Picture Perfect Motherhood

copyright J&E Hrkach

copyright J&E Hrkach (2002)

Below is an article I wrote back in 2002.  I was thrilled when Family Foundations published it!  It remains one of my favorites.  It’s hard to believe that all these boys are now much taller than me!

I tried to take a mental snapshot of the previous 10 minutes or so. Everyone had come to the table for dinner without being asked twice. The food was piping hot. All five children were sitting and quietly waiting for grace to begin. A soft snow had started falling outside, the woodstove was crackling, cookies were baking in the oven and the Christmas tree, which smelled fresh and green, sparkled with the twinkling lights. It all seemed so perfect, like a painting by Norman Rockwell or a scene from “Ozzie and Harriet.” For just a minute, I had wished that, like in the “Twilight Zone,” life would stop so I could savor the moment. I knew, however, that the scene wouldn’t last like that for long.

“Uh-oh,” exclaimed my six-year-old son, Adam. While I was visiting Ozzie and Harriet, he had tried to pour himself a glass of milk. Now it was all over the perfectly set table. “I didn’t want to bother anyone.”

I took a deep breath and headed to the counter to get a towel to clean up. In the meantime, Paul, the three-year-old, started jabbing his 13-year-old brother with his fork. “Ow, cut it out,” Ben replied. Paul turned and starting bothering the brother on the other side of him, Josh, 15. “Hey, stop it.” Just then, Tim, the 10-year-old who was sitting next to Adam, started complaining that he was getting wet from the spilled milk.

My husband, sensing my frustration, replied with his usual empathic, “Welcome to motherhood.”

Over the years, I have found it difficult to adjust to the fact that real life is just not like television. I had grown up in the 60’s and 70’s watching family sitcoms such as “Brady Bunch,” “Partridge Family” and the like. I spent hours watching reruns of the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Love Lucy” and others. While still entertaining, most of these shows were two-dimensional: there was always a problem and it was (usually) solved in less than 30 minutes. Everyone always ended up happily ever after. And, as always, I was entertained.

It became quite evident that the TV land I experienced while growing up had very little to do with real life. I did grow up in a real family but since I spent so much time watching television, I grew up with the illusion that life, especially motherhood, is two dimensional and problems are usually solved in 30 minutes.

My illusion came crashing down with the birth of my first son, Josh. Newborns are supposed to come out and sleep all the time. Mine didn’t. In fact, he not only didn’t sleep, he cried most of his first six months. After one particularly difficult night of not getting any sleep at all, I sat on the edge of our bed, holding our screaming infant and started crying and bawling myself. My husband, ever patient and blunt, replied (for the first time) “Welcome to Motherhood.” Admittedly, I wanted to slap him, but later when we talked, much of what he said made perfect sense.

“Ellie, God has given you this particular baby for a reason. We don’t know what that is but we have to trust His wisdom.” I started thinking about that. Sleep had always been an important part of my life. Previous to this, I resented anyone who used to wake me up: people calling on phone, noisy neighbors, etc. Now, I had no choice but to wake up for this little baby. What better way for God to help me become less selfish about my sleep than to give me a baby that rarely slept.

With each child, I have seen how much more patient I can be. Seeing to the needs of two, three, four and then five children can be overwhelming. Sometimes I just want to sit back and watch an old rerun of “I Love Lucy” or “Partridge Family.” However, if I (try) to put God first, my family second and myself third, I can step back and see to the “Duty of the Moment,” as Catherine Doherty from Madonna House once said: “The duty of the moment is what you should be doing at any given time, in whatever place God has put you. If you have a child, your duty of the moment may be to change a dirty diaper. So you do it. But you don’t just change that diaper, you change it to the best of your ability, with great love for both God and the child.” This is not always easy, but always seeing to someone else’s needs (my children or husband) is a perfect way to grow in virtue, especially patience.

Several years ago, when I trudged into the vehicle registration office to renew our car’s license plates, I sat down next to an older woman, who commented, “Are these children all yours?” “You bet they are,” I replied, counting all five heads. “Five children, that’s a large family these days. You must be very patient,” she said.

I smiled and thought of a reply. “To tell you the truth, I have become more patient with each child I have. But, you know, I certainly ‘haven’t arrived.’ I definitely need more patience so I’ll probably have to have at least one more child.”

The look on her face was utter shock! And then she sighed and went back to reading her paper.

This is so true of motherhood, I believe. If everything was really perfect with no messes, no fights, no sicknesses, no crying babies, then we, as mothers, would never have an opportunity to grow in virtue and in character, not only as mothers but as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Caring for children is a perfect way to quash selfishness because they are, by nature, very selfish. We, as parents, are totally responsible for these fellow human beings until they are old enough to be on their own and proceed on their own journey toward selflessness.

Motherhood is the ideal life for those of us who need to grow in virtue. Rarely does life seem perfect, and yet we picture it that way in our own mind’s eye. In reality, there are always messes to clean up, fights to help settle, a sick child to comfort or a crying baby to nurse, not to mention the stresses from outside of the family. And, while it is a tremendous and awesome responsibility, motherhood is ultimately, a “perfect” opportunity for us to grow in virtue.

