A priest friend once told me about a woman he knew who had been admitted to the hospital. The reason for her required stay may surprise you. She was a mother of two, who had fully spent herself in the loving care of her family, but in doing so, had severely neglected her own physical and mental health to a point of serious illness. The doctors were astonished at her state and, when she was ready to be discharged, cautioned her that it was time to make some changes or she would soon be returning.
I asked the priest to expand on the story. Was there a child with special needs? Were her children very young? Did she have an unsupportive spouse, or perhaps, was she a single parent? He shook his head and revealed that her children were old enough to care for themselves, but knew that they could get their mother to do everything for them. Her days were filled complying with incessant demands and she shared with the priest that over the years she had begun to feel used, spent, under-appreciated, and depleted.
I thought a lot about that woman.
You are affecting more good than you could imagine with every diaper you change, every shoe you pull from the toilet, every meal you prepare …
Undoubtedly, she knew that we are called to love like Christ: unreservedly and selflessly, fostering a heart for service, but there was something that didn’t feel right about her story. Self-sacrificial love is not intended to turn us into pushovers or doormats. It’s just the opposite!
Saint John Paul II (The Great imho), in the encyclical Fides et Ratio, speaks of the unfathomable dignity of the human person, the “Immortal splendor of the human personality.” And indeed, we are called to defend that personality.
But what does defending your personality mean? When I first heard it, I thought it referred to the importance of not losing sight of the things that make you you … like your creativity, your intelligence, or your virtues. But not so.
It is more intimately connected to an idea conveyed in a Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, where the Church encouraged the faithful to focus not on self-promotion, but rather on self-giving. “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self." (Gaudium et Spes, 24)
Saint JPII revealed that defending your personality means being aware of yourself as a gift. It means understanding the dignity of each loving act of service, and choosing to offer yourself with clarity and joyful conviction. It means recognizing that fulfilling the duties of your state is your chosen act of love.
My children aren’t stealing my time, demanding my attention, and sucking my energy. Rather, as an act of my free will, I’m offering all of the above. I’m choosing daily to make myself a gift, and that gift often means not getting to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.
I was once at a parade with a fellow mother. She was wincing from the bite of the cold. “I had made a thermos of hot tea to keep my hands warm,” she said through her shivers. “But my daughter was cold, and took it from me.” Her three-year-old looked up at her with a toothy smile. “No,” I commented. “She didn’t take your thermos, you gave it to her!” My friend laughed. “Yes,” she conceded, owning the offering.
Like so many parents, I know how it feels to pour myself into the care of my children, especially the youngest ones. It’s a call to give and give, to the point of utter exhaustion, only to rise in the wee hours to further attend to their needs. The early years of parenting tiny humans are seldom the time for rest, rejuvenation, and recognition, but over time, I’ve come to realize that perspective changes everything. Yes, it’s all very hard, but if I keep in mind the weight and dignity of each act, and understand that my yes penetrates the heavens in a way I could scarcely imagine, then the burden is somehow lightened.
I believe the woman who found herself in the hospital allowed her family to see her as a commodity rather than affirming the magnificence of her personality.
My older children know that I am always happy to assist and serve them, but they also know that I am forming them to become the givers of the world - there are already too many takers out there. As a family, we expect all members to frequently make gifts of themselves to each other. I want my children to find themselves through these self-giving acts, and to be aware of the extraordinary graces that flow from their humble offerings.
In his letter to women, Saint JPII wrote, “… this perspective of "service"-which, when it is carried out with freedom, reciprocity and love, expresses the truly "royal" nature of mankind.” LETTER OF POPE JOHN PAUL II TO WOMEN (11)
I hope, my fellow parents, that you will take care of your health, and ask for help when you need it, but also fervently defend your personality.
You are affecting more good than you could imagine with every diaper you change, every shoe you pull from the toilet, every meal you prepare … and every minute negotiating with small family members regarding the consumption of said meal. You are not a doormat, you are decidedly dignified as you offer yourself in love.
Stay with us Lord!
Mane Nobiscum Domine
Carissa Douglas is a Canadian author and illustrator, known especially for her Little Douglings brand—a series for kids in which a group of children is sent on a mission by God with the assistance of a Saint. Carissa is the mom of 14, and a passionate promoter of the culture of life and all things related to this: our awesome Catholic faith. While her kids are busy with school work and projects, she spends her downtime writing stories and illustrating. To follow the adventures of the Little Douglings, visit them here.