Have you ever noticed that the normal trials of life are always worse when you have children? Back when I was single, or newly married, getting sick wasn’t so bad. To take a day off of work and curl up with a good book, a cup of tea and a touch of the flu was almost pleasant. But dealing with the same flu when you have a newborn and a preschooler to manage, let alone a flock of homeschoolers—it’s horrible.
Or think about your car breaking down on the highway. Never any fun under the best circumstances. But when there’s a two year old in a car seat and no more spare diapers, the situation becomes a hundred times more desperate.
Sts. Felicity and Perpetua are the patrons of Women in Bad Situations Complicated Further by Children. Both were imprisoned and facing martyrdom. Normally not a pleasant situation, but had they both been childless, it might not have been so bad. They were in prison with four other devout Christian friends. They could all encourage one another, pray together, and help one another to stay focused on their heavenly reward. But thanks to being mothers, Felicity and Perpetua them had an additional problem. Perpetua had a baby at staying at home with her extended family. And she was a nursing mother. Any mother can imagine her misery: in pain from engorgement, probably a soaked, leaking mess, and worst of all, heartbroken from the separation. Her family brought the baby for her to nurse when they visited her each day, but that was hardly adequate.
Her friend, Felicity, had a different kind of baby trouble. Felicity, you see, was a pregnant widow. She was due pretty soon, but not soon enough. Romans, for all their pagan cruelty, did have some feeling for the unborn. The rule was that a condemned pregnant woman was not to be executed until after giving birth. Felicity was sick with worry that her friends would be martyred ahead of her. She was frightened at the idea of possibly having to face death all alone.
We know the story has a happy ending because Perpetua kept a diary in prison. It’s a remarkable document. “Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but then I obtained permission for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and, being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison suddenly became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”
Felicity’s problem was solved as well. The group prayed for her, and God granted her a slightly early delivery. The baby was adopted immediately by a Christian couple, and Felicity was able to face martyrdom with her friends, “rejoicing to come from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.”
So, next time your find yourself spending your own 24 hour virus lugging a bucket, mop, and basket of soiled bedding as you struggle to care for other sick family members—ask these two martyrs to help you get through it. They are sure to understand.
The diary of St. Perpetua to which is added commetary from a Christian observer of their martyrdom, is a remarkable document. You can read it here. Excerpts from it appear in the Office of Readings on their feast, March 7th. Felicity and Perpetua are among the handful of women martyrs mentioned at Mass in the Roman canon. (First Eucharistic Prayer)