In Defense of Catholic Working Mothers

Le Messie by Albert-Ernest Carrier Belleuse
By Antiochus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
“How can Catholic moms balance work and family?” asks Lea Singh in her article on culturewitness.com. Ironically, the author says she chose to stay home, a choice I completely respect, but it does make me wonder how she is qualified to write about something she’s never attempted herself. Ms. Singh’s thoughts on Catholic working mothers are misguided and hurtful to women whose vocation includes both motherhood and work outside the home.

As a mother who has chosen to work, I would like to counter her perspective with my own experience and insights.

I want to be clear: all moms work, and I am not trying to start a debate about whether stay at home mothers work harder than moms who work outside the home or vice versa. For the sake of this post, however, I will use the term “working mother” to refer to mothers who work outside the home in addition to their work of raising a family.

Singh lists the main reason she feels it is difficult for Catholic moms to balance work and family; namely, that Catholic women are supposed to have babies until our fertility runs out. She goes on to list some of the work/childcare arrangements that she feels are acceptable.

Her faulty NFP logic might lead an uneducated reader to believe that Catholic women are obligated to have as many children as they physically can for the duration of their fertile years (barring dire health or financial difficulties). However, this viewpoint is simply not consistent with Catholic teaching.

Then the author gets to the heart of it, the part that stings for many of us Catholic working mothers. She admits that Catholic teaching does not preclude the use of paid caregivers, but goes on to say:

“At the same time, it does strike me as not exactly in the spirit of Catholic teaching to have your children be raised by strangers so that you can both pursue your own careers. Working to bring bread to the table is one thing, but working for reasons of personal choice is quite another thing.”

First and foremost, paid caregivers are not strangers and they do not raise our children. As a fellow Catholic working mother said,

“Who are these parents who let ‘strangers’ raise their children, the parents who supposedly completely abdicate their primary role in their children’s lives? I’ve never met one, and I know a lot of families where both parents work. We, who send our children to daycares or employ nannies, choose our care providers VERY carefully. We do background checks, we interview them, we call references, we do trial periods to see if they complement our children’s personalities, and we try to involve them in our family life and become involved in theirs. Our ideal care situation is one in which the nanny or daycare worker becomes almost a member of our own family.”

Singh insists that there are “indeed psychological and emotional consequences to being raised by paid caregivers” but she does not cite any studies to back up this claim. In fact, many studies show just the opposite.

Secondly, Catholic teaching reaffirms that women who are mothers can work outside the home – and there is no caveat that working outside the home is only permissible if you need the income.

As Familiaris Consortio says:

“…the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.”

St. Gianna Beretta Molla
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons

We need only to look to the example of St. Gianna Beretta Molla to see a beautiful portrayal of a woman who was a devoted wife, mother, and dedicated physician. St. Gianna and her husband Pietro had a paid caregiver, who helped with the domestic duties of their home and with their children. The Mollas were well-to-do, but always generous and prudent with their time and resources. St. Gianna considered her work her mission, as we read in Giuliana Pelucchi’s biography of the Saint. It is evident that St. Gianna felt that her work as a doctor was part of her vocation; she felt God called her to help others in addition to her primary vocation as a wife and mother. Harmoniously combining work and motherhood is not an easy task, nor is there a set formula to achieve balance. It’s something most of us working mothers are continually striving for. How blessed we are to have St. Gianna as a role model!

The author asks, “How different are you from your secular neighbors if your family looks like this: parents at work full time, small kids at daycare or with nanny?” I’d like to offer just a few examples of how we are different. We are at Church every Sunday, and we are involved in our Church community. We are open to having many children, if God chooses to bless us with them. When we are at work, we are living our faith by example to the best of our abilities. What would the workforce look like if there were no mothers? What would it look like if there were no Catholic mothers?

The author also claims, “As practising Catholics, it does seem to me that we should be setting a higher standard of childcare for ourselves, and that we should be willing to sacrifice more in order live out our vocations.” Really? Last week, my seven month old awoke at 3:30am and would not go back to sleep until 5am.  At 5:15am, my alarm went off; it was time to get up and get ready for work. This happens regularly while my husband works the night shift and isn’t around to help. Being a working mother is hard enough as it is, do I really need to hear a fellow Catholic mother tell me I should be willing to sacrifice more to live out my vocation?

Instead of telling other women how they should live out their vocations, why not offer to support each other in our different roles and responsibilities? I have friends who are both working mothers and stay at home mothers, and I respect each of their choices tremendously. I am also open to becoming a stay at home mother one day if God calls me to that. Just because I’m a working mother does not make me “anti-stay at home mother.” My vocation as wife and mother will always be primary; as I have already discussed, however, our vocations may also include that of teacher, doctor, nurse, etc. As a woman’s family grows and their circumstances change, she and her husband can discern whether God is still calling her to serve in that role.

Let’s stop treating career-minded Catholic mothers as if they are somehow harming their families. Let’s start acknowledging that God gives each of us unique talents and gifts – and we are each called to manifest those talents in different ways. All work, whether within or outside of the home, can be a means of sanctification. The path to holiness is not the same for everyone.

Noelle Kitenko is wife to Joshua and mother to a wonderful 8 month old baby boy, John Paul. She is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Operations Research and Computer Analysis. She is currently serving her third tour of active duty as a Coast Guard Officer at the Pacific Area Maritime Homeland Security/Defense Division in Alameda, CA.

Three Tips for Dealing with Rude Remarks at Work

A reader asks:

I’m pregnant with my third, and I’ve earned the reputation at work as the woman who’s “always pregnant.” All of my pregnancies have been 18 months apart, so I’m sure it seems this way.

How do you respond when people raise their eyebrows because you dared to bring more than two children into the world?

I still can’t figure out why family planning choices seem to be a topic that’s considered open for discussion in any context, let alone an employment one. I don’t know about you, but I’d really rather not discuss my sex life with my co-workers. Sadly, however, it’s a situation that’s all too common for those of us with larger than average families. Having more than 3 kids (or having a third kid if you already have one girl and one boy) seems to be such a bizarre circumstance these days that it MUST be remarked upon.

It’s easier to let the comments roll off your back when it’s a random stranger at the mall or the checker at the grocery store making them, because chances are you won’t see that person often, if ever again.

