Now that I am expecting baby number two, I am beginning to think about all those sleepless nights and marathon nursing sessions ahead of me. My firstborn was not what you would call a sleeper. Far from it – she was more like a zombie and I, the hapless, sleep-loving mommy, quickly mutated into a mombie. Even as a 2-year-old, she still wakes up some at night and doesn’t always take a nap.
Up until I weaned her at almost 2 years old, she also loved to nurse. We just broke the boob habit back in September – only because I was having trouble getting pregnant again (God’s Family Planning as my wonderful, Catholic certified nurse midwife called our fertility challenges). Within a month of weaning, I was expecting again (again, GFP!). Now I’m 25 weeks along and I am trying to remember what it was like to get three hours of sleep – total. Yet, I am also trying to remember the stillness of the house and the beauty of nursing an infant in the middle of the night. It’s funny how quickly you forget. As a reminder, I went back and read an essay I wrote for Canticle magazine and decided to share it here. Whether you’re a new mom-to-be or a veteran mom, I hope my words will touch you in some way and inspire you to keep on giving because, as I’m reminded nearly every day down in the mommy trenches, selfless love is at the heart of mothering.
A SIMPLE PATH
I still remember the time I first felt called to be a mother. I was sitting on a subway reading Mother Teresa’s A Simple Path. Out of nowhere I felt a familiar rush behind my eyes as they filled with tears. Mother Teresa was talking about how charity must begin at home, and I realized that I wanted to be a mother someday. It was a strong feeling – a true vocation.
Though the desire to be a mom was great for me, what I felt while holding friends’ newborn infants in my arms more than envy or even joy was fear. I felt terribly clumsy cradling these tiny treasures. They were always so small. Tiny fingers. Scrunched up faces whimpering as I tried to rock them. My arms went stiff. It felt unnatural. So I began to worry: Where were my maternal instincts? How could I want to be a mom so badly if I couldn’t even hold an infant the right way?
Then my vocation was fulfilled on November 15, 2004 when my husband and I brought a beautiful, healthy baby girl – Madeline Louise – into the world. I was surprised how holding my own infant was far easier than holding others’ babies. Looking back, the first few months of motherhood were like those old sepia-toned pictures of loved ones you find in the attic – glittering gold, full of happiness. I easily fell into the rhythm of motherhood, feeling lucky because I bonded instantly with my little miracle. I’d cry out of joy while nursing this symbol of love.
Postpartum blues? Not me. It was more like postpartum mania. I loved holding Madeline. I answered her every cry with my breast, cuddling, or a lullaby. Motherhood felt like heaven to me, and she was nothing short of an earthly angel.
But suddenly around five months, when all my friends’ babies were sleeping through the night, I hit – no, slammed – into a wall. Madeline was still waking every two hours, even though she wasn’t hungry. She was a happy, energetic baby, but she needed constant interaction. Sleep was elusive for both of us, but I appeared to need it more than she did. I was drunk with exhaustion, and I was also scared – for the first time in my life – of getting pregnant again. Natural family planning wasn’t as simple now that I was nursing.
One night when Madeline was waking up every 45 minutes, I lost it. I cried out, “Help me, God.” And He did. I discovered an article in my church’s newsletter about Christ’s journey to the cross, and all I could think of was the parallelisms to the journey into motherhood.
Although Jesus’ death on the cross pales in comparison to the act of mothering, being a good, Christian mother is undoubtedly a vocation that demands loving until it hurts – something Jesus did so well.
In today’s society, mothers are constantly urged to pamper themselves: Get a massage. Enjoy a pedicure. Hire a nanny or a maid. Ask Dad to fold the laundry, feed the baby, cook dinner and bring home the bacon. Are we afraid to put ourselves on the line? It’s okay to ask for help sometimes, but it’s also important to look to Christ as an example of selfless love.
Madeline is almost a year now, and she’s sleeping better but I still don’t know what “sleeping through the night” means. However, she is so full of life, I can’t complain. Likewise, when I do have a dark “mommy moment,” I ask for God’s grace and I gently remind myself of the following similarities between motherhood and Jesus’ journey to the cross:
Jesus gave unselfishly and excessively.
He could have given far less; one drop of His blood could have saved us all; yet, he freely chose to shed every last bit of it. He gave what is beyond “enough” or sufficient. If there was more to give, He gave it. He never stopped to count the cost. Nor did he expect something in return.