Copyright 2002 Ellen Gable Hrkach

Responsible Parenthood

My latest column at Catholic Mom deals with the difficult decisions James and I faced when deciding whether we should limit our family to three boys after a life-threatening pregnancy in 1993.

Pope Paul VI in his papal encyclical Humanae Vitae states: “ Responsible parenthood… has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”

In the ambulance, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I didn’t have much time for retrospective thoughts, except “Please God, I can’t die. I don’t want my little boys growing up without a mom.” I was bleeding internally, the complications of ectopic pregnancy surgery two weeks previous, and quickly becoming weaker and weaker. Waking up later in the recovery room, I was thankful to be alive.

“You should not be having any more children.” The words were harsh and at first, we took them as truth. I was capable of having more, but after two ectopic pregnancies and complications from one of the surgeries, we were told that we must limit our family to three boys. One of the doctors suggested that I be put on hormonal contraception. He later advised me to have my remaining fallopian tube tied. The physician wasn’t the only one to give the ‘order’ to stop having children. Well-meaning relatives and friends felt it was their duty to tell us that we should not get pregnant again. “You don’t want to be irresponsible, do you?”

“It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God…”

It became evident, as we dialogued with both the physicians and the well-meaning relatives and friends, that they were concerned only about my physical health. Most of them cared little, if at all, for my/our spiritual well being. And, initially, in those first few weeks after my surgery, we felt that we ought to listen to the “doctor’s orders.”

However, as the months went by, I began to regain my strength. We continued using NFP in the most conservative way, often adding one or two days to the rules for extra security. A year later, with heaviness in my heart, I thought of the future and the fact that we would not have anymore children. I wondered whether God was calling us to actively seek another pregnancy. My husband and I discussed it, then brought our concern to our spiritual director, explaining to him that the doctor told us that we should not have any more children. “James and Ellie,” he said, “that is a decision to be made between the two of you and God.” He encouraged us to pray about it and he further recommended that we talk to a faithful Catholic doctor. We knew of a Catholic physician through a neighboring homeschooling community. Her response after reviewing my file was that we could try for more children, but that I would need to be monitored carefully in the first several weeks to confirm that it wasn’t another ectopic pregnancy.

… a right conscience is the true interpreter…”

For the next several months, we prayed together. We deeply desired another child, but we did not want to be careless or irresponsible. After much prayer and discernment, and weighing all the risks, we decided to actively seek another pregnancy.

“…the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities…”

Ten cycles later, we were still not pregnant. We felt at peace with our decision to seek another pregnancy and, although disappointed, we trusted that God knew what He was doing. Eventually, we stopped charting. Another eight cycles went by with no pregnancy and I began to sell off most of my baby furniture. A few weeks later, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had a period in six weeks. The next morning, I took my temperature and it was 98.9. After 18 months of saying no to us, God was saying yes and blessing us with another eternal soul. I was thrilled that another new life, the fruit of our love, had begun, and would be sheltered lovingly in my womb.

With the blessing, however, soon came suffering. I began having debilitating migraine headaches and some days I could not get out of bed. Worse than the physical pain, however, was the emotional suffering. Doctors, well-meaning friends and relatives told us that we were being “irresponsible” and “selfish,” and that if I was suffering, “I had asked for it.”

At 30 weeks, our unborn baby was six pounds and I had already gained 50 pounds. That might not seem like much, but with my four feet nine inch frame, it meant that I could not drive (the seat had to be pushed back so far to allow for my large stomach that my feet couldn’t reach the pedals) and I could not walk the last six weeks of the pregnancy.

Our son, Adam, was born eight weeks later at nearly ten pounds. The pro-life Catholic doctor who delivered Adam by C-section told me that we could try for another baby someday, but that the pregnancy would again have to be monitored. Three years later, our youngest son, Paul was born.

“… recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”

The words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae courageously proclaim the truth of responsible parenthood. The decision to have or avoid another child remains a decision between the couple and God. No one else ought to make such a life-changing and important choice because no one else will have to endure the consequences (and joys), nor will anyone else have to stand before God someday and explain their actions.

Although we could have used NFP to avoid pregnancy permanently and to limit our family size to three sons, we choose to listen to our hearts, to answer God’s calling, and to seek more children. When I consider that our two youngest sons (pictured below) might possibly not be here today, my heart becomes heavy. Both are unique, talented and amazing human beings who have already given so much to our family and to society. I am grateful to God, because I can’t imagine our family without them.

Copyright 2010 Ellen Gable Hrkach

The Simple Way of Loving God

The way of loving God is so very simple: the diapers, the baking, the laundry; sitting quietly, telling stories to the children, holding the hand of one’s spouse. All are little acts of love, directed not only to one’s family but also to God. This is what he wants…

Listen to the dishes. Listen to the laundry. Listen to the work of the gardener or the farmer. A great and beautiful chorus is rising up from the hearts of men and women who believe. And the love of Jesus Christ responds to that chorus of love, because that is the way he worked for many years, writing us love letters.”

