Jennifer Fulwiler is a lay Catholic writer, speaker and host of The Jennifer Fulwiler Show on "The Catholic Channel," SiriusXM radio channel 129. A convert to Catholicism from atheism, her books include the bestselling memoir Something Other than God (Ignatius Press, 2014) and a popular ebook collection of humor essays on suburban parenthood entitled Like Living Among Scorpions.Mrs. Fulwiler has been a guest on various television shows, was the subject of the reality show Minor Revisions and has contributed to America. She lives with her husband Joe and their six young children in Austin, Tex., where she blogs at JenniferFulwiler.com.
On July 19, I interviewed Mrs. Fulwiler by email about her experience of Catholic motherhood today.
What are your children like and what does motherhood mean to you?
I am amazed at the diversity of personalities that I see among my six children. Seeing the different ways they see the world has given me a whole new perspective on life, and it has helped me understand myself better.
I see motherhood as one way to fulfill our call to love and serve others. For me, the main way I’m going to do that is through my husband and kids. For people who aren’t married or don’t have children, it might be through forming connections in their extended families or communities. It was a big revelation for me when I realized that no matter what your station in life, you’re meant to form intimate connections with others.
In your own experience, what is distinctive about Catholic motherhood?
I was an atheist when I first became a mother. When I converted to Catholicism, it completely changed how I saw motherhood. Because I now understood that the entire meaning of life is to love and serve others, I no longer saw the hard work involved with having babies and toddlers as a temporary thing that I just needed to grit my teeth and get through. I realized that I would always be called to serve people in intimate ways—when my children are grown, maybe it will be elderly relatives or people in the broader community that I help—and that freed me to lean in to a life devoted to others. Ironically, I started taking care of myself more and making sure I was meeting my own needs since I knew I was doing this for the long haul.
What are you some graces you’ve received from God in your motherhood?
I think the biggest grace has been self-acceptance. I used to beat myself up for the ways in which I was failing—I’d log on to Instagram or Facebook and feel completely inferior because that one mom was making soufflés with her toddlers and another was teaching her teens to play the harp. I’ve since learned to accept the person that God made me to be and stop trying to live up to expectations that aren’t right for my life.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a mom in today’s world?
By far, the biggest challenge has been isolation. Mothers were meant to raise kids in community. It’s unnatural to be alone with your kids in a house all day. Most women in human history have lived in villages that came with built-in support systems; even in recent decades, moms could send their kids outside for hours at a time to roam the neighborhoods. These days, we’re expected to have eyes on our kids at all times, and there aren’t even any other adults nearby for grown-up conversation. Staying home with kids in a suburban area is a very psychologically challenging experience.
Some feminists seem to believe the Catholic Church reduces womanhood to motherhood. What is your response to this criticism?
That’s a surprising criticism, considering that so many of our female saints were not mothers. Coming from a background of atheism, one thing that was remarkable to me when I first started exploring Catholicism was the wonderful appreciation for the diversity of talents among women. If you study the lives of people like Thérèse of Lisieux, Catherine of Siena and Elizabeth Ann Seton, you see these very bold, powerful personalities that are all very different from one another.
I think the outside world is interpreting the Catholic appreciation of female fertility as an obsession with motherhood. People aren’t used to hearing a perspective that honors and appreciates female fertility, rather than fearing it and trying to shut it down.
In today’s work-driven Western world, where maternity leave is increasingly scarce but young infants still need the loving presence of their moms at home, many Catholic women struggle to balance the desire to have a family with the desire to maintain a fulfilling career outside the home. How have you balanced these things in your own life?
One thing that helped me in this regard is having a background in the tech start-up world. In my early career I was surrounded by energetic entrepreneurs who enjoyed the challenge of carving out marketplace opportunities for themselves, and I brought that ethos to my life as a stay-at-home mom. I looked for creative opportunities that were fulfilling but could be done from home and fit with my family’s schedule. This often meant that I didn’t get paid very much (if at all) at first, but having the opportunity to put my energy into something intellectually challenging was a lifesaver for me.
In our country, motherhood seems to have evolved quite a bit in the past hundred years, as we’ve progressed from an agrarian culture to an industrialized society with long work hours. What are some changes you’ve observed within the generations of your family and in your own lifetime?
My grandfather, who was born in 1914, said that his mother rarely saw them during daytime hours—the kids were either roaming the land or working on the farm. My mother, who grew up decades later, said the same. She and her siblings would grab their bikes after school, and wouldn’t come home until they heard the dinner bell. These days, we’re expected to supervise our kids 24/7, which means a lot of time in the house. Video games and TV shows are the main way that modern at-home parents can get a break, but then you read on Facebook that your kids’ brains are going to melt if they have more than 10 minutes of screen time per day. Industrialization has brought us countless benefits (I am particularly thankful for my dishwasher), but the breakdown of close-knit communities that came with it has some significant disadvantages.
What makes you feel at home in the Catholic Church and how has your faith evolved over the years since your conversion?
I was seeking truth all my life, so in many ways my conversion to Catholicism simply felt like a fulfillment of that process. I have found the “rules” of the church to be more like a doctor’s prescription for living a life of love, so almost everything about the Catholic lifestyle felt very natural.
One of the main ways that my faith has matured since my conversion is that I accept periods of spiritual dryness as a natural part of life. I used to get really stressed if my prayer life was lackluster or I felt distant from God, but now I understand that that happens sometimes—especially for people with my temperament—and it’s nothing to get upset about.
How do you pray?
Being consistent about daily prayer is something I struggle with. I have tendencies toward ADHD and am easily overwhelmed, so I often forget to pray or lose my train of thought five minutes in. This is why I love novenas: Committing to a nine-day series of set prayers helps keep me focused.
In Chapter Four of "The Joy of Love," Pope Francis spoke about the joys and struggles of married love today. How has your own experience of love in marriage grown or changed over the years?
I used to think that maintaining autonomy was really important in a relationship—I came from a culture that says that it’s important that each spouse not give too much to one another. I’ve come to see that pouring your entire self into your relationships is what life is all about.
What is your favorite scripture passage and why?
I love the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79). First of all, I have prayed these lines so many times as part of morning prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve said them in times of great sadness, times of great joy and everything in between. I have a visceral feeling of peaceful familiarity every time I speak these words. And the story is just so wonderful, too. Zechariah has been struck mute because of his doubt, and then he finally gets it. When he finally gets a clue and can speak again, we have his canticle. I think of it as the theme song for anyone who has ever had trouble trusting in God.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.