Juicy Rumours
Juicy rumours” by Erik Pevernagie. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s harder to let the comments go when they come from co-workers, clients, or even your bosses — people with whom you spend a significant portion of your day, and with whom you must, by necessity, establish and maintain an amicable relationship.

In general, I’ve found there are three ways to deal with negative comments about family size or planning in an employment context: defuse with humor, redirect without engaging, or escalating to HR/management.

1. Defuse with Humor

I have an arsenal of humorous responses for every conceivable (ha!) comment that may come my way in the workplace (and elsewhere). I make it a point to practice these in my head, and even role-play with my husband or a close friend, so that I don’t freeze up or have my mind go blank when I’m confronted with a “real life” comment. It really helps!

Q: # kids?! Are you crazy??

A: “Yes, yes I am!”

Q: Was this planned?

A: “When that becomes your business, I’ll let you know!” or “Why do you ask?”

Q: Don’t you know what causes that?!

A: “Yes, and we’re very good at it.” *suggestive eyebrow wiggle*

Q: Are you trying to overpopulate the Earth?

A: “No, just outnumber the idiots.”

Q: Haven’t you ever heard of contraception/birth control?

A: “Yes, why?” [then give them a puzzled glance, as if you can’t imagine why on earth they’d ask you that]

Q: You’re done after this one, right?

A: “We figure we’ll stop once we get an ugly one. Hasn’t happened yet. In fact, they just keep getting cuter!”

or

A: “We’re going for our own reality TV show. Would you like to guest star?”

Q: Are you going to get fixed?/Is your husband going to get fixed?

A: “Why fix what isn’t broken?”

Q: Are you going to quit your job?

A: “Not unless the government bans pregnant women/mothers in the workforce.”

Q: Don’t you have a TV?

A: “If you think TV is better than sex, you’re doing it wrong.”

Or, if you need a response that’s a little “safer” for work, use:

A: “Yes, why?”

Q: How will you pay for all of those college educations?

A: “If we based our family size on if we could pay college tuition, we’d have to have a negative number of kids. Have you seen how much tuition costs these days??”

Q: How are you going to afford five kids?

A: “I plan to write a best-selling book in which we demonstrate how to deflect questions like that one. I’ve had a lot of experience so far.”

Or, depending on the setup of your workplace:

A: “With my substantial raise/bonus.” *wait a beat* “Oh… you didn’t get one?”

Make sure that you have a big smile to go with each comment. The less ruffled you are, the more foolish your interrogator will (hopefully) feel. Another tactic is to respond to impolite questions with another question, such as, “That’s a very personal question, don’t you think?” or, my personal favorite, “Why do you ask?” This will usually stop many people short because they won’t know to respond, or they’ll realize that maybe they shouldn’t be inquiring about such a personal subject.

They might say, “I’m just wondering/just curious,” in which case you can fall back on the immortal words of Barney Snaith: “Then I won’t tell you. I never satisfy curiosity.” [If you’ve never read The Blue Castle, get thee to a library! It’s one of L.M. Montgomery’s best novels.]

Or, if you have a casual dress code, you could invest in one of these T-shirts and bypass any potential conversations.

2. Redirect without Engaging

This strategy is helpful if you’re receiving comments from someone with whom you need to maintain a strictly professional relationship that isn’t conducive to casual joking, such as clients, customers, upper management, or even co-workers on your team with whom you prefer not to socialize with but can’t completely ignore. What you want to do in this case is acknowledge the comment and change the subject, sending a subtle yet definitive message that the topic isn’t grounds for discussion. For example:

Co-worker X: “Good gravy, five kids?! Are you crazy?”

You: “Mmhmm. Say, did you get the memo about the TPS reports? What do you think about the new cover sheet?”

Customer Y: “You’re pregnant AGAIN? Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?”

You: “Yes. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” [Walk away]

Or, if you can’t walk away because you’re stuck on the phone or behind a counter:

You: “Yes. Is there anything else I can help you with?” or “Yes. Let’s take a look at the red Swingline staplers, they might be more to your liking.”

Client Z: “I think it’s really irresponsible to have so many kids when the world is already overpopulated.”

You: “I see. Have you had a chance to view the sales figures that Brian sent over? We’ve had a lot of success marketing our pieces of flair to Chotchkie’s.”

VP Lumbergh: “If you could let me know if you’re going to have more kids after this one, that’d be great.”

You: [bland smile] “We’ll see. Oops, got to go, I have a meeting with the Bobs in five minutes.”

Or

You: [bland smile] “We’ll see. By the way, when I was working on Saturday I found a glitch in the accounting software…”

Keep acknowledging with short, one- or two-word answers and change the subject. Usually, all but the chronically tactless will get the hint and drop it.

If you happen to be stuck in a workplace with the chronically tactless, I’m terribly sorry. All you can really do in that case is make your point clearly and firmly. “That’s personal; I’d rather not discuss it. Let’s talk about Client Project Alpha.” Or, “I’d really rather not discuss my family planning choices at work. Do you know the status of the deliverables for Project Omega?”

3. Escalate to HR/Management

This solution is a last resort, and should be rare (in theory), but it is a viable one if you’re constantly receiving egregiously inappropriate comments or if one specific co-worker seems fixated on your situation, to the point of giving you constant grief about your family size or pregnancy status. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) specifically mentions pregnancy in its fact sheet regarding workplace harassment:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

The EEOC also specifies what workplace harassment is not:

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Even if the negative comments you receive don’t rise to the level of workplace harassment, you can still take action. The first step is to tell the your interrogator, politely but firmly, that your family size isn’t up for discussion, as you would for the chronically tactless. “Milton, I’d rather not discuss my family planning choices with you. Please don’t bring it up again.”

If he (or she) tries to pass it off as a joke or accuses you of being oversensitive, remain calm but firm. “Nina, I’ve made my position clear on this. My family planning choices aren’t something I discuss at work. Please don’t bring it up again.”

After that, you document, document, document. If it gets bad enough, you go to your manager and/or HR – or even the boss of the person giving you grief. Stick with the facts: “I’ve asked Milton repeatedly to stop commenting on my family size but I’m afraid his comments persist. He’s brought up the topic 5 times in the last 3 days. It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I’m having trouble focusing on my work when he’s around as a result. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this?”

Any manager or HR rep worth their salt will have a chat with Milton and tell him to cut it out or face consequences (and then enforce said consequences if Milton fails to comply).

