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Why Motherhood Is Scary (And That Doesn’t Go Away)

You know that feeling you get in an interview—or awkward icebreaker activity at work, at school, or elsewhere—when someone asks you to “Tell me a little about yourself”? That sense of standing at the mouth of the Grand Canyon and being asked to pick out a single rock that best exemplifies it?

I hate that feeling.

When people ask me to tell them about myself, I find it gobs easier to talk about the people, things, and pursuits I love, rather than many distinct personality traits of my own. It’s hard for me to explain “who I am” in isolation.

I don’t like to talk about myself. But I do like to talk about the things I like or dislike, and I think they say a lot about me.

That’s natural, because as God’s children, we are defined by love. It makes us who we are.

Unfortunately, we are also very deeply motivated by fear. We don’t generally talk about the things that scare us upon introducing ourselves. But our deepest fears do have an insidious way of affecting our choices and coloring our thoughts. That’s a reality we must all learn to acknowledge, no matter our vocation.

Resisting Change and Grasping for Control

If I had to pick one word to describe what it’s like to become a mother, I’d say change. And for someone like me—an introverted homebody who’s prone to worry and sentimentality—an experience dominated by change is also defined by an undercurrent of fear.

I hate change. It unsettles me. It makes it difficult to be myself. This is something I struggle with very deeply, because I know change can be good. But I like things to be smooth and low-key, and I stress easily when they aren’t.

I’ve never thought of myself as a control freak, but over the last year I’ve realized that this aversion to change is tied to a quiet desire to be in control of things.

I don’t know which came first—do I hate change because I need control or do I need control because I hate change?—but I do know that both of these qualities are vices for me. The truth is that we are in control of very little in this world. To think otherwise is hubris. To fear it is pointless.

The Unsettled Feeling at the Heart of Motherhood

I know that too much control and too little change wouldn’t be good for me, but it’s hard to stamp down this instinctive fear I have. Unfortunately, this weakness is not at all conducive to a joyful experience with motherhood. Whoops.

Motherhood is defined by change because every day is a transition. Our children grow so quickly, and our bodies and families and emotions change so frequently, that it’s impossible to pin down a definition of “normal” that will last for more than a very brief period before it needs rewriting.

Morning sickness becomes aches and pains. Pains become labor. Labor becomes delivery. Newborns become infants, become toddlers, become preschoolers, become kids and tweens and teens and full-blown adults.

A mother’s heart is a stormy sea. This is often a good thing—the blessings that drop in to churn these waters are full of active, bustling life and they are beautiful. But rarely does beautiful mean easy, and we moms go through a lot to bring our babies up into well-formed adults.

So whether it’s the crazy sleep schedules of an infant, the ever-changing preferences of a toddler, the hormonal mood swings of a teenager, or the far-flung independence of adult children, there is simply no time to pause and breathe and forget the chaos when you’re a mother. And there’s no time to get used to each flavor of that chaos, either, because it changes every hour.

And, of course, we can control none of this. Our babies will do or not do or feel or not feel or say or not say whatever comes to their beautiful little minds, with or without our approval. And as they get older, their self-sufficiency means we have even less of a hand in their actions—and the consequences they will face for those actions.

Motherhood Relinquish Quote

So yes, motherhood is change. Motherhood is letting go. And those are scary things. It means that we must be responsible for our children’s lives, and yet relinquish those lives to the hands of God and the story of their sweet souls. We hold ourselves deeply accountable for their joy, but we can do nothing to permanently impress it upon them. We can only hold their warm little hands and hope for the best.

Our love makes us want to bring them in close and protect them from the world and walk their path for them. But we can’t. And that’s the fear that defines being a mom.

Living in this Moment

So far, in my few years as a mom, the only balm I’ve found for that aching fear is to live in and enjoy each moment with my children. But that can be hard to do, too.

Selfishness makes it hard (“this got you to sleep yesterday; why can’t you sleep for me today?”). A lack of focus makes it hard (says the mom who scrolls through Facebook far too often). Impatience makes it hard (“when are you going to stop throwing every meal I make for you onto the floor?”).

Comparison is the enemy of confidence.

I’ve said that before, but I think it’s an important lesson for so many aspects of motherhood. We become downtrodden when we compare ourselves to other moms. We become discouraged when we compare our methods to the ones in all the parenting books.

Likewise, we torture ourselves when we compare one moment to the next. It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to littles, what worked yesterday probably won’t cut it today—and what gets the job done today will crash and burn tomorrow.

