The Self-care Series: Weakness and Surrendering the Best Hours, by Ela Nelson
If I’d had a tail when Mary invited me to share my thoughts on spiritual care for mommies it would’ve been wagging. It’s a subject I’ve put a great deal of thought into over the last few years and through much trial and error I’ve found a rhythm that works well for me and bears some truly beautiful fruit. I can only speak to my own experience but if what I’ve learned as a wife and mother of seven (one in Heaven plus one in the oven) can be helpful or encouraging to other mommies I’m so happy to share.
Let me start by saying that I love being a mom. It’s such a tremendous honor and privilege. I love being pregnant. I love participating in God’s infinite creativity through the bearing and raising of these beautiful little humans. There truly isn't a day that goes by that my breath isn't taken away by something one of them has said, created or done. There is no therapy like that of a toddler’s arms around my neck; no joy like seeing any of them discover something beautiful and true; no sweetness like the cheeks of a baby new waked from sleep - warm and soft and sweet like chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. Being a mother is new every morning, endlessly creative; redemptive, and full of so much laughter, love and joy.
As many of us know, motherhood can also be incredibly hard. Among other things, being a mom means sleep deprivation, hormonal and physical changes, a constant battle with messes and clutter, fairly regular chaos, and 24/7 vigilance. While there is beauty and blessing in the every day I also struggle with feelings of inadequacy, constantly wondering if I’m doing enough; if I am enough; if I’m doing things “right.” I battle against exhaustion, irritability, selfishness, impatience and an abusive past. Some days, motherhood feels like jumping into a wild ocean to learn how to swim. It’s such a great honor and responsibility, and nothing I have experienced in my life has taught me about my own poverty like motherhood. That is pure joy to me.
The Danger of Comparison
The first piece of advice I’ll offer isn’t exactly a spiritual practice, but definitely important for the mental, emotional and spiritual health of a mom. Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever compare yourself to other moms. In my experience mothers are incredibly hard on ourselves. We care so deeply about giving our children the very best and so often think that because we didn’t mummify a chicken like that mom did, or we let our kids eat hot dogs and frozen pizza when that other mom makes healthy, organic meals right out of her garden or we don’t read to our children for an hour every day we have somehow failed as mothers. Feeling inferior because of the gifts of other moms is an exercise in futility. It’s utterly fruitless and only serves to discourage, drain and break down relationships that could be nourishing (mommies need each other!). By all means be inspired or encouraged by mothers that you admire but never allow someone else’s gifts to make you feel like you are less than you should be. God has chosen you to be the mother of your children. He has given you your own personal cocktail of strengths and weaknesses for your good, your childrens’ good and His greater glory. I’ve only referred to feelings of inferiority because that seems to be the most prevalent circumstance, but guard yourself against superior feelings as well. Presumption is a dangerous infirmity. (And it’s really bitchy. Nobody needs that.)
Be Grateful for Your Weaknesses and failures
Failure is a wonderful thing, if we allow it to be the teacher God intends (ll Cor. 12:10). I’ve found that failure, when properly utilized, is a path to humility, faith, hope and peace. Embrace humiliations like the life-giving crosses that they are. See your weakness as a friend that calms the waves during the stormy moments. (Matthew 5:3-4) Failures and weakness are such good things because they take us out of ourselves; they remind us how bereft we are, how incapable we are of finding strength in our own broken and dusty nature; and they send us to the true source of all our strength. When you’ve just lost your temper at a child or the biggest accomplishment of your day is getting a 5 minute shower or finishing 1 load of laundry, it’s a humbling thing. And beautiful. It’s in the moments when we are empty of ourselves, when our ego is starved, that the Holy Spirit can fill us and give us His peace that passes understanding; the ability to smile in the midst of utter frustration. This is faith, hope and joy.
When we begin to gain the wisdom that regular failure and deficiency offers it’s only natural that we turn to that which encourages and strengthens us. I have found the greatest source of nourishment in these things: prayer (first thing in the morning), a devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Sacraments, Mom Sabbaths, holy reading, and the gift of redemptive friendships.