Sadly, not all managers or HR reps know how to deal with this type of harassment, and some will try to downplay it or brush it off. If that happens you can try go up the chain, but if that isn’t possible (such as in smaller workplaces) you may have to suck it up and deal with it (while starting a job search, if feasible, in order to get a new job with competent employers). Keep documenting, though – in the worst case scenario, you might have grounds for an EEOC complaint if the harassment becomes pervasive enough.

Thankfully, I’ve never been in that particular situation; I’ve always been able to use strategies #1 and #2 to defuse and deflect comments about my family size in the workplace, and it’s occasionally led to some interesting discussions regarding NFP and related topics.

Do you have any favorite comebacks or responses to comments about your larger-than-average family size? Please share in the comments!

A New Saint for Working Mothers

Exciting news! Pope Francis has approved the canonization of Blessed Zélie and Louis Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Blessed Zélie Martin is one of the patronesses of working mothers. She trained as a lacemaker and ran a successful business before and after marrying and having children:

Eight more children followed in the next thirteen years. Louis and Zélie rejoiced at each birth and grieved when three of them died as small babies, but the greatest sorrow, especially for Louis, was the death of Hélène at the age of five, on February 22nd 1870, her eldest sister’s tenth birthday. That same year Louis sold his business to his nephew so that he could help Zélie with hers. He had already taken over the book-keeping and was now free to travel to obtain orders. Zélie had fifteen women working for her in their own homes and every Thursday they brought her the work they had done and received the cotton and their instructions for the next week. Zélie assembled the pieces that they brought to her. She often worked late into the night as she always gave time to her children when they needed it and she wrote many letters especially to her two eldest daughters when they were in boarding school.

Blessed Zélie and Louis are the first spouses in the history of the Church to be canonized as a couple. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the canonization announcement of such an excellent and holy example of Catholic marriage came the day after the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. Yay, God!

Making You a Priority

“What do you do all day?”

As a working mother, I rarely get this question. It’s most often posed to stay-at-home-moms, and it really makes no sense to me. Do the people who ask this question really have no idea of the massive amount of work it takes to manage a home, especially if you have multiple small children? There’s cleaning, laundry, meal planning, cooking, homework/homeschooling, home repair, yard work, paying bills… the list seems endless, and even if one parent stays at home there often don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.

As one member of the Catholic Working Mothers Facebook group quipped in response to a discussion about this question,

What do you mean what do they [SAHMs] do?! They do everything we’re desperately cramming in on the evenings and weekends with no time – plus, you know, all that childcare. You know exactly what they do; it’s everything we need more time to do.

The flip side of this question is one that I am asked frequently, especially in the aforementioned Catholic Working Mother’s group: “How do you find time to get it all done?”

The short answer is: I don’t.

That’s the plain truth of it. Something always suffers. It’s just a matter of prioritizing. Every evening, when I look at my long to-do list, I identify which items are the most important, and try to tackle those. Everything else has to wait.

Meals and clothes are what I focus on. We need to eat and we need clean clothes to wear. I try to keep up with meal planning but that’s a work in progress. The laundry gets done but it doesn’t always get put away. But we have food to eat and clean clothes to wear.

Then there are a few other essential tasks depending on the day — the garbage truck comes early Thursday morning so the trash and recycling need to be taken out Wednesday night, for example. We need our trash hauled away on a regular basis so that gets bumped up on the Wednesday task list.

Other housework goes by the wayside. For example, my floors are constantly dirty. With an active, mobile toddler we’ve had to pay a bit more attention to the state of the floors, but luckily my ten-year-old still thinks sweeping the floor is fun (she likes to pretend she’s Cinderella). I’m teaching her how to mop, too. Sometimes the rug in the living room gets vacuumed; sometimes it doesn’t. There is generally clutter everywhere. I try to spend time each weekend decluttering but it feels like shoveling snow in a blizzard.

It's a metaphor. I'm the house and the snow is my to-do list...
It’s a metaphor. I’m the house and the snow is my to-do list…

I’ve implemented daily chores for my older kids (10, 7, 5) and I have my 3-year-old pitch in where he can. This is helping to keep the mess level somewhere above “Department of Health Violation,” which is a pleasant change of pace, but I have a toddler who loves making messes (and he’s in that delightful “let’s throw random objects into the toilet” phase) so it’s a constant work in progress.

So what do you do when you feel like you’re drowning in work and there aren’t enough hours in the day? It’s all about prioritizing. Top of the list needs to be your own self-care. In many households, regardless of which parent works outside the home (or even if both of them do), the mother is the spoke that keeps the wheel of the household turning. If the spoke cracks or breaks, the wheel crashes to the ground.

I’ve found Jen Fulwiler’s tips for survival mode helpful to working moms. Specifically:

1. Don’t let your sleep suffer. Easier said than done if you have babies or toddlers (or older children who don’t sleep well), but it’s so important to make sure you’re getting as much sleep as you can manage. Lack of sleep magnifies problems and makes everything seem a thousand times worse, and it doesn’t do anything to improve your work performance, either. I usually go to bed shortly after the kids do, even if it means leaving housework undone. Sometimes during the work day (weather permitting) I might sneak out to my car and take a quick power nap, if I didn’t get decent sleep the night before.

2. Don’t neglect your spiritual life. Again, easier said than done, especially when the thought of going to Mass with your frequently rowdy and misbehaving children causes you to break out in a cold sweat. But we can’t do this alone. God will give us the strength to keep going but we need to remember to ask for it. Even if you take the entire day to say the rosary, one Hail Mary at a time, that’s better than nothing. Even just a, “Lord, please help me through this” at a difficult moment. I may not have the time to read an entire book about theology or the saints, but I’ve signed up for a Daily C.S. Lewis e-mail so I can fit a little spiritual reading into the day.

3. Fit in quality time with your husband. It’s so important to take time to connect with one another, especially after a hectic day or a busy week. Date nights out on the town every week would be awesome, but we don’t have the time or the budget for that. So we’ll spend an hour watching something on Netflix before bed, or just talk while we have a glass of wine. If we have the luxury if a little extra time, we might play a board game together.