So I’ve had to learn to stop asking myself what if?; to stop wondering why one child develops so differently from another; to stop hoping that this will be the night or the naptime that begins a new, easier phase; to stop being afraid that my picky eater will never enjoy a real meal without a fight; to worry about whether this bad day will become my child’s earliest memory. The examples go on and on.

This applies in other areas of life, too. It’s hard to be grateful for what’s in front of you—to really enjoy it—if you’re too busy being nervous about or anxious for the next thing.

Fear is not always an enemy; it’s a healthy thing. But it cannot define us because, if we let it, it will control us. And that is not the life we were made to live.

In the moments when I’m failing to enjoy what’s before me instead of worrying about what isn’t—to embrace what I am given, good or bad, instead of grasping for what I cannot change—I pray.

Saint Padre Pio said something wonderfully simple about this: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”

Sometimes I pray hard and long. Other times, when I don’t have the energy or I’m too bogged down by my fear or self-centeredness, I can barely squeak out a Glory Be or a “God help me.” But every time, no matter what, it helps. If I lean into it and let the words wash over me, it helps.

That’s the relief that defines being a child of God.

 

Why I Don’t Agonize Over the News (And I Don’t Feel Bad About It)

Thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, my husband and I have been watching NBC’s The Good Place lately. (It’s funny and I highly recommend—catch up on Netflix and Hulu).

Minimizing any spoilers, there’s some conversation in the show right now about how difficult it is for people to be good in the modern world. The simplest parts of life are so complicated and global that even our smallest choices can have drastic consequences—whether we see them or not. One episode used an easy example: simply buying a tomato at the local Piggly Wiggly might mean you’re inadvertently supporting pesticide use and unfair working conditions in communities far away.

Too true. Modern life is stressful, isn’t it?

You wonder if each item of clothing you buy was crafted by a child forced into hard labor. You wonder if your eggs were laid by chickens living a bleak life on factory farms. You wonder if your preferred brand of baby shampoo contributes money to a non-profit organization you deeply dislike. You wonder if your charitable donations are going to the cause itself or just lining executives’ pockets. You wonder if the homeless man asking for your spare change might turn around and spend it on drugs. You wonder if you’re poisoning the water table by using bleach on a stubborn stain.

You wonder and wonder and wonder.

The guilt is everywhere, isn’t it? Certainly it’s on Facebook, where everyone shares idealist memes and posts pictures of their creative protest signs and “5 favorite ways to live more sustainably.” It’s on the news, garish in its display of the very worst of what’s happening in the world (giving no attention to the many, many good things that happen every minute of every day) and haranguing us for the violence and injustices of society. It’s probably in your family or groups of friends, where everyone has an opinion to share. And it’s always on your heart, making you question your choices in the quiet moments, when everything you’ve done wrong in a given day replays across your mind’s eye.

But the thing is that your life, that beautiful and complicated thing with all its individual struggles and triumphs, is stressful all on its own. Justifiably so.

You worry about earning enough to support your family, or supporting your burnt-out spouse in his or her zealous efforts to do so even while you’re running on fumes at home. You worry about raising up good, happy children who will be kind to others and love themselves as God loves them. You worry about voicing the Truth, even when it makes you unpopular, and nurturing your soul. You worry about coordinating childcare, travel, school, passion projects, home maintenance, personal development, meal plans, inboxes, outboxes, taxes, and extracurriculars at the same time, all the time. You worry about managing calendars and maintaining relationships and being fully present for the people you love even when you have a million other things on your mind.

You worry and worry and worry.

There’s just so much on your plate.

I have an unpopular opinion to confess, and I’m sharing it in the hopes it helps other moms feel less guilty when they simply can’t keep up with it all.

I don’t watch the news and I rarely scroll through headlines. I don’t know what the latest food pyramid (is it still a pyramid?) looks like, and I don’t know who’s up for a Nobel Peace Prize or why. I don’t run into every debate I come across to evangelize aloud to my peers. I don’t inspect every ingredient list or research every brand I buy. And most of the time, I don’t feel bad about it.

For a time, I tried to do these things. I tried to keep up with the intricate goings-on of the big, wide world around me, to see the many unseen consequences of my actions and take more ownership of those consequences.

And can I be honest? It was depressing. There was so much bad right in front of me. It left me feeling downtrodden and defeated—beaten down by the many sad realities we’ve made for ourselves in this very flawed world.

What’s worse was that it stole my optimism from me. I believe very deeply that we are all made to be good—we are all given an indelible soul and created in the image and likeness of Love itself. We are all God’s children.

