For those who have been readers for a few years, you know that I spent time discerning the religious life before I married my husband. For those who have not been reading as long, here’s the short of it: after completing my first year of grad school, I felt called to discern the religious life. I spent eight months in formation before making the decision to leave the convent and pursue a different vocation. I spent a year working and living with my family in New Jersey before I returned to Washington, DC to finish my degree. By the time I graduated that spring, I was just two weeks from getting married, four weeks from learning that my husband and I were expecting our first child. It was a whirlwind of a ride, and probably the most roundabout way of discovering my vocation to marriage.
When I was growing up, my friends often liked to imagine their wedding day, from the groom, to the dress, to the wedding cake. They would weave intricate narratives about their love lives, and they all started with a white dress and ended with a “happily ever after.” I went right along with them, trying to envision all the details of what most of my friends considered the most important day of their lives. I had very little difficulty dreaming up the perfect wedding gown- Belle’s gown, but in white- and the most delicious wedding cake- all chocolate, of course. But as hard as I tried, I could never picture my Prince Charming’s face.
And I’ll be totally honest- dreaming about my wedding day did not give me the same thrill that it gave my friends. It was fun, but not at the top of my list of favorite past-times. I assumed that I would get married someday, but I didn’t see the need to dream about my wedding day constantly. I assumed that it would arrive eventually, but I also assumed that I had to get through high school and college before that dream became a reality.
When I went on to high school, I left behind my daydreams of weddings and white dresses in favor of lengthy conversations about babies, parenting techniques, and dream houses. My classmates and I took classes that involved child care and parenting psychologies, and we often discussed the different viewpoints on feeding, sleeping, and playing with an infant. I was often silent during these conversations because I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute. To be honest, as a Junior in high school, I didn’t know the first thing about babies.
I’d had very few opportunities to interact with infants growing up. My youngest sibling is only four years younger than me, so my interactions with my sister as an infant were limited to holding her in an overstuffed chair with supportive arms. I vaguely remember my nieces as infants, but I do have a strong memory of absolute terror I felt every time I held them because I was afraid that I was going to drop them and ruin them forever. I also remember how I successfully avoided every diaper change with a bit of scheming and a few carefully timed bathroom breaks. There were no other children in my immediate family, and few of my friends had siblings that much younger than they were. Consequently, I managed to babysit for countless neighbors without ever caring for a baby. Impressively, I was twenty before I was asked to babysit an infant for the first time, and even then, I managed to make it all the way to twenty-seven before changing my first diaper.
To say that I was not good with infants would be an understatement. The suggestion that I might have one of my own some day seemed preposterous. Nonetheless, I continued to assume that I would get married and have kids someday. I had no desire to become a consecrated religious and I had no intention of being single my entire life, so I knew that one day I would get married and start a family. I just assumed that I would figure out everything else when the time came.
Despite several serious relationships and the occasional discussion of marriage, I remained apprehensive about the whole “family thing.” I would have never admitted it to anyone, but I just couldn’t imagine myself taking care of an infant. The mere thought of it was enough to make me cringe. It just seemed completely impossible. As much as I enjoyed the perks of being in a relationship, I just couldn’t picture myself at the end of the road, married and with a couple of kids. I could picture myself married, but I just couldn’t picture myself with a family. I just assumed that I was too incompetent to really do it. I had so little experience, and I felt that I was in no way a “natural.” I barely felt capable of taking care of a friend’s baby for more than a few hours- how could I possibly take care of my own infant, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
As the years passed and family life became inevitably closer, my doubts concerning my ability to be a mother became more prominent. I knew that the time would come when I would need to face my fears, and I also recognized that this time was only coming closer. I had no idea what I was going to do.
And then in the spring of my first year in grad school, as I sat in Mass one Sunday, I felt the sudden urge to discern the religious life. The impulse took me completely by surprise. I had never really considered the religious life, both because I had felt no call and because the simple thought of the religious life terrified me. The idea of becoming a mother might have felt far-fetched to me, but the idea of becoming a consecrated religious just seemed impossible. And yet here I was, thinking about it.
In the weeks that followed, I withdrew from grad school, notified my landlady that I would be moving out at the end of the school year, and submitted my application to become an aspirant with the Salesians of St. John Bosco. I was anxious to begin this next chapter in my life, and I threw myself into everything about it. I sold my clothing and books and applied for grants to help pay off my student loans. I spoke at vocation events, where I joyfully told anyone who would listen that I was the happiest I had ever been, with the start of my new life just ahead of me. When I entered formation in August of 2012, I didn’t hold anything back. Every waking minute was spent doing everything I possibly could to fully immerse myself in the religious life. I had committed myself to this new life, and there was going to be no looking back.
I had countless reasons for why I wanted to become a consecrated religious. The life, once I began living it, was undeniably attractive. I enjoyed the peaceful mornings and afternoons spent in prayer, the evenings spent in community with the other aspirants and the sisters, the hours spent with the girls who attended the middle and high schools. It was an incredibly stress-free existence, where our superior determined our schedules and the majority of our days were planned for us. And then there was the unspoken reason that I entered, more an afterthought and a fortunate side effect of my decision- now I would never have to worry about my ineptitude as a mother. As a religious, I could be a sister and mother of sorts to countless boys and girls, but I would never have to face my inability to care for infants. It was the perfect arrangement.
As the months passed and the initial excitement faded, I found myself second guessing my decision. I began to sense that I was running away from something, hiding from something, but I couldn’t tell what. And then one day, quite unexpectedly, it hit me.
I was home for Christmas break, or more accurately, I was in Pennsylvania trying on bridesmaid dresses for my best friend’s wedding. There was a small group of us, and at one point during lunch, one of the other bridesmaids asked me if I would miss having a husband and children. For the first time, I hesitated before answering, and as I told her that it was a sacrifice I was happy to make, I knew that I was lying. I was going to miss it, and it was not a sacrifice that I was happy to make. In that moment, I realized what I had been running away from- the husband and children that were my calling in life. This, marriage, was my true vocation.
And two years later, here I am: a wife and mother. I have finally found my vocation, and I am no longer running. I am happy where I am. I am happy with the life that I have chosen, the life that has chosen me. Now I am doing a different kind of running, the running that is required of any mother chasing after a child who is growing up too fast for her.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!