4. Make your load lighter. Can you afford to hire someone to help with the housework, even just once a month or once every six weeks? Do it! Has someone offered to watch the kids so you can have some “me” time? Take them up on it! I know many moms struggle with guilt when they try to fit in “me” time, saying that they already feel so bad that they are away from their kids while they’re working. And I understand that. At the same time, while we love our kids, being a parent is stressful. We need to take time to recharge our own batteries or we’ll completely run out of energy at a certain point. Even if it’s just 30 minutes at a coffee shop or 60 minutes at Adoration, find time for you. Every day would be great but that’s often not realistic, so at least once per week. I like to shut myself in my bathroom with a bubble bath, a glass of wine, and good book for 60 minutes of uninterrupted bliss.

Find something that works for you and make it a priority, just as important as the cooking, the laundry, and getting the garbage out every Wednesday. You are important – your mental health, your spiritual health, and your physical health. If one suffers, they all will, and that means your family suffers by extension.

Extenuating Circumstances

Elizabeth Duffy published a piece about finding the middle ground between the noxious Prosperity Gospel and forever playing the martyr in order to be miserable for God:

Barring serious illness or extenuating circumstances, times of extreme difficulty with normal life should be temporary.

 If they are not temporary, it could be time to wonder if we’re setting traps for ourselves or creating a life of soft controversy because joy seems untrustworthy, or undeserved, or we have past associations with fun and sin, or maybe we just don’t feel good about feeling good when there’s so much suffering in the world.

Extenuating circumstances. How do you discern if you have them? What is extreme difficulty? What is temporary?

Mary and JesusFor several years now I have been haunted by an enduring sadness. That’s not to say I am sad all the time, but it doesn’t take much scratching under the surface to find it. Depression runs in my family so I have thoroughly questioned myself to search for symptoms of that illness, but no, I don’t think I am depressed, just sad.

I started my career, fresh out of graduate school, at about the same time I became a mother. This was not an accident. The decision for me to work was made because my potential career was much more lucrative and because I do not know how to cook very well. That’s it. No grand statements about “having it all” or overriding feminist philosophies or really any deep thought. Only that I could make more money and not cook at the same time.

I began this journey of career and motherhood and it was hard. Physically hard. Mentally hard. More challenging than I had ever imagined. Being pregnant and working was dreadful. Having a newborn and working was maybe worse. But I managed. I missed my babies, but they were with their Daddy so I never worried about them. I was working because I could make more money and we would be financially sound. I also wouldn’t have to touch raw meat. I liked my job and it suited me. I busted my rear in the beginning knowing the money would come, the opportunities would open, and I would provide for my family.

After awhile it became apparent that my job was a dead end. The expected payday never came. I got rave reviews and few raises. I was denied promotions, never given any new job responsibilities, but was told I was a vital member of the team. I was shunted to an obsolete system which had no concrete transferable skills with which I could run to another company. I had lots of recognition as a dependable and steady worker and not a lot else. A new job meant another entry level position. This is not how the script was supposed to play out.

At the same time, my attitude toward the vocation of motherhood was undergoing a radical change. The wisdom of protecting the mother as she protects the child shone like a light in my ever-reasonable mind. I was running myself ragged for rewards that were not coming.

And then my oldest started school. This was the touchpoint of a crisis. It became very obvious to me that swooping in at suppertime for an hour or two of company with my family was not enough for me. I’ve always laughed at the notion of “quality time” because it seemed such an absurd notion. Children need and demand quantity in addition to quality, but there I was with “quality time” being the only option. I wanted to be highly involved in her school and her education and the truth was I didn’t have time. Every day was a whirlwind of events and I could barely grasp what was happening in her life. I also wanted to sit and rock my baby.

These two distinct strands in my life suddenly began to make sense together. My job was not panning out and I wanted to be home anyway. It is hard to describe the thought process without it sounding like sour grapes so just believe me when I say it wasn’t. All at once I could see the blessing of being denied these promotions and raises because it made it easier to walk away from work. I wanted to come home, there was not much holding me to work, and the gap in income was not as great as it might have been. I could even learn to cook.

That was three years ago.

For whatever reason or set of reasons, this simple reordering of our employment arrangement has not been so simple. I thought it would be the work of a few months or maybe a whole year, but that has not turned out to be the case. I mourn for what I have missed, for what I am currently missing, for what I will miss. I do not remember the infancy of my second child. Memory is closely tied to sleep and I was severely sleep deprived. I search for a tangible memory and find an 18 month hole. This fact stabs me.

What is extreme difficulty? Over these years I have discovered that my acceptance of this situation depends a lot on the seasons. In the spring and summer, I am usually hopeful and accepting. The possibility of change is palpable. The work is not so daunting, the commute not so deadening, and I vow that I can endure for as long as it takes. In the fall and winter, I struggle with despair. It seems like this will never end. Nothing will ever change. I cry driving into work more times than I care to recall. My mood is as dark as the weather. I struggle with anger that this has been so unsolvable.

What is temporary? Over the course of a lifetime, three years is temporary even if it feels long while living it. I hope for the day when I can look back and point at this time and say, “It was temporary.” But when does it cease to be temporary? What if it isn’t temporary? I can’t bear to think it. Even in this “temporary” time, my children continue to grow and I am not home.

What are extenuating circumstances? From a modern perspective this angst is absurd. My life is completely normal. Mothers work every day. Society encourages mothers to work. You go, girl. A mother at home is wasting her potential or “has never worked a day in her life,” right? The idea that there is something unusual about my situation is not true. There are millions of mothers all around the country doing exactly what I am doing every day: leaving their children and driving to work. Many of these women are in far worse situations than I am. How arrogant and expectant for me not to be satisfied. I have a stable marriage, four wonderful and healthy children, and a job that allows us to live comfortably even if there is not much left for extras. The list of people who would change places with me is quite long, but I can’t help but feel there is something deeply wrong here and the sadness remains.

…and her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy.  –Jane Austen

What is God’s Will in all this? I have no idea. Surely there is more intended in this situation than for me to play the starring role in a cautionary tale. It seems that if I were meant to fully live out my vocation at home, the job situation would not be so impenetrable. It also seems that if I were meant to continue working, there would be some kind of encouragement in my employment: a raise, increased responsibility, something. The truth is I don’t want that kind of encouragement. If I am supposed to work, it would also seem that my yearning to be home would soften and lessen. If anything, my longing is stronger now than it was at the beginning. Three years is definitely not a phase. To be given this desire to live this vocation full time but only be allowed to fulfill its duties poorly, part-time, and incompletely is agony. I cry out to be rescued. I am supposed to want what God wants, but the truth is I want to be home, beg for my way, and find cold comfort in the notion of sacrificing my children’s childhood.

