Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Are you fulfilled? Nope!

A few years ago I met a brand-new priest. Traditional Mass-only order, about my age, very fired up and zealous. In the course of some small talk it naturally came up that I was a housewife with, at the time, a baby and a toddler. "And are you fulfilled?!?" he asked me. Well, obviously, in this situation, the expected answer was a meek, "Yes, of course." So I said that, he gave a smug smile, and we moved on with the conversation. I wish I had answered differently.

I've met with that question from others over the years as well. All of whom thought they already knew the answer. 

"Are you fulfilled?" From a family member who assumes I can't possibly be after wasting my education.

"Are you fulfilled?" From the incredulous acquaintances who are killing time at the playground until everyone's in school and they can get back to their real life at the office.

"Are you fulfilled? Is it everything you hoped it would be?" From an idealistic young lady who wants to essentially be me when she grows up. Housewife, homeschool, lots of kids. Oh yeah. Living the dream.

This question always bamboozles me. It's like when a Protestant asks me, "Are you saved?" I just don't know what to do with what the asker clearly sees as a simple yes or no question. So I'm going to have a whack at it here where I can take my sweet time answering. My life is necessarily focused primarily on other people. Ask me suddenly for some introspection and it takes me a minute to shift focus.

I didn't choose marriage and motherhood primarily as a means of self-fulfillment. I expect self-fulfillment and happiness to sort of happen as byproduct, a natural result of a life well lived. That's the only way I can imagine it working. Chase after happiness for its own sake, and it will always elude you. Everybody knows that, right? I mean, obviously they don't, but still. Nobody who lives only for themselves will ever be satisfied. We'll take that statement as given. Selfish people will never be happy. So does a life focused on primarily a very few people, my own family, bring that fulfillment? 

Look up "fulfilled," and the dictionary will tell you it means, "Satisfied or happy because of fully developing one's abilities or character." 

Well, the first problem is obvious. I am far from fully developed, in abilities or in character. It's almost laughable to ask this question. I'm still pretty close to the beginning of this motherhood journey. Who asks a marathon runner on mile 5 of the race if they feel successful? Come back when I'm an old lady and maybe I'll have it figured out then.

Much of the time I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. Mommy meltdowns happen with shocking frequency. I'll take any chance for a break I can get. I feel guilty and anxious about everything. I always feel hopelessly behind, which means failure to my natural accomplishment-based mode of gauging my success. Fighting the feeling of having failed is a daily battle. This is nearly universal among young mothers to some degree as far as I can tell. It's just really really really HARD. So, uh, no. Not fulfilled in the slightest.

Of course that isn't the whole picture at all. I do derive great satisfaction and happiness from seeing myself and my children, and yes, my husband too, all growing. I love that I get to see my son learning to read, or be the one to coach him through his fear of that impossible ledge on the rock wall he loves to climb. I love seeing my daughter willingly give one of her toys away rather than wheedling her into sharing. I feel stronger when I can discipline for the same infraction for the umpteenth time calmly and consistently instead of giving in to the urge to yell. And then the glad surprise when I suddenly realize that particular misbehavior hasn't occurred for a while!

These are all small things in themselves. Little happinesses and challenges like this happen all day every day. My character is the cumulative effect of what I do with each one. It will take a lifetime of these little things for me to fully develop as a wife and mother and human being. So I would not say I am fulfilled. It's far from perfect. And I am not fully satisfied with the way things are right now. I'm always looking to improve. It's a work in progress. But I am being perfected by and through it. When I look for it I can see the progress we've made. It is a fulfilling life.