Kristen and Matt had five kids at home when Matt was laid off from his medical technology job in New Mexico. Life had been chaotic and stressful over the years. Now it was worse.
To keep bread and milk on the table, Matt quickly went to work for two guys with a pickup who had a makeshift landscaping company. While Matt mowed lawns and shoveled dirt, Kristen made phone calls trying to find him work in his field. Matt eventually took a variety of high-tech consulting gigs that required travel. Household finances were shaky.
Kristen had a teaching certificate, but she wasn’t inclined to work full time. Besides, her calling — what Kristen really felt Jesus wanted her to do — was to volunteer. Since her college days, Kristen had volunteered for every good Catholic cause she could find. After the kids were born, she began volunteering even more. When possible, she found ways to involve the whole family.
But now, with times turning hard, Matt wanted Kristen to help with the household bills. He asked her to get a full-time job.
“It very definitely became a serious issue in our marriage,” Kristen recalls. “Matt felt I should be generating some income and doing more to maintain the home. I knew where he was coming from, but the thought of doing something just for money was completely counter-intuitive to me. I really felt like I needed to be serving the less fortunate. I felt like I needed to be available to our children during the day, doing volunteer work that involved them.”
“I wanted to bring up children who had a sense of serving the needs of people other than themselves,” she adds. “As for the house, I knew it would always be there for me to clean later. So I had to do the best I could to strike a balance, respecting Matt’s desires and fulfilling my deep-felt need to serve.”
Battling for Balance
Whenever circumstances led to tighter household finances, tensions rose — with Matt reiterating his feelings that Kristen should earn money. His polite reminders about household finances were sometimes met with reminders that Catholics are supposed to give to those around them. Kristen pointed out to Matt that she believed the family was comfortable and fortunate enough to be giving much of the time.
“Sometimes I thought the needs of the kids weren’t always met to the highest standard, because of all the volunteering,” Matt says. “It made me feel like a real lout, because I was in the position of asking Kristen to curtail activities that were giving and good. But I wanted us to be putting aside money for education, and I wanted the kids in nicer clothes. We were having trouble agreeing on what ‘balance’ even meant, much less achieving it.”
“I also had to explain to Matt that I was alone most of the time, responsible for bringing up our children,” Kristen says. “I could include them in volunteer work, but I couldn’t be with them — guiding them and caring for them — if I was out doing some full-time job.”
As the children grew, however, they wanted to get involved in athletics and other activities that came with expenses. Kristen and Matt had another one of those talks. Matt explained that some of the children’s extracurricular activities were stressing the household budget beyond its capacity. Something, he said, had to give.
Something did. Kristen took over a paper route.
Good Works, Good Times
For eight straight years, she would leave home in the middle of the night to deliver newspapers door-to-door while her husband and children slept. During the day, she was back volunteering at the schools, serving the homeless and tending to the needs of various Catholic parishes.
“That worked for us,” Kristen says. “It addressed some of the financial issues Matt was worried about, but did not take me away from the family.”
Today Kristen and Matt’s children are grown and all remain loyal, practicing Catholics. Kristen is proud of the way her children stand up for their faith, even aspects of it that aren’t always popular — like opposition to birth control, abortion, and embryonic stem-cell research.
Kristen isn’t certain whether they’ve embraced her love of Catholic social service and volunteerism, and believes that only time will tell.
“They all have grown up volunteering, and I know that planted a seed in them,” Kristen sys. “They’re all charitable. They stay in touch with us, and I know they value the Church.”
With the children grown, Kristen and Matt have continued working through their differences regarding Kristen’s full-time and overtime volunteerism. They’re finding middle ground.
At Matt’s suggestion, the two attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. There, the two were able to share at a deeper, more intimate level than they had in years.
What they both learned was that it really wasn’t the volunteering that was upsetting Matt. It was a feeling on his part that Kristen wasn’t putting enough into their relationship.
“It’s very true,” Kristen says. “He would come home from a long, grueling travel schedule, and instead of coming home to a warm meal and a welcoming home, he usually found an empty home and a wife and kids who were off making other people comfortable. There was some neglect of the relationship.”
“And that went both ways,” Matt adds. “I wasn’t very intimate or sharing when I was around. I was pretty standoffish and distant. I can see where the family wasn’t always excited about dad coming home.”
The two regularly attend the sacrament of reconciliation, which has helped them reduce selfish behaviors and strengthen their marriage.
More interested in her marriage than ever before, Kristen has cut her volunteerism in half, doing those things that won’t threaten the time and attention that should go into their marriage.
“I say No to some things,” Kristen says. “I’m being more selective, now that the kids are gone, and putting forth an effort to moderate. I want to serve, but I also want to make time for my husband — for us as a couple. If we aren’t strong, then neither of us is in a good position to give.”
writes from Colorado.
This article is abridged from a longer piece running in the current issue of the Register’s sister publication, Faith & Family magazine (online at faithandfamilymag.com).