“How does it get easier with more kids?” the young man asked. He had come to my door to sell window upgrades (we were renting, so the sales pitch never had a chance), but when he saw my newborn baby in my arms and young children peering up at him, he switched out of salesman mode and showed himself to be a proud, nervous young father, whose wife was due next month with their first. He seemed to be scrambling for any knowledge he could procure about this mysterious world of babies, even if it meant asking strangers whose door he had just knocked upon. I tried to be upbeat and encouraging, but his question made me pause.
“You just get used to a life of constant interruption. But that initial transition is really hard,” I responded with a sigh, thinking back to my desperate, futile attempts to keep my first baby on a predictable sleep schedule.
Continual interruption, I thought, was the unique mark of motherhood—never being able to finish a meal, a conversation, an email, without having to attend to someone else’s needs, real or perceived. My days prior to motherhood were spent working in quiet libraries, where the particular challenge was not succumbing to distraction. The temptation I find myself fighting now is not to view those days with romantic longing, as if they were the good days when I could truly focus and work. They were different, yes, but they were not better.
I hold the same misplaced longing, at times, for what I perceive as the lives of those in a convent. There, in monastic silence, I think, I could really pray as I desire. I could read without interruption. I could sleep without waking to the kicks of toddler feet. I’d finish a chore to completion, and I’d put away the garden tools where they belong. My life would be orderly and clean and contemplative.
But a passage in Rumer Godden’s novel, In This House of Brede, offered a corrective to my skewed vision of conventual life:
“Everything we do, outside choir,” said Dame Clare, “our work, our reading, our private prayer, even our meals . . . are simply pauses, meant to prepare ourselves for our real work, the Opus Dei—and that needs discipline.”
Discipline. At the sound of a bell a speaker must stop—“Well, not in mid-sentence,” said Dame Clare, “but stop.” A writer must stop, too, even in the middle of a paragraph, the artist must lay down her brush, the cleaner her broom and dustpan.
Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline; seven times a day—and the long office of Matins, not, as its name suggests, a morning prayer but rather, with its nocturne and lessons, its twelve psalms, the great night vigil of the Church. “Yes, one suffers for the Office . . . The getting up, and staying up; the continual interruption to ordinary work, singing no matter how one feels, day after day. Nuns have no holidays.”
I thought mothers were the only ones who could boast of such heroic feats of endurance and patience. Yet, such a discipline in responding to interruptions, I remember, was also demonstrated to me by a college theology professor. He had been assigned as my freshman advisor, and though I soon declared a biology major and switched advisors, I regularly contrived reasons to stop by his office and chat. He would always rise from his desk chair and move to a small sitting area he had arranged in front of his desk. One day, I could not think of a reason to start a conversation, so I knocked lightly on his door and said, “I don’t want to interrupt your work, but just wanted to say hi.” He rose as usual, and said, “No, no, come in. Sit down. If the Gospels teach us anything, it is that we meet Jesus in the interruptions.” Indeed. I can’t say I always receive my children as graciously as he did me or regularly demonstrate such discipline as the Divine Office requires, but as I try to remind myself, my children are my real work and where I meet Jesus.