To Live in His Kingdom

Maintaining a Spiritual Life With a Baby in Tow

I recently had lunch with a religious sister who was excited to meet my baby. This little girl is my first, and in the course of our conversation, the sister asked me how I keep up a spiritual life since my life had obviously changed in a big way. I answered her question, and she said she hoped I would have an opportunity to share my answer with other moms.

I don’t claim to be an expert — I’m neither a theologian nor a mystic, and I just have the one baby, so I don’t know what it’s like to have older kids or to have more kids. But I’ll share what I do, or rather, what I try to do. Much of this comes from Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s book Into Your Hands, Father, which, incidentally, is not about motherhood at all.

The first thing to know is that the absolute best prayer is the kind of prayer that God is asking me to pray right now. It doesn’t make sense that God would deliberately give me something that would impede my spiritual life — and I know that he gave me my child. “There can be so much escapism in our striving for a ‘spiritual life,’” writes Stinissen. “We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence into an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness but where God is not present.”

The question is not, “How can I, while in charge of this unpredictable baby, pray as if I were a cloistered nun living in silence?” No, the question is, rather, “What does God want from me today?” I know that he has given me a baby — this baby, at this time, who is this many months old, whose sleep schedule is this predictable, who cries as much as she cries and spits up as much as she spits up. God could have changed any of those things. I have what he gave me. And this is the starting point to learn how he wants me to pray.

I take my daughter with me to Mass most days, and I don’t have the same opportunity for silence that I used to. But I do have new opportunities that I didn’t have before — opportunities that cloistered nuns do not have, either. They have the prayer that God is asking of them; I have the prayer that God is asking of me. When my daughter needs my attention during Mass, then taking care of her is the best thing that I can be doing. I may have to leave Mass for a few minutes to change a diaper, and if I get upset about it, then I am telling God that I want to pray on my terms, not on his; that my prayer is really about me and what I want to be doing. “As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves,” Stinissen writes.

Prayer should not be about me; it should be about growing closer to God who is the source of all selflessness and humility and love — which are, incidentally, virtues required to change a diaper well. I don’t know why God wants me to change a diaper right now. But I know that he loves me, and that whatever he asks me to do is the best thing I could be doing. And I know that he wants me to change the diaper; I know this because the child he entrusted to me is wearing it, and it is dirty. So I leave Mass to change the diaper, doing my best to keep an attitude of patience and gentleness in my heart, and that is my prayer.

The second thing is to think of everything in terms of habits. Many people have a habit of showering every morning. Some days, they don’t shower in the morning — maybe the morning was busier than expected, or there’s some yard work planned for the first part of the day. Most people with the morning-shower habit who don’t shower on a particular morning will be a little bit distracted all day, kind of thinking about showering until they are able to actually do it. The next morning, they take a shower.

The same applies to personal prayer, in whatever form it takes. I built and I now maintain my habits of prayer; if for some reason I miss it one day, I simply resolve to do it the next day. If I missed my prayer because I was mindlessly scrolling social media, I make a note to mention laziness, wasting time, or neglecting prayer at my next confession. If I missed my prayer because the baby refused to nap and the dog vomited a whole potato on the carpet (real examples), I don’t confess it. Regardless of my reason for missing prayer, the past is the past; no amount of regret or mental rehashing will change the events of the past. If I sinned, I remind myself that it was kind of silly to expect perfection out of myself; I ask God for the forgiveness he so eagerly offers; and I resolve to do better tomorrow.

The resolution to pray tomorrow, at least for me, needs to be more than a firm hope that it will happen. I need to accompany it with a plan. It doesn’t need to be a detailed plan; usually, it’s a decision about when to pray: first thing in the morning, during the baby’s first nap, when my husband is on baby duty, or some such. I make the decision, do what needs to be done (e.g. set the alarm, make the request, put a sticky note on the mirror), and go to sleep. The next day, I make sure I do it; I keep distracting myself with reminders to do it until I get it done.