Catherine Doherty, Sobornost

These beautiful words from Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House, have always helped me to keep things in proper perspective. Loving God really is simple. It is through the following of the “duty of the moment” that we as mothers and wives can love God. We don’t need to be professional orators or theologians or spend hours in contemplative prayer. Listen to the dishes and the laundry. And if your children want to help, let them.

Cartoon copyright Full Quiver Publishing

Family Foundations Magazine

My son, Tim, was featured on the cover of the September/October issue of Family Foundations magazine. When he first saw the magazine, he said, “Look at that. I’m famous!”

The magazine contained an article I wrote about “Letting Go.” Here is an excerpt:

Last summer, Tim (then 17) landed a “dream” job at the local parachuting club. A few weeks after he had started, Tim called from the club and calmly explained that his boss had shared with him that one of the perks of his job was free skydiving. So he asked if he could go skydiving, that afternoon – in about two hours, to be precise. I immediately dismissed the request, saying, “Tim, forget it. You’re not jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet.” I had spent the last 17 years of Tim’s life trying to protect him from danger, so why would I stop now?

“But, Mom,” he said, “I’ll have a parachute on and there’ll be an experienced jumper with me.” I hesitated, wanting to shout at him, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to jump out of an airplane?” But I didn’t. Instead, I said, “Couldn’t you just wait until another time?”

“Mom, today there are perfect conditions; it’s clear and there aren’t many tandem jumpers. They said I could do it today. Please.”

The instructor who made the tandem jump with Tim assured me that there were all kinds of backups and safety precautions: extra parachutes, an experienced jumper making the trip down with him, etc. But I was not happy about it. I prayed from the moment he stepped onto the airplane and continued praying. It was the longest 20 minutes of my life. My hands were shaking and I don’t think I actually breathed until he stepped onto the ground.

When he was close to landing, we could hear him screaming. In that first half-second, my motherly instincts kicked in and I panicked. “Is he okay?” I frantically asked my husband, standing nearby. Then I heard loud hearty laughter from Tim, still in the air above us.

He finally landed and the bright and happy expression on his face said it all. He kept saying thank you to the tandem instructor. But what surprised me was when he said, “Thanks, Mom, for letting me do that.”

I nodded, now relieved and happy that he was safe.

He tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I do it again next week?”

copyright 2010 Ellen Gable Hrkach
With thanks to Ann Gundlach and Family Foundations magazine

New DVD About St. Gianna

Catholic Action for Faith and Family
PO BOX 910308
San Diego, California 92191
United States
Contact: Thomas McKenna
Phone: 858-461-0777
Email: tmckenna@catholicaction.org


New DVD Tells Story of Modern Day Hero of Divine Love

“St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Modern Day Hero of Divine Love” is a new DVD about a saint who lived in our own time. The DVD is a visual delight, featuring photos and home movies of St. Gianna, who lived from 1922 to 1962. One gets to see her getting married and playing with her children and living out her career as a doctor. Viewers see her laughing and smiling and loving life. This is a real woman. She is someone like us.

Here we get to know a woman like so many of us who struggled to balance work and family. She was highly intelligent, excelling in her studies. She also loved music and art and being in the mountains. She loved her family above all else, but saw her career as a physician as a calling from God. Not only did she run her own practice, she was an active volunteer and sought to bring medical care to those who needed it, especially mothers and children. She would tell other doctors that “when you have finished your earthly profession, if you have done this well, you will enjoy divine life ‘because I was sick and you healed me.’”

St. Gianna was raised in a Christ-centered family and sought to raise her children the same way. Her life was one of service and was deeply rooted in prayer. She attended daily Mass as often as possible and prayed her rosary daily. She was always ready to encourage others in their relationship with God. She was a woman who viewed life as a gift from God and trusted in the power of prayer. Totally pro-life, her ultimate sacrifice was to give birth to her last child, even though she was advised against it and knew it might result in her own death. After giving birth, she bravely bore her final suffering with grace and prayer. She died on April 28, 1962 at the age of 39. Beatified in 1994 and canonized in 2004, Pope John Paul II held St. Gianna up as a role model for mothers, physicians, and the pro-life cause.

“St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Modern Day Hero of Divine Love” was produced by Catholic Action for Faith and Family which includes the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild. The mission of the Guild is to unite and encourage Catholic physicians and health care professionals, to promote and defend Catholic principles in a public way by word and example, and to inspire sanctification in their lives.

To order the video, please visit http://www.stgiannaphysicians.org/ or Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Gianna-Beretta-Molla-Modern-Divine/dp/098163141X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1286848315&sr=8-2

“Adult” Conversations

In my latest column on Catholic Mom, I write about having the difficult but relevant “adult” conversations with my older children:

…we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a society of misused free will and disordered passions, a world where many people embrace their fallen human nature. However, this is also the world in which we try to prepare our children as they grow older and become young adults. While we can shelter our kids from the perversities of our secular culture while they’re young, there will come a time when it will be necessary to give some account for the sexual attitudes so prevalent in our society.


copyright 2010 Ellen Gable Hrkach