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After the evening I've had, I can't believe that I am actually writing a post on “thriving in the Little Years.” I am the mother of a four-year-old, a three-year-old, and a 16-month-old, and today was more about surviving than thriving. We finally got the kids in bed a few minutes ago. The past four hours of my life involved LOTS of fussing (from the kids) and yelling (regrettably, at the kids) and at least one almost-fight (in front of the kids).
Tonight reminded me that some days (or weeks or months) are a little more about survival than others. Anybody with the goal of thriving in every moment of every day as a mother of little ones is setting herself up for disillusionment. Take it from me. Because we are all sinners, it's just not a totally sound spiritual or practical goal in this beautiful, but often-exhausting season of the Little Years.
What is a sound goal for a Little Years mother? I’m no expert, but my thought now is that the goal is, very simply, to walk our journey with God: with humility, with all our ways acknowledging Him, and with the help of the sacraments and a deep personal prayer life.
Even with my helpfully amended goals in motherhood, some days you’re still going to find me in Survival Mode—not that I think that’s always a bad thing. Our vocations are meant to make us lean heavily on the Lord. And in my most honest moments in prayer, I thank Him from the bottom of my heart for bringing me closer to Him through the challenges of marriage and motherhood he has permitted for me so far.
One of my favorite books for mothers living in the Little Years is Loving the Little Years by Rachel Jankovic. At the time she wrote the book, Rachel was mother to five children under five years old.
Rachel writes that, "the opportunities for growth abound [in motherhood]--but you have to be willing. You have to open your heart to the tumble. As you deal with your children, deal with yourself always and first. This is what it looks like, and feels like, to walk as a mother with God."
Walking with God is what is keeping me afloat. It is how I’ve survived, and have sometimes thrived. From one mother of little ones to another, here are a few things that have helped me walk with God in these Little Years.
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The Treasure of Titus 2 Friendships
Titus 2:4-5 instructs "older women" to teach younger women how to "love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, [and] to be kind..." Unfortunately, our culture just doesn't naturally draw women together for the kind of "Titus 2” female friendships that were such an important part of older cultures. How wonderful and helpful those relationships can be, though!
Younger mothers need to pray for and seek out these kinds of big sister-type friendships with older moms--don't be shy! (As a lifelong introvert myself, I get to say that.) Also, one thing that I have learned in my five years as a mother is that you become a Titus 2 woman much more quickly than you might think. Make sure that you keep your eyes and your heart open for “younger” or “older” mothers around you. We all need encouragement. We all need holy women to admire. We all need friends.
I looked up to several amazing mom friends of mine when I started having children, and their beautiful, holy mothering made an enormous impact on me. Those friendships, which began with them being a sort of "big sister" to me, have evolved into deep, mutual friendships that I treasure. Whether I get to sneak away for coffee and good conversation with her, or I simply notice something like the respect and gentle affection a friend has for her husband, a Titus 2 friend is always a teacher to me.
If you don't have any Titus 2 mom friends, look around again. Maybe you have an amazing sister-in-law, or your own mother, or some holy women in your church’s MOPS group. Don't be afraid to pursue friendships, ask questions, and even ask for prayer. Your humility and courage can actually lift up those women by making them realize that they aren't doing quite as badly as they think they are. Sometimes Titus 2 moms need a little encouragement too. :)
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If you feel like you've lost yourself…that can be a good thing.
If you are feeling lost in these Little Years-it doesn't necessarily mean that you're doing it all wrong. First off, mothering one, two or several little ones is an objectively, incredibly hard job, maybe especially in this day and age (fellow blogger Jennifer Fulwiler has an excellent piece on this topic).
Secondly, we hear over and over that in every vocation, we are meant to find ourselves by first losing ourselves. St. Pope John Paul II wrote profoundly that "man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). In the end, our vocation is not about us. Just because we mommas have walked down the aisle and subsequently given a big, brave, labor-ious Yes! to motherhood, doesn't mean everything is going to magically make sense in our lives for ever after.
So, I've come to understand that it is a natural thing to wrestle with a loss of self in these early years, especially in the vocation of marriage, "where two become one" (and sometimes many). Part of what I think is so hard for moms in the midst of young marriage and parenthood in the Little Years is that we are forced to give so much of ourselves, very quickly and very completely. It's difficult to take a step back for enough time to wrap our heads and hearts around how to transform all that giving into a "sincere gift of self." Maybe, I think, that part is a lifelong learning process.
Even just a few years into this vocation, my identity is so much more rooted in God than it ever was before. It has to be. I can no longer secretly define myself by my job, for example, or my major, or my bright future with my fiance, or my ministry work.