In the past I had a tendency to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and start DOING. I tried to tackle as much as I could in the first 3 hours of the day and attempted to remember prayer and devotion during our family’s afternoon quiet time. It, more often than not, got pushed to the back burner and many, if not most days, I’d fail to do it. In the last month I have made a commitment to offer the first moments of my day to prayer and meditation (this includes praying all my special intentions as well as scripture and other devotional reading). I have come to realize that this simple submission of my time is an act of faith, hope and love. By offering to God what, in my own feeble strength, is my most productive hour of the day; my own little loaves and fishes, He multiplies my efforts throughout the rest of the day. I am more efficient. I am more patient. I am more kind. I am more peaceful. I am less harried and stressed. (I say “more” and “less” because God loves me too much not to leave a thorn or two in my side). In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a wisdom in disciplining my children that could only come from the Holy Spirit. Simply put, I have found that when I put first things first in my day; when I order my day according to what is truly and eternally important, God takes my small offering and enriches everything else.
Being Sensitive to Where You are Right Now
I want to state very clearly that life comes in waves and everyone has different demands on their time. If your quiet time with God is kneeling beside your bed for a brief moment and offering your day to Him; if it’s pausing throughout the day to offer thoughts of love, thanksgiving or supplication; if it’s praying a simple Our Father when you find a moment, or just one decade on your Rosary—do that. Start small. He knows we are but dust and He is not concerned with the greatness of the act but the love with which it is offered.
The most enriching part of my morning devotion is praying the Rosary. As a former non-denominational protestant it took me a while to come around to what I called “the whole Mary thing.” I could expound on my journey from seeing Our Lady as a holy Jewish girl that accepted a great honor to embracing her as my own dear, beautiful, loving, sweet Mother; the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, the Theotokos, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the New Covenant, the New Eve... Unfortunately, that’s a whole other subject and I can’t go into it here.
Whether one cherishes a devotion to her or not I don’t think anyone can argue that of all the women in history, her example is the one we should most want to study and follow. She, the Handmaid of the Lord. She, whose soul magnifies the Lord. She, who bore God under her heart, within her womb, sharing her very flesh, blood and nature. She, who stood before the cross, her Mother-heart rent and sharing in Our Lord’s suffering more intimately than any other human being. She, so fundamentally important yet so quiet, humble and simple. In her confident abandonment her entire being speaks of and points us toward her Son. We find Jesus in the arms of Mary.
Prayer and the Sacraments
The most intimate and profound way I place myself in the arms of Mary is through the Rosary. This is a practice that has grown through fits and starts over the last 10 years and has now become my favorite form of prayer and devotion. The Rosary draws one into the Gospel. It centers our mind on Jesus; His incarnation; His life; His place in the Holy Family and the Trinity; His ministry; His Passion, Death and Resurrection. It introduces us more fully to His Mother; our Mother. It renews, quickens and strengthens faith, hope and love. It is an incredibly powerful way to pray for the conversion of sinners. Demons flee before it. It is my shield and sword throughout the day against the slings and arrows of the Enemy and I cannot recommend enough.
As I’ve already stated, motherhood brings me face to face with my own misery; with my selfishness, materialism, shortsightedness, presumption, arrogance and pride. It has shown me, after years of foolishly trying to save myself (and my family) through sheer effort and willpower, my complete inability to do anything good in and of myself. This is a tremendous comfort to me because it sends me not only to my knees in prayer and supplication but to the fountain of the tabernacle. There is no better prayer than the Mass. There is no purer act of love and faith. When we receive the Eucharist; when we eat this spiritual food, we are grafted into the Body, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. His blood flows through our veins. In the Eucharist we offer the only truly good things we can offer Him: Himself and our childlike confidence in His Love. The Eucharist is God’s still, small voice. It’s what He meant when He said, “I will be with you always, until the closing of the age.” Receiving the Body and Blood on a weakly basis is my most profound, intimate and powerful source of spiritual nourishment. When I find myself encumbered with the ephemeral concerns of my day to day life I look with joy to Sunday. Throughout the week it’s difficult not to emulate poor Martha, “...worried and troubled about so many things.” (Luke 10:41), but on Sunday I get to be Mary; to sit at our Lord’s feet; to look upon Him; to hear His voice and learn from Him, who is gentle and humble of heart. In the Eucharist I find rest for my soul.
