Am I Enough? Wrestling with the Vocation of Motherhood

My life is a little slice of paradise.  Sitting in my chair for morning prayer, I look out the big picture window at our backyard.  The primary colors of a big plastic slide bright are bright against the green of the grass. Hummingbirds, squirrels, and rabbits visit.  Birdsong fills the air. My vegetables are finally starting to produce, and the butterfly garden is flowering. My prayer is one of peace and gratitude, but also of disquiet.   

Is what I do enough? I ask myself.  I left a job I loved, a job in which I had the clear mission of evangelizing students whose lives, though materially abundant, were marked by desolation and anxiety.  Even those who have “everything” by the world’s standards can still feel empty, suffering what St. Teresa of Calcutta called the poverty of the West: “…a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God,” (A Simple Path).  The freedom of the gospel means freedom from being defined by things and accomplishments, of knowing themselves loved for who they are, and being free to respond in love and service to others.  Though I didn’t always attend to it as well as I would have liked, I had a clear sense of mission. 

I believe that motherhood is a ministry as well.  Don’t I? I believe that God called me out of teaching to be fully present to my husband and children, to attend to their needs and joys with the fullness of God’s tenderness. So why am I still asking myself if this is enough? 

It’s hard not to devalue the work I do every day: the meals prepared, dishes washed, and laundry folded (or, in my case, left wrinkling in the dryer).  My work is so many tasks that begin again as soon as they are finished. (For beautiful inspiration on the holiness of housework, listen to this podcast by Nancy at Just One Small Thing.) My days are full and exhausting – joyful, but exhausting. Often, I have little left over at the end of the day.  I’ve even had to scale back my expectations for what stay-at-home motherhood would include. I’m learning to say “no” to various responsibilities outside our home and embrace the freedom that gives me to offer more of myself to my family.  Still, I am plagued by thoughts that it is not enough. 

Perhaps it is comparison.  I see other mothers accomplishing so much good for the Kingdom of God, and I feel small by comparison.  Still, I know enough about vocation to realize that each call is unique, and enough about ministry to know that the results are never a reflection of our efforts, but only of the ways in which the Spirit chooses to work in them.  At least, I should know these things. 

Adding to my disquiet is that this stage of my life includes no overlap with the poor.  The care of the poor is the gospel.  What I do each day is important, and I have little (if anything!) leftover to give.  But can I really sit on the sidelines and leave the care of the poor to other people?  Is there such a thing as solidarity without concrete action? Is the drive I feel a call to action, or a refusal to accept the words of St. Paul when he speaks about the different spiritual gifts?  Can I be content to be a hand and not a foot?

I suppose if we consider the whole of Christian history, then we must answer this question not with an abdication of responsibility for the poor, but with trust in discernment of and response to God’s will.  I do think it’s true that every Christian must instantiate God’s preferential option for the poor; denial that this is the call of Jesus and the prophets is not an authentic interpretation of Scripture. Still, insisting that the only way of doing this is working in the trenches is to deny, to some extent, the value of prayer, and especially of monastic life.  If I say that I cannot be in solidarity with the poor because my life does not include a regular commitment to service, then I do a real disservice to the vocations of so many monks and nuns whose lives are given to the Church in a sacrifice of prayer.  

Certainly, those “in the world” are called to more personal interaction with God’s poor than those in the cloister. Especially in a culture where we can so easily absorb the lie of separateness, we do well to engage in direct service to cultivate the virtue of solidarity.  

But perhaps it is appropriate to consider the different stages in one’s life and make space for the seasons that require greater intensity of focus on a smaller scale.  The poor I serve each day are my children, not fully mine, but God’s. They come empty handed with nothing to give. I clothe them, feed them, instruct them, accompany them.  I am everything to them. I love pouring myself out in service to them; it shapes me as a person of greater generosity, gentleness, and mercy. But it is indeed an emptying. Less me, more Jesus. Less me, more joy. 

On the one hand, I think it is essential to discern our human limits, to not to force ourselves beyond them.  On the other, I think of the gift of the widow in Luke’s Gospel, who gave so much more because she gave out of her poverty.  It’s not that I discount my five loaves and two fish; I believe that God can do anything he wishes with the smallest of our offerings.  But what if this is all I have to offer right now? What if my poverty is so great that what I’m called to give in my home each day presents a challenge?

Someday, I will have more to give outside of our family.  I hope that my narrow focus now does not lead to complacency.  I do not think that it must. Right now, as I offer the gift of myself to these little ones, to my husband, I can cultivate virtue – a Little Way of Motherhood, perhaps.  Generosity, self-sacrifice, empathy – as these virtues grow, I am becoming someone who has more to give. As my children grow, it will be my solemn task to teach them to give beyond themselves.  In that season, serving my children will require service to others, to help them develop sensitivity, empathy, solidarity, generosity. In a way, my mission in ministry to my kids mirrors the call I had as a teacher – to help them grow out of the ground of their belovedness, to learn to be love for the world.  And sincere love, no matter how small, is always enough.  

What are some ways you cultivate solidarity in your daily life? How do you live your call to ministry as a mother?

4 thoughts on “Am I Enough? Wrestling with the Vocation of Motherhood

  1. As your children grow you will find ways to help the poor. My grandchildren who are now 9 and 12 have a love of collecting things for our church’s ministries. They have handed food to people on the street when we have encountered them. You can give toys and clothes away when they are outgrown and share why you are doing that. Teaching your children about all the other children in the world–without guilt–will nurture their natural generosity.

    1. Thanks! Those are great ideas. I know that you’re right. It just feels incomplete somehow not to be giving of my time and energy to the poor and marginalized in my community right now, even if I will have more freedom to do that later in life. I wish I had made the most of the opportunity to do that when I was single and before we had kids!

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