I sat in the pew after a Tuesday Mass, wondering why I didn’t feel more peace. I had just found out I was expecting my fourth child, which was a lot to wrap my mind around, considering that my oldest child was only 4 years old. I was an only child, married to a fellow only child, who had no experience with big families. I had basically none of the experience a woman might want to have to manage a house full of young children. Just a few years before, I had been a careerist atheist who said she never wanted children. The adjustment to the world of Catholic motherhood had not been without its bumps.
Today, I had come to Mass to ask God for peace. I loved this child already and loved being a mother, but every day I felt like I was in a little more over my head. Thinking of having four children under age five filled me with endless stress. And what about the possibility of more children in the future? It all felt utterly overwhelming. The service ended with me feeling no better about my situation. I walked out the door carrying the same angst I had had when I walked in, but that was about to change.
As I was leaving I ran into a family taking wedding photos outside the main church. They were all laughing and speaking in Spanish with kids running among them. Their ages spanned from elderly to newborn. I smiled as I watched them laugh and hug and talk—it brought back memories of my childhood. My dad grew up in Mexico and my grandfather had close ties with the Mexican-American community, so I had fond memories of my grandparents’ living room being filled with loud, jovial conversations en español.
I recalled that the immigrant community I knew had an entirely different way of seeing the world—one that provided a stark contrast to my own worry. For them, more people meant more fun. As a kid, I noticed whenever we would visit Tampico or Mexico City that our friends there seemed to live in this strange world where you did not stress about new folks showing up, whether it was an unexpected pregnancy or a neighbor stopping by or a niece who needed to move in with her three kids for a while.
I appreciated this people-first lifestyle but never considered it to be something I would adopt for myself. My introverted, individualistic nature was at the very core of my identity. In fact, I had already decided that, if this new baby were a girl, her middle name would be Frances, in honor of the 14th-century saint named Frances of Rome, who was so socially anxious that she collapsed from stress during the parties surrounding her wedding. That was me. I was the person who needed to minimize having people all up in my face. Inviting people into your life leads to unpredictability and noise and mess—all things I sought to avoid.
People like this family seemed to understand something about the meaning of life that I would do well to understand myself.
And yet this mentality had been eroding over the past few years, starting with my conversion to Catholicism. Now, I felt it start to crumble. People like this family here in front of me today seemed to understand something about the meaning of life that I would do well to understand myself.
The family gathered together for a group picture, presumably to commemorate this wedding rehearsal. They smiled in unison, and, just as the photographer began snapping rapid-fire pictures, a baby took off his mother’s floppy sun hat and waved it in the air. The woman was attempting to get it back when a gust of wind whipped it out of her son’s hands. Seconds later, the group would scatter as everyone scurried after the hat. But for a brief moment, the woman burst out in unexpected laughter, just as everyone turned toward her, their faces registering a mix of delight and confusion. The photographer got the shot.
It would be a fantastic picture: the hat floating above the baby, everyone’s faces full of emotion. Certainly, it would make it into the wedding album. I could see this group of people gathering at a family party, perhaps a year from now, and chuckling together when they pointed to this shot. Then I imagined it being brought out decades later, perhaps at an anniversary celebration, and everyone would marvel at how young they looked in the picture. Then, one day, it would probably end up in a box in an attic somewhere. Perhaps, far in the future, someone would find it again. All the motion and vivid colors that I saw before me right now would be trapped behind a faded image. Many of the faces would belong to people who had passed on. The baby would now be an old man, and people would chuckle to see what he looked like as an infant.
Imagining the story arc of this family across the generations called to mind a phrase: wholeness of vision.
Imagining the story arc of this family across the generations called to mind a phrase: wholeness of vision. I had first heard these words used by Sheldon Vanauken, the author of the classic memoir A Severe Mercy. His late wife, Davy, had experienced a crisis pregnancy as a teenager and gave up the baby for adoption. Sheldon and Davy did not have children together, and after she died he went off in search of Davy’s child, whom he called Little Lost Marion. When he found her, he encountered a delightful woman who worked as a nurse and had three children of her own. He grew so close to Marion that she thought of him as a father.
Sheldon wrote fondly of how Marion and her family enriched his life, as well as the lives of many others; clearly, the world was a better place with them in it. In his final years, this led him to reflect on the importance of having a “wholeness of vision” when it comes to new life. He could validate the difficulties that his beloved Davy faced with her unexpected pregnancy. But now, like reading a book to its finish, he could see that that situation, as painful as it was, was just one part of a much bigger story.
Wholeness of vision. That is what I was missing in all of my tortured calculations about family planning and the stressful timing of this pregnancy. That was, perhaps, the secret that our friends from Mexico understood and that I was missing. When I thought of this pregnancy or imagined others after it, my mind immediately conjured a picture of me fumbling for a diaper at three o’clock in the morning while cradling a screaming infant in one arm and shouting to my husband, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” I never imagined that same baby as a 25-year-old passing the gravy at my Thanksgiving dinner table or as a 50-year-old walking into my hospital room with a bouquet of flowers.
My controlling tendencies led me to fixate so much on the immediate problems that I could not see past them.
My controlling tendencies led me to fixate so much on the immediate problems that I could not see past them. I tended to live my life ruled by the tyranny of the immediate. I lacked a wholeness of vision, and I now saw that I would never be able to accurately discern matters of family size without it.
I thought of our own funny pictures that had been snapped recently: my 2-year-old smiling in pigtails, my 3-year-old holding a lamb at the petting zoo. One day these would be historic photographs, not casual depictions of recent events. They would represent people whose time on this earth had drawn to a close; their impact on the world fully known, their stories now complete. The daily problems I carried with me as I snapped each of these photos would be long forgotten. I needed to start making my big life choices with that perspective in mind.
The wedding group broke up, with some people drifting into the church to start the wedding rehearsal. I still had questions—a lot of questions, in fact—about what the details of my family life would look like. What about the fact that I was such a bad homemaker that the kids had Goldfish crackers for lunch yesterday? What of my personal passions? Could I really be happy if my primary focus for years to come was managing a house full of babies? Still, this moment had given me the peace I had been searching for. I walked back to my car with no answers, only a strong sense that, somehow, it would all work out.
Taken from One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler. Copyright ©2018 by Jennifer Fulwiler. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. All rights reserved.