Hands to Heaven

There is a line in Scripture that has always infuriated me. It’s Timothy 2:15, and for years I could not read it without wanting to hurl my Bible at the wall. “The woman,” writes St. Paul, “will be saved by childbearing, if only she continue with faith, love and holiness.” Its baptized misogyny was insulting enough (how typical to posit a woman’s salvation within her social confines of barefoot, pregnant servitude), yet beneath it lurked a more devastating injury: the idea that a woman’s sanctity was tied up in motherhood. That spelled damnation for me, I thought, for the drudgery of childbearing was the last thing I aspired to.

Then I fell in love with a man who wanted kids the way former boyfriends had dreamed of plasma TVs. As he wooed and pursued me, I realized it was not motherhood per se I had long feared and mocked; it was the utter dying to self that motherhood entails. My individualism and selfishness were alive and well, fostered by nearly a decade of independence, during which my time, decisions, money, plans, and body had remained solely my own. The idea of marriage thrilled me (it was no sacrifice to love Andrés), but children held no such natural enticement toward self-oblation. Like St. Augustine’s tepid plea for chastity, I didn’t want my selfishness scourged quite yet.

But St. John writes that perfect love casts out fear, and it is true, even of flawed loves like ours: A year after our wedding, we found ourselves praying I might get pregnant. Two days later, I did. To say I was ecstatic would be a lie — I hadn’t expected an answer to arrive overnight express. But we were awed at this new life God and our union had wrought.

My pregnancy proceeded in a happy glow: I grew fat and contented as a tabby cat, unhampered by morning sickness. I shopped and cleaned, cooked and froze dinners, ordered parenting books, and interviewed doulas in a blissful whirl of organization. I found myself dreaming of long-scorned domestic scenes, a tangle of jolly siblings for our son, and a kitchen fragrant with hot meals and teasing affection. Finally, I thought, I was ready to be a mother.

Then Dominic was born. I still remember my feeling of incredulity when the hospital night nurse first woke me to feed him, seemingly minutes after a searing labor. I looked at the clock — 2:20 a.m. — then at my mewling, scrunchy little baby, and knew like Napoleon at Waterloo that the end had come — the end of life as I knew and liked it. This child, this responsibility, was mine for the rest of my life.

I felt a tidal wave of resentment that God had allowed me to welcome pregnancy while providing barely a shred of fuzzy maternal instinct beyond delivery. I knew my hormones were running amok, but I felt blindsided and betrayed. Where was the grace that had flooded the previous nine months? Right then, I wanted nothing more than to rewind time back to that September night when we’d first asked God for a baby, and postpone our prayer another two years. I wanted to push my son right back at the nurse and snap, “You feed him.” I’m a wretched mother already, I thought. Poor, innocent, ill-fated Dominic.

Somewhere I’d assumed that if only I prayed hard enough for grace when I accepted pregnancy, a good mother would be born with my son. I had forgotten that elemental wild card of Catholic theology: that grace builds on nature. Prayers are not magic spells, and none would instantly transform my long-fostered habit of selfishness into a spirit of enthusiastic self-sacrifice. Instead, over the next weeks and months, a loving Savior would ask me to take up my cross and learn to follow Him. In obeying, I would discover that God rarely calls the equipped. If we are asked to cooperate in our own salvation, it is only because He equips those He calls.

Meanwhile, Dominic didn’t know he was poor and ill-fated. He was a near-perfect baby by every account, with limpid blue eyes and pink, puckish smiles. I coddled and bathed him, tickled and sang to him, boasted shamelessly of his every new feat. When he napped on our bed, flushed with sweet sleep, I would lie beside him and murmur my undying love into his damp blond curls.

Yet through it all, I rebelled. A voice in my head echoed the old cry of Lucifer: non serviam — I will not serve. “You’re too good for this,” said the voice. “You were made for better things — not the endless, mind-numbing tedium of diapers and dishes and laundry. Where is the glamour, the intellectual stimulation, the chances and promotions you still deserve? Is this really what God intended for you?”

The voice would resume each morning as I watched the army of lawyers and interns swinging down 16th Street with their lattes and briefcases and careers. Each smartly dressed young woman, luxuriating in her phone conversation or iPod, represented a life I couldn’t have anymore, opportunities and experiences that would never be mine. “You see?” the voice would prod. “You see?”