I cling to hope even when it tastes bitter. When a new opportunity arises, I tell myself not to get excited, not to daydream about the future, not to get ahead of the process, but even with these internal precautions, I am devastated all over again when it doesn’t work out. I hope in spite of myself.

Even among all this sadness, there is still joy and blessing to be found. The clarity of mind and purpose this period of waiting has brought is a tremendous blessing. The space I have had to ponder about vocation and faith, beauty and truth is nothing but blessing. The time I have been given to develop friendships in this strange purgatory is blessing again.

When people wonder why God allows suffering, I think the answer is so much about God’s knowledge of joy. That somehow, strangely, the relief and shock of being rescued from something is greater and more wonderful than never having been in trouble at all. We want never to be in trouble, but God knows that by us being in trouble, being in the way of perishing, and then him snatching us out and setting us on dry ground in safety, we will have seen who he is where we couldn’t have before.  —Anne Kennedy

I am awaiting rescue, confident it is coming, doubting it will ever get here. I am ready to learn how to cook.

Coping with Miscarriage at Work

Having a miscarriage is awful in and of itself, but an extra layer of difficulty can be added if you’re working outside the home. Pregnancy can be tricky to deal with in the workplace, especially if you’re in an unsupportive environment, and navigating a miscarriage can be a thousand times worse (especially if you didn’t want anyone, including your boss, to know that you’re pregnant).

Sadly, I had to deal with this situation last week, when I miscarried my eighth child, whom we named Francis, at 12 weeks. My situation was made slightly less awful due to a few factors:

  • My boss already knew I was pregnant. I had told my boss about my pregnancy very early on, at about 5 weeks, because my pregnancy nausea was so severe that I had to leave work early – only a few hours after arriving for the day – due to a bad vomiting episode. I was comfortable doing this because I knew my boss would be both congratulatory and supportive. I also knew he’d keep the news confidential until I announced it myself. (This was my third pregnancy with him as my supervisor.)
  • I was working from home at the time. I work from home (WFH) three days per week, and that particular day (June 1) was one of my regular WFH days. I used my lunch break to go to a prenatal appointment, and while at that appointment it was discovered that my baby had passed away. I texted my boss to tell him the situation and told him I’d need the rest of the day off. He offered immediate condolences and told me to take off as much time as I needed. (Thankfully, my husband’s boss, who also knew about my pregnancy, was similarly understanding.)

My situation was slangel with babyightly more awful due to the fact that I had already told my co-workers about the baby. Just four weeks earlier, an ultrasound had showed a baby with a heartbeat, measuring spot-on and presumptively healthy, so I told my coworkers about my pregnancy at about 10 weeks.

After the miscarriage, it was very hard knowing I was going to have to “un-tell” everyone. I took three days off and arranged to work from home for an additional week; on my first day of work after the miscarriage I sent out an e-mail to my team (five co-workers, plus my boss). It was easier than telling everyone in person.

I kept the e-mail short and simple: “I have sad news. I lost the baby to miscarriage on Monday. I’ll be working from home the next 5 business days and will be back in the office on Thursday.”

Here are some additional tips for navigating an early pregnancy loss situation in the workplace:

1. If you’re in an unsupportive environment, you don’t have to tell your boss that you were pregnant or that you’re miscarrying or have miscarried; you can simply tell him/her that you are undergoing health complications. You can also tell this to HR if needed. However, if practicable, I do recommend telling your immediate supervisor and/or HR, if relevant, the nature of your health issues. It’s easier to explain your exact needs, and it will also give him/her a head’s up that while your physical healing may only take a few days, your emotional healing will likely take longer.

2. Similarly, I recommend telling your co-workers the nature of your health issues, or at least telling the co-workers you work most intimately with; I’ve found that co-workers may be less resentful and/or more willing to help pick up some slack if they understand why you’ve had to take such sudden time off, and why you may have trouble concentrating once you do return to work. It may also help stem any nosy questions about when you and your husband plan to have kids/more kids.

3. If you’re in a client-facing situation, that’s a bit trickier. If your clients already knew you were pregnant, then a brief e-mail (similar to what I sent my co-workers, above) is likely the easiest way to let them know. If not, it’s probably best just to let them know you’ll be out of the office or working a modified schedule due to sudden health issues.

4. If you’ve been struggling with infertility, you may want to consider being honest about it with your boss/co-workers. You don’t have to go into any great detail, but a simple, “We’re dealing with infertility,” when asked about plans for children can make people stop and reconsider asking those personal questions. I’ve never had to bear that particular cross, but I have had co-workers in that situation, and their honesty with others helped prevent some (but not all) nosy questions as mentioned above.

5.  Take as much time off as you can. I can’t emphasize this enough. You are grieving the loss of a child, even if our society doesn’t recognize it that way. If your company has bereavement leave policies, inquire about using that leave in lieu of paid time off. If you have available PTO, take as much time as you can afford. If your loss is later in pregnancy or if you experience complications, you should also investigate FMLA or short-term disability leave, if offered. Sometimes working can help as a distraction, but if you don’t give yourself adequate time and space to grieve your loss, as well as recover physically, it can just get worse in the long run.

On a related note, I’ve written a blog post for Catholic Stand about the logistics of burying your baby after a miscarriage, which I hope will be helpful for others in similar situations. 

Mothers Who Work for the Church Need Our Support

Note: The following post was not authored by me. It was submitted by a personal friend who asked to remain anonymous. 

I always thought that working at a Catholic Church and having children would be the dream. However, after having my first, a daughter, I’ve found that the dream isn’t what I thought it would be.

I work as a Director of Religious Education at a large metropolitan parish with over 6,000 registered families. Needless to say, my job entails a lot of different responsibilities. I gave birth just before Easter, which meant that I was on leave for, arguably, the busiest time of year for my department. I did everything that I could before I went on leave (including working from home as I labored before going to the hospital) to ensure that things would be taken care of and in order while I was gone.

Mary and JesusI returned after just under six weeks of leave. I chose to use all of my sick time during my leave so that I could get paid. (Side note: my parish actually had to figure out what the policy for leave was when I became pregnant. They nearly made the decision to force me to use all of my vacation AND sick time on my leave. Fortunately, they let me decide how much, if any, of my vacation/sick time to use.) My first day back was actually pretty fun. My coworkers were excited to see me again and to see my daughter. That ‘fun’ feeling only lasted for that first day.

