I like to say that the job that best prepared me for caretaking my small children was bartending in a busy club: Someone was always waving for my attention, I needed way more hands than I had, and the dirty dishes just kept piling up. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a mother, and my children bring me joy astronomic in its scope. Yet I must admit that some days raising them grinds me down to a nub.
Caring for our families can feel like a thankless task. I mean that literally: On a bad day you might not hear a single word of gratitude for your efforts. Much of the work of running a household goes unnoticed—laundering sheets, unloading the dishwasher, scrubbing toilets week in and week out. The more conspicuous, face-to-face activities we take on—assisting with homework, for instance—are often met with indifference or even scornful resistance.
But the mundane work of caring for our families is far more than an exercise in domestic drudgery. It is a labor of love that operates as a microcosm of our spiritual work of caring for the world.
In his book Sacraments and Sacramentality (Twenty-Third Publications), theologian Bernard Cooke observes that ministerial acts of caregiving are sacramental by nature. “Most important and most significant in Christians’ ministry is their gift of themselves to others. . . . In being for others in this way, Christians sacramentalize the mystery of God’s own self-giving in love,” he writes. In applying this other-focused mindset to our family relationships, the acts of ordinary care and daily kindness we offer our loved ones can serve as gateways to grace.
Several months ago after a long, difficult day, my children were finally asleep upstairs, and I was taking a much-needed moment to pray. My prayer morphed into an inner lament for my dwindling spiritual life. Finding time for Mass, community service, and personal prayer had become difficult in the face of the all-consuming labors of early motherhood. As a chorus of grievances nattered on in my unsettled mind, a small voice suddenly made itself heard over the others. “Love your family,” it said quietly but firmly. My mental din went still for a moment as I pondered those three little words. Despite its obviousness (of course I love my family), that tiny imperative called me to reflect on the nature of love as an activity we undertake, more than simply an emotion we experience.
In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis writes, “The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures. . . . [T]hose who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.” Each everyday act of care offers us an opportunity to expand our capacity for empathy, to pry open our hearts a little bit wider.
As I turned these ideas over in my heart, I came to realize that although I was physically present with my children practically every minute of the day, too often I hadn’t been all there. I was going through the motions—folding onesies, wiping little bottoms, reading Go, Dog. Go! for the umpteenth time—but my mind was usually somewhere else. I’d spend most evenings counting down the minutes until bedtime, when I would be unshackled at last from the demands of the day. As much as I adore my children, I’d wind up irritated by their neediness and feeling beaten down by the relentless grind of household chores.
I’d spend most evenings counting down the minutes until bedtime, when I would be unshackled at last from the demands of the day.
Some uncomfortable questions surfaced in the wake of this realization: If I was annoyed by the work of feeding my own children, how could I expect to feel real compassion for the faceless hungry of the world? How could I expect to offer generosity toward the homeless, the dispossessed, and the marginalized when I was stingy with acts of care even for my own family?
A few weeks before our first child was born, a friend—a father of two—offered my husband some advice in the form of two mantras. The first: “This too shall pass.” The second: “Live a life of service.” Although our friend was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s true that meeting our families’ needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual—is an integral part of our call to serve others. It can be difficult, however, to embrace that call when we have exceedingly little time for leisure or personal pursuits.
We all know that actions speak louder than words, but we forget that our love is made manifest through our actions.
These days, when I get overwhelmed by the work of caring for my family I find it helpful to reframe each domestic task as a tiny devotion. I make an effort to recognize consciously that the lowliest act of care—say, taking out the garbage—is in essence an act of love that carries spiritual weight. I try to remember to model kindness toward others in my family interactions, even when I’m not feeling particularly kind.
“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other,” writes Catholic social activist Dorothy Day in the postscript to her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (HarperOne). When it comes to our families, sometimes it feels like we know them all too well, especially in times like these when we find ourselves homebound for an extended period. Nonetheless, our deep knowledge of our spouses, children, and parents fosters the profound, unconditional love we feel for them. For many of us, though the metaphor is imperfect, the family bond represents the closest analogue to God’s divine love for creation that we can envision.
We all know that actions speak louder than words, but we forget that our love is made manifest through our actions. Every day I struggle in innumerable little ways to walk that walk. I zone out on my phone when I should be reading to my toddler. I pick petty fights with my husband. I sulk. But when all the dust settles, I remember that my love for my family is the innermost ring of the rippling, concentric circles of love spreading out into the world around me. And that the power of that first undulation will determine how far all those waves can travel.