Of course, every slide into self-pity would trigger an even greater avalanche of guilt. The world over, women were struggling with infertility, miscarriages, the death of a child, or newborns with cruel, debilitating diseases. Thousands of new mothers would never have the luxury of choosing whether to go back to work. Thousands more lacked a caring, sensitive husband, or any kind soul to see them through the first dazed months. I despised myself utterly for chafing under Dominic’s featherweight load; I knew to the core how fortunate I was, how ludicrously bourgeois my malaise — and so my self-loathing would compile.

I reached my breaking point one afternoon while walking with Dominic past St. Matthew’s Cathedral. A panhandler standing at the corner took a long look at my stroller and its sleeping cargo and inexplicably dragged a condom out of his pocket. “If you’d used one of these,” he leered, “you wouldn’t have had him.” Shaken, I knew the man had articulated the very thought that had risen like a demonic specter on more than one sleep-deprived night. That condom represented every temptation I’d experienced in my struggle to be open to life, every forbidden alternative I might have taken as I struggled to welcome first pregnancy and then Dominic.

Sick with shame, I sought out a priest in confession. With the gentle yet exacting probe of an experienced confessor, he asked me to name what I would rather be doing. “Go on, imagine,” he urged. “Let’s say you can leave your family, your responsibilities. What do you want?”

My answers were distressingly ready. “I want to see the rest of the world,” I told him. “I want to be the foreign correspondent I trained to be. I want to take my morning coffee in silence, to read the paper uninterrupted. I want to sleep until noon on Saturdays — or at least through the night. I want my time, my space, my schedule, my plans, my peace, my quiet . . . I want me again. I just want me.”

The priest gazed at me, his eyes suffused with compassion. “All of us want that,” he said softly. But serving ourselves, living for ourselves . . . what does the Gospel say about that? ‘He who seeks to save his life, will lose it.’ ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls in the earth . . .’ We know we can’t find happiness that way.”

“Try me,” I thought darkly.

Not long after, God took me up on my silent challenge: When an old college friend flew in from France, I was given the chance to see, George Bailey-style, what my life might have been like without Dominic.

Veronique — a single, gorgeous, multilingual painter — was living out the very fantasy I had tried to articulate to my confessor. She jetted around the globe with no apparent responsibility standing between her next whim and reality. Her family was distant; her jobs, like her love interests, were sporadic and provisional; all were powerless against the lure of new ventures and continents. I couldn’t wait to hear her stories, to soak in the shimmering brilliance of her life. Inviting her over for tea one afternoon, I braced myself for the flash of pity I had often glimpsed in her eyes at my increasingly predictable, beige-hued existence (husband, child, mortgage, minivan).

It never came. Veronique was miserable, and desperately so. Approaching 30 like me, her hard independence, emotional skittishness, and sheer impulsivity were catching up with her. She hated her expensive art school. Her e-mails, dazzling travelogues forwarded to massive lists of friends, were going unacknowledged. The handful of men in her life arrived and then disappeared with a disturbingly familiar, slapdash autonomy. She was tired of being broke, of depending on the more conventionally stable for her car rides and phone calls and suppers. Yet the promising internships and positions were passing her by for younger college grads who had long since paid their dues in nine-to-five grunt jobs.

Veronique seemed haunted by a stirring realization that years of self-direction, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment (all so greedily panted after by me) had brought her not nirvana, but only herself — a self she was starting to find unbearable. As she watched me wipe applesauce off Dominic’s chin, help him down from the highchair, and start preparations for yet another meal, her eyes reflected not pity but raw, naked wishing. And her next words startled me further. “I wish I had someone to love and give myself to like that,” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid my heart is going to shrivel up.”

I expected to feel relief at Veronique’s woe — after all, her admissions amounted to foundational cracks in a lifestyle I had lusted for with near idolatry. But instead I felt only wonder and the spreading epiphany that mothering — that vocation I wore like a penitent’s hair shirt — had spared me the tyranny, the terrible poverty, of my unconstrained will. As I glimpsed the bleakness in Veronique’s life, I realized I never could have borne the curse I had craved so long — that of gaining the whole world, only to lose my soul. In His all-seeing mercy, God had eliminated for me the option of exclusive self-service when I bore Dominic. As a wife and mother, my heart might bleed, but I knew it would never shrivel, pumped full as it was with the occupational hazards of delight and terror, grief and compassion. When Veronique left, I clutched my son to my breast and wept with gratitude.