Before my maternity leave began I worked out an arrangement with my boss, the pastor, that I would return to work after 6 weeks, so long as I could bring my daughter with me until my husband, a teacher, finished teaching for the school year. This plan was then communicated to the staff. I hoped and believed that since the Church is a pro-life, pro-family organization, returning to work with my daughter in tow would be accepted and respected, especially since the pastor endorsed this plan. What I was met with in those first few weeks surprised me.

I attended a staff meeting (with my daughter sleeping as I wore her) in which the staff were told by the pastor that we are not allowed to deal with “personal” things while at work. I understand the idea, but my daughter is there – per my pre-arranged agreement with my boss. Coworkers began making comments about how much work I was or was not getting done. Sometimes they made them to my face, other times they made them not knowing I could hear what they were saying. I was shocked and hurt, to say the very least.

Among the most shocking days was when I arrived to work and another coworker began a very blunt conversation with me about how I should not and could not close my office door and cover the window on my office door while I nursed my daughter. I informed her of laws protecting working mothers who are to be given a space to express milk that is not a bathroom. Since there are no such rooms in our parish, I covered the window to my office door and called it good. She vehemently disagreed and the conversation only ended because I walked away.

The fact of the matter is that going back to work six weeks after giving birth is incredibly difficult – more so than I imagined it would be. I’m grateful that I get to bring my daughter with me, but at the same time, I feel divided. I love my job and want to keep working, but I love my daughter and don’t want to miss a second of her development. My job is a job – a great job working with children and introducing them to Jesus. But my life as wife and mother is a vocation and that’s not going to change. Jobs come and go, but this vocation is here to stay.

Harder still is going back to work only to be met with judgment, rude comments and unsupportive coworkers. I could have taken a longer maternity leave, but I didn’t. I felt some sort of Catholic guilt at the thought of my work being put on someone else’s shoulders should I extend my leave (which I could have done, per FMLA, though it would have been unpaid). I didn’t and don’t expect to be lauded for doing my job, but I do hope for and expect at least a modicum of respect in the workplace.

It is interesting, though, that people want to see and play with my daughter, but are also completely okay with questioning my work, talking behind my back and telling me how I’m breaking work policy (I’m not) and that I should just find a closet to breastfeed/pump in (there are none into which I can fit). If given the choice, would my coworkers rather I have extended my leave, thus putting my work on their shoulders? I think not.

As I’ve been reflecting on all of this, I’ve realized that there is a disconnect between priests (who are the boss) and lay employees. Priests have their vocation as their job – they are tied up into the same thing. They married the Church. They married ministry. Lay people, however, are not married to the Church, they are married to a spouse. Lay people are not married to ministry, they have a spouse and children to look after and care for. In no way is that meant to disrespect priests or their vocation, but I think it makes it harder for priests to relate to or understand the struggle their lay employees (especially working mothers) face. That disconnect then trickles ‘downhill’, so to speak, with the other employees. Since, more often than not, priests struggle to understand the plight of a working mother, the other employees lack a clear example of what it is like to support rather than tear down a working mother.

There are, as far as I can see, no easy answers here. The options are:

1. Return to work as soon as possible which would put my infant in childcare OR in my office (leading to the aforementioned workplace strife).

2. Extend my unpaid leave, strain my family financially and put my workload on my coworkers.

3. Hire someone to fill in for me while I’m gone (who would’ve had little to no training), thus potentially straining the parish finances.

OR

4. Allow me to bring my daughter to work while supporting me in my efforts to balance my vocation as wife and mother with my job responsibilities.

In a sense, there is an easy answer, but no one seems to be choosing it in my situation. That support could be as simple as the pastor, at our usual staff meeting, informing/reminding the staff that he and I have come to this agreement and telling the staff that if they have any questions, they can take them up with him, otherwise they would do well to be quiet about it. Perhaps he could even remind them that this is the Catholic Church, a pro-life, pro-woman, pro-family entity.

Instead, I’ve been met with annoyed coworkers, snide comments and made to feel shame for breastfeeding my child. After my first few weeks back, I remarked to my husband that if my faith were shaky such treatment inside the walls of a parish would seriously make me question my faith. I wouldn’t wish that on any working mother, whether she works for the Church or not, especially when more can and should be done to support a working mother.

[Note from Admin: What do you think can be done in our parish environments to encourage more support for working mothers, whether they work for the church or elsewhere? Please leave your thoughts in the combox!]

Catholic Resources for Your Commute

I live 42 miles from my office. Due to traffic, especially in the winter months when all the snowbirds are back in town, it takes me up to 90 minutes to drive to or from work. Yes, it’s crazy, and I don’t recommend it. However, my husband and I fell in love with a specific suburb, and felt it was a great place to raise a family. We also had a lot of family that lived nearby, and since only one of us had to commute at the time (my husband worked from home full-time from 2008 to 2014), we decided that we’d rather commute to work than commute to family. Also, at the time, the plan was for me to become a SAHM eventually. That plan has fallen by the wayside, but I have no plans to change jobs. The position I have right now is a good one, and right now I’m able to telecommute part time (I work from home 3 days per week).

However, from November 2008 until November 2014 I was driving 90 miles per day 4-5 days a week (I started working from home one day per week in 2013).

I’ve had to find many creative ways to pass the time during my commute. I’ll sometimes listen to music but I prefer Immaculate Heart Radio, or playlists on my iPhone. I really love podcasts and audiobooks, though, and to that end I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite resources.

Catholic Resources for your Commute
“Rosario” by owyzzz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Text added by JoAnna Wahlund.

 

Catholic Answers Live. I’ve been a fan of the Catholic Answers apostolate for several years –the tracts on Catholic.com played a large part in my journey to the Church – and although I didn’t discover the podcast until after my conversion, I’ve listened to it on the radio or via MP3 download since 2005 or so. It’s great to have the day’s two episodes automatically downloaded to my iPhone every night so I can keep up. I especially enjoy episodes where Jimmy Akin (staff apologist) and Patrick Coffin (the show’s host) discuss deep theological issues such as, “Is it morally permissible to utilize zombie labor?”

