Friday, September 19, 2014

Extenuating circumstances

Elizabeth Duffy published a piece about finding the middle ground between the noxious Prosperity Gospel and forever playing the martyr in order to be miserable for God:
Barring serious illness or extenuating circumstances, times of extreme difficulty with normal life should be temporary.
 If they are not temporary, it could be time to wonder if we’re setting traps for ourselves or creating a life of soft controversy because joy seems untrustworthy, or undeserved, or we have past associations with fun and sin, or maybe we just don’t feel good about feeling good when there’s so much suffering in the world.
Extenuating circumstances. How do you discern if you have them? What is extreme difficulty? What is temporary? 

For several years now I have been haunted by an enduring sadness. That's not to say I am sad all the time, but it doesn't take much scratching under the surface to find it. Depression runs in my family so I have thoroughly questioned myself to search for symptoms of that illness, but no, I don't think I am depressed, just sad.

I started my career, fresh out of graduate school, at about the same time I became a mother. This was not an accident. The decision for me to work was made because my potential career was much more lucrative and because I do not know how to cook very well. That's it. No grand statements about "having it all" or overriding feminist philosophies or really any deep thought. Only that I could make more money and not cook at the same time.

I began this journey of career and motherhood and it was hard. Physically hard. Mentally hard. More challenging than I had ever imagined. Being pregnant and working was dreadful. Having a newborn and working was maybe worse. But I managed. I missed my babies, but they were with their Daddy so I never worried about them. I was working because I could make more money and we would be financially sound. I also wouldn't have to touch raw meat. I liked my job and it suited me. I busted my rear in the beginning knowing the money would come, the opportunities would open, and I would provide for my family.

After awhile it became apparent that my job was a dead end. The expected payday never came. I got rave reviews and few raises. I was denied promotions, never given any new job responsibilities, but was told I was a vital member of the team. I was shunted to an obsolete system which had no concrete transferable skills with which I could run to another company. I had lots of recognition as a dependable and steady worker and not a lot else. A new job meant another entry level position. This is not how the script was supposed to play out.

At the same time, my attitude toward the vocation of motherhood was undergoing a radical change. The wisdom of protecting the mother as she protects the child shone like a light in my ever-reasonable mind. I was running myself ragged for rewards that were not coming. And then my oldest started school.

This was the touchpoint of a crisis. It became very obvious to me that swooping in at suppertime for an hour or two of company with my family was not enough for me. I've always laughed at the notion of "quality time" because it seemed such an absurd notion. Children need and demand quantity in addition to quality, but there I was with "quality time" being the only option. I wanted to be highly involved in her school and her education and the truth was I didn't have time. Everyday was a whirlwind of events and I could barely grasp what was happening in her life. I also wanted to sit and rock my baby.

These two distinct strands in my life suddenly began to make sense together. My job was not panning out and I wanted to be home anyway. It is hard to describe the thought process without it sounding like sour grapes so just believe me when I say it wasn't. All at once I could see the blessing of being denied these promotions and raises because it made it easier to walk away from work. I wanted to come home, there was not much holding me to work, and the gap in income was not as great as it might have been. I could even learn to cook.

That was three years ago.

For whatever reason or set of reasons, this simple reordering of our employment arrangement has not been so simple. I thought it would be the work of a few months or maybe a whole year, but that has not turned out to be the case. I mourn for what I have missed, for what I am currently missing, for what I will miss. I do not remember the infancy of my second child. Memory is closely tied to sleep and I was severely sleep deprived. I search for a tangible memory and find an 18 month hole. This fact stabs me.

What is extreme difficulty? Over these years I have discovered that my acceptance of this situation depends a lot on the seasons. In the spring and summer, I am usually hopeful and accepting. The possibility of change is palpable. The work is not so daunting, the commute not so deadening, and I vow that I can endure for as long as it takes. In the fall and winter, I struggle with despair. It seems like this will never end. Nothing will ever change. I cry driving into work more times than I care to recall. My mood is as dark as the weather. I struggle with anger that this has been so unsolvable.

What is temporary? Over the course of a lifetime, three years is temporary even if it feels long while living it. I hope for the day when I can look back and point at this time and say, "It was temporary." But when does it cease to be temporary? What if it isn't temporary? I can't bear to think it. Even in this "temporary" time, my children continue to grow and I am not home.

