If there was one blog post I never thought I’d write, it would be a reflection on how my time in the convent prepared me for motherhood. And yet here I am, doing just that. But last night, as I sat on my ottoman to put JT back to sleep at 5:30AM, I was struck by the similarities. You wouldn’t think that there would be many similarities between the lifestyle of an unmarried woman with no children who lives in a convent with a bunch of other women and spends her days praying and working and that of a married woman with a baby boy who lives in a two bedroom apartment and spends her days working and feeding, changing, and entertaining a newborn. But trust me, there are plenty.
Some of the similarities are pretty obvious. As a Catholic wife and mother, I spend time each day in prayer. In fact, since night-time nursing sessions tend to be fairly monotonous- the world is so quiet except for the sounds of my baby boy eating and my husband sleeping- I have found that it’s the perfect time to pray. For the first time since I left the convent back in 2013, I’m praying the Liturgy of the Hours again. Every night, my husband and I read Scripture together while John has his last bottle of the night, and then we pray our Three Hail Mary’s together. While I might not be waking up at 5AM to get to the chapel in time for Meditation, Morning Prayer, and Mass, I am waking up at 5AM to nurse JT and to pray Morning Prayer just like I used to. My time in religious formation revealed to me the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours, and now that I’m a new mother, I can appreciate that beauty again with my son.
Then there’s the other obvious similarity: the early mornings. When I was in the convent, my day started at 5AM, when I showered and dressed before running to the chapel for morning prayers at 5:40AM. Most nights I tried to be asleep by 10:30PM at the latest, but on occasion, evening events at the high school would keep us awake much longer. While it was rough hearing the alarm buzzing so early in the morning, most days I was fully awake by the time Morning Prayer or Mass rolled around (Yeah, if I’m going to be honest, I fell asleep during Meditation most mornings, but then, so did St. Therese). Nowadays, while my day might not officially “begin” until John wakes up for his 8/9AM feeding, I’m awake most mornings at 5AM to nurse. Most mornings, he falls soundly asleep afterwards; on occasion, he’ll sleep fitfully until 7AM or so. On those mornings, though I might not leave our bedroom until 8AM, I already feel like I’ve put in half a day’s work by then. And while my alarm clock was a lot less distressing at 5AM than a screaming baby, I would rather take seeing my little boy’s adorable face in the morning any day.
And then there are the more subtle similarities, like the fact that in both cases, your life is no longer your own. When I was in formation, nearly every moment of every day was determined for me. We had set times to eat, sleep, pray, and work, and we had to work around that schedule in order to find time to exercise, shower, and engage in any leisure activities that we might enjoy. And even our schedule was not set in stone. Oftentimes, we would joke that religious life meant that you had to hold on to our plans with open palms. In a given day, we might be asked to skip before-school bagel sales so that we could help the elderly sisters with some heavy cleaning. We might have a class cancelled because our teacher was called away for the morning. We might be told that we couldn’t help with softball practice because our previously-cancelled class had been rescheduled for that afternoon. We might be told that we needed to pray our Rosary on our own because we were going to a special vocations event. At any moment, we might be asked to re-evaluate our plans to go for a run, entertain some visitors, or complete a homework assignment. And we learned how to accept it all with a smile.
That lesson has been invaluable since John’s birth. My life is no longer my own. The only parts of my life that are definitively pre-determined are eight to ten feeding periods, eight to ten diaper changes, already scheduled doctor’s appointments, and the two minutes necessary to brush my teeth every morning and night. The rest of my life is a big question mark. I might get eight hours of non-consecutive sleep; I might get four. I might wake up at 6:30AM; I might wake up at 9AM. I might get a full shower; I might only get the first half. I might have two hour chunks to work; I might be sending emails on my phone while I attempt to rock JT to sleep for the fifth time in an hour. I might have time to go for a solo run; I might have to settle for weight-lifting a baby. And once again, I find myself working to accept it all with a smile- because smiling through it all had made the transition to motherhood so much easier.
A great deal of parenting is learned through experience. I learned how to change a diaper without getting peed on by changing my son’s diaper and investing in lots of cheap little washcloths for coverage. I learned how to nurse a baby by nursing my baby. I learned how to give a baby a bath by getting down on my hands and knees over a tub to give my little boy a bath. But I also entered into motherhood with a few lessons already learned. I already knew that it’s easier to deal with a lack of sleep when you assume from the very beginning that you’re not going to get much sleep (and then when you do find that your child sleeps well, it’s just a very pleasant surprise). I already knew that if I stay calm, the people around me stay calm (you can read that as: A calm mom makes for a calmer baby). I knew that all babies are unique, and what works for one child might not work for another (all you need for that lesson are two friends with babies). And I already knew that the best way to approach motherhood is with open palms, and I have my time in formation to thank for that lesson.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!