating in the sacraments and this type of spiritual study is a prayer in itself. But as we learn more and feel our passion inflamed by these encounters, we begin to utter our own prayers. They may be messy, highly specific, disorganized—they may sound like “gibberish” to another student. But God understands them easily.

Finally, by engaging deeply and keeping our lines of communication with God always open, we can fully participate in the community of the Church. We can recite the prayers during Mass and truly mean them, because we’ve come to better understand their weight. We can receive the Eucharist and be more closely joined in fellowship with our neighbors, because we better grasp what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Righteous Prayer

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all prayer should have five qualities: it must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. (Check out a brief look at deeper insights from St. Thomas here.)

In short, this means our prayers must:

  • Be said with sureness that God will deliver us, that Christ will advocate for us, and that the Holy Spirit will bring us grace. We know that God hears us, even if we don’t understand or even recognize the ways in which He answers our prayers.
  • Include only petitions that are good for us. When we ask God for something, we should genuinely believe that this thing will help us to grow physically, emotionally, or spiritually, in a way that will ultimately make us more holy sons and daughters of God.
  • Express moral and upright desires. In prayer, as in life, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice” (Matthew 6:33).
  • Display genuine, heartfelt piety. As devoted members of the Church, our prayers to God must acknowledge His glory and arise from our love for Him above all else.
  • Acknowledge our weakness and our need for God’s mercy. We are imperfect people, and when we pray, we should understand our lowliness and thank God for His desire to be united to us in spite of it.

Insights from the Catechism

So: confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. Great, but what do we say (or not say)?

Let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can read some of what is has to say about prayer online here (and use the arrows at the bottom of the page to thumb through the broader section on prayer, if you’re interested—it’s great reading), but the short of it is that there are five main forms of prayer for the faithful:

  1. Blessings and Adoration. Blessings are “an encounter between God and man.” It is time spent in the presence of God, in which His grace descends upon us and our acknowledgement and reception of that gift ascend to him. Adoration, meanwhile, is our recognition that we are a creation of God—our exalting of His greatness and expression of our love for Him.
  2. Prayer of petition. These are any prayers in which we ask God directly for something—whether that’s meeting a physical need we have, seeking His forgiveness, or praying for His kingdom on earth and our cooperation in its coming.
  3. Prayer of intercession. This is how we participate in the communion of saints. Prayers for intercession are made on behalf of others, including not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, enemies, and those who reject the Faith.
  4. Prayer of thanksgiving. Not limited to thanking God for good fortune, prayers of thanksgiving help us show gratitude for all of the ways God works in our life. According to the catechism, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.”
  5. Prayer of praise. Finally, a genuine prayer of praise “lauds God for His own sake and gives Him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” In these prayers, we express our wonder at the marvels of Christ, the power of God, and the actions of the Holy Spirit.

The Wrong Way to Pray

Though we all pray differently, using our unique voices, it’s important to know one thing: there is a wrong way to pray.

The catechism states that “humility is the foundation of prayer.” It goes on: “Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC ¶ 2559).

This is what I meant when I said in a previous post that prayer is a mystery. But while we may not know the perfect way to pray, we can certainly recognize the wrong way to pray: selfishly.

Prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa and asking for our favorite things. We know this because Jesus himself taught us the ideal form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Here we acknowledge the personhood of God, our relationship with Him, and His holiness.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Next, we submit ourselves and our world to God’s will for us, because we know it is what’s right.

Give us this day our daily bread.

We ask for the necessities of life—the things that will make us healthier people, which will help us do His will.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Then, we ask for His mercy—it is what saves us. We also vow to have mercy on others, as an expression of our love for His children and our desire to follow Christ’s commandment.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Finally, we seek His grace to follow a righteous path in life, to fulfill our vocation without backsliding into sin, and to keep us safe on this journey.

These are very high-level analyses, but the different components of the Our Father reveal profound insights on what prayer should be.

Above all, prayer cannot be selfish. To seek only our own gain in prayer is to not pray at all.

How do you keep your prayers focused on God and His glory? What tricks do you have for developing your prayer life and praying without ceasing? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’d love to learn from you!