Mothering can be a thankless job at times, especially when your baby is too young to hug you or even smile at you. Now that Madeline’s older she smiles, laughs, crawls to me and even gives me wet kisses, but when she was still a newborn, I sometimes felt like she was always handed over to me when she was crying. It was my job to pacify her while others (grandparents, my husband, friends) enjoyed holding her when she was content.
Even in the later months, she would sometimes nurse and nurse and nurse, and I sometimes felt “used.” Did this darling little leach really only love me for my big, milky boobs?
Even as she grows older and “rewards” me with hugs, kisses, handmade cards, handpicked flowers, etc., there won’t be any report cards or a salary to validate my performance or worth as a mother – even though it’s a 24/7 job. But that’s not why any mom takes care of her children.
Like Jesus, mothers are called to give unselfishly, without expecting anything in return. We sometimes must give every last drop of milk. We have to sacrifice sleep. We are called to constantly nurture our children. Of course, the irony is that we do get so much back in return – the coos, the smiles, the intent stares, giggles, the sacred word “Mama” passed from their lips – all those little things. And at the end of the day, we can hope that the greatest reward will be to raise an unselfish, Christian child.
His sacrifice was a supreme act of love for the Church.
Jesus actually saw sacrifice as desirable – as the most perfect way to show His love for us. This isn’t a popular notion in a time when me, me, me rules the roost. Maybe this idea of “sacrifice is good for the soul” is behind the adage: “love hurts.” If it doesn’t hurt – at least a little some of the time – then is it really love?
Sacrificial love is the greatest love of all. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Just replace man with Mom and friends with children, and it paints an accurate picture of the kind of love a mom has for her children. Every day moms lay down what they previously thought of as “living” for their children. Gone are the days of marathon sweat sessions at the gym, lazy Saturday afternoons of curling up with a good book, a full night’s sleep (can you tell I miss my sleep?!!?), eating a leisurely meal instead of wolfing down food so we can tend to our kids’ needs…
There’s always another diaper to be changed, another load to wash, dry and fold, another spill to be soaked up, but all these seemingly mundane tasks are tiny sacrifices and a way to show our children we love them.
Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Like most moms, my life has changed a great deal since the arrival of my first child; however, by giving up a career outside of the home, sleep, and some of my free time, I’m making small (very small compared to what Christ did) steps down the path to holiness. Sometimes moms have to deny themselves and put their children’s needs first. When we do this, Jesus smiles down at us.
Jesus gave Himself willingly and even joyfully.
Okay, here’s where it gets tough. It’s not enough to give. As mothers, we must give with great love and joy. From making PBJ sandwiches to playing Peek-A-Boo, everything we do should be done with love. If I give as a mother all day, but then complain to my husband all night long, I am not being Christ-like. (Can you imagine if there were a chapter in the New Testament in which Jesus complained about dying on the cross for a bunch of pitiful sinners who didn’t appreciate Him?). Similarly, if I hear my child cry, scoop her into my arms and then snivel in frustration, I am not being joyful in my giving.
Believe me, I’ve “lost it” a few times when Madeline has needed me in the wee hours of the night – I am only human, but God calls me to be more like Jesus in everything I do. I once read – I regrettably can’t remember where – that God does not expect us to succeed every time. He only expects us to never fail to try.
There will be days when I may complain or vent, days when my children test my patience, days when spreading peanut butter over bread seems like the most tedious chore in the whole world, but if I can just take a moment to think about Jesus and what He did for me (and how He did it with joy) then maybe I can go about my motherly duties with more love and less grumbling.
As busy moms, it may be difficult to find time to pray and remember what Jesus did for us. I’ve discovered that an easy way of honoring Him is to just pause for a moment and look at a crucifix or other religious icon (e.g., a rosary, the Bible, a book of saints, etc.) and whisper words of thanks and ask for His help. This helps me renew my strength and find peace even in the most chaotic days.
I love being a mother, and some of the most beautiful moments of my journey into motherhood have been the ones when I’ve had to give and love until it hurts.
Labor immediately comes into mind. What a joyous moment when I held my baby girl for the first time after hours of work! Talk about the fruit of your labor!
Even those sleepless hours of the night when the rest of the house (and it feels like world) are peacefully slumbering have become special. In those dark hours, Madeline looks to me and no one else to “save” her (from hunger, loneliness, a wet diaper). I can only hope that, with God’s grace, I can continue to rise to the occasion and give freely, excessively, joyfully and with supreme love.