So, last month I finished On Pilgrimage, the first book I’ve read by Dorothy Day. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a weird experience — like if I printed out a year’s worth of blog posts, interspersed them with my diary entries, stapled it together, and called it a book. But only if I was as insanely interesting as Day, even at her most scattered.
One page struck me especially. We have a new tradition of mother’s blessings here, where we gather to pray for and encourage a friend as her pregnancy comes to its end, and maybe that’s why this passage struck me particularly.
“Most of us have not the courage to set out on this path wholeheartedly, so God arranges it for us.
“It would seem to the unthinking that mothers of children, whether of one or a dozen, are intensely preoccupied with creatures: their little ones, food, clothing, shelter, matters that are down to earth and grossly material, such as dirty diapers, dishes, cooking, cramming baby mouths with food, etc.”
It is true that I have occasionally observed that a tremendous portion of my life now is simply moving physical objects from one place to another: groceries from the store to the car to the pantry; laundry up and down stairs; my toddler in and out of her seat, ad nauseum. My life before children, especially as a student, was entirely sedentary and cerebral.
“Women’s bodies, heavy with children, dragged down by children, are a weight like a cross to be carried about. From morning until night they are preoccupied with cares, but it is care for others, for the duties God has given them. It is a road, once set out upon, from which there is no turning back. Every woman knows that feeling of not being able to escape, of the inevitability of her hour drawing ever nearer. This path of pain is woman’s lot. It is her glory and her salvation. She must accept.”
For me, the most trapped moment is the one in which I receive a positive pregnancy test. I teeter on the top of the roller coaster, elated and filled with dread, then hurtle down into the wonderful-terrible work of building a new person from scratch.
Of course, Day recognizes our attempts to check out, soften the blow, give ourselves space, and writes:
“We try to escape, of course, either habitually or occasionally. But we never can. The point I want to make is that a woman can achieve the highest spirituality and union with God through her house and children, through doing her work, which leaves her no time for thought of self, for consolation, for prayer, for reading, for what she might consider development. She is being led along the path of growth inevitably.”
Although we are starting to get into kind of bleak territory as Day assures us “She must accept” and that we can never escape, I find the conclusion oddly comforting. I can sometimes wimp out and try to escape with too much time on my phone. I can fail to embrace the challenge of parenting, instead complaining to my husband when he gets home from work. But ultimately I’m signed on for this motherhood thing for the duration, and I will be led into growth, whether I like it or not.
What’s more, her words help me to be at peace with a seemingly inevitable neglect of my spiritual life at certain stages of motherhood. I’m naturally a kind of bookish person and so when I accumulate books faster than I can read them, I feel like I’m giving up and slumping into ignorance, and with every novena or Daily Office or Bible study I come across on Instagram, I worry that I’m neglecting my prayer life. Prayer will, of course, look different for me than it does for a cloistered Benedictine nun, but sometimes that’s hard to remember in the constant interruptions of life with small children and Day reminds us here that a mother’s life by necessity is teaching self-forgetfulness as we focus on the “duties God has given [us].”
I don’t think Day would say that motherhood is the only path to holiness for a woman, of course (and neither do I!) but its all-consuming nature can be a help to those of us who might otherwise slump in our commitment to duty and faithfulness. It’s with relief that I am reminded that this life, especially if embraced, may be my path, ultimately, to glory and salvation.