The Pursuit of Excellence

(I wrote this piece for the January 2023 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

As we prepare for 2023, you may be making some New Year’s resolutions. If so, please let this recovering perfectionist share a final anti-perfectionism insight: choose the “pursuit of excellence” rather than expecting yourself to be perfect. This distinction was made by Dr. David Burns, the well-known cognitive-behavioral therapist, in his book 10 Days to Self Esteem. My own beloved therapist gave me this image of perfectionism: imagine a pole vaulter who has trained hard and learned to jump over quite a high bar, but she considers herself a failure because the bar is not one inch higher. It is “all or nothing” thinking that always judges oneself to be “nothing.” In contrast, the “pursuit of excellence” mentality sees a realistic spectrum of ability and accomplishment and empowers a person to keep trying to develop her character (or athletic ability, in the case of the pole vaulter).

A related insight from Dr. Burns is that our flaws and imperfections can actually make us lovable to each other. Imagine a woman who has it all together and never appears to make a mistake. We might respect such a person, but it would be hard to feel affection for her. When we honestly share our struggles with each other, our motherly hearts naturally go out to each other. So don’t be afraid to share your problems with people you trust. Your relationships will be strengthened rather than weakened because of your honesty.

May God bless us and our families as we courageously pursue excellence in mothering in 2023 and beyond!

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Letting Go

(I wrote this piece for the December 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

Did you ever see the Pixar movie Finding Nemo? My favorite part is when Marlin and Dory are hanging onto taste buds on the whale’s tongue, suspended over the dark chasm of the whale’s throat. Dory insists that they need to let go, to fall into the darkness, and that somehow everything will work out even though they don’t understand what is happening. Marlin, filled with fear and convinced that the whale means to eat them, finally manages to let go…and the whale blows them safely out of his blowhole into Sydney Harbor, exactly where they need to go to find Marlin’s son, Nemo.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear, and it often manifests itself as a desire to control people and events. My early days of motherhood were a crash course in letting go of control: childbirth and breastfeeding were radically and painfully different from what I had planned. But a wise healthcare provider told me, “This is a chance to reflect on all of the things that you don’t have control over in parenting.” That wisdom combined with faith in God’s Providence marked a healthy turning point in my healing from perfectionism.

As Christmas approaches and we see images of the Holy Family, perhaps we can find encouragement from the examples of Mary and Joseph, who let go of their own plans* to embrace the plan of Someone who loves us and wants the best for us.

May God bless you and your families this Christmas and always!

*Mary probably did not make “plans of her own” but rather lived in total openness to God’s Plan.

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Giving Thanks

(I wrote this piece for the November 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

I am a recovering perfectionist. For whatever reason, I entered motherhood with the deeply engrained mental habit of criticizing myself almost constantly. By the grace of God and with the help of mental health professionals, spiritual leaders, family, and friends, I have come a long way towards healing, but perfectionism can still sneak up on me, especially when I am stressed or tired. For the next few holiday months, I would like to share some of the most helpful anti-perfectionism strategies that I have learned in case there are any other recovering perfectionists out there. The pressure of the holidays can turn anyone into a temporary perfectionist!

One manifestation of perfectionism is comparing ourselves and our families to others and always coming up short. One way to counter this unhealthy tendency is to remind ourselves that we don’t really know everything that may be going on with someone else. They probably have struggles and problem that we have no idea about. Chances are that we have created an imbalanced and unrealistic image of someone else that we are comparing ourselves to.

An even more powerful way to combat unhealthy comparisons is to give thanks for what we have, as we do as a nation every November. We can make a year-round habit of noticing all of our blessings, big and small, and being thankful for them. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” can go a long way towards fighting perfectionism.

May God bless you and your families this Thanksgiving and always!

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The Joys of Good Fiction

(I wrote this piece for the October 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

One of the countless things that I owe to my excellent mother is my love of reading good fiction. She read bedtime stories to me every night through sixth grade, and I have been reading them to myself ever since. Reading out loud as a family is a wonderfully enjoyable and valuable thing to do; reading to ourselves can also be a great source of joy.

Our lives as mothers can be difficult and exhausting. A good book to look forward to at the end of the day can provide us with a healthy “escape” from reality—the sort of escape that helps us return refreshed to life’s daily challenges. Good fiction can also help to develop our compassion: as we get used to putting ourselves in the place of the main characters, we find it easier to see things from other people’s point of view. Good stories likewise help to sharpen our moral discernment and are often more effective at showing us good versus evil than a treatise on ethics.