The Sacrament that goes hand in hand with the Eucharist is, naturally, Confession. The practice of regular confession prepares me to receive Jesus. It washes me free of my sins, gives me grace to resist temptation and gives me clarity of conscience. It gives me a more compassionate heart toward others. When I know the unfathomable mercy of God toward my own wretched soul it teaches me to have empathy and compassion for those around me who suffer the same infirmity of sin - this includes my husband and children! It helps me to avoid sin. When I know that I will have to reveal my ugliness before my confessor I am less inclined to give in to temptation. In confession my vices are weakened and virtues strengthened. Confession gives me such joy! The words of absolution, “Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven.” are some of the sweetest I have ever heard. The active grace and joy of absolution buoy me up and sustain me during the most challenging days.
Regular Rest is Vital
We all need an outlet. I love being with my kids, but the need to be constantly “on” is incredibly draining for me. As I type this, my sweet, snuggly 6 year old
is leaning against me, her arm around my shoulders, and my 2 year old keeps trying (unsuccessfully) to put a hat on my head. Being a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, this sort of thing starts to really fry my circuits after a while. I reach the point of complete sensory overload. When this happens the only cure is an escape. Mom Sabbaths have saved my sanity. A couple of evenings each month I leave the house. Sometimes it’s just to run errands (though, I always treat myself to a coffee or pastry of some kind). Sometimes I hang out with friends. Sometimes I see a movie. Most of the time I take myself out for dinner (which always includes a glass of wine) with a good book as my date. I’m usually not gone more than 3 hours or so, but my husband and I have an agreement that I don’t come home until I know I’m ready. It’s amazing what just a few hours can do to calm my frazzled psyche. Decompression time is absolutely vital for the health and well-being of a Mom. I can’t think of another vocation that requires the kind of around-the-clock mental, emotional and physical presence that motherhood does and this kind of self care is of paramount importance. It’s like putting on your oxygen mask before assisting those around you. Some moms may need less time out of the house, some may need more. It’s important to be aware of your limitations. When my brow is perpetually furrowed, my voice uncontrollably grouchy and my fuse about an inch short I know it’s time for a breather.
Holy Reading and Redemptive Friendships
The amount of free time one has as a mom is usually pretty limited. That means that we need to be mindful about how we spend that time. I want my mind to be filled with good things that will sustain, uplift, encourage and spur me on. Being mindful about the kinds of books I read helps with that, immensely. I’m usually on a three book rotation at any given time: one is spiritual, one is a novel and one is instructional (cookbooks, books on homeschooling, parenting, etc.). These books are my comrades and teachers. When days get monotonous or stressful it’s helpful to disappear for a brief time into thoughts on Eternity, wonderful characters and stories, and fresh ideas.
Whether your time is limited or not it’s important that the people you spend your time with are people that nourish you. If you’re not part of a community of people that encourage, inspire, challenge and truly love you, first of all, start praying. Pray to God that He will lead you to the kind of people who know what love really is. Too often people think a friend is someone with whom you have things in common, who is just like you, who defends you no matter what, who blindly follows you down whatever path you choose. Not true. Friends should appreciate and cherish you for who you are, but they should also be encouragers in virtue and catalysts for growth and maturity. Ask for wisdom to choose the relationships that will bear truly good fruit in you and in your life. A true friend is priceless and one of God’s greatest gifts.
Motherhood is an awesome vocation. In it we can find eternity in the ordinary; beauty in the mundane; hope in discouragement; strength in our weakness; joy in our sorrows. Much of the time it asks more of us than we in our own strength can give but, as God told us in II Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, boast gladly of your weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon you. Pax Christi.
Ela is a passionate, honest, and sassy woman with an open heart and a vivacious spirit. She is the wife of an Anglican Priest and the proud mama to 5 going on 6 children aged 10 to 2. She is a homeschooling mama, an incredible cook, a certified massage therapist, and can recite the entire Friends TV series from memory!
Feature Photo c/o Citrus Holly