The Break with Fr. Roderick. “From the Simpsons to the sacraments, from technology to theology, this show features the cool and the classical, the past and the future, the trends and the tradition…whatever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s time for a break!” Hosted by the Dutch podcasting priest, Catholic new media guru, and all around funny guy, Fr. Roderick Vonhögen.

Among Women. “‘Among Women’ celebrates the beauty and grace that women experience in their Catholic Faith and Life. We hope this ‘faith-sharing’ program will be ‘faith building’ …inspiring women in their call to holiness by drawing closer to Christ and the Catholic Church, by living lives of prayer and loving service.”

The Catholics Next Door. This weekly podcast is done by husband-and-wife team Greg and Jennifer Willits. The Willits family has five kids, four boys and a girl, so the show’s chock-full of fun stories about family life and Catholic parenting, games, and serious discussions as well. (Greg is also a kindred spirit in that he’s a huge Star Wars fan –one of their sons is named Benjamin Kenobi. How cool is that?).

The Jennifer Fulwiler Show – Jennifer Fulwiler of ConversionDiary.com has her own radio show & podcast! It’s a lot of fun.

Daily Readings from the USCCB. The daily readings for the Mass in convenient podcast form. The only drawback is that they’re in the American Standard Version as opposed to the (in my opinion) better-translated Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, but regardless it’s a good way to get deeper into Scripture on a daily basis.

LibriVox.org. This is a site, not a podcast (although there is a LibriVox podcast available as well). It’s a fantastic resource for those who love audiobooks but can’t afford to purchase many on a regular basis. LibriVox volunteers record literary works that are in the public domain and offer them free of charge. You can listen to books by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Therese of Liseux, and many more.

Did you know that some public libraries offer the option to check out audiobooks? The one in my neck of the woods is called the Greater Phoenix Digital Library. If your local public library has this option, it’s a very affordable way to listen to a wide variety of audiobooks, including works by G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, among others (such as Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI).

I have a difficult time praying the rosary while I’m driving — traffic is often thick and I find it too distracting. However, if you don’t have this problem, there are many great Rosary MP3s available – Rosary Army has some great ones, EWTN has downloads of Mother Angelica and the Nuns of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery saying the rosary, and Discerning Hearts has some too.

Sonitus Sanctus has a plethora of Catholic talks on MP3, and you can get free MP3s from the Mary Foundation (including the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet!) as well.

Do you have a preferred Catholic podcast or other resource for a long commute? Please share your favorites in the combox!

Gender at Work

In some of his general audiences this past April, Pope Francis addressed gender roles. On April 15, the Pope intimated that men and women have been created with difference, and this difference transcends our physical bodies and permeates the roles each gender plays. Drawing from St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the Pope said that together a man and a woman image God, and they necessarily need difference to do so.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis’s general address on April 15 started up a conversation about how gender roles should work in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, the idea that men and women image God not only as individuals but also together in their union is not palatable to our current, secular belief system. Starting with the birth control pill and ending with gender reassignment surgery, modern society has tried everything it can to destroy differences between the sexes. It’s as if secular thinkers have applied the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision beyond race to also gender: women cannot be equal to men unless they are the same. So now there’s “gender theory,” which asserts that the differences we perceive between the sexes are socially constructed; women act like women because societal forces encourage them to behave a certain way. If only we would remove those pressures, men and women would be the same, thus making the genders equal.

The Pope called gender theory “an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.” He continued, “Yes, we risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”

Contrary to the current secular mindset, we cannot negate our gender. Catholic thinkers such as St. Edith Stein (more on her later) have rightly pointed out that our gender goes beyond our physical stature and genitalia; our identity as a man or woman also has a spiritual significance. Though the fact is not often brought to light, modern science has demonstrated that the structure of the female brain differs from that of the male. Women literally think differently than men do. So if created gender differences exist, it follows that men and women have different roles to play in creation.

However, this does not mean that a man’s sphere consists of public life while a woman’s sphere is relegated to the home. While those particular gender roles may have been set in stone for millennia, it’s clear that Pope Francis sees them as cultural and not part of our faith. In his general audience on April 29, Pope Francis defended some of the feminist impulses that began in the 1960s: “Many believe that the changes that have occurred in these last decades [i.e. the decline of marriage and the family] were put in motion by the emancipation of women,” he said. “But even this argument is invalid, it’s false, it isn’t true! It is a form of male chauvinism, which always seeks to dominate women.” Later in the audience, the Pope lamented the male-female pay gap, calling it “an absolute disgrace.”

Because work outside of being a homemaker is a valid calling for women and gender differences exist, how should women consider their unique gender role in the capacity of what they do to earn income?

The American work world today is still not fully hospitable to women. Even though it’s now 2015 – more than half a century after Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” and Second Wave feminism was born – women are clearly not equal to men in the workplace. While there are a few areas in which women command higher salaries than men (most notably in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields), the work world is in many ways an old boys’ club.

On average, women are compensated 12 percent less than their male counterparts are. Only about one in 20 Fortune 1000 CEOs is a woman. Women are severely underrepresented on corporate boards, even though studies have shown that companies with more females on their boards perform better. For every woman in a senior leadership position, there are more than four men. We’ve never had a female American president.

It’s widely argued that women take home smaller paychecks than men because they do not negotiate their starting wage and that they do not ask for subsequent raises as often (or at all) as men do. Yet when women do ask for raises, it is much more likely to reflect poorly on them. One 2014 study found that during annual reviews, 88 percent of women received negative criticism while 59 percent of men did. Moreover, the criticism the men received was constructive in nature while the women’s criticism was not very helpful. In office meetings, women are less likely to verbally contribute, and when they do speak up, their ideas are taken less seriously than those of men. And the preponderance of evidence shows that it does not work for women to navigate this situation by acting like men. When women deny their gender and act masculine in the workplace, they end up alienating everyone – men and women alike.

Pope Francis’s general address on April 15 started up a conversation about how gender roles should work in the public sphere. The Pope elevated the role of women, saying that society needs to recognize and value the “feminine genius.” Theology of the Body experts might recognize this term; TOB expert Katrina Zeno wrote a book, “The Feminine Genius,” devoted to the subject.

Many people believe that the thought of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, aka Edith Stein, strongly influenced St. Pope John Paul II’s conception of the feminine genius. In her writings, Stein argues that all human beings have three vocations as outlined in the first chapters of Genesis: to image God, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it. For Stein, women and men were different not so much in that they were called to all three; the difference lie in which vocation was emphasized for each gender. For men, their first calling is to subdue the earth; their second calling was as parent. For women, these orders are reversed so that being a mother is a woman’s primary calling.