Chasing every negative strand down its inevitable rabbit hole made that so much harder to see. No one was covering the happy things, and I was losing the forest for the trees.

Beyond all that, I was simply running low on time. My kids needed me. My husband needed me. My home, job, and extended family needed me. I needed me. I needed to invest in those things, and the additional time and energy had to come from somewhere.

So I don’t feel obligated to pull the thread of each and every decision I make, testing to see how thoroughly my positive intent unravels into a net negative effect. And I don’t think you should, either.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t live a life of carelessness or solitary self-interest. I buy organic for many grocery segments and have a personal commitment to free-range eggs. I avoid some of the more blatantly irresponsible brands (which, often, are too expensive anyway). I donate items instead of trashing them, I recycle, I buy secondhand where it makes sense, and I teach my toddlers not to be wasteful. I’m trying to prioritize cleaning and self-care products that feature natural ingredients. I donate to people and causes in need. I tell the Truth and live it in full view of my neighbors. I am not blind to what’s happening in the world my children will inherit.

But these are choices I make in an effort to care for my family more responsibly. They aren’t hard rules I punish myself for breaking or hold against others who don’t share them.

We live in a very big, very troubled world. And the reality is that we are each a brief blip on the global radar. For most of us, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to have an influence so notable that our names will be recorded in history books.

But do you know what part of your world is very small and very impressionable? What part of your world is fundamentally influenced by you and the choices you make?

Your family.

I think Saint Teresa of Calcutta said it best. Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked how we can promote world peace. Her response? “Go home and love your family.”

If marriage and parenthood are your vocations, the ripple effect of your influence on the world—named or not—begins at home. It begins with the love you share with your spouse and the love you instill in your children.

So be a good citizen of the world, but do not obsess over the world or its affairs. This world is not your home.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

It’s Not You, It’s Me: A Message to My Children

If there is anything indisputably true about the human condition, it’s that no relationship is flawless. We can’t always treat each other well. We can’t always meet each other’s needs and expectations.

The relationship between a mother and her children should be the closest one to purity. We are joined like nothing else can be. You are mine as much as I am yours. A mother and her Son were the only two people to live in this world without stain. But even their bond was not without pain.

In fact, there is much pain between us. The day we meet is, by its very nature, both exuberant and excruciating. The weeks and months after are not much easier. You need me so, and I can’t give you everything your tiny heart desires without also giving away pieces of myself. Eventually those pieces add up, and I feel lost. I find myself angry, or annoyed, or simply quite tired. Sometimes those weak moments come out of nowhere—when I wish I could sit down and eat a meal in peace. Sometimes they come in the middle of what I consider a battle between us—when you just won’t sleep, and I just can’t breathe. Really, though, there should be no battles.

My precious babies, I must tell you a difficult truth: I am woefully inadequate to be your mother. My patience is too thin and my head is too big. Please know that this frustration is my shortcoming and never, never yours. You are delightful and innocent and all things good. I am weak, and it isn’t your fault.

Please know that it’s not you—it’s me.

The times I come to your room, frustrated and less than gentle, and ask you “Why can’t you just sleep?!”—those times aren’t your fault. They’re mine.

The times I cry as you cry, begging “Please, please, just stop”—those times aren’t your fault. They’re mine.

The times I sigh an exasperated sigh at another stinky diaper or uneaten meal—those times aren’t your fault. They’re mine.

The times I seem to prefer my phone or a little solitude over your need for cuddles and warmth—those times aren’t your fault. They’re mine.

Sometimes I need a little space. Sometimes, though I always love you, I find it hard to be physically attached to you. Sometimes my feelings—and yours—are so intense that they scare me. But that’s not your fault. It’s mine.

I hope that you know, despite these moments, that I love you with my whole soul. I hope that you know that you are the utmost blessing and the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. I hope that you know that my love, second only to God’s, is the one you can count on for as long as the clock ticks.

What I need to remember, each and every day, is that your smile is a miracle. The way you—even when I’m at the end of my rope and wish I could just sit down for five uninterrupted minutes—look upon my face with relief and comfort is a gift from you to me. I’m deeply sorry that I don’t always acknowledge that gift. I’m sorry that my goodness doesn’t match yours. Years of selfishness and independence have spoiled me into thinking that my time is my own, but it never was. Time belongs to none of us. But the love that you offer me each day, without thinking, does settle into my heart in the quiet moments. Please know that I adore you in return, though I’m not very good at expressing it sometimes.

