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Jennifer Fulwiler on big families, the Mommy Wars, and “wholeness of vision” amid family chaos

The best-selling author’s new book is about pursuing your passions while still putting your family first.

Author Jennifer Fulwiler and the cover of her second book "One Beautiful Dream" (images courtesy of Zondervan).

Jennifer Fulwiler has six children, a daily radio show, and two memoirs on her conversion and the challenges of finding balance in the midst of motherhood. Her first book, Something Other than God, details her spiritual journey from atheism to Catholicism, and her second, One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Personal Passions, Family Chaos, and Saying Yes to Them Both, is about how she pursued her passion for writing while having six babies in eight years.

Fulwiler corresponded with CWR while on the book tour (with kids in tow!) for One Beautiful Dream, which is available now.

CWR: Do you feel at all like you’re wading into the “Mommy Wars” with this book?

Jennifer Fulwiler: Yes. It is my intent to wade right into the middle of this war and call a truce. There are now so many options for how to follow your passions and still put God and family first, these debates have become dated. We should be coming together to brainstorm the best ways to maximize all the great opportunities that women have today rather than holding ourselves and others up to dated, one-size-fits-all standards.

CWR: Do you see a connection between your openness to having a large family and your approach to writing?

Fulwiler: Absolutely. Thanks to having a large family, I accept inconveniences and setbacks and not getting to do things my way all the time as a natural part of life. This has had a great impact on my writing.

CWR: In recent years, there has been a bit of a backlash to the idea that women can “have it all,” and then some backlash to the backlash. Do you think “having it all” looks different for women of faith than for those approaching the situation from a secular perspective?

Fulwiler: I think there used to be more of an emphasis on traditional careers as the source of all happiness in the secular world—I certainly felt that when I was an atheist—but that is changing as people become increasingly cynical about the modern American workplace.

In my experience, these days women of faith and women with a more secular background want the same thing: fulfillment. And in both cases that means some kind of balance between doing work that they love, spending time with people they love, and somehow getting the bills paid in the midst of that.

CWR: One Beautiful Dream includes a lot of particulars about how you’ve been able to raise a large family and pursue your passions—the child-care arrangements, financial considerations, the support you received from family and friends. Particulars aside, are there generally-applicable principles you’re hoping women will take away from your story, and use in their own lives?

Fulwiler: Definitely. The secret formula we discovered, that I hope both men and women will try out in their own lives, is:

  1. Partner with your family—come together and discuss all of these big questions with them. Think like a team instead of like an individual.
  2. Build your village—we weren’t meant to live our lives in isolation. Take whatever steps make sense given your unique circumstances to form a reliable support system.
  3. Be strategic about money—so often we sign ourselves up for big lifestyle expenses we can barely afford, and then we become slaves to those payments. If that works for you, great! But just watch those kinds of things carefully because they can severely limit the freedom the breadwinner(s) in your family have to find work that they love.

CWR: In your book, you discuss your writing more in terms of following a God-given passion than of pursuing a high-powered career. For women who already feel a lot of pressure not only to be good wives and mothers, but also to be professionally successful—do you think they might feel an additional pressure not to fail themselves (or perhaps even God) if they aren’t feeding the “blue flame” of their personal passions?

Fulwiler: My message is ultimately about finding fulfillment—for me, that involved finding a way to use my blue flame. For someone else, it might involve simply living life to the fullest each day. My hope is that women will throw off all of