What are extenuating circumstances? From a modern perspective this angst is absurd. My life is completely normal. Mothers work everyday. Society encourages mothers to work. You go, girl. A mother at home is wasting her potential or "has never worked a day in her life," right? The idea that there is something unusual about my situation is not true. There are millions of mothers all around the country doing exactly what I am doing every day: leaving their children and driving to work. Many of these women are in far worse situations than I am. How arrogant and expectant for me not to be satisfied. I have a stable marriage, four wonderful and healthy children, and a job that allows us to live comfortably even if there is not much left for extras. The list of people who would change places with me is quite long, but I can't help but feel there is something deeply wrong here and the sadness remains.
...and her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy.  --Jane Austen
What is God's Will in all this? I have no idea. Surely there is more intended in this situation than for me to play the starring role in a cautionary tale. It seems that if I were meant to fully live out my vocation at home, the job situation would not be so impenetrable. It also seems that if I were meant to continue working, there would be some kind of encouragement in my employment: a raise, increased responsibility, something. The truth is I don't want that kind of encouragement. If I am supposed to work, it would also seem that my yearning to be home would soften and lessen. If anything, my longing is stronger now than it was at the beginning. Three years is definitely not a phase. To be given this desire to live this vocation full time but only be allowed to fulfill its duties poorly, part-time, and incompletely is agony. I cry out to be rescued. I am supposed to want what God wants, but the truth is I want to be home, beg for my way, and find cold comfort in the notion of sacrificing my children's childhood.

I cling to hope even when it tastes bitter. When a new opportunity arises, I tell myself not to get excited, not to daydream about the future, not to get ahead of the process, but even with these internal precautions, I am devastated all over again when it doesn't work out. I hope in spite of myself.

Even amongst all this sadness, there is still joy and blessing to be found. The clarity of mind and purpose this period of waiting has brought is a tremendous blessing. The space I have had to ponder about vocation and faith, beauty and truth is nothing but blessing. The time I have been given to develop friendships in this strange purgatory is blessing again.
When people wonder why God allows suffering, I think the answer is so much about God’s knowledge of joy. That somehow, strangely, the relief and shock of being rescued from something is greater and more wonderful than never having been in trouble at all. We want never to be in trouble, but God knows that by us being in trouble, being in the way of perishing, and then him snatching us out and setting us on dry ground in safety, we will have seen who he is where we couldn't have before.  --Anne Kennedy
I am awaiting rescue, confident it is coming, doubting it will ever get here. I am ready to learn how to cook.

(Slightly edited 9-20-14)


Melanie Bettinelli said...

This made me cry. I am so very much praying you get the chance to go home and yes, learn to cook. If it's any consolation I have very few concrete memories of Sophie's infancy either. I was sleep deprived through much of it and pregnant again when she was seven months old. The phrase at the end of Stillwater comes to mind: the years the locusts had eaten. I think most mothers will have at least one of those seasons. All of us do. I love the bit at the end from Anne. I missed that on her blog. It's beautiful.

Jenny said...

Thanks for the prayers.

It has not been lost on me that the primary theme of Stillwater is hope, hope in the face of the impossible, and that over these two years MrsDarwin labored over this book, I have been in desperate need of seeing what it means to hope.

"Now began a time of comfort for the years the locust had eaten."

That line jumped out at me like it had my name on it.

MrsDarwin said...

"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten." Joel 2:25, one of my dad's favorite verses and very applicable in our family life. Joel 2 is a great chapter, full of restoration and fulfillment.

I'm so glad Stillwater has been a source of hope for you -- that puts those two years into a more eternal context.

Jenny said...

Coincidentally (or not) I read that section of Joel a few days before you posted so I recognized it immediately. I thought I read it in Magnificat, but I can't find it for the life of me now so I have no idea where I read it.

Anonymous said...

I feel the pain in your words as I read this. I will pray that God's will makes itself known in an unmistakable way and that until then, you have "faith, firm and immovable as a rock, in which we shall rest steadfast throughout the crosses, toils, and disappointments of life." (This is part of a Legion of Mary prayer that I really identify with!)

I can't remember months and months between two of my children. I knew that something would have to change. I was looking at nursing or programming degrees as an alternative to the sadness and sleep deprivation of being at home. All I knew is that I could not go on as we had been. In the end, I found a parenting program that gave me the skills to cope and change our family in a positive direction.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Meredith! I'm glad you found a way to make positive changes for your family.

I cope better now with a waking baby than I did then, so I hope I remember Marian's babyhood in a few years. I don't remember much of Sam's but there is something there, and I remember a lot of Grace's since I was home with her, but Olivia's is just gone.

It does make me feel better that other mothers have this same problem and it isn't just me and my absence causing it.

Anonymous said...

I just thought it was a little ironic that my idea for escaping sadness (retrain for programming job) is one of the roots of your sadness. It helps me to know that regardless of choices we can all feel trapped in our own circumstances at times.

Jenny said...

Yeah, that is ironic, but not so different because one of the reasons I looked into a career in computers was because I was afraid I would be overwhelmed by trying to run a household. I thought I could pass that part off to my husband and then everything would work out just fine.

Or, you know, not. :)

"we can all feel trapped in our own circumstances at times"
This is very, very true.