When you show me your little grin during yet another nighttime feeding, I am rejuvenated. When you roll for the first time because you were looking for me, I am humbled. When you reach for me because you hurt, I am soothed. When you cling to me because you are hungry or frightened or confused, I am strengthened. And when you stare in wonder at my exhausted face, I feel beautiful. These are the moments that return all those little pieces of me tenfold—the moments when you give me more than I could ever give you. Every part of you reminds me of my purpose. Though I fail, each and every day, to embrace it, you are my greatest vocation.

Your Daddy and I helped make you with love and wonder. We awaited you with the liveliest awe. We care for you with the elation of two people whose joy has literally joined in the creative spirit of God. So while I may lack the devotion and selflessness to remember in each moment that you are the most precious part of my life, even as you live your whole life knowing that I am your favorite, please know that it’s not you—it’s me.

It’s me who forgets. It’s you who reminds me, day in and day out, what a delight our family truly is.

Please forget my weakness and remember my adoration. The love of our family is the most profound truth I know.

You can always come to me. I will always be on your side. And while you may hear words of untruth, of unkindness, of unwelcome from the marred world around us, please always remember these words from the mother who conceived, carried, birthed, cared for, and loved you always: You are precious. You are a gift. And you are always, always loved.

8 Pregnancy Lessons from My First Baby

Today marks 34 weeks in my second pregnancy. My first pregnancy was rather breezy—we had no complications (except elevated blood pressure at the end, which required an induction that went very well). There was some discomfort here and there and, of course, the uncertainty of it all was scary at times—but I had very little to worry about from beginning to end.

But you know what I did? I worried. A lot.

Turns out it’s hard to be a new parent even before the baby starts demanding clean diapers and food and all that.

This time, I’m feeling much more relaxed about the whole thing. Knowing what I know now, it’s easy to let this pregnancy progress without a second thought most days. Give the belly a pat, smile happily at a big baby wiggle, and hope I don’t have to wake up more than twice to pee tonight—that’s life this time around. I wish it was more like this the first time. So here’s what I learned looking back, in case it helps another new mom take an extra breath today (although, let’s be honest—it probably won’t, because new moms are always going to fret!)

1. Everything seems like a big deal. Very few things actually are.

Can I eat lunch meat? Shouldn’t I feel nauseous? 280,591,056 of these questions hit me every day during my first pregnancy. The fact is, in a typical pregnancy, the answer is often “It’s no big deal, don’t worry!” Always ask your doctor. But know that eating well, being active, and staying hydrated are the best things you can do for your baby. Simple as that!

2. Follow your gut.

Medically, red flags during pregnancy tend to be pretty clear. But no matter what’s going on, never hesitate to call your doctor. Even if whatever is worrying you turns out to be nothing, there’s no peace of mind like the kind you get once everything checks out okay! You’re made to be a mom. Your body can do this. But your instincts will help.

3. Don’t give a bother what other people say or think.

The only opinions that matter are your doctor’s, your spouse’s, and your own. Take good advice where you get it, listen to people who have genuinely well-meant suggestions to offer, and ignore all the noise.

4. Give yourself a break—and don’t feel guilty for it.

You are pregnant and shouldn’t feel bad for needing some extra help (or sympathy) now and then. Stay confident, and buck up for the inevitable tough stuff. Every day it will get a tiny bit more exhausting, painful, or inconvenient. But you’ll get through it. So just give yourself some extra rest and a lot of wiggle room—physically and emotionally—when you need it, and you’ll be better able to handle it the rest of the time.

5. Attachment is different for everyone.

Some women “know” their babies instantly. Others do when they give birth. Or a week after baby arrives. Your instincts will help you care for and protect your baby throughout this journey, even if it takes your emotions a little while to catch up. That’s totally normal and okay. Hormones are weird!

6. Expect a new normal.

When I had my daughter, I spent the first weeks waiting for things to “go back to normal” after she arrived. News flash: they didn’t. Things change. But you will find a new normal and you will love it. Just enjoy the time it takes to get to know your new family dynamics, and experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

7. Go see so many movies.

Seriously. This is the one thing that my husband and I can’t really do anymore with a toddler in tow. You can bring your kids out to dinner, out on errands, and basically everywhere else—but movie-watching will never be the same with an adorable, wiggly babbler in your lap. So, while you can, and even if you go by yourself (especially then), go and enjoy it.