Speaking of ethics and serving as a bridge with my last several newsletter pieces, a terrific author is Jane Austen. The everyday dramas in her six finished novels turn on the importance of cultivating the virtues and avoiding the vices all while delighting and entertaining her readers. I just finished reading Jane Austen’s Genius Guide To Life by Haley Stewart, and I highly recommend it as an orientation to the enduring value of Austen’s novels. Another great place to look for reading recommendations is Honey for a Woman’s Heart by Gladys Hunt.

Happy reading!

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Wisdom: Putting All the Virtues Together

(I wrote this piece for the September 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

For the past several months, we have considered several virtues which mothers should cultivate—such as humility, temperance, and meekness—and the corresponding vices which mothers should strive to avoid—such as vanity, envy, and anger. The difficulties of motherhood give women countless opportunities to grow their characters into something more beautiful.

This month we consider how the virtues work together to produce what might be called the fruit of all the virtues: wisdom. “God gives us wisdom as a crowning gift when we exercise the virtues, in particular the virtue of charity, or the love of neighbor” (Carrie Gress, Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood, p. 109). When we possess wisdom, we can judge well how to best use our time, treasure, and talents, and how best to live our roles as mothers.

We all need wisdom when it is time to begin a new school year. Balancing the needs of everyone in our families is never easy; we need wisdom to help us set our priorities and let go of what we simply cannot do. We need wisdom to make sure that everyone is getting a good night’s sleep, fresh air and exercise, and healthy food amid professional, academic, and extracurricular demands. We need wisdom to help us keep our families close and united despite countless challenges and distractions. We need wisdom to take care of our marriages and our faith lives.

May God bless us and give us the wisdom to be excellent mothers!

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Meekness: The Virtue Governing Our Emotions

(I wrote this piece for the August 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

Let’s be honest: women sometimes deserve our reputation of being too emotional. When our emotions help us experience compassion for another and prompt us to help, they can be a great gift. But when our emotions take over and push us around, causing us to do and say things we later regret, they have stepped out of their proper boundaries. The virtue that helps us stay in control when our emotions run high is called meekness, which Carrie Gress describes as “the embodiment of deep interior strength and authentic mastery over our emotions” (from chapter 8 of Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood).

Instead of letting our emotions dictate our actions, we should strive to keep our emotions under the healthy influence of our intellect and our will. The great insights of cognitive-behavioral therapy are tapping into this reality: what we think and do (intellect and will) when challenges occur can influence how we feel (emotions). For example, when a child does something that drives us crazy, we can take a deep breath, remind ourselves of the child’s age, and ask ourselves something like, “What does this child truly need right now?” Such a habit can help us keep our cool and respond in a wise and productive way. Motherhood calls us to rise above our emotions and put love into action even when we really don’t want to.

May God bless you all this summer and always!

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Summer Declutter and the Virtue of Temperance

(I wrote this piece for the July 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

When my boys and I put away the schoolbooks for the summer, one of my favorite things to do is declutter the house. Things have a way of piling up during the busy school year. Children have grown and their interests have changed, so their wardrobes and belongings need attention. We have clothes that we never wear and gifts that we have never used. It is time to simplify life and give some things away!

Organizing and decluttering create a welcoming home for our families. Decluttering can also be a helpful antidote to the vices of greed and gluttony (we can be gluttons for stuff as well as for food!). Keeping our material objects to a minimum helps us focus on what really matters in life.

On the other hand, we should not become obsessed with having a perfectly organized, absolutely tidy home. Becoming overly controlling of our spaces can stress out our families and, again, make us focus on stuff rather than people. Having children means embracing the beautiful messiness of life.

As is often the case, the best way lies in the middle of two extremes. The virtue of temperance, or the wise use of our resources, can help us chart a safe course between the extremes of holding on to too much stuff and obsessing over perfect order. (See chapter 7 of Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood by Carrie Gress for more on temperance in motherhood.)

May God bless you and your families this summer and always!

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A Father’s Day Gift

(I wrote this piece for the June 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

In honor of Father’s Day, I would like to encourage wives to respect and appreciate their husbands. Feminism has helped to correct some serious injustices, but it may also have left us confused about the unique gifts that men and women each possess and how we are meant to be a blessing to one another. (I am drawing on chapters 2-3 of Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood by Carrie Gress; I will return to the virtues and vices next month.)

Everything about a woman’s body is ordered toward motherhood. A woman’s heart and soul are no different. Even if a woman never bears children, she is still meant to be a spiritual mother to those around her. A man’s body is likewise ordered toward fatherhood. He is at his best when he is providing for and defending those in his care. Rather than competing with men, we can rejoice in our complementary differences.

Women also have a great capacity for a rich inner life. We can bring our loved ones’ needs to prayer and receive wisdom about what they need. We can then lovingly bring our insights to the attention of the men in our life so that they can help put into action what we have received. Women can thus serve as a bridge between heaven and earth. We flourish with the loving support of our husbands, and men thrive with the appreciation, respect, and spiritual insights of their wives. Children who see their parents loving and respecting each other grow up with a profound sense of security and are more likely to choose their own spouses well.

