Thursday, February 27, 2014

What is a Strong Woman?

I mentioned in my last post that I'd spent a lot of time over the past six months thinking about and reflecting on just what it meant to be a wife and a mother.    My entire life, I'd felt called to do just that - all I ever wanted to be when I was growing up was "a mom."   I learned pretty quickly in life, though, that this answer wasn't good enough for the people around me.   I'd always had good grades and excelled in school, so it seemed to be the mission of everyone around me to make me see the error of my ways and motivate me to "live up to my potential."  (Oh, how I hate that phrase!)   I know they truly were looking out for what they thought were my best interests at the time, but over the past six months, I've thought a lot about those times and those conversations.

I learned pretty quickly to change my answer from "a mom" to something a bit more, umm, impressive (?), when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.   People were satisfied when I answered "a veterinarian" (I held to that answer for a long time) or "a doctor" or....pretty much anything else that came to mind when I was put on the spot.   It seemed that anything that required a college education would satisfy those around me  - so, for a long time, I followed their plans.   I went to college.   Floundered a bit with choosing a major (because there isn't a degree in "motherhood," believe it or not), but eventually ended up graduating with honours, in about 3 years time.

College wasn't a huge loss, even if it wasn't a smart financial move on my part, because I met my husband there...pretty much right away.   We started dating shortly after beginning our freshman year, and a few months after graduating from undergrad, we were married.   Again, those same well meaning people around me often counseled me on being "too young" or not dating a couple different guys (at least, I guess) before settling down.  We never wavered in our decision to get married at just barely 22, but we did spend a lot of time talking about whether or not we were truly ready, so those conversations weren't in vain, in some ways.

The past six months, during which I was forced to slow down and simplify, allowed me to "take a step back," if you will.  At times, I felt as if I was watching my own life through a camera lens - a "The Life of Heidi" movie, I guess you could say.   I may have seemed distracted or flaky to those around me (sorry!), but I was living in a continual state of surprise and, well, learning.    I've never been one to "slow down."   Even my slow days were chaotic by the standards of most:  lots of field trips or running around, pushing myself to exhaustion every day with chores or projects or volunteer commitments.  A "slow" day was one with only two errands to run, in addition to homeschooling.    This pregnancy, and all that came with it, dictated otherwise.  

For the first time, ever, I dealt with morning sickness so severe that I could only eat apples and drink water, and spent many, many days as horizontal as possible, watching the boys learn and play.    I'd dictate homeschool lessons from a mostly-fully-reclined position on the couch, stopping every few minutes to run to the bathroom or lay down flat.   I'd fall asleep, watching the boys create movie sets out of boxes and videotaping their toy bugs attacking the cardboard cities.    I watched them just be themselves, with no expectations placed on their shoulders except for the expectation of staying healthy and alive.

I learned a lot about how the boys learn.   About their natural inclinations and interests.   That new information changed  how we homeschool (more on that at a later date).  But more than anything else, it changed ME.

I began to realize that until now, I'd only had one understanding of what it meant to be a "strong woman."   My understanding, shaped by 32 years of American culture, left me feeling completely weak and inadequate unless I pursued the impossible:  the magazine-worthy family.   The kids meeting every "your child should know" guideline published.   Extracurriculars coming out of our ears.   Hiring babysitter after babysitter so that I could never have to say "no" when asked to volunteer.    A full, homecooked meal on the dinner table every night (and breakfast table....and lunch table...).   Kids wearing matching outfits (without holes) and never with shaggy hair.   A clean car.   A clean house.

All of this because I could never live up to what I grew up learning was the ONLY strong woman option:   a prestigious career that followed a degree at a "good college," and only marrying after that career was established.   If I couldn't be a strong woman by those standards, I was going to have to be the only "strong" at-home mom I knew of:  the magazine mom.

(Now, before I go any further, please don't get me wrong:  I am NOT wanting to start a working mom vs stay-at-home-mom debate.   I do NOT mean to imply, in any way, that women who feel called to a career or work out of necessity are not strong women.  That is not, in any way, my point of view.)

What I *am* saying, however, is that I grew up believing that this kind of woman, the career-minded, professional woman, was the *only* kind of "strong woman."   It may not have been intended (and I don't believe it was intentional, truly), but all of the discussion about living up to my "potential," or the "But what do you *really* want to be when you grow up?" response to my truthful answer of wanting to be a mom, formed this idea in my head that the only way you could be a successful, strong woman was to have a career.

As I spent the past six months reflecting on what it meant to be a wife and mother, I realized that this image that I had formed in my head over all of those was completely wrong.     There is more than one way to be a "strong woman", and it would probably be a good idea for us to recognize the other women in our lives who model and witness to strength.   I'd guess that I wasn't the only one out there wearing herself to the bone to prove to the world (or herself) that she was strong.    Or more importantly, that she wasn't weak.   That she wasn't a failure.     Because, in all honesty, I'd be willing to bet that she doesn't believe that.

You see, I've come to realize that strength isn't necessarily defined the way that we Americans define it.

Strength is not professional success.

Strength is not measured in financial income.

Strength is not independence.

Can it include those things?   Sure.   But it is not limited to these things.

Strength is sacrificial.   Strength is living with love and compassion.

So, I can be a strong woman.   Even in my pajamas for the third day in a row.   Even as I close the schoolbooks early to spend time reading with a kid on the couch instead.   Even as I forget to brush my teeth.   Even as I don't add income to the house.   Even as I say "no" to the volunteer requests.   Even as I rest on the couch during this pregnancy, with a sink full of dishes.