I am a daughter of the King, and I work in the mission field he has planted me in. My heart's desire is to love, to know intimately, and to serve God here in line with his will for my life. I work toward my heart's desire by doing the work of my particular vocation: striving for a good and holy marriage, disciplining my children wisely and patiently, cooking dinner and cleaning bathrooms and running to Walgreens for more Infant Tylenol at 2am.
God introduced me a few years ago to the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva, who spoke and wrote often about finding holiness in the ordinary work of your everyday life. St. Josemaria explains that "Heaven and earth seem to merge, my children, on the horizon. But where they really meet is in your hearts, when you sanctify your everyday lives." Every young mother wading through marriage and early parenthood needs to hear that holiness is possible--yes, even for her!--when she sanctifies the ordinary, unglamorous work of her day.
On that note, Colossians 3:23 has also been a help to me: "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for God and not for men." Because sometimes those babies aren't the most grateful little souls in the world, you know. :)
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Deal with yourself, always and first
In Loving the Little Years, Rachel Jankovic is spot-on with reminding us to deal with ourselves "always and first" as mothers. It goes back to the familiar verse in Matthew 7 where he says to "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
What an important passage for me to keep in mind as a mother of little ones. My own sins are so often deeper than the multitude of childish "speck" sins that I constantly point out and work to correct in my children.
How many times have I contributed to the escalation of a tense situation with the kids by my own poor attitudes and selfishness? Am I being snippy with the kids because my husband accidentally took the leftovers I was looking forward to eating today? Did I rush the kids through the bedtime routine just so that I could watch the season premiere of my favorite show? Am I overreacting to the toothpaste in the dog's water bowl because I just finished cleaning the kitchen and gosh-darn-it I can't take one more mess today!?
It takes practiced self-awareness to stop and discern your proposed words or actions before responding to a situation. I have found myself slowly learning to "hold my horses" before responding to tense situations at home with just my first-instinct emotions for a guide. Often, if I find myself overwhelmingly angry, frustrated or bitter, there is something I need to deal with in my own heart before pointing out issues that my husband or children have in theirs.
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Get up on time.
Getting up before my family wakes up in the morning is so, so helpful. Saint after saint after much-more-experienced-mom-than-me get up at least an hour before the rest of the house. First, they pray. After they pray, they do a few practical things around the house to get ready for the day. Simple. Hard. But so fruitful.
Getting up “on time,” as I try to call it, is always a struggle for me, but it is one battle that I think I am finally starting to win more consistently. I am in a season of my life that leaves me few excuses for not getting up on time in the morning (read: my children all sleep through the night…please don’t hate me:). The fruits of me getting up earlier than the children are so apparent to both me and to my husband. There is less morning chaos. I am less stressed. I am able to feed my soul with Scripture and prayer before having to feed others.
I love St. Josemaria’s take on “the heroic minute,” in his book The Way. “Conquer yourself each day from the very first moment, getting up on the dot, at a fixed time, without yielding a single minute to laziness…here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body. If, with God’s help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day.” (191).
Getting up earlier than the rest of the house is not always possible. New babies or sick children obviously throw a kink in the plan, as would the blessing of one of those children whose God-given internal clock says every day, “4:59 a.m.! Time to wake up!” In general though, waking up before the rest of the house is a good goal to look forward to whenever it becomes physically or logistically possible for you.
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Take care of yourself.
Jesus asks us to love him with all of our 'heart, body, soul and mind.” A tall order. And one that many of us mothers of all ages may need to reflect on more seriously. The fact is, there are moms out there who suffer deeply with undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and a host of other medical problems that mean they physically cannot offer their whole, best selves to their families.
Addressing deeper, undiagnosed problems in our mental and physical health is not something that I've seen a lot of Christian women writing about. If we are writing about mental and physical health, it usually seems to involve "taking care of ourselves" by making sure we have "me time," or more prayer time, or enough sleep, or appropriate fitness and weight-loss goals. Those things are important and are challenging for many of us. However, some very real and more-common-than-you-think health issues can't be completely solved with those kinds of fixes.
Turning to the Divine Healer in prayer is absolutely vital in dealing with health struggles, but sometimes prayer alone will not heal us. I want to encourage you, if you feel physically or mentally unable to be reasonably what you wish to be for your family, to give some honest thought to the idea that there might something you need to deal with emotionally or medically.
Sometimes, what we think is normal or “just part of this season of life” is not normal at all. It takes honesty, prayer, and often the counsel of some solid, wise friends to figure out if it is time to rule out anything medical or counseling-related that could be going on. On the mental health side of things, there is nothing wrong or weak about seeking out solid Christian counseling, or medical treatments or medications that help your body and your mind be where they need to be to let you be what you need to be.
As Jesus showed us on the way to Calvary, sometimes surrendering to a cross involves having the courage to get help in carrying it.
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Wishing each of you the joy of the Lord and grace for the moment!