Edith Stein, later St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, ca. 1920
Edith Stein, later St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, ca. 1920

Though Stein was never a mother herself, she stressed the concept of “spiritual motherhood,” something that all women are called to. Spiritual motherhood, a large part of the feminine genius, happens when women nurture the personal growth of other people. Women help others reach their potentials and are less attuned to their own narrow interests.

While this calling of sacrifice and self-negation seems like the lesser of the two gender callings (and it certainly is in the eyes of the world), it fits in with many other Christian paradoxes, e.g. the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, whoever wishes to save his life must lose it, etc. What seems to the world as weakness is actually something that is extremely spiritually strong. That is why Paul can say in 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Certainly not every Christian woman will be a mother, but every Christian woman can “bear children” by adhering to her gender role of nurturing others.

That same gender role can be brought to the workplace. Women can act as mentors, helping others improve their job performance. Women can lend their natural proclivities to look at situations holistically and consider people and emotions. Women can foster collaboration and fruitful discussion, cutting to the quick of the competitive, individualistic nature that drives the business world designed by men. While a woman who embraces her feminine role at work might be taking a risk (not playing by the “rules” could close her off from some financial success), she will help transform the workplace from within into something that better serves people created in God’s image.

And to Stein, the feminine gender role was not entirely about self-negation. She taught that by helping others experience wholeness, a woman becomes whole herself. She didn’t view the role of “helpmate” as something separate from the development of a woman’s own completeness.

Finally, Stein offered practical advice to working women, whom she acknowledged as people who were quite busy. She suggested that the “first hour of your morning belongs to God” through prayer, Bible study or attending Mass. While it seems paradoxical that someone who is busy should take on another commitment, Stein argued that being spiritually filled up would help a woman better attend to the needs of her children and those at her workplace. “Tackle the day’s work that [God] charges you with, and he will give you the power to accomplish it,” she said. Given a woman’s role to nurture others, it makes sense that she would have to be full of God’s grace before she could pour herself out.

How is your calling as a woman expressed through the work you do outside your home? Are there other women in your workplace who model “spiritual motherhood,” and what can you learn from them? How do they make your work environment a better place?

About the author: Holly Hosler is a mother and a health care marketing copywriter. Reintroduced to Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross while researching for this post, she recalls that seeing the “Edith Stein” play in 1994 was one of the many foundational events that would culminate in her becoming Catholic on Easter 2003. Her next baby is due on August 9, St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day.

I Don’t Know How You Do It

There is nothing that prompted this post except memory. For some reason this phrase bubbled to the forefront of my mind and I remembered the pain it can sometimes bring:

I don’t know how you do it.

Usually the context of this phrase is when a mother who normally stays home with her children has had to leave town without them for a few days. She is struck by how much she misses her children and how happy she is to be reunited and then the fatal phrase is uttered:

I don’t know how you working mothers do it. I missed my children so much. I could not do this every day.

unhappy womanIt stabs. The intent is almost never malicious. It is an innocent wonder at how such a burden could consistently be borne. The problem with voicing such a thought is not that it isn’t reasonable or true. The problem is that it very reasonable and terribly true.

Other working mothers might have a different perspective, but here is my response to those who might wonder.

First of all, I leave every day because I have to do it. You could do it too if you had to do it. There isn’t anything special about me that makes it possible for me to leave which you might lack. The truth is that I experience the same pain that you do from being separated. I am not inured from it; I just get used to it.

When I first have to leave an infant, the pain is overwhelming. It is stabbing and constant. Every day is a battle and it takes every fiber of my being to make myself go where I have to go. The first few weeks are the worst because I feel like I am being ripped in half. Leaving every day opens the wound again. It stings. It does get easier but it doesn’t get better. Over time, after poking open the wound day after day, the pain subsides not because the wound is healing but because scar tissue forms. The scar tissue is numb. It isn’t that it doesn’t feel, but that it can’t.

I function in this state of numbness until something interrupts the daily routine. An illness, a few days off, anything at all breaks open the wound anew. Returning to work after such an interruption is hard, almost as hard as it is in the beginning. All of that scar tissue gets rips away and it takes time to build that newly hardened layer again.

This alternating state between raw pain and numb scar tissue lasts for the first year or so of baby’s life. It is so intense, I think, because of the hormonal dance between mother and baby and because the baby is so dependent. I cannot kid myself into believing the baby is happy with our separation because each night brings a baby desperately clinging to me. The baby may not be directly unhappy while I am gone, but her behavior after our nightly reunion clearly indicates that my absence is disruptive. Her behavior isn’t even one of distress, but of needing to be close all the time. Happily wanting to be held and nursed and toted by me all evening. I cannot pretend she does not notice my absence because I know she does.

After the first year of separation is over, the acuteness of the pain mellows into a hollowness. The baby is growing up and needs you less and less. This isn’t to say that a toddler doesn’t need his mother, but only to say the desperation of the need is less. He is happy with others and plays more independently. As the baby grows through toddlerhood and preschool and begins elementary school, the routine of leaving is just part of life. It is not like I am being ripped in half to leave anymore, but this easing of the acuity of the pain also comes with the aching hollowness in the realization of how much I
miss.

This pain is a different kind of pain. It doesn’t stab; it only sighs. It sighs at the missed moments and activities, the missed library trips and school parties, the missed outings that mothers do with their children. It sighs as the children get old enough to ask why you have to leave everyday and you have to explain.

Absence is the constant companion of my motherhood. There is a hollow spot where the memories of my children’s days should be. Spending too much time examining this spot is counterproductive, but it’s there even as I avert my view from it.

So how do I do it? One day at a time, sometimes one moment at a time. I keep my attention fixed on what is required and try not to think about what is preferred. I take comfort in the knowledge that if I was supposed to have been doing something else, I would have been doing it even while I don’t understand why this way was best. I work to make the future look less like the past and know, if I do my part, all will be well, whatever ‘well’ ends up being. Wait. Trust. Hope. Love.

Mostly though I want you to understand there isn’t anything special about me that makes it easier or even possible. It’s just the way it is. You could do it too, if you had to.

This post originally appeared on Jenny’s personal blog, Just Another Jenny.