Being realistic is important here. I like the idea of getting up early and praying first thing in the morning, but for the first few months, I couldn’t set an alarm because the baby was my alarm. When we shared a bedroom, any alarm I set for myself would wake her up, too. So I would find a different time during the day to pray, at least until she moved to a different room.

As a rule, it takes more effort to build a habit than to maintain a habit; if it seems too difficult at first, I promise you it will get easier! When I have a hiccup — a day when I missed my prayer for whatever reason — I put a little bit more effort into making sure I do it the next few days, and then I’m back in my routine. St. Paul says to “pray without ceasing,” and he really means that. As I said, I have a baby, and I know that God is not asking me to pray like a cloistered nun. But I also know that cloistered nuns have to sweep the floor and eat dinner and wash their veils, so even they can’t spend 24 whole hours in the chapel every day. So what does St. Paul mean — for them and for me?

The first thing is I try to turn everything I do into a prayer. My personal prayer time is kind of my “home base,” and I try to extend that into all the details of my life. That means two things: first, that I try to do everything with love, and second, that I try to keep myself in the presence of God.

Just above my kitchen sink, I have Mother Teresa’s famous quote: “Wash the plate not because it is dirty, not because you were told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.” I didn’t choose to have a sink full of dirty dishes, but I can choose the orientation of my heart while I wash them. And the same for the diapers and vacuuming and calling the babysitter and sending an email for work and everything else I do — as much as I can, I try to do it with love, patience, generosity, and so on. God is love, and his kingdom is a kingdom of love, so when I wash the dishes with love, I am extending his kingdom into my kitchen — and, of course, deeper into my own heart.

The second thing is keeping myself in the presence of God. God is everywhere and always accessible, so in one sense, I am always in his presence. But if you have eaten a meal with someone who cannot look up from their phone, you know that true “presence” includes your attention, attitude, and priorities; it is this fuller type of presence that I try to maintain.

It is annoying when the baby tries to roll over in the middle of a diaper change, but I remember that God is with me here, too, and that changes things for me. “Every event is a word of God to us,” Stinissen writes. “He is in everything that happens. I live in God’s presence when I accept what happens as a message from him without rebelling against it.” I want him to see that I love this child he has entrusted to me, and sometimes that’s enough to help me keep my patience. He knows exactly how I’m struggling, including my interior struggles and the things I’m embarrassed to tell anyone about, and I know that he has an extra measure of kindness for me because of that. He knows where I’m not struggling, where I’m only making excuses for myself; it’s easier to recognize and correct my selfishness, laziness, and pride if I remember that I am in his presence. Above all, I know that he loves me. I want to “pray without ceasing” because that means maintaining an unbroken connection with God; stronger than my desire for this is his desire for this. He wants me to pray without ceasing because he loves me and wants to be with me always.

More than anything else, though, I try to remember that my life circumstances right now are my path to holiness. This is where God wants me right now, and it doesn’t make sense to think that I could design a path to God that’s better than the one he designed for me. “God is in our everyday reality: our parents, our body with its health or sickness, our gifts and limitations, our riches, our poverty, and our high or low IQ,” Stinissen writes. “As soon as we cease to resist all of this and open ourselves to accept God’s reality, we begin to live in his kingdom.”

To live in his kingdom — what more could we want?

Mary C. Tillotson About Mary C. Tillotson

Mary is an ESL teacher and freelance writer. She completed her MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Eastern Michigan University (2019) and is a candidate for an MA in theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She lives in Michigan with her family.

Comments

  1. Avatar Sr. Mary Ann Foggin says:

    This is so beautiful and practical, Mary. You have a gift for writing…but even more important, a beautiful heart for the Lord. So glad you shared this!!!

  2. Avatar Emily ovalle says:

    You are an amazing writer and becoming an amazing mother. I am so happy that we are on this journey together. I love you more than jalapenos during a cold! (Inside joke for those who don’t know).

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