Mortification has a long history in the Church, and it is not unusual to encounter wonderful stories of saints - especially in religious life - who practiced various mortifications, from St. Therese Lisieux getting splashed by dirty dishwater without complaint to St. Francis throwing himself into thorn bushes to the many religious communities that embraced challenging Lenten fasts.
For those of us who don't live in religious communities, however, embracing voluntary mortificaitons can be quite a struggle. Perhaps with the motivation of the Lenten season we find ourselves able to "give up" something that we really enjoy. These voluntary mortifications are truly important and a valuable asset in the Christian life.
One great blessing of parenthood, however, is the way that it provides us with involuntary mortifications - all those opportunities of dying to self and living for God that we would prefer to avoid, but can't because, well, we have kids. And there they are. And they need us. Even if we are tired or feel sick or just aren't in the mood.
This is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of becoming a parent for the first time. All of the sudden, you have to think about someone else before doing anything. I've been known to refer to this as the "newborn ball and chain." Even people who have striven to be generous with giving time to others during their single or childless years can find the responsibility of baby to be an adjustment. With the realization of 24-7 care of an infant, that two hours a week volunteering to teach confirmation class seems quite a trifle, really, a truly paltry sacrifice. It's no longer about "choosing" to be self-giving in various ways at specified times to those in need; parenting is about being forced to be self-giving even when we'd rather sleep in late...or eat a leisurely, peaceful dinner...or go for a nice, long run in the fall sunshine.
To embrace parenthood generously is to embrace these involuntary mortifications and see them in a positive light, as assets to our overall meaning, happiness, and holiness, even if they seem to be hindrances or at least inconveniences in the eyes of the rest of the world.
At its core, this means acknowledging a lack of choice in terms of the specificity of parenthood. It begins right at the beginning with the "choice" to conceive, which, of course, is not really a choice (as evidenced by the many who want to conceive but can't) but rather an openness to life wherein God can work. Lack of choice is apparent even during pregnancy, in terms of the sex of the baby, the size of the baby, the birthdate of the baby, the hair color of the baby, the health of the baby, etc.
Now of course there is much that parents do actively - important choices to be made in terms of food, clothes, education, discipline, childcare, etc. But nonetheless, there is a great deal that is beyond our control on any given day of parenting: what messes our kids will make, how they will respond to our discipline, etc. Just a couple of days ago I returned downstairs after putting the baby down for his nap and noticed a distinctly minty smell. "Why does it smell so minty in here?" I asked my daughter. She responded that her brother had just squeezed out a tube of toothpaste and was in the process of smearing it around the living room. "Why didn't you let me know?" I asked. "I know you don't like to be interrupted when you're putting the baby down for his nap," she said.
When I made my morning offering on that day, I didn't know it would involve cleaning up toothpaste. I would have preferred to lay in bed reading a novel rather than address the naughty toddler. But I didn't really have a choice. There was my son, there was the toothpaste, and there you have it. Lack of choice.
In short, when we are faced with little involuntary mortifications such as this or much greater ones such as seeing a child through a difficult illness, we can respond in various ways. We can resign ourselves to the necessary task and do it begrudgingly or simply out of duty, seeing it as an obstacle to our happiness and self-fulfillment. Even this can benefit us in some way because it is self-sacrifice for others. But on the other hand, we can embrace this lack of choice with a spirit of generosity and cheerfulness, not counting the cost in the world's view, but rather knowing the value in God's eyes.
The lack of choice that comes with parenthood has great potential to aid us in our sanctity. We may not be called to make the regimented sacrifices of religious orders voluntarily undertaken with one's vows, but we are called to take upon ourselves various involuntary sacrifices undertaken in our marriage vows. It is important that we strive to embrace this lack of choice, not only for the natural good of our children, but also for the supernatural good of ourselves.