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.
Holly, Miriam is so beautiful and looks like a real charmer! As the mother of three and grandmother of six, I can relate to what you have written. I used to go into my children’s rooms at night after they were asleep and look at them in wonder at the gift from God that they were; however, there were many challenges during the day! We grow through those challenges and when we are grandparents, we wonder why we worried so much. Blessings to you on your journey.
In everything, to love and to serve… Thank you for the thoughtful reminder! And please tell your beautiful little Miriam that her sandals are awesome! 🙂
i’m sorry. you cannot tell me that that sweet little angel could be anything but holy. (said as a joke from a non-parent.) yes, her sandals are awesome and so are you. what a blessing to have you in her life. just give you a thousand wonderful praises for being her mom. in my life as ob/gyn, i’ve seen too many who couldn’t be praised. bless your heart.
Hi Holly. Motherhood is THE challenge. The rewards are wonderful but it is a long slog. Remember every other mother understands the tears of despair, frustration and joy. You are part of a wonderful company of women throughout all the ages and this bestows a dignity of its own. Your daughter is beautiful. Look after yourself too Rachel
Thank you, everyone, for your kind words of encouragement! I will carry them with me. The sandals are hand-me-downs from a friend. I’ll tell their former owner’s mom what a hit they are. 🙂
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