Henry Ward Beecher once wrote that children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven. I first inscribed that quote in Dominic’s baby book, but it is only now, nearly four years and an infant daughter later, that I see it is simply a more palatable version of Timothy 2:15. Through Veronique I realized that what I once called heaven — all that came from my own stubborn choosing — was the quintessence of hell itself. Only children could roll away the stone from the grave of self in which I lay and offer my soul rebirth.

Though I mostly struggle and stagger in my vocation as mother, I do so rejoicing, knowing that God will hold me through it, if only I continue with faith, love, and holiness. This woman, at least, will be saved by childbearing.

By

Marion Fernandez-Cueto is an award-winning writer, speaker, and mother of three. She is a convert to Catholicism who lives in Houston with her husband Andres.

  • kmk

    Fiat!

  • Laurie

    This was so beautifully written. I am ashamed to say at one point of my life I felt somewhat this way. Our society tells us that motherhood is not as important as career and money. For the first few years of my children’s lives, I always thought I was missing out, I didn’t have a professional job, I had three degrees I was paying student loans on and not using any of them. When I finally started to work outside of the home. I still never used my degrees. I used my artisic talents that I never even schooled in (the most obvious of the talents God gave me). Nevertheless, I am looking back with much regret. Not appreciating the most important gift God gave me was motherhood. I still have it, but now it competes with work.
    To be a stay at home mom is something I only wish I could be now. I hope some of the new mother’s will take heed. If you have the ability to stay home and be a fulltime mother, it is the most IMPORTANT job you will ever have. God Bless.

  • Ted Seeber

    I found the same thing with Fatherhood. And now realize that *family* is the most important job any of us will ever undertake.

    I wonder what would happen if the economy was rearranged to reward parenthood the same way we reward rock stars and CEOs?

  • Jennifer

    Marion,

    This is simply one of the best things I have read in ages. Splendidly written. You have a great gift.

    Blessed indeed are the women who discover the mercy of God in their mothering. Surely mothers hold a very special place in heaven’s heart.

  • Ann

    Yes, this is a fabulous article, truly. Stories about parenthood can often veer into the sappy and syrupy, but this one stands out.

  • Herman

    What a stunning and luminous piece of work; trembling in its tender quiet tone and stirring in the stark, clear-eyed gaze it turnss on a delicate subject. Simple, straightforward and (like all great writing) –TRUE.

    Coming from the other side of this equation –a male who grew up wanting nothing more than to marry and be a father– I still found this revelatory. I wanted all this and yet still I redognized those ugly murmurings of “What if…? Why not me?… I could have been…” all the self-centered whisperings I hear echoed in Mrs. Fernandez-Cueto’s beautiful essay. Thank you for publishing this.

  • snn

    That was a powerful article. I’ve found exactly the same thing. Much better to be broken down through love than through emptiness.

  • Rose

    What a beautiful article. It does make my heart ache, though, for those out there who would like to leave their single, jet-setting, self-centered lives and give themselves to someone else. Unfortunately, for many women (and men) today, the spouse and the babies don’t come.

  • Smiley

    Well said!! I thought this piece was just beautiful!

  • gb

    Thank you for this amazing article. I printed it because it is my life on paper. Now, at age 60, I can look back & see that this is exactly how God saved me from myself! How frightenly wrong the culture of death is…

  • Kate

    Beautiful. Thank you!

  • realshanti

    Yes its a beautiful piece and heartfelt and your child is blessed, as are you, that you had such a realization while he was still so young – My heart was much harder than yours and my will too intractable – until the last few years that is, and my son now grown and now struggling with the demons that I left him to deal with – I have only come to the Catholic church recently and now go through my own suffering as my son goes through his –

    so now I dedicate prayers and any physical suffering that I currently go through for the salvation of his soul – and mine – and when I come to confirmation in the spring of next year – I will make my first confession and ask for forgivenss…It can not come soon enough – So mine is also a cautionary tale – but I hope, and with great hope in Christ, a victorious tale….God Bless you and all the other mothers who have discovered and cherished their children as God calls us to do…

  • Deb

    This past weekend our youngest son, the last of 3 wonderful ‘kids’, left to be an Air Force Officer. There are very few days in a life when you can pinpoint when life changes utterly, completely. Our son was an unexpected, yes unplanned, gift from God and one I was not too happy about~ for about 8 months. Once he entered our lives it was a different story. My husband and I wish we could roll those days with the 3 of them back, just a few more years because they have been a grace received, undeserved. It is true that time passes all too quickly. Take good care with those graces received.