8. Knowledge is power (usually).

So much that’s scary about pregnancy, labor, and delivery is scary because it’s unknown. Read books and articles, and ask the doctor questions. Talk to other moms. But do not turn to Google when you’re worried about something. If you have bothersome symptoms, tough questions, or any concerns at all, talk to your doctor FIRST. That’s the kind of knowledge you need.

BONUS: A Lesson from My Second Baby

Already in this pregnancy, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from our new baby. The biggest is that nothing ever stays the same, and that’s okay.

I felt very different early on in this pregnancy compared to my first, physically and emotionally. My symptoms had changed. My body reacted in new ways. And I looked a lot different (and still do). I was sort of expecting that, because my doctor and everyone else had told me “Every baby is different” long before he even came along.

However, what I wasn’t expecting was how much different I felt. If you’d have asked me how often I thought about the baby while I was pregnant with my first, I would’ve replied, “I don’t think I’m ever not thinking about her.” And in many ways, that’s still true this time. But I’m not worried or anxious or dying of anticipation this time. Things feel more second nature. I have a toddler to worry about, and she keeps my mind very busy—so this pregnancy tends to fly under the radar more often than not.

At first, I felt bad about that. I asked my husband, “Should I be worried that I’m so much less worried about this baby than I was the first time?” His response was something I’ll always remember.

“No, not at all. You love this baby just as much as the one we already have. This is just an easier love. It’s less stressful, but it’s no less strong.”

He, of course, was right. I do love this little boy as much as I always loved our little girl. But, so far, this guy doesn’t freak me out like she did. I don’t feel uncertain about my ability to carry him safely. I love them both equally because my first taught me that I can do this, and my second teaches me that I can trust myself to do it.

I can’t wait to see what else I get to learn from these (and any future) littles in my life.

What My High School Sweetheart Taught Me About Love

My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We are thankful every day for the fact that we got to be each other’s first everything. We love that we grew up together and share more than a decade of memories already. And we have said more than once that God put us in each other’s lives early for plenty of good reasons—not least that we would both be terrible at dating.

In fact, sometimes we were terrible at dating—while we were dating each other. We weren’t always smart or responsible. We didn’t always treat each other well. Things were harder than they should’ve been for a while. We were selfish, silly, and ignorant on more than one occasion. But even though some of those memories are painful now, I’m thankful for them, too. Because they taught me all of this.

No one, at any point in life, is perfect. People aren’t unicorns.

Thanks to years of hard work and happy love, my marriage is strong. The soundness of my relationship with my husband is a permanent, comforting fixture in my life. We rarely fight (although we certainly bicker). We understand each other. We know each other so well that there is simply no doubt. Already, we’ve had half our lives to fall in love over and over.

But neither of us is perfect, and we are still very different from one another.

When he eats, it sounds (to me) like a water buffalo chewing mud. When I insist we each get our own meals when we eat out instead of agreeing to share one (even though we’ll never finish both entrees), it makes no sense to him. I can’t stand how he wants to listen to talk radio all the time. He is somewhat disturbed by my affinity for psychologically dramatic TV, movies, and books.

His opinions on the environment sometimes ruffle my feathers. My methods for quiet advocacy of my faith and morals sometimes aggravate him. Our minds work in vastly different ways.

In many ways, we don’t—and never did—hit many of the checkboxes on one another’s “list of desirable qualities in a spouse.” Before we started dating, I pictured myself with an artsy/alternative guy who would never condone hunting and would buy me flowers every day. He probably pictured himself with an athletic academic who loved physics and would talk politics for fun.

But you know what? Lists change. My old list sucked. My new list starts with “His name is Erik” and ends with “He makes me love myself almost as much as he loves me.”

You absolutely must fight fair.

Our first few years together were not easy. We swung on a pendulum between blissfully spending all our time together and fighting like cats and dogs at the slightest missteps. As we learned to handle our own maturing minds, bodies, and personalities, we also had to handle each other’s—and to be forgiving and intentional throughout that period of growth. It was hard. We failed a lot.

Looking back, we know that we wouldn’t tolerate each other’s behavior from back then if we were faced with it right now. We needed to be together as teenagers because only teenagers are stubborn and strong-willed enough to cling to what we wanted as tightly as we did then.

What helped was establishing some ground rules for fighting. Here are a few:

  • Do not yell at each other.
  • Never curse at or insult each other.
  • Always say “I love you” when you say goodbye or goodnight, no matter how you’re feeling.
  • If one person needs time to cool off, they should ask for it respectfully and the other needs to respect it.
  • When you say you’re sorry, mean it—and do something to fix whatever you did wrong.
  • Do not bring up past mistakes or hold grudges.
  • Don’t generalize; it’s not fair or honest.

