This morning I went to a 7:00 a.m. Mass. I always have a bit of a hard time concentrating at Mass, but at that time of day in particular it's hard NOT to think about all the things I will need to do when I get home. What makes it tough is the tight time schedule, and the feeling that I just can't forget anything. I tried to make myself focus, and at the end, I made a slightly longer thanksgiving than usual... ha, ha, by that I just mean closer to a minute than 30 seconds (still pretty short by most standards!). Before I get up from the kneeler, I usually look up at the crucifix and say, "Every day, the cross, with joy!" Today I went through in my head some of my potential crosses - like trying to go shopping with a 2-year old and baby or having to put all the kids to bed by myself knowing my husband would be home late tonight - and prayed for the strength to deal with them. But as often happens, I couldn't even predict the crosses in store for me.
When I turned down our street, I realized that it was blocked off and the street opened up with numerous work trucks installing the new water main. I parked around the corner and resigned myself to not being able to go food shopping, or, if I did, having to park a block away and carry in all the groceries, plus the car seat with toddler in tow. The child-exchange was quick, as the slightly-frazzled-end-of-the-semester husband jumped out the door pausing only long enough to tell me that he had made my oatmeal. No coffee today though, since the coffee maker is broken. The next words I heard were from the toddler, announcing that he was poopy (and really, if you can announce it, you should be potty-trained, is what I say). Meanwhile, the baby was screaming, obviously ready to breastfeed.
I changed the diaper, threw it away, washed my hands, felt Eva's forehead since she looked a little sick, and picked up the baby. I was shaking from hunger (breastfeeding will do that to you) trying to scoop out my oatmeal when Eva vomited all over the chair and the floor. Ok, not that bad, mostly water since her stomach has been sensitive and she hadn't eaten much yet. So I set down the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby and wiped up the vomit with paper towels. I comforted Eva as quickly as I could, then took her upstairs and put her in the tub so she wouldn't smell like vomit.
When I returned, I picked up the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby, got my oatmeal and sat down to eat. Two bites into it, I was smelling vomit and realized that I hadn't really washed my hands, I just imagined I had (probably because I had just washed them minutes before when I changed the poopy diaper). But no, my hand definitely smelled like vomit, but not a chance I could wash my hands now, as the screaming, crying, "absolutely starving" baby was finally nursing for the first time in a very very very long hour. Trapped in nursing prison, as I call it, I contented myself by eating my oatmeal and trying not to inhale the scent of my hand as the spoon reached my mouth.
About a minute later, I saw that I apparently missed some of the vomit on the floor (seeing as how it was mostly water, as I said), so Patrick had decided to help me finish up. The toddler was happily smearing vomit over the floor and then waving paper towels in my face. Then he took a break to take a sip out of Eva's water bottle (yes, minutes after she vomited water that she'd drunk from that very bottle, can you believe it!). Still sitting in nursing prison, I was approached by the eldest to ask me to pack her lunch. I looked at her and said, "Hot lunch today, you still have tickets, and I have no free hands right now." She protested, she begged, she asked politely, she finally packed herself a poor meager lunch that probably convinced the cafeteria supervisors that her parents are definitely trying to starve her.
Time check - ten minutes before we needed to leave to walk Maia to school. Eva was still in the tub. I started brainstorming neighbors/friends who walk past our house in the morning, and I told Maia my plan for her to walk to school with someone else. She's only six, and the lunch thing was upsetting enough, so she started crying, saying she didn't want to walk with anyone else, she just wants her mom, etc. I ran up the stairs and got Eva out of the tub and dressed. When I came down, Maia was still crying and I think Patrick was eating the butter from the butter dish that I had not yet cleared from the kitchen table. At least Robert was finally asleep (it's exhausting to cry for so long, especially when you are so very very very very hungry). What was I to do? It was time to leave the house, and still no sign of the neighbors.
Finally, Maia and I walked outside just as the neighbors went past across the street. I yelled to get their attention. Then I yelled louder. Then I yelled louder. Because those jackhammers and backhoes are pretty loud. The neighbors did finally hear me. So a quick blessing, a quick kiss, and an I-love-you-have-a-good-day-at-school, and she crossed the street to join her friends.
