A while back a dear reader (I can’t find the comment just now, but feel free to remind me who it was!) asked something along the lines of “If I devote myself to my family, will I be failing to offer help and mercy to others outside the home?”
I too can remember the days when I literally did nothing but clean up poop.
It’s hard to feel charitable and works-of-mercy-ish when you get the baby changed and in a snowsuit, get the toddler changed and in a (nother) snowsuit, and then come to find that the “toilet-trained” child has had an accident.
In a snowsuit.
It’s those days when you wonder whether Mother Teresa had the right idea embracing the celibate life and going to the streets of Calcutta, where there cannot possibly be this much poop.
So if women raised their own children, suffering the isolation and a certain, how shall I put it, lack of affirmation, what would happen to the world of people who need ministering to?
Here are three thoughts, based on our readings of Casti Connubii as well as those of past years.
First, the virtue that everyone needs to live together in harmony is justice.
The structure of the family offers a model of, let’s call it, justice applied. As I keep repeating, as John Paul II kept repeating, the world passes through the family. Because the family, even when imperfect, by its nature is a sanctuary of the weak (what is weaker than an infant?), it offers love to those whose only claim to be taken care of is just that they exist.
In itself, this is a lesson for humanity in justice.
But when the family fulfills its role as teacher and “first school of virtue,” then we see how justice is learned. And how else could it be learned? You must learn these things at your parents’ knees or have a rough road ahead of you.
Justice is the virtue of giving everyone his due.
The family offers the most justice to the child, because it protects and nurtures it before sending it out into the world. A child needs stability almost more than anything else (which is why good societies always try not to take a child away, even from a bad family, but rather give the family the help it needs if possible). A baby human is so vulnerable that only by having two committed parents can it really survive and thrive.
It offers justice to the woman, because bearing a child is a risky business. The family offers the wife protection when she’s at her most vulnerable and affirmation of her need to have time to bond with her baby. Only in a family can a woman properly nurture her children! Through life, the family recognizes her contribution and doesn’t abandon her in her old age, when she is through with her productive years. Instead, it crowns her with honor for her sacrifice. This is why motherhood should never be separated from the family. What is more unjust than a woman whose ability to provide a child has been exploited?
The family offers justice to the man, who, without this bond, would not have a strong enough connection to his wife and his children. When a man gives his all for his family, working for them, protecting them, his contributions are honored and his loved ones stay close to him. It would be unjust to view a man as detachable from the good of the family.
So when men, women, and children live in families, they are experiencing justice and providing justice to others. This justice spreads, because as they gather in a community and the communities form the state, everyone has a stake in doing what is best for the least powerful among them and giving everyone his due, which is justice.
Second, mercy is daily lived out in the family.
You may not be taking in beggars from the streets, but when you are washing your children’s feet, cleaning their little bottoms, and nursing them, you are doing acts of mercy. The mother of Jesus did all these things, so, really, we’re good. Don’t be like me and think that whatever workout you are doing is by definition not a workout! If you do it for the least of these, you did it for Me, Jesus said.
If you left the house to feed half-a-dozen children in an orphanage, would you feel more holy than when you feed your own children? That’s a little misguided. If a woman leaves her house to teach catechism to strangers’ children, is she more holy than when she sits on the sofa and reads a Bible story to her own? Think again.
Yet, third, this mercy very quickly begins to overflow into the world at large.
I remember, years ago, a friend who had just had a baby thanking me for a dinner I brought. She said that it was only her friends with many young children who had thought to do it. So even when your children are little, you are still looking out for others in a practical way precisely because of what you are experiencing.
It’s true that in the first few years of a family’s life, normally the activity is very much focused inward. Fortunately, families are all at different stages of development! So while your little family is learning to take care of itself, so to speak, others are growing outwards, taking in those in need, rescuing the poor, organizing relief. The day comes when life isn’t all getting babies from one point in the day to the other, and your gaze turns to those in need.
But without the family, we’d have no way to offer very much to the poor. There would be very little productivity on the economic level, because people work for their families and are creative because they have leisure afforded by their families. There would be very few volunteers, because volunteers are the fruit of families — people whose support has been provided by someone else and have free time to offer to others. There wouldn’t even be religious orders, because, apart from Divine intervention, the virtue necessary to make the sacrifice to live as a religious is normally learned in the family!
When a child has the misfortune of lacking a parent, his extended family or another generous family steps in to provide. When a mother is abandoned, her community — of families — helps her. Families fill in to offer what’s needed in the brokenness around them. If there are children living next door whose single mom doesn’t come home until late, well, it’s the neighbor family who make sure they have a snack and get their homework done. Where there is no neighbor family, the children next door are lonely.
And it’s worth taking a moment to think about what life was like when women primarily stayed home. Far from being selfish, self-seeking spoiled narcissists, women created a network of community support that made it so that children were free to run around and learn in safety and old people were cared for at home rather than left in loneliness in nursing homes. Who will have time to visit their elderly when everyone works?
I think that often we compare the richest people of today with the poorest of other eras, rather than thinking about how the poor fare today. In other words, when we think of single moms, we think of the ones we read about in glossy magazines, not the ones using food stamps at the checkout. We don’t really dwell on what it’s like to have sick children and no options. And when we forget that a family is uniquely qualified to deal with a bunch of children with the flu, we end up with expensive and inept schemes for the government to provide care — or, more usually, we just send sick kids to school. Is it any wonder that the flu spreads so readily? Everyone is compelled to go out when they are sick!
Today the poor in America — the ones you see on the street — are often victims of mental illness, a condition which is greatly exacerbated by a lack of family structure. And the actual poor just live alone or in shelters.
When I was in the hospital, I noticed that the biggest concern of the staff was that you were going home with no one to care for you. The folks in the hospital aren’t necessarily poor, but so many have no one. I had my family to watch over me, thank God. But many people stay in the hospital far longer just because they can’t go home. One roommate, a woman a little older than me, had lain alone on the floor for a day before help arrived, and who knows what she was going home to.
When mother is home, there is someone for all these people to go home to.
I bet you have lots of ways to add to this quick list of how families administer justice and mercy to the world. Obviously (as dear Pius XI said in another wonderful encyclical, On Christian Education, and I will try not to make you read it right now), the family is one indispensable unit of society. The other two are the state and the Church.
Now we’re seeing that as the family gets redefined, the government steps in. But the family is actually an amazingly efficient delivery system for social good at the source, where the government is a clumsy, and at best, patchy, remedy at the other end. Committing to the family as God’s plan is a good way to start healing our society!
These are just my quick thoughts to encourage you when it seems you aren’t doing much.
Before you know it, your family will be the hub of good works in your community. Or, what would be even better, may it be just one of many hubs, all doing good in God’s kingdom.