Present With Suffering

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Sometimes, like the other day when I went to get my hair cut, people are astonished when I tell them I have four children. “That’s so many kids! Oh my gosh.” My hairstylist wasn’t chiding, but she was genuinely taken aback. 

I wonder what she would have said if I’d told her I wasn’t necessarily done. 

It’s a hard pill for some of my family members who know it to swallow as well. My last pregnancy was very difficult, as was the treatment and induction at the hospital, and the recovery. If things had gone differently, I could have died. It was not a great situation. 

I understand their concern. They treat me like the adult I am, and we’re not at odds about it. There’s a legitimate question that I ask too: where’s the line? How much danger do you allow yourself to be in for the sake of bearing another child? The answer to that question for you probably rests on what you believe about reality, as does mine. 

The comments and advice I get, as well as the soul-searching conversations I’ve had about homeschooling are in a similar vein. I am around plenty of other children, and I know mine are all extremely strong willed. They all act like first-borns, which shouldn’t surprise me since they have two pretty fiery first-borns as parents. God help them. They are – some more than others – utterly exhausting at times. There are some personality traits that are a cross to bear, some learning difficulties that have me stumped. 

It’s hard, hard work being a mother. I can’t even tell you what it is to try to figure out their learning needs because I have so little with which to compare it. It’s more than hard. I have doubted myself and my choices for as long as I have been making them. Should we get him evaluated? Should we get put him in preschool? Should we put him in kindergarten? Should we this, should we that? Am I ruining his life by keeping him at home with me? Setting him up for failure whenever he joins the world? 

When everyone around you is doing the same, different thing from what you believe to be right (Some of it, right for us. Some of it, I will admit, I think is just right, period), it can be confusing. And when the answer everyone seems to want to give you is to send him to school, to stop making such a big deal of it, to just admit you’re not a teacher and those are the only moms who are successful at homeschooling, it can feel crippling.

But I am stubborn and headstrong. It’s a thing I didn’t know about myself until lately. I’m proud of it, in this instance.

I remember so vividly the time in my friend Emily’s life when she had four small children, whom she was homeschooling. Brilliant Emily, with an Ivy League education, who could have made more money and had more prestige in her lifetime than I will ever see. She had chosen, instead, a life of bearing children (Emily has 8 of them now!), and she was in a health crisis. They were paying me to make dinner for them so she could have some space to focus on her health. It was such a sweet time for me, and Emily is a kindred spirit. 

I remember her telling me how the people close to her were telling her to stop having children. They couldn’t understand why she would persist. You’re sick, they would say to her, you’re depressed. It’s obvious what you should do. 

Here’s what I think it often amounts to, this good faith permission to give up: it’s a denial of suffering. It’s a denial of the truth that we all must suffer some things. We all die, we all suffer. It’s a denial of the good of suffering; that it produces patience, perseverance, character, hope. 

And I think, ultimately, that kind of advice will backfire. What kind of language will it give you or your friends, what kind of symbolism, not to mention experience and fortitude for when you must suffer because you have no choice? And if you can’t even sit with someone who is suffering these relatively small discomforts for the sake of something bigger, how will you sit with someone who is suffering senselessly? What language will you have to give them? What symbols can you point them to to show them their suffering has meaning? How will you help them bear it? 

Also, how could you possibly hope to stand for what you believe in yourself if it means you will suffer? 

It’s not always so cut and dry, I realize. My friends who perhaps haven’t wanted to see me suffer through the process of homeschooling may not agree with my conclusions about education, and therefore think I am suffering unneccesarily. Or they are also afraid for my children because they think I may fail them. I wouldn’t fault them for that, it’s a mark of character. Or they could be simply tired of hearing me process the same fears over and over, or rightly see that I am complaining but don’t know how to tell me that’s really my problem. 

Our culture is against most kinds of suffering. We’re all for suffering the lack of a personal life and sleep to pursue an exciting or important career. And certain factions are still all about physical suffering for the sake of a better body or a better race time. Winning, in other words, is still seen as a good reason to suffer in our culture. But for other things? No, we have therapy for that. We have drugs. We have schools and daycares and contraception. We have self acceptance.  

Fewer and fewer people see suffering for the sake of bearing another child as anything but lunacy, except for in a few situations. Nobody thinks the mother who has four children already, and who is likely to be in danger if she gets pregnant again, is doing anything noble by having a 5th child. I am likely to suffer, if I do, both in body and in spirit from the knowledge that many people think I am crazy or don’t approve. My friends and family won’t stop loving me, but they may not understand. Even if this is so, I still count myself very lucky.

It’s similar with my decision to keep homeschooling, especially when my kids don’t hit the “right” benchmarks at the right times; when they compare unfavorably with my peers’ kids in the wrong ways. And on top of that I am tired, I am sometimes confused, we don’t have a second income, and I am overweight because I am neglecting myself. Making changes to any of those things while also caring for a baby (and other children) is nigh on impossible.

My friend Emily persisted. She does persist. And I’ll tell you this: because she allowed herself to suffer rather than use an easy out, she has a depth and a wealth to give to me and to the world. Her season of bearing and raising children is relatively short in the span of her life. But think of all she has learned how to give when that’s done! It has changed her, irrevocably, for the better. Not to mention, in this case, the many beautiful souls her suffering has brought into the world. 

I think maybe we see someone suffering like that and think it’s going to break them. Maybe they’ll get divorced. Maybe they’ll get sick.  It’s a real fear in this broken world. But maybe it’s because we have so little imagination for suffering – for what comes after. Yes, it does make some people brittle. It does lasting, terrible effects in some cases. I don’t think I have all the answers for suffering. 

I guess I’m just saying that sometimes the most helpful thing is not advice or a solution. Sometimes, when you see someone suffering – even if it’s for something that makes no sense to you, and especially if it’s someone you love – the best thing you can do is allow them to suffer. Allow that they are suffering, and there’s no way through it but through it. When you want to give someone an out, it may be more for your sake than for theirs because it’s hard to watch someone suffer. It also takes humility.

4 thoughts on “Present With Suffering

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  1. I see that you’re wondering about how much suffering, brought on by personal choice, should be forgiven, or excused. I hear you. Seeking outside vindication never goes well for me. If I can sit with my choices, it’s right for now. When that changes, I try to shift.

    And there’s a real impatience for human emotions, as far as I can see. According to my midwestern upbringing, anything that makes someone else uncomfortable should be kept private. All the “sorry!” I heard, and gave. It’s a hard thing to work toward vulnerability as an adult, understanding that without it, all relationships are pure surface. I want to be known. Being a full person in the world is hard enough. Trying to shuffle a friend through their suffering because it makes you uncomfortable is just bad friending.

    1. Yes, you are right. Seeking vindication is an exercise in futility. It has taken me a long time to learn that one. I forgot to mention in the post that I was probably also doing that. I am learning to own my choices. Most of the time, people are going to give the advice they have to give, whether it’s helpful for you or not, and probably become exasperated if you seem to keep seeking it without making any changes. How do we say when we need comforting; the presence of another person, in the midst of our struggles but don’t necessarily need or want advice? I think people just do their best.

  2. Very thought provoking. Just out of curiosity, do your children do activities with other children (soccer, scouting, youth group, etc) ?

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