Whew, 8:15 a.m.... time to relax and enjoy the rest of my day, right? The rest of the day was only slightly easier, with the highlight being when all four of us were asleep at the same time (yes, including me, I fell asleep in the living room on a chair). I woke up in a panic that I'd missed picking Maia up from school - but no, I had ten minutes before I needed to leave. Ten minutes and three sleeping kids. I put away two loads of laundry, and then somehow all three kids woke up (chain reaction, baby woke toddler, toddler woke preschooler). Off we went into the pouring rain.
I won't bore (or horrify) you with the gruesome details from the rest of my day, which finally ended with a little kitchen cleaning at 9:00 p.m., and a husband who is sick in bed, so sick that he even missed the aforementioned required evening work commitment. Suffice it to say today was not one of the easiest on record. But you know, life is hard. I know I've written on mortification before, but I have been thinking about this again recently because I have a little subsection on "bearing the ills of life" in the last chapter of my dissertation.
Suffering has not disappeared since the time period on which I focus (1955-1975), but I do think that American Catholics of European background have much less unchosen suffering than they did in those days. In particular, I have been reflecting on the burden of children. Having children seems to me to be one of the easiest ways of dishing yourself up a huge portion of involuntary mortifications. And the more children, the more mortifications.
Awhile back, the Washington Post featured a story about a large family, that is, eleven kids being raised on one teacher's salary. I was really struck when I read an extra Q&A where readers could pose questions to the mom of the family. One question was basically asking why anyone would purposely have so many children knowing that it would take so much extra work (perhaps this question was inspired by the story of her falling asleep on the playroom floor). Yes indeed, why would anyone make so much work for themselves when they could avoid it?
I was struck by contrasting this question with the way we praise so many of the sacrifices that people make, for their work perhaps, or in training for a marathon. We admire the hard work of others in a variety of fields, but we only admire that hard work to some extent when it comes to having children. It's great to sacrifice for your kids, but, whoa! hold on, not THAT many kids. That's just stupid. Life without kids is hard enough...life with a couple of kids is hard enough...life with anymore than a couple, and don't expect anyone's sympathy. They are more likely to criticize you for what they view as poor decision-making or perhaps your benighted religious views than praise you for your hard work.
In the Catholic world, the perspective that criticizes large families on the grounds that they are difficult or "hard work," contrasts with the former understanding wherein hard work and bearing the burdens of life were understood to be supernaturally beneficial, if not also naturally beneficial. Sociologist Andrew Greeley, for example, worried what would become of Catholics subjected to a world where there was such little suffering compared to the past American Catholic experience. Writing in 1959, Greeley wrote: "In the midst of plenty, does not prayer become extremely difficult, if not impossible? Does mortification have any meaning to people who have never known material want?...Can man, when he has so many things in this world, seriously long for the next?" (The Church and the Suburbs, 149).
I think we have lost practice with bearing the ills of life, and sadly, the loss has made it more difficult for us to make our sufferings meaningful. The ills of life can become purposeful, however, as a way of offering penitential prayer for ourselves or to pray for the good of others. Surprisingly, when we hone this skill we often find that we can maintain our happiness in both difficult and easy times, and we can actually enjoy life more when we don't expect it to be all about relaxation and luxury. We can also look forward to our final destination in heaven on those days where life just seems so hard.
After a day like today (and anticipation of tomorrow, when I will likely be stricken with vomiting too), I know I long for eternal rest. But not yet. I know I still have some more work to do.
p.s. During the writing of this post, Patrick walked up the stairs to my office covered in vomit (of the spanokopita sort). I had to clean him up, put in a load of laundry, and remake the bed. But he didn't seem upset by having just woken up covered in his vomit. (Gee, I wonder if this is related to drinking out of Eva's water bottle...)
p.p.s. When Eva was about to vomit a couple of days ago, I asked her if she wanted to offer it for anyone or anything in particular. She said, "for poor people," seconds before vomiting on the bathmat. I think that prayer really meant something.