May God bless you all this Father’s Day and always!

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Miserable Pride vs. Joyful Humility

(I wrote this piece for the May 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

How can we find joy and peace in motherhood? By embracing the difficult work of growing in virtue and fighting against vice as we care for our families. The following thoughts are drawn from chapters 4-6 of Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood by Carrie Gress.

A virtue is “an innate potential in a person that through repeated use becomes a habit, freeing her to do what she knows is good, true and beautiful while bringing out the best in her character” (p. 55). Humility is the queen of all virtues because it helps us know what other virtues we need to work on: “Know thyself,” as Socrates wisely advised us long ago. Humility means joyfully embracing our littleness and our limitations because we know that we are in the hands of Someone who loves us, wants the best for us, and will help us grow.

Pride is at the root of all the vices that deform our character and damage our relationship with God and others. Pride says, “I am the center of the universe, and I know best.” In the end, pride leads only to misery since it closes us off from giving and receiving true love.

Pride has some specific manifestations for women that motherhood can help us correct. The first one is vanity, or focusing on self-centered, superficial matters. Pregnancy and childbirth can help concentrate instead on the sort of beauty that will last unto eternity rather than the perfect figure. Learning to focus on the needs of our husbands and our children can lead us out of ourselves into joyful service.

Envy is another typical manifestation of miserable pride for women. Instead of being grateful for who we are and who are families are, we waste our time and energy comparing ourselves and our families to others and always coming up short.  The mission of American Mothers is a wonderful antidote to envy! Celebrating each other and seeking to grow together as moms are surefire ways to cultivate joyful humility.

Being fickle or flighty is another way that women tend to fall prey to pride. Motherhood can help ground us and teach us the humble perseverance needed to establish a happy home rather than placing ourselves and our fun first. Closely related is the prideful vice of individualism. This trait is so pervasive in our culture that it can be hard to recognize as something negative, but no one can find ultimate satisfaction in life by always demanding “what we want, when we want it, how we want it” (p. 77). Motherhood is a crash course in reorganizing our lives around something other than our own egos. Finally, impatience is one of the most common struggles we all have with our pride. Fifteen years into motherhood, I still lose my temper on a regular basis.  Joyful humility can give us the perspective and courage to apologize and keep trying.

This Mother’s Day, let’s give our families the gift of trying to grow in the virtue of joyful humility!

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Womanly Intuition

(I wrote this piece for the April 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.:

I would like to begin my “corner” by considering some ancient ideas about knowledge and ethics: intuition, virtue, and vice. As mothers, how do we discern the right path for ourselves and for our families? We need reason, and we need experience, but there is also a third source of knowledge on which we can rely: intuition. Blaise Pascal refers to intuition when he says, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” As Peter Kreeft clarifies in The Philosophy of Tolkien, “This is not a justification of sentiment, feeling, or desire over reason, but an expansion of the meaning of reason beyond ‘calculation’ to ‘intuition.’”

Women in particular have been given the capacity to “just know” what the right thing is for our loved ones—hence the phrase “womanly intuition.” But we have to be careful with this discernment because “the heart is not an infallible organ.” Intuition “depends on moral goodness; it is trustworthy only in the virtuous” (Kreeft). If we are to guide our families well, we must first humbly cultivate the garden of our own souls, uprooting the weeds of vices (bad habits) and encouraging the fruitful growth of virtues (good habits).

Thankfully, the gift of motherhood provides us with countless opportunities to shape our character into something more beautiful and trustworthy. Carrie Gress elucidates this process in her priceless book Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood. We all know how difficult motherhood can be—exhausting, frustrating, boring, and often thankless. Gress invites us to look at these challenges with fresh eyes and encourages us that “the difficulty of motherhood is not in vain…Motherhood, in fact, is the perfect antidote to the vices that come so readily to the fairer sex: vanity, impatience, pride, greed, unbridled emotions, over-controlling, and fickleness, to name a few. The daily struggles are God’s way of making us over in his own image and likeness.”

For the next few months, I will be examining some of the virtues that are particularly important for mothers to cultivate and the corresponding vices that mothers would do well to avoid. The more we can embrace the difficulties that are inherent in motherhood, the more we can grow into trustworthy guides for our loved ones and rely on our womanly intuition. As Gress promises, “Among the daily trials are hidden doorways to the kind of motherhood we aspire to: joyful, wise, ordered, dignified, loving…God in his great mercy has offered us this sanctification through the most gentle of ways: those little faces and grubby hands.”

May God bless you, your families, and your womanly intuition!

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