  • Carla

    As the oldest of 8 children and an aspiring lawyer, I vowed to stay husband-less and child-less…and God laughed. I met my future husband my first day of college, we married and attended law school together (me: ok God I’ll do marriage and consider kids). My first child was born 10 months after we graduated and my sixth is nursing happily on my 42 year old lap. I had no idea the joys that God had planned for me and I thank him every day for the grace to become the woman HE wanted me to be, rather than the creature I thought would bring me the world’s acclaim and amusements.

  • Jessica

    This was so beautiful and made me teary-eyed… I’m currently in college and am discerning a religious vocation. What’s tough for me is that I have a very strong desire to be a wife and a mother, and it’s very distressing to think of never having children (other than spiritual). But in either vocation (as a religious or as a mother), there’s also the temptation to listen to the same worldly voice: “You are ‘better’ and can do more than that; you should use your degree and have a career.” I think we all know that the desire for a prestigious career is an empty ideal, but there’s a difference between knowing something in your head and integrating it into your heart.

  • Wowzers.

    All I have to say is. . .wowzers. smilies/smiley.gif That was amazing. smilies/smiley.gif

  • clb

    This was a superbly well written, insightful article. Rather painful to me, as I

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m a newlywed, recent college grad, swinging daily it seems from a desire for motherhood to a fear of it/clinging to that allure of my teenage dreams…travel, the shining career, all of it. This hit me hard.

  • Gia

    Marion, thank you for this wonderful and beautifully written piece.

  • Meghan

    What an amazing piece.
    You give me hope.

  • Natmom

    What a beautiful, and for me, a timely piece. I have truly been brought to God by the blessing of my two beautiful children. It was not until I carried my now (almost) fourteen year old son in my body that I was able to really have faith in God. And it took my daughter’s preparing for her first communion (the pastor required proof of Mass attendance & she was too attached to me to send her with my husband) to get me back to the Catholic Church. Much to my surprise, I am now a daily communicant! Without my children, whose blessings have been inumerable, I am sure I would not have returned to the faith. I truly feel that if I slaved for my kids until my last breath is drawn from my body, that I would die deeply in their debt. I thank God for them daily.
    When my daughter was born I decided to leave a high-paying, high pressure career as an attorney to devote myself exclusively to my children and our family. Although I truly enjoyed being a lawyer, I had an incohate understanding that nothing I could accomplish in the world was as important as raising my children. I now know how true that is.
    Financial circumstances now compel me to return to work in a week’s time and I will miss being at home with them more than I can express. It is a testament to his great heart that even my teenage son has shed tears at the prospect, as has my nine year old girl. I pray to God that in doing so I am doing the right thing for them and for my family and, if so, for the strength to be able to persevere despite my misgivings. If I may ask it of you, please remember me in your prayers.

  • Beatriz

    Dear Marion,

    What a beautiful article! And congratulations for the courage of opening your heart in this way. Not many dare talk about their sins and weaknesses. How many of us accept we are selfish? Specially concerning motherhood? Not many.

    For me, motherhood has been easy (even if I am super tired and struggle with some parenting issues) because I have always wanted it. I am extremely grateful that God has made my dream come true and helped me all the way. I once wanted to be a non so I could be closer to God but a priest made me realize that God wanted me to be a mom. And now I see that being a mother is getting me so close to Him! He shows me He is with me every day. Even if I don’t take time for prayer or if I haven’t been to confession in a very long time or if I miss Mass because I don’t get ready on time, He is with me. He loves me and helps me to grow. And now, with your article, I realize that I am being saved through all this. I am loving Him through my children and experiencing a little bit of what heaven is like. He knows that time will come when my praying life will come back as it was before and maybe even better.

    Isn’t it wonderful to experience how God transforms our weaknesses and uses them to get closer to Him? Glory be to God!