It’s a long list (and that’s not everything). We don’t always follow them perfectly, but once we started making a real effort, our arguments became fairer, more productive, and less frequent. It kept us together.

The person you love should push you forward (and help you get there).

“Good enough” shouldn’t exist in a healthy relationship. That’s how you get stagnant and stop growing. For me, the goal of marriage is to be comfortable, but never bored—to be at ease with your spouse, so much so that encouraging one another to keep improving and growing is a natural and positive process instead of a stressful one.

My husband pushed me to work harder in school, and my work ethic now is so much better for it. I pushed him to be more forgiving, and he’s a gentler man for that. We push each other to be better parents, better spouses, and better people. We have high standards for ourselves and each other. While we are compassionate in the face of failure, we always expect each other to keep moving. And we are always there to walk the path forward, together.

Two people in a serious relationship should never be hesitant to call out a mistake, voice a concern, or talk about the future. These can be some of the most fruitful conversations you’ll ever have with your significant other or spouse. They should not be shielded by fear or shame, and you should never feel like you need to walk on eggshells around the person you love.

Happiness is made when respect is shared and the self is given.

Bringing all of this together are two core concepts: respect and generosity. For a relationship to be long-lasting, healthy, and positive, both people must give one another an abundance of respect and an abundance of themselves. You need to take on an “us” mindset instead of an “I” mindset. This is important while dating, but it’s essential in marriage.

Because we were teenagers, it was very tricky for my husband and I to focus on giving respect instead of demanding it early in our relationship. We were easily hurt, but we hurt easily, too. When you lose track of how you’re treating someone because you’re waiting for them to make some change or move to “prove” that they deserve your respect, you lose yourself—and you lose them, too. Love needs respect.

In marriage, we are privileged to offer a full gift of self to our spouse. We set aside our selfish ways in favor of living as a couple, ‘til death do us part. Of course, we’re not stainless—I often fail to give my time as selflessly as I could, or to keep my patience, or to accept a change in plans because my husband’s needs have changed. But I try. And letting go of the self is a crucial first step toward a strong and cooperative marriage. Spouses are inspired by one another’s gifts and eager to return that love. It’s a happy cycle.

There are fine lines everywhere.

Finally, I think it’s important for everyone in a relationship to know that love is grey—it isn’t black or white. Each of us requires something special to feel fulfilled in a relationship. Each of us tolerates differences in our own way. And each of us deserves respect and generosity as a matter of course. So, as you’re dating and deciding on whether the person beside you is worth your whole life, it’s important to be honest and demanding about your needs, with yourself and your partner.

Ultimately, fidelity to your beloved, authenticity with yourself, and humility before God will all lead to a happy life and a happy relationship. It can be tricky to balance all three, but that’s okay. That’s the adventure. If we simply live it and are kind along the way (to ourselves and the people at our side), we’ll come out just fine.

The Healthiest Habit of the Happiest People

There are some very chipper people in the world who just radiate joy. You know them when you meet them: they’re smiling, kind, and content. They’re sure of the goodness in their lives, and the goodness in you—even if you’re still a stranger. And they just don’t seem to see the gloom that simply must be around them.

Sometimes we see these people and envy them. How can anyone be so positive all the time? How can life feel so easy to them? Why can’t I feel like that?

We’ve all heard (and maybe told) the anti-sunshine-and-rainbows jokes. Because the fact is that, much of the time, life isn’t pretty. And that might make us think that viewing the world “with rose-colored glasses” is rarely the best idea.

But this tendency is, in fact, a very positive quality. Studies find that people who foster a positive outlook on life (in a realistic way, of course) are happier, more successful, and even healthier.

Gratitude as a Virtue

Anecdotally, every one of those joyful people I’ve met in life have one thing in common: thankfulness. Simple gratitude goes a long way, it seems, in building a happier, healthier mindset; a more meaningful spiritual life; and a more positive outlook with which to enjoy the good things in our world.

For me, gratitude is a habit. It’s the best habit, because it works on your heart in so many ways. Gratitude forces us to recognize the wonderful things around us. It encourages us to hold onto our respect for others, and to speak positively to them. It fosters a consistent, positive prayer life. It humbles us. And it inspires us to be better people.

