In our desire to convince people of the rightness of our position in certain matters, we can unwittingly lead people to believe that the spiritual life is meant to be easy. Far too often, we build things up with high and false expectations that damage the people we are trying to help. Instead of being honest about the very real struggles of our vocations, we brush these struggles off, ignore them, or pretend they do not exist, all for the sake of convincing people that certain choices are good, right, and/or superior.
In reality, the good speaks for itself, but that does not mean the path to holiness is easy. One of the areas in which I think we avoid full disclosure and honesty is in the struggles stay-at-home moms face in their vocation.
I am a stay-at-home mom and many of my friends are stay-at-home moms. I have noticed—as have many of my friends—that in our desire to convince people that staying home is good and worthwhile, we portray the realities of day-to-day life in unrealistic terms. We pretend that we are constantly smiling at our children with joy and happily thanking God for the gift of doing the dishes, laundry, and sweeping the floor for the umpteenth time in one day. Instead, many of us are muttering under our breath as we clean up the most recent mess. We are all works in progress! Most of all, we ignore the fact that many stay-at-home moms are lonely. Yes, lonely.
Western culture has led to a radical decline in community. As the idea of rugged individualism and the idea that we can do it ourselves took hold, the notion of coming together in community all but disintegrated. This is true both inside of the Church and in Western culture. Now most stay-at-home moms are islands largely isolated from one another. There are movements within parishes to get mothers together. This is a good first step, but I think we need to be honest about the struggles many Catholic mothers—good Catholic mothers—face in their isolation.
Being a stay-at-home mom is a sacrifice
Catholic moms who have decided to stay home with their children have chosen to sacrifice careers and advanced schooling in order to help their children on the path to holiness. It is often forgotten that many women — including myself — married later in their twenties or thirties and had careers and completely different lifestyles before making the decision to stay home. Even in choosing to stay home, many women still miss their careers and, at times struggle, to settle fully into home life. I am one of these women.
I have a very intellectual nature and, even though I know I’ve made the right decision staying home with my daughter, I still have moments when I struggle with no longer being in the active workforce. When jobs I am interested in — even part-time — come up I have to tell myself “no” because this is not the right season. I do not regret my decision, nor would I change it, but I still struggle at times. Sacrifice is meant to hurt. That’s how we grow in love and holiness. Admitting this fact does not take away from the blessing of staying home. It is merely to acknowledge the realities at work. If we pretend that everything is blissful in the world of being a stay-at-home mom, we run the risk of leading other women to discouragement and even despair.
Many women mistakenly believe that their struggles should cause them shame or that they do not love their children or husband enough. If a woman does not feel joy every day at home in her vocation, she can begin to wonder if she is doing something wrong, since all of these other women convinced her of the obvious daily joys. It is critical that we are honest with others about the blessings and the struggles that flow from our vocation. Sentimentality and superficiality will not get us very far and it will only damage our message to other women about the reality of staying home. Some women adjust more easily than others and there is no shame in the struggle. It is in the battle that we grow in our trust and love of God. The path to holiness is filled with adversity as well as “pleasant inns” (C. S. Lewis). Being practical and honest about the path will help stave off despair.
The single biggest struggle for friends of mine who are stay-at-home moms, as well as myself, is isolation. This isolation leads to loneliness. If I don’t go to daily Mass on regular basis, it is quite possible that I will spend an entire week at home without speaking to another adult except my husband when he comes home at night. Even going to daily Mass, there is a certain level of isolation in that most people leave quickly and there is very little actual community because people are busy, or if there is, I’m too young to be an active participant. This is another aspect of a culture that is constantly on the run and busy. Thankfully, I am repeatedly nourished by the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, which greatly helps me with the isolation.
Many stay-at-home moms try to fill this void of isolation with social media, but it too is hollow in that it offers the illusion of connectivity without true community. After a while it becomes tiresome and draining as it is revealed for the counterfeit that it actually is in the face of genuine friendship born of shared experience and holy goals. Deep friendships grounded in our eschatological end are what will fill this void. We cannot be content with the isolation that has been forced upon us by a culture addicted to individualism and busyness. Nor can we be content with social gatherings that can at times further our isolation, rather than bring comfort.
The solution is that we are going to have to make a concerted effort to find deep spiritual friendships with our fellow sisters in Christ on the journey. Our brothers in Christ can also be great spiritual friends as long as the relationship is prudent in nature and known by our husbands. Even though these friendships are also a gift, they are more easily distorted by the Enemy, so we must always be on guard, even in what is good and holy. In the case of stay-at-home moms (and all women), just as men need brotherhood, we need sisterhood. How do we pursue this sisterhood?
Pray for holy friendships
The first step is prayer. I have prayed for years for God to provide me with deep spiritual friendships. Friendship is a tremendous gift and it is one of the many joys in this life. We need friends who are going to help us grow in holiness. Friends who we can be open and honest with about the joys and the sufferings of daily life. Those who can see our weaknesses, but not allow themselves to judge or be repelled by those weaknesses that often differ from their own. The sooner we realize that everyone is weak, most especially ourselves, the more open we will be to friends God puts in our path.
True friendship is not a fair-weather sort of relationship. It is meant to stand the test of time, including times of very stormy seas. I think most of us have experienced the fair-weather sort of friends, who really tend to be nothing more than acquaintances. What we seek — and what we need — are friends who are truly interested and devoted to growing in holiness and walking towards heaven with us.
Quality versus quantity
Moms’ groups are a wonderful way to bring women together each week or month for fellowship. When I first became a mom, a Women’s Bible Study at my parish helped me tremendously those first couple of years. Attending these events when possible can definitely help with the isolation many stay-at-home moms feel, especially when their children are young. This isn’t the only solution, however.
Going to a meeting with a large group of women is difficult for people like me who tend more towards introversion. I am on multiple committees in my parish, but in full disclosure, I’m exhausted by the end of meetings. I serve and help as much as my vocation allows, but it can be a really draining for me. It’s another chance to sacrifice! Since most of my close friends are also introverts, it’s exhausting for them as well. No matter if a person is an introvert, extrovert, or both, having a large quantity of friends or acquaintances does not equate to authentic and deep friendship. In fact, the opposite can be true.
Having many friends often means — in my experience — that most of these friendships are based on shared environment rather than the desire to progress in holiness. These friendships serve their purpose, but often they are unfulfilling. When we attend events, we should look for one or two women who we connect with at a greater level than the others. This does not take away from the goodness of the other women present, it is merely a reflection of how in our God-given individuality, we connect with other people more than we do with others. Catholics are notorious for guilt. This is not a situation in which we should feel guilty; rather, we should be thankful to God for the quality friends he gives to us while also working to love all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember, St. John had a deeper relationship with Our Lord!
This piece in no way denigrates women who choose to work outside of the home. Since I have been a stay-at-home mom my entire married life, I would not presume to write about being a working mom, nor critique the choices of my sisters in Christ who choose to do so for a variety of reasons. We may have respectful disagreements, but neither should disparage the other. We are all trying to lead our families towards heaven and become saints. We must rely on God’s will for each one of our lives and trust in His plan for us. My desire is to bring to light the loneliness that many stay-at-home moms face, even in an age of instant communication. I think the solution is to find those sisters who can truly help us towards heaven and thank God for the gift of authentic, holy friendship. May God bless each one of us with holy friends.