  • Kate Wicker

    Beautifully and honestly written!

  • Kate

    This article was amazing — it exactly described how I unexpectedly have found myself feeling many times since becoming a mom (and I’d waited and prayed and hoped for marriage and family and stay-at-home momhood my entire life!). It reminds me of something John Paul II wrote, which I have thumb-tacked by my computer as a reminder to myself on hard days:

    “May mothers, young women and girls not listen to those who tell them that working at a secular job, succeeding in a secular profession, is more important than the vocation of giving life and caring for this life as a mother.” (JPII, Oct 1, 1979)

  • FIL

    Marion,

    Absolutely courageous and splendidly written. To tell others what you went through and your real feelings is something few people are willing to do for fear at ridicule. I can only say that I am proud of you.

    F.I.L

  • Katrina

    Thank you, your words spoke the feelings I’ve been struggling to express. It’s like you opened my heart up and then wrote your story. Bravo

  • Michael the Looplander

    Great article – but the greatest crime against humanity is not those who will not have a child – having a child or two is rather novel. An open-ess to life, the “total, reciprocal self-giving” mentioned by the Church is in accepting as many children as God wants you to have. My wife and I are expecting #11 next month, I know how you feel – and I can simply encourage you to keep going. Resist the worldly whispering in your ear to “close up shop”. There is more to being pro-life than just being anti-abortion. The best gift you can give your children is another sibling. Be not afraid!

  • Monica

    Wow, did I ever go through this with our first baby! This is beautiful and insightful and I want to say THANK YOU for writing it. I saw it in Family Foundations, and decided to look it up here so I could point my friends and family to it. Thanks. Really. God bless you.

  • Barbie

    Marion-Thank you for writing this. I so needed to read it just now. You write beautifully, your honesty so jarring. I expected euphoria on the birth of my firstborn, and the intense love was there, but it felt so burdensome. So much bigger than me. I’ve had two more kids since then, and the euphoria has come, but there is still a feeling of not being enough, a certain amount of boredom at the mundanity of everyday life, and not feeling equal to the task. That being said, I wouldn’t trade the life I have chosen.
    Michael the Looplander, some people are called to have 11 children. Most of these people are given them one (or two) at a time, in God’s generous time.

  • Anonymous

    “Only children could roll away the stone from the grave of self in which I lay and offer my soul rebirth.”
    I awoke this morning looking forward to my Sunday routine: coffee in my pajamas, facebook, emails, then getting ready for Mass, lunch with my darling and a day of catching up. I am learning to be content with the gift of my life, ceasing to want it otherwise. No morning rush to get any kid to Mass, no diappers to change, no struggle to find a matching pair of little shoes, pretty much certain no life changing ego-shaking decision to love would be DEMANDED of me today. If I ever give anything of myself today, it will probably be JUST BECAUSE I WANT TO, because I don’t have a life depending on my daily selfgiving. Maybe I should be relieved not to be burdened with the responsibility of another… No. I am not. I guess God’s children are never happy with the life he offers each of them individually. This article brings tears to my heart: barren, divorced mainly for that reason, with no family in the US, 3 years ago I prayed My Lord and Savior for support, friendship and a little fun so that I could heal. He graciously offered all of this and more: support, friendship and fun are here for me along with a beautiful house in a beach town, nice dinners out anytime I want and vacation cruises . WAIT… don’t be so quick to be jaleous! This is spiritual work also, you might not see it. I had to reinvente my life from being an adoptive expectant mother to be divorce and barren too. As a Catholic woman in her 40’s, where was my salvation going to come from if I don’t have any little hand in mine to sacrifice for??? While I am still griveving the exact things that Marion is struggling to accept, I am devoting myself to a new carrere and the family of my new fiance who has grown children. I do not doubt the salvation my Savior has won for me. My salvation is not the reason why I would push myself to love others, make sacrifices along the way, deny myself of some of the richess that could be given to me without even asking for them. Without giving of oneself, we cannot be ourselves. If thinking that “bearing and rising children is YOUR ONLY way to salvation” helps you accept the growing pains of your soul, then be it. For my part, I choose to seek these growing pains. Not for my own sake (I know my Savior died for me), but just because a life worth living is a life of selfgiving.

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