Though not listed among the Cardinal or theological virtues by Catholicism, the concept of thankfulness has been top-of-mind for many of our saints, and it is all over Scripture. Christ Himself gave thanks to God many times, often during some of the most pre-eminent miracles and moments of the Gospels.

Gratitude is part and parcel of many of our cardinal virtues. It is woven into justice, in that it acknowledges and rewards the rightness and generosity of others; it is a part of prudence, in that it requires mindfulness, care, and wisdom in practice; it is supportive of temperance, in that it shows us how to be selfless; and it is rewarded by fortitude, in that a thankful person is often a courageous and strong person.

And what better way can we supplement our practice of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—but by expressing gratefulness to God for those gifts, and to our neighbors for practicing them along with us?

The Wisdom of Giving Thanks

What makes thankfulness so important to us, as humans? We are responsible for so much in life, and yet so little. We are gifted with so much in life, and yet deserve so little of it. The least we must do is acknowledge this generosity and show our thanks for it. We must take nothing for granted, lest we learn the hard way how fragile our lives truly are.

Here are some bits of wisdom I love:

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” – St. Ambrose

 “Remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” – Pope St. John Paul II

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola 

How to Be More Thankful

I have met so many beautiful people whose positivity is unwavering. Their secret, I think, is that they always find something to be thankful for. They always choose to acknowledge and lift up the good that surrounds them, rather than focusing on their struggles. They know that, in the end, we can control very little—but we can be grateful for very much.

In learning from them and from my own experience, here are five ways I try to make thankfulness a habit in my life:

  1. Always acknowledge the little things. When you come across your favorite number by happenstance, give a little thanks for the small smile it brings. When someone holds the door for you, always thank them out loud and with a smile. Upon learning to recognize the tiny moments of every day for which we can say “Thank you,” we become much more grateful for the bigger moments, too.
  2. Pray with proper order. There are several key elements to prayer, and thankfulness is one of them. It should come before we make requests to God. Remember ACTS when you pray: Adoration, Contrition, Thankfulness, and Supplication. My humility and penchant for gratitude improves greatly when I keep prayer in perspective this way.
  3. Share your gratitude with people you love. Regularly telling your family and friends about what you’re grateful for in life can help you and them be more thankful day to day—but do it humbly, and not to brag. For example, try going around the dinner table to have everyone share one thing they’re grateful for more frequently than just once a year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Hold yourself accountable to say thanks. I recently heard a lovely suggestion that’s specific to marriage: each night before bed, thank your spouse for at least one thing they did for you that day—something that made you feel more loved. It might also help to keep a gratitude journal, or to fill up a jar throughout the year with notes on what you’re thankful for each day, week, or month. The important thing is to set a goal and be consistent. It’s excellent for your mental health!
  5. Resist gossip. I find that gossip and judgmental thinking tend to become habitual—and that’s really too bad. The way we think and speak of others is influenced by paradigms. If my automatic reaction is to say, “Boy, that barista was sloooow today,” I might not even notice that the person behind me paid for a stranger’s drink while I was waiting just as a random act of kindness. I’d be too busy dwelling on my coffee’s delay.

There’s Always Something

Although certainly there are some trials in life that, when we emerge from them, remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you’ve survived a horrific car crash. Perhaps your loved one beat cancer. Perhaps you got the job that makes providing for your family straightforward instead of stressful.

But if gratitude is truly a habit, then it’s the in-between times that call us to be most thankful—the times when no apparent miracle has occurred, but the simple pleasure of a 70-degree day in March left you feeling just a little warmer (inside and out). That’s something to be thankful for.

6 Rules This Mom Must Follow

When I pictured myself as a mother, I tried to imagine what my voice might sound like when I catch my toddler drawing on the walls. I wondered whether my husband or I would end up as the disciplinarian. I smiled while picturing myself saying “Go ask your father” to a 7-year-old begging for a new toy.

It turns out—at least while it’s still fresh and you’ve got an infant or even a toddler at home—parenting is much more about setting and enforcing rules for yourself than for your baby. Suddenly you’re accountable to a pudgy little person who screeches in your ear at even the slightest mistakes.

So here’s the list of rules I’ve built for myself over the last year and a half. It’s made my mom life much smoother.

1. Don’t be selfish.

This one is absolutely first and most important. It’s also most difficult sometimes.

