In Covenanted Happiness, Msgr. Cormac Burke writes,
Spouses need to improve in life--to rise above their present worth--if they are to retain their partner's love. It is good therefore--it is essential--that each spouse sacrifices himself or herself for the other.But it is doubtful if any husband and wife, on their own, can inspire each other indefinitely to generosity and self-sacrifice. Children can and do draw from parents a degree of sacrifice to which neither parent alone could probably inspire the other. It is for the sake of their children that parents most easily rise above themselves. Parental love is the most naturally disinterested kind of love. In this way, as they sacrifice themselves for their children, each parent actually improves and becomes--in his or her partner's eyes also--a truly more loveable person.
What does that mean, exactly? What does it mean, practically? Msgr Burke is a priest. What can he know about the daily sacrifices made by two people who live together in marriage? Well, he knows what doesn’t work. In his position as a judge of the Roman Rota, he’s seen a lot of failed marriages, listened to a lot of sad stories. And he can draw on the collective experiences of many couples who didn’t grow. But he’s never gotten up in the morning to discover the toilet seat up and the toothpaste top discarded—by someone else. He’s never had to choose whether to stay up and resolve the argument or go to bed angry. So the lofty philosophy above might need a little practical illumination.
In the beginning, it’s easy to serve your husband. The sun rises and sets upon his shoulders. Everything about him draws you closer. Serving him actually serves you; there is so much romance to be had in return for your good will. But as time goes on, the rain falls occasionally and every good turn isn’t always met by a better one. A child is born. A husband might actually panic at first. This eight pound wonder seems to draw so much attention, so much affection, away from him and towards the baby. How is learning to be a mother going to make us better wives and lovers?
When we commit our mothering to our pursuit of holiness, it all falls in line. At first, it’s physical. We carry the child within in us and so we abolish all physical vices. Now, we eat according to that impossible chart in What to Eat When You’re Expecting. We don’t even dream of sipping the foam off our husband’s beer. We gulp down cod liver oil when just the thought of it makes us gag. We smile when people assure us that nausea and vomiting are “good things.” Giving up chocolate for Lent is easy compared to this new offering of physical sacrifice. We begin to understand what self-sacrifice really looks like. Every day is a little Lent, a little more leaning on the Holy Spirit, a little less leaning on ourselves.
And then the baby is born. We learn that we never have to set an alarm again and that five hours straight is a good night’s sleep. As regularly as the monastery bells, the baby calls us to physical mortification--to hours upon hours of quiet prayer accompanied only by the squeak of the rocker and the swallows of baby at the breast. And somewhere, in the quiet of the early morning, just before dawn breaks, we look at the baby and we recognize that we want to be a better person because of her. We pray for strength and grace and wisdom; we ask for holiness.
We know that we are tired and so we beg for patience because we don’t want to be cranky and demanding mothers. Nor do we want to be cranky and demanding wives. We begin to recognize that in order to shape our children into holy little beings, we have to be holy beings. We can’t ask of them what we don’t ask of ourselves. We want nothing more than to deliver them safely to heaven, so we begin to look carefully at our own journey. And we learn to pray, really pray.
The children grow. We begin to recognize that in order to inspire good attitudes and cheerful cooperation, we have to have good attitudes and cooperate cheerfully. When we are tired, when we are pulled in a million directions, when we are crucified--just a little--a dozen times a day, we pray that we can be kind and gentle and good. We notice that when we treat our husbands with kindness, our children treat each other with kindness. Those little people who look so much like us challenge us. They reflect us. They beg us to work on our own sanctity—for their sakes, for our sakes, for heaven’s sake.
A house full of children requires all the sacrifices of a small household multiplied many times over. There is more of everything—sleepless nights, illnesses, laundry, meals, sacrifices. More opportunities to die to oneself provided graciously by our loving Father and Creator. And more grace. More is required of everyone to get along with so many personalities. More is learned by everyone about how God is diverse and complex and reflects His image in a myriad of people right under our own roofs. Each one unique. Each one precious. Each one challenging us to learn to love more, to learn to love better.
Our edges grow softer. Our hearts open wider. With each baby, as our bodies grow a bit rounder, a bit more feminine, true grace begins to grow. And that grace allows us to be a more empathetic wife, a more tender lover. It allows us to push beyond the fatigue to listen to the long story at the end of the long business trip. It reminds us that a backrub and a warm mug are comforting whether you are 4 or 14 or 40. The infinite grace for which we pray with every squeak of the rocker is poured generously into our souls. God knows that mothering a large family requires heroic effort. God knows that providing for a large family requires heroic sacrifice. God knows that keeping a marriage healthy and holy in the midst of the cacophony and chaos of many children is a challenge no couple can meet on its own. And God smiles on those couples and grants them every grace they need. He so wants them to ask—sometimes to beg-- to be totally dependent on Him. To be sure, they will fall to their knees in utter desperation. And as surely as the sun rises, with every baby, He showers a bounty of blessing and more than enough of everything needed for the journey to heaven.