My calf began to cramp as I bounced my leg up and down, attempting to nurse my 9 month old to sleep on my lap in a too-small plane seat. The cramp was manageable at first, but quickly became a pain I could no longer ignore, so I shifted my weight and used my opposite leg to bounce. My baby arched his back and screeched in protest, unlatching as the screech turned into a wail. The wail, one of the subtly crippling sufferings of motherhood, provoked stress in me that I always expect to happen immediately after my baby begins to cry. I began to sweat and more muscles cramped as I shifted my weight here, there, anywhere I could think of in attempt to make the wailing cease. I had no luck.
I exchanged a knowing look with my husband. The baby needed sleep, badly. We spotted an empty row in the back of the airplane where the baby could fall asleep more easily. One of us would have to go to the back of the plane with him. Although we discussed it briefly, both of us knew it would be me. Not because my husband was unwilling, but because, as so often occurs with infants, no comfort but the comfort of a mother would suffice.
My husband promised to bring me a snack and a drink of water because motion sickness crept as a result of the turbulence. So, baby in one arm, I walked carefully down the rows of seats to the back of the plane, using my other arm to occasionally grab onto a seat in order to stay steady on my feet.
I sat down, now sweating even more due to the increased stress resulting from a still wailing baby. I focused on calming myself down so that I could, in turn, calm my baby down. After what felt like an eternity of wailing, unlatching, relatching, bouncing, and singing, my baby was finally asleep in my arms.
Once he fell asleep, I paid more attention to the state of my own body, a state I had been ignoring, as mothers so often do when caring for their children. My entire body was tense from straining muscles I didn’t normally use bouncing, swaying, and rocking my infant in a cramped space. Then, I realized I wasn’t actually sitting on a seat, but was situated between two seats with my spine on the crevice in the middle of them. One arm was supporting my baby’s head, and the other was wedged under his legs. I didn’t dare move a muscle for fear of waking him. I waited for my husband to relieve me with the water and snack. The stewardess came on the intercom and announced that the turbulence was picking up, and no one was to leave their seats. Panic set in as I realized I was alone for longer than anticipated. I was thirsty, a little hungry, and increasingly nauseous from the turbulence.
The Everyday Sufferings of Motherhood
This story may sound like an ordinary mother having an ordinary, albeit a little rough, day. And it is. Suffering in motherhood is uniquely intimate, but also universal and shared. Mothers every day suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This suffering is often inescapable. I can feel trapped by this suffering. But, if we choose, if we simply have the courage to accept our crosses, we can be redeemed by this everyday suffering. St. John Vianney sums it up well:
On the Way of the Cross, you see, my children, only the first step is painful. Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses. . . We have not the courage to carry our cross, and we are very much mistaken; for, whatever we do, the cross holds us tight—we cannot escape from it. What, then, have we to lose? Why not love our crosses, and make use of them to take us to heaven?
The journey to motherhood is riddled with suffering: the nausea, fatigue, and migraines of the first trimester and the intense pain of labor and childbirth certainly give mothers a fitting initiation into the reality that is motherhood.
When I realized that caring for my newborn was not the simple, nurturing experience I expected it to be, but was instead a physically and emotionally painful process, I experienced fear. Fear of bearing these crosses of motherhood. Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be so hard? Looking back, plenty of people did, I just didn’t hear them. It felt unfair. It felt painful. As St. John Vianney said, the first step of accepting our crosses is painful. One of my greatest crosses in motherhood is lack of sleep. It’s such a normal cross of motherhood that we all experience in some form or another, but I had (and still have) a difficult time accepting it. But if I cannot escape the cross, why not make use of it to get to heaven?
6 Ways to Endure and Offer the Sufferings of Motherhood
In Bishop Barron’s video on St. Teresa of Calcutta, he says that becoming a saint is not mimicking Christ. Becoming a saint is letting Christ live His life in you. I know that Christ experienced the totality of human suffering. He experienced physical suffering, psychological suffering, and spiritual suffering. So why am I so often surprised when my vocation is full of suffering? Why am I surprised when the intense joys of motherhood are accompanied by intense sufferings of motherhood? The way of the cross was a central part of Christ’s life. When we allow Him to live in us, to suffer in us, we are becoming saints. Along the way, we can allow Christ to suffer in us and find reprieve on our journey of motherhood:
1. Call on your mother
Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (John 19:27).
The simplest and most powerful aid through my journey of motherhood has been asking for and accepting the help of Mama Mary. Don’t be afraid to bring her into your home! She can offer solidarity, hope, and comfort—all those things that we, as mothers, give our children on a daily basis. We can be restored in Mary’s arms by accepting her help. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend doing a Marian Consecration (like 33 Days to Morning Glory). It was such a powerful turning point in my life and has brought me so much peace.
2. Practice self-care
You can’t give what you don’t have. Self-care is important, especially spiritual self-care. When I feel I need a little self-care in my life, I often first think of treating myself to physical self-care—a manicure, a bath, or a peaceful walk outside sans child. However, don’t forget about spiritual self-care! As mothers, we often have to multi-task, so make a commitment to say the rosary on your walk or chat with a friend about the daily readings while you get a manicure together.
3. Find a community of mothers
Motherhood might not look like what you imagined, but you are probably bearing similar crosses as other moms. When you feel alone and confused about your journey as a mother, it can be so helpful to relate to other moms. Whether it is an in-person moms group, an online community of some like-minded mothers, or a weekly check-in with your sister to talk about the struggles you are facing in motherhood, make sure you have a space where you feel comfortable talking about your struggles and can turn to for advice or simply empathy.
4. Give yourself some grace
If you try to take up your daily crosses with the expectation that you will always bear them with perfect humility and patience, you are bound to be disappointed. As mothers, we will constantly falter; we may lose our patience, we may speak harshly to our spouse, we may ignore a family member in need because we feel we have too much on our plate already. This does not make us failures as Christians, mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters. This makes us human. Ask for forgiveness when you fall short and accept God’s grace and mercy afterward. His mercy makes the sufferings of motherhood bearable.
5. Accept help
Accepting help is easy in the early days. Everyone knows a mom with a newborn is tired and overwhelmed. But often, around the 6 month mark, we think we should have it all together. We thought our baby would be sleeping more by now. We thought we would be back on track with laundry schedules and meal planning routines. But we may find this isn’t the reality, and it can be hard to admit we need additional help. Always accept help when it is offered and don’t be afraid to ask a friend or family member to help you cook a meal or take the baby out to the park while you catch up on laundry (or sleep).
6. Pick a patron saint
Whether you are named after a saint or you simply ask a particular saint to be your patron because you relate to their life story, a patron saint can be another “friendly face” as you work through the sufferings of motherhood. Our ultimate mission as mothers is to raise our children to be saints, so what better way to help us fulfill this mission than to call on a saint for help?
Carly Matthews is an Ave Maria University graduate who lives with her husband, son, and lab mix in Orlando, Florida. She works at Catholic Charities of Central Florida and enjoys weekends filled with visiting local parks, attempting to catch up on sleep, and sewing. Find her on Instagram.