by Elizabeth Foss
“Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” — Elizabeth Stone
When one has a little child and her heart goes walking around outside her body, she can keep a pretty close eye on it. It’s fairly simple to protect that heart from the bumps and bruises of everyday life. Tragic illnesses or accidents lurk in the corners, but the usual daily round is safe for most of our young children.
As the child grows and interacts increasingly with the world, the opportunities for his heart to be hurt (or broken?) increase dramatically. A mother watches and waits and hopes that the piece of her heart now walking around in the world will be treated gently. If that mother has had more than one child, there is more than one piece of her heart — each off in its own place outside of her body, each vulnerable to its own sorrows. Openness to life? The generosity of a large family? An abundance of hearts bared to the capriciousness of life — all those opportunities for anxiety as she watches them walking around outside her body.
It’s enough to make a good case for motherhood being risky behavior, destined to create neurotic, anxious women of us all by the time we reach middle age. We could all be tied up in tight knots of anxiety and depression, if not for gratitude.
In his book What Happy People Know, Dan Baker writes, “During active appreciation, the threatening messages from your amygdala (fear center of the brain) and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”
This means that the mindful practice of gratitude is heart medicine for mothers. The more we practice mindful gratitude, the more we intentionally count our blessings and notice the gifts, the more we are able to remain in the neural pathways gratitude navigates.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the mother with the impressive gratitude journal — all those gifts faithfully remembered and recorded every night on her bedside table — has inoculated herself against anxiety or depression. Gratitude and anxiety may alternate. It means that battling anxiety might require the hard work of remaining in gratitude’s pathway in order to resist anxiety’s groove.
As the calendar page turns to the month in which Americans collectively pause to be grateful, mothers might need to take the whole month, instead of just the fourth Thursday. Instead of a brief grace said before turkey and stuffing, can we cultivate a new habit? Can we follow the example of G. K. Chesterton, who wrote: “You say grace before meals. Alright. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Grace in everything. Gratitude all the time, without ceasing.
Can we hold each moment captive for gratitude? Can we refuse to let our brains leave the neural pathways of thankfulness? Can we see God’s hand on everything, be ever more aware of His provision in each and every moment? Can we recognize that He is the creator of a beautiful universe, the creator of all the little hearts walking around outside a mother’s body, and the creator of the mother’s heart itself. He knows the tendency towards anxiety. He knows, too, the remedy.
It is a challenge, to be sure. To remain in a state of gratefulness requires discipline. November is a perfect month to begin that habit training, to see God more clearly and to recognize His goodness. When we cultivate a habit of mindful gratitude, our hearts feel the peace St. Augustine observed: “This, then, is the full satisfaction of souls, this is the happy life: to recognize piously and completely the one through whom you are led into the truth, the nature of the truth you enjoy and the bond that connects you with the supreme measure.”
Elizabeth Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia. This article is made available courtesy of The Catholic Herald – the newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.