Every time I put someone else's needs ahead of my own, I'm allowing God to shape me through my vocation.   Every time I sit through another painful rendition of Dr Seuss (performed by my beginning reader), God is using my vocation to increase my virtue.    Every laundry load I carry up and down the stairs is a little mortification, fighting my root sin of sensuality.   Every middle-of-the-night wake up call is a chance to die to myself and sacrifice for someone else.

Strength is allowing God to change our hearts.   Allowing Him to sanctify us, a tiny bit more.    That's true strength.......and it can be done, no matter where you are.

Even if you're in your pajamas in a dirty bathroom, forgetting to brush your teeth.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It's a beautiful life.....

It's been about six months now since I stopped blogging, and I've been feeling the urge to sit down at the computer once again.   Quite a bit recently, actually - there are so many thoughts and experiences percolating in my brain from the past six months, that I'm actually not sure where to begin.   Bear with me as I work my way through my muddled thoughts and promptings from my "sabbatical."

I spent a lot of time contemplating my life and vocation and just what God was calling me to as a Catholic wife and mother.    As an introvert (through-and-through melancholic, at that), it was as if I was on a refreshing (albeit difficult at times, but I don't think those two characteristics are exclusive) six-month long retreat.    I read.  A lot.   Spiritual books (mostly St Josemaria Escriva and Fulton Sheen).   Mommy books.  Catholic Mommy books.  Blogs.  Lots of blogs.   Apologetics books.  Good old Chesterton.  Pretty much anything I could get my  hands on that might help me grow deeper in my relationship with God and grow a better understanding of my vocation.   

It seems only fitting that the calling to start implementing some of the things that I learned over this time, as well as some of the ways I feel called to change, during the liturgical season of repentance and renewal of our Catholic faith.   God has a sense of humour, doesn't He?  ;)

It's been an interesting six months, physically as well as spiritually, for me.   Shortly after I wrote that last post back in August, we found out we were expecting a baby.   This is pregnancy #6 for me, and carrying a child after a loss (or multiple losses) sends a woman into a place of fear and anxiety that I would never wish upon even my worst enemy.   Looking back, I see my blogging sabbatical being just another way to cocoon myself from the outside world and nurture and protect this little one growing in my womb.   God was calling me to focus on family and motherhood, with Him at the center, and at the time I didn't realize just what direction that was going to take.   

In November, we discovered that I have a faulty gall bladder.   I was sicker than I'd ever been before, and went through pain that was worse than giving birth.   There was one night in particular that I honestly thought I was having a heart attack, and we went to the hospital.    Abdominal surgery isn't the prime treatment to have done during a pregnancy, and so we decided to try a more conservative therapy of diet and lifestyle first.   Again, God's calling to cocoon myself, to slow life down a bit, way back in August was preparing me for this experience.   I was forced - it was medically necessary to "de-stress" - to prioritize family life and remove any excesses.   I was forced to give up volunteer commitments and outside stressors, forced to simplify our family life - homeschooling became about the basics (no more weekly field trips), meals were simplified and we became a "whole food" kind of family (not the store, but the back-to-basics kind of whole food meals), our daily schedule was thinned out as much as possible.   Carpools were created to minimize my time each week running errands.   Family time became even more of a priority and we guarded it carefully.   Weekly time spent in Adoration became a priority, not just a desire/would-be-nice-kind-of-thing.   My days started and ended in prayer and reflection time.   Naps and "feet-off-the-floor" time became a regular occurrence.   

I guess you could say we started moving toward being simple Catholics (not any reference to any of the groups out there - I mean that we became simply Catholic.  Let me explain).    Our faith is so rich in traditions and beauty and Truth that we started moving toward focusing on a few simple ideas:

- we are called to become saints.  All of us.   Every single person we meet (and the ones that we never meet) are called to become saints, as they are also created in the image of God and He wants them in Heaven with Him just as much as He wants us there
- God has given us, personally,  a vocation of marriage and family life as a means to becoming the saints we were meant to be.  
- The "how to become a saint" has been revealed through the truths found within the Catholic Church, the church that Jesus founded

Everything in life can come back to one of these three ideas.   Every choice, every action we perform, every word we say or write, every aspect of our home and family life should point toward these ideas.   It's as simple as the "motto" of  a friend of mine:   "Get to Heaven, and bring your brother."  With every choice/decision, it became my first step in discerning what we should do:  does this reflect God, and therefore, help get me or someone else to Heaven?   (It's amazing how much this can carry over to everything you do:  what you choose to do with your actions, your words, your stewardship of your time, talents, and treasure, how you interact with the people and world around you.   Does it respect God and His Creation?).

God's call to simplify and contemplate and pray way back in August was an invitation to join Him on a journey.   A journey to sainthood.   A journey THROUGH the mountains and valleys of motherhood and marriage.   A journey full of suffering and joy, sorrow and love.

I have a lot more to share with you over the next few days, leading up to Lent.   I hope that you'll join me throughout the season of Lent, too.  I have a feeling that it will be a fruitful, exciting forty days.   So much has happened here at the Circus, and I'm bursting at the seams to share the blessings and graces that God has showered upon us, and continues to on a daily basis.   

I'm also looking forward to hearing from you.  Shoot me a message.  Leave a comment.  What have your last six months looked like?   Are you ready for the months ahead?

"On this Lenten journey, let us be attentive to welcoming Christ's invitation to follow him more decisively and coherently, renewing the grace and commitments of our Baptism, so as to ... clothe ourselves in Christ, thus reaching Easter renewed and being able to say with St. Paul 'it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me'"  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI