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.

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