Since having my fourth child, the ante has been raised.
It's not that the demands have changed, it's just that there are more of them. More needs to tend, more bellies to fill, minds to educate, souls to form, bodies to clean and keep track of.
It's exhausting even when it's fulfilling. It's impossibly difficult when it's overwhelming.
But tonight, rather than dwell on my usual pain and exhaustion, I contemplated the simultaneous and parallel reality that I rarely remember to think of, especially in the difficult moments.
After almost a decade of mothering, always with "a babe in arms" as my relative remarked this weekend, even in my the most painful moments of motherhood, I have practiced loving, and giving, and sacrificing, and offering, and forgiving, and getting up again and again, to my absolute limit. Even beyond that.
All this suffering has not simply wrought a tired casualty of motherhood. Far from it.
The consequence of my heart's "love membranes" being constantly expanded in directions and ways I never knew they could be has wrought a human being in me whom I actually can say I like. I am not perfect by any means. Far from it.
But I have loved stronger, for longer, through harrowingly lonely days, and sleepless, energy sapping nights. I have given more to my family in the way of patience, repetitious correction, physical presence that I have ever given to anything else.
I am more sympathetic to suffering, particularly of parents. I am more sensitive to attacks upon the souls of children. I am more aware than ever how everything I say or do, or how I express my body language, is always under the observation of little eyes and being absorbed by little hearts.
I know what it means to be driven to your ultimate limit of love and patience and kindness and yet find it in myself to give more love and patience and kindness than I thought possible. And to do it all again the next day.
I know what it means to be constantly open to life, and to have to mourn two unborn children miscarried. I've tasted the sweetness of complete union and the bitterness of abstinence and can tell you that you do survive the latter and that each of these intense feelings instructs your ability to love on almost a divine level. To put it simply: with your whole being.
I've also learned my limits. And oh, how I've learned them.. how to let go of a dirty house, look beyond the immediate when my spouse has gone temporarily insane, accept that there will be imperfection in almost everything I do. I'm still learning how to shrug and how to laugh about it.
My suffering, in other words, whether I want to admit it or not, hath wrought a rather sinewy edge to me that I might not have otherwise.
As someone who is almost a complete stranger now to a full night's sleep, leisure time, the ability to eat without making sure a child eats, and to eat something other than children's food, I can honestly say I still have never been more free in all of my life than in the rigor (some might say cloister) of child rearing.
I am not free from sinning and making mistakes, but I am free from making the mistake of thinking that anything else in life is more important than my children, than forming them in Faith, than trying to become properly formed myself.
"Be a saint, what else is there?" asks Catholic Answers Live radio host Patrick Coffin. I am blessed. There is nothing else. Nothing to stop me or my family or anyone from being a saint. Would that we all realized how our sufferings are the golden rungs on the ladder to sainthood, and that by them we are made free.