Marriage and Family Life
The Undomesticated Church
Stop me if you've heard this one: A lukewarm young Catholic walks into a chapel. She sighs, her mind wanders, and then she's struck breathless at the sight of a tall, handsome man skulking in another pew. She immediately sets to work bullying him into marrying her, mainly because of his beautiful eyes. They spend the next few decades floundering around spiritually, psychologically, and financially, and they also have ten children or whatever; and somewhere in the process, they become extremely happy and almost absurdly Catholic, even unto writing a marriage and family column for Parable.
Still waiting for the punchline? Well, funny or not, that little story offers a succinct version of my life so far, and it is at the very least a great example of God’s enduring sense of humor.
In addition to raising that small tribe of children with my husband, Damien, each day, I am a writer and a speaker; I contribute to America Magazine and The Catholic Weekly of Australia; I produce a weekly podcast and a personal blog; and I authored The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning. I am happy to be bringing my experiences of marriage and family to Parable readers during the year ahead.
As for that young woman who walked into a chapel all those years ago? Well, this year she is sending her two oldest kids to college. Not sure how that happened, but as they flee the nest they are callously abandoning me with a near-feral two-year-old. The other seven kids go to three different schools. And all that leaves me and my husband staring down the barrel of our 20th wedding anniversary, trying to clear a space on the calendar to celebrate.
Twenty years! Happy to report that this is our happiest year together yet. We can depend on each other and on God like never before, and our family life is rich, busy, and full.
Our first year together? It was happy, too, but also fraught with doubt and anxiety, and an unexpected loneliness.
I remember how I couldn't wait to start building traditions, celebrating the passage of time together, festively marking the seasons of our joyful love until we grew wrinkled and gray, holding hands under the stars as grandchildren frolicked at our feet.
Instead, there was a lot of…well, hanging around. Even newlyweds let go of each other eventually, and then what? We spent our first “holiday season” of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s feeling like someone's forgotten client, moping unhappily as if we were in the waiting room, wondering how to get in on that awesome party we could hear and see and smell in the next room.
It seemed like everyone we knew understood exactly how they were supposed to be spending their lives, and there we were, for our very special, very first Christmas together, and guess what? It was weird. It was painfully quiet. We went to Mass, and then what? In retrospect it's no mystery why it felt this way. We had no happy, hearty current of memory, custom, or tradition to sweep us along. We were alone together, and it wasn't as romantic as it sounded. Almost every aspect of our lives had changed in the previous few months. We wanted to be together, but had only the faintest idea of what we had gotten ourselves into. It would have been strange if we didn't feel strange. And when the calendar read December 25, it just put a big, fat, dismal bow on top of the strangeness of it all.
So we had three kids in three years. That should have made us feel established, right? But no, it only made the problem more obvious. Babies don't care about a perfect Thanksgiving turkey, and babies are happy to poop all over their perfect velvet Christmas suits. You still feel that pressure to enjoy this special and precious time; and you’re still left with that bereft sensation of missing the boat, plus the guilt of feeling like you're doing it wrong. I struggled so hard to prove that we understood, without a question, what marriage was for. That we were prepared, without flinching, to raise whatever family God flung at us. That we had it together in every way, spiritually, emotionally, and all. Which we did not. Because we were beginners. Beginners, by definition, are not experts, no matter how much they love what they’re doing.
Twenty years later, I wish I could go back and comfort my past self (or at least persuade my past self that painted brown eggshells hoarded from WIC do not make the house look festive. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-just-the-opposite). I wish I could go back and tell my past self to calm the heck down, to stop panicking when our seedling family wasn't as firm and established as a full-grown tree. I wish I could tell my past self to be patient. With myself, with my new husband, with my marriage, and with God. Because when you make vows that are supposed to last a lifetime, what do you think you'll be doing during that lifetime? Just swooning around marveling at how good you are at this marriage and parenting thing? Does anything in life work that way? Is there anything important that you're an expert at immediately?
It's not exactly earth-shattering news, but maybe you’ve built up a little mental world that needs a little shattering: Marriage is meant to last a long time because it takes a long time to learn how to be married.
Happy families don't appear in full blossom out of nowhere, not even if you pray your rosary and do everything right. It takes a long time to build up traditions, it takes a long time to store up happy memories, and it takes a long time to learn how to love your spouse, how to love your children, how to love God as grown-ups, as parents, and as ever-changing human beings. Twenty years in, and we're just starting to get the hang of it.
Come along with me, and together we'll see what we can figure out together. Oh, and Merry Christmas from one and all!
Simcha Fisher is a wife and mother of 10. She is the author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, as well as a freelance writer and speaker. She and her family live in Marlborough, N.H.