Parenting a toddler is giving me a window into the daily realities of struggle when trying to accomplish even the most basic task. Some days, changing a diaper is like wrestling a very smelly baby alligator. One day I left my daughter around my unguarded laptop for a few minutes, only to return and find she’d ripped several keys off the keyboard. My husband and I now make a habit of checking the trash before we take it out, just in case our car keys “mysteriously” ended up there. If it’s time to stop playing with bubbles and go inside before Miriam decides she’s ready, her protests will reach a pitch that seems to make it physiologically impossible to remain calm. Some of these moments are comical, but many of them are just exasperating.
Several years ago, when I met my future husband near the foothills of the Bolivian Andes, he gave me a small gift of a scarlet ribbon printed with a common Jesuit motto, “En todo amar y servir.” – “In everything, to love and to serve.” I tied the ribbon around my wrist as a reminder of the one who gave it to me, but its message sunk into my heart at the same time. I didn’t know yet that the giver of this gift, this man I would fall in love with, signified a future of marriage and family life in which this motto would find deep practical meaning for me. The everyday struggles I face now—from tempestuous tantrums to the greater, harder sacrifices of being a parent—form the gritty, unbeautiful part of my vocation.
Unlike the suffering of others who are born into poverty or afflicted by illness, for example, my parenting struggles are part of the vocation I agreed to pursue, the choices I made. “En todo amar y servir.” But how do you love and serve when your all efforts are actively undermined by frustration, exhaustion, or pain? Even when the “adversary” is someone you love very dearly, going up against struggle on a regular basis wears you down to your last nerve.
A beloved professor once asked each of us in the class to reflect on a dream that we were willing to fight for. What would happen when it was painful, dangerous, or unpopular—would the dream be enough? What carries us through when our vocations suffer their moments of drudgery, conflict, and unattractiveness? As I ponder this, I’m captivated by the image of what educational theorist Paulo Freire calls “armed love”—a fighting love that embraces the struggle, sacrifice, and self-donation that Christian discipleship demands. Armed love is both rigorous and radiant; tender and tenacious. Concepts like this may not make us feel better in the heated moment of difficulty, but they give us a foundation to build on, like developing a virtue through regular practice.
I imagine the platitudes reverberating in the quiet moments of reflection, after my daughter falls asleep at night: “This too shall pass”; “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”; “Enjoy it now; they grow up so fast.” And it’s true that the tantrums and pulsing moments of frustration always give way to peaceful embraces while rocking to sleep, or adorable and hilarious utterances from the workings of her toddler mind. The bitter struggles subside into sweet reconciliations, and my love as a mother gains a little more wisdom and strength. Freire also writes (to paraphrase a bit) that we should relish the struggle, which generates hope. In sending me begging for divine help, my struggles send me into the embrace of the source of all hope.