In this season of life, my family needs my time, energy, and devotion a lot more than I do. I chose these responsibilities. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love fulfilling them. So when I’m tempted to feel bad for myself because I don’t get to do whatever I want for a whole weekend, or because we can’t just pick up and go out at the drop of a hat, or I can’t have a glass of wine with dinner, I try very hard to catch myself. What is more important: Seeing a movie on opening weekend, or breathing in some already rare cuddles with my growing-too-fast little girl?

Of course, it is critically important to set aside some time for myself each day and each week. But I do those things for family almost as much as myself. Being true to who I am and maintaining my own pastimes makes me a better, more centered wife and mother, after all.

2. Keep things tidy (and that includes yourself).

There are very few things I hate in life quite as much as laundry day. But I know—and I’ve taught myself this lesson many times—that simply ignoring a task doesn’t make it go away. My husband has his tasks, and I have mine—and it’s my responsibility to follow through on them.

Of course, it’s not just cleaning. Everything from keeping an eye on credit card spending to keeping the cars properly maintained requires consistent attention. Same goes for personal care. It’s relatively easy to maintain my health one day at a time; it’s a lot harder to circle back after a week of eating all the wrong things.

The better I am at keeping these simple duties under control, the less stressful they are—and the more time I can devote to more important things.

3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Especially for new moms and those who stay or work at home, it can be incredibly difficult to let go and watch someone else step in and care for your child. Sixteen months later, this sharing of duties is still difficult for me some days.

For example, my husband took over the bedtime routine not too long ago. He is an amazing father; he’s the best man I could’ve asked for, for my children and myself. But I still itch to tell him exactly how to do things from time to time, despite knowing he’s quite capable of doing them his own way.

I know this is detrimental not just to my husband and other caregivers, but to me and to the baby. When I get this way, I find myself irrationally resentful of all that responsibility—even though I’ve placed it on myself. So when I step back and chastise myself for that self-centered need to see everything done my own way, and admit that I’m fortunate to share the load with some truly wonderful people, I’m a better mom (and probably a much more tolerable wife!).

4. Tell the truth.

Motherhood is overwhelming. Even when I’m not nitpicking every little thing, the sheer number of tasks and the weight of responsibility can be daunting. Add to that the hormonal implications of being shortly postpartum with a newborn (or, later, pregnant with a toddler in tow), the mood swings that come with a lack of sleep, and the frustration of just “trying things out” every time your little one hits a new stage, and there have been many times when I felt I was drowning since my daughter was born.

It’s one thing to follow Rule #3 and admit to yourself that you’ve taken on too much. But it’s quite another to admit it to someone else. That’s what I mean by “telling the truth,” and it’s something I’ve really had to practice. It’s okay to tell my husband I need extra help when he gets home. It’s okay to seek support from a mommy group. And it’s okay to pray for a little more peace when I’ve started running low.

5. Don’t raise your voice.

This isn’t a rule about discipline; it’s one about patience.

Patience is my biggest struggle as a mom. When my daughter was a newborn, the seemingly endless nursing sessions and unpredictable nighttime non-patterns would wear me thin. When she was a little older, the inexplicable crying fits or angry nap strikes would wear me down. And now that she’s a toddler, her repeated tendency to reject every dinner I make for her (and furthermore, throw it all on the floor) wears me out.

For me, being a mom is a constant effort to catch myself before I wreck myself. I have learned to smile when I want to cry. I have learned to redirect when I want to dwell. And I have learned to shut my mouth when I just want to yell. These new habits make for a much happier home life for all of us.

6. Laugh!

Though most of these rules are meant to hold me up when I’m starting to fall down, this last one is for recognizing every beautiful moment that comes with motherhood. It’s not often easy to be a mom, but it’s always an immense blessing—there is no greater joy, when you get right down to it.

So when my daughter does something funny, I laugh. When she reacts with giggles of delight to me doing some terribly embarrassing thing, I do that stupid thing again and again and I laugh right along with her. When I’m tired and want to get frustrated at something irrational she’s done, I laugh instead. And I think every one of those laughs breathes a little more life into us both, and helps solidify these perfect moments into memories.

 

As we all learn, adulthood replaces the simple accountabilities of following your parents’ rules with the complicated necessities of living in the real world.

Pay your bills. Get—and keep—a good job. Feed yourself nutritiously and stay active. Take sole responsibility for your behavior. Be practical. Be frugal. Be self-sufficient. Don’t screw up.

The stakes are high enough when it’s just you; they’re much higher in marriage, and they skyrocket once you become a parent.

For me, this evolution in life has brought about two very important lessons: I literally can’t do this on my own, but I have to hold myself accountable for doing my very best. And that’s what these rules are for.