Entering religious life never really crossed my mind. That sort of sacrifice and relationship with Jesus was for the really holy people. In my mind, a regular-level Christian like me could not handle the sacrifice; becoming a wife and mother would be safer and more in line with my gifts. The domestic life, one that thousands before me have lived, felt more my speed.
The demands for priests and religious are certainly unique. Embracing countercultural vows of celibacy and poverty, foregoing starting one’s own family, and being beholden to the requests of one’s bishop or superior means a life very different from mine as a wife and mother. I am in awe of the men and women who not only hear God’s call to the priesthood or religious life, but answer that call with enthusiasm and a lifelong commitment to Christ and His Church. Although I have known many wonderful and down-to-earth sisters and priests, such a world is intimidating to me. They seemingly exist in an untouchable, holy realm, and my version of lived Catholic faith feels subpar. I could have walked the path to sainthood as a Missionary of Charity in Calcutta or as a cloistered nun constantly in prayer. Was accepting “only” marriage and family life just settling?
But living in the trenches of motherhood has opened my eyes to a truth that I have only recently acknowledged: Parenthood is not a second-class vocation. Just because getting married and having children is “normal” by societal standards does not mean that it is not challenging, fulfilling, and holy.
The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are ones parents tacitly accept. We take on financial burden—often making sacrifices of take out, vacations, and shopping trips—to pay tuition, enroll our kids in activities, or just put food on the table. Biological mothers in particular take on the physical “poverty” of body changes through pregnancy and postpartum, and all parents can probably attest to a change in their once-youthful appearance due to stress or exhaustion.
The vow of chastity is also one that parents bear. Although many think “When I am married, anything goes!” NFP is certainly not always easy. Charting and days of abstinence are burdensome, and navigating the world of sexuality (and not to mention changes in the ways and frequency with which we can express ourselves intimately post-children) is not always a walk in the park.
And obedience? How often do we find ourselves changing our habits and routines to accommodate these tiny, inflexible people with their own unique needs and personalities? How often do we put aside things we want or plans we have? How often do we take a big breath and smile through frustrating moments, pushing down our instinctive reactions to bring peace to our homes?
We can look at priests and religious and their all-encompassing lifestyles and wonder how they answer the demands of their vocation day in and day out. Their work is around-the-clock as they tend to the needy, celebrate Mass, offer counseling, or engage with the youth. As they shepherd their flock or live out their order’s particular charisms, they are doing such important and holy work. But parents, too, can say the same. Middle-of-the-night wakings for hungry babies or sick children, feeding the masses three meals (and fifty snacks) a day, being listening and affirming ears, and educating our children are just some of the ways that we can find ourselves living a demanding life that is not entirely our own.
Or as we look at missionaries who have given their lives to serve the needy both at home and abroad, we can falsely believe we haven’t truly sacrificed. They are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless—often in less-than desirable conditions. We parents also experience those same struggles as we pack lunches or deal with picky eaters. Creating a safe and nurturing environment often comes at some expense: sleep, our mental health, and our personal time. While the experience of leaving behind family and friends is not the same, parents leave a world they have known—a world of more independence and comfort—in service of their families.
In other words, priests, religious, and consecrated singles are vital to our Church; their prayer, witness, and service undeniably edify us. Their vocation seems monumental, impossible even. But parenthood is certainly not an easy way out.
Yes, most men and women accept the call to marriage and, God willing, parenthood. But being a parent—let alone a good one—is also a monumental and, at times, seemingly impossible call. Priests and religious are primarily doing the ever-important work of teaching, serving, and ministering to the Church, but Christian parents are literally creating its members and raising them to love Jesus. And the daily ins and outs of parenthood beyond that—from late nights with babies to navigating sibling fighting to helping children shift from teens to young adults—are all rife with stress, both physical and emotional. All of these vocations are necessary and important. As St. Paul reminds us, we are many parts that make up this body of the Church.
So hats off to all of us living our vocations, for accepting God’s call and the sacrifices it demands. May we pick up the cross He has given us and, in turn, offer up the joys and hardships for our growth in holiness and for the strengthening of the Church and Her members. And may we remember that—whether we are consecrating the Eucharist, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, or changing dirty diapers—we are all necessary as we do the important work of building up the Body of Christ.