My ex-husband got remarried a few years ago, and last week their first child was born. Needless to say, I’ve experienced a smorgasbord of emotions about my children’s new baby brother, but the most striking are my recollections of when my own first child was born, and my earliest days of motherhood. On one hand, that first week as a new mom was one of the hardest of my life. On the other hand, it was just a drop in the bucket.
I remember looking at my nipples, cracked and blistered from breastfeeding, and telling myself it would get better (it did). Being utterly exhausted from the night waking and the anxiety of every sound that baby made, and telling myself it wouldn’t last forever (it didn’t). Standing in my kitchen with tears streaming down my face, bouncing a screaming newborn and feeling completely overwhelmed and inadequate to the task of motherhood, and telling myself in time it would get easier.
But it didn’t. It got harder. It was as if each difficult stage of being a mother has just toughened me up for the next slightly more difficult stage.
It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.
My son was eight weeks old when this realization dawned on me. Followed first by the words, “Oh God,” then a strange peace as I took a deep breath and thought, “Oh well.” The “oh God oh well” is a frequent mantra even after 13 years; it’s like a morning prayer as I open my eyes and an evening oblation as I haul myself into bed. Does postpartum depression last into the teen years, I sometimes wonder. The mental exhaustion of being responsible for another human being – make that three human beings – takes a tremendous toll. A daily toll.
That word “daily” jumped out at me from this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Most of the time when I think of “crosses,” I think of the temporary crisis, like an illness in the family, or a job loss, or a difficult relationship. “This too shall pass,” we say. The crucifixion, after all, was a one-time event, followed by a glorious resurrection after only three days. Would that all our crosses could pass so quickly.
But Jesus used that word daily. The cross is not one and done. It waits for me every morning. Like the laundry.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
It’s helpful to keep Jesus’ words in context, especially when my all-too-human instincts for self-preservation rise. This weekend’s passage begins with Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And they answered rightly when they recognized him as the Messiah. But instead of giving the disciples a verbal gold star for recognizing God in their midst, Jesus rebuked them. This has always confused me. Why would Jesus rebuke them for recognizing Him for who He was?
Jesus was not rebuking them, but their illusions and fantasies about what “messiah” really meant. The Jews were hoping for a savior who would literally be a king, who would deliver them from Roman occupation. The reality, as we know in hindsight, was to be much different.
Jesus may as well have asked me, “What do you think having a family is?” When I was young, my one desire was to get married and start a family. It feels so long ago I can hardly remember what my fantasies were, but I suppose I imagined the trip to Disney World, fresh cooked meals together every night, reading to my children before bedtime, and spending evenings with the quiet affection of a husband who took joy in being a partner and didn’t have to be asked to pick up his socks. I thought having a family would save me from loneliness. Although my reality has given me a certain fulfillment of those hopes, it has not been without an equal part of suffering, rejection, and sacrifice. Daily. Unrelenting.
Oh God oh well, I pray as I surrender the illusion.
The divine promise is that in willingly losing my life, I will find it. If my crosses are not one-time events, then neither are my resurrections. They, too, are daily, and in my experience they do not often come in three days’ time, but are fleeting moments of connection to my source of life, my Father who cares for me, not Christy the exhausted mother, but Christy His beloved child. And He never gets tired. He never feels resentful or bitter when I reject Him or fail. He doesn’t love me any more or any less than any of His other children (including the ones to which I gave birth). His love is the great equalizer, as St. Paul so eloquently wrote in Sunday’s letter to the Galatians. We are one in Christ, even if we are not always one around the dinner table.
In my darkest moments of motherhood, I feel as if I have lost my life, and if I stay mired in that attitude, I miss out on recognizing the blessings. This was not what I expected; I certainly never imagined being a single parent. I didn’t picture the constant feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and failure that linger in every pile of clutter, every moment I lose my temper, every time I’m running late. The inner critic taunts me, saying, “Hey lady, you are the one who wanted this.” And it’s all I can do not to crumble.
When I hear those words ringing in the space between my ears, I consider how Jesus literally carried His cross. He fell multiple times under its weight. Already beaten and abused, He was not strong enough to carry it without help. There was no hiding the cross and suffering privately; His pain was mercilessly on display for all to see and judge, from His weeping and powerless mother to the cruel Roman soldiers to the judgmental haters who sentenced Him in the first place. He must have felt like a failure, and in at least one account He felt abandoned even by God. It is a comfort to know that my Savior understands when I falter under the weight of my daily crosses. It’s ok that I feel overwhelmed. That’s the whole point of the cross.
Jesus also said to follow Him daily. He knows the cross leads to resurrection, and if I follow Jesus’ example of grace, if I can find it in my heart to say the words, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do,” I may feel pain but I will also experience the exhilaration of birth. Those early days of motherhood with each of my babies may have been exhausting, but I never felt more alive than in the moment I first looked into each of their eyes. There is no intimacy that rivals holding them in their first days, weeks, and months of life, before they have words.
In my spiritual journey as a mother and a woman, I am the helpless newborn without words who embraces the chance to be born again every time I embrace the cross, to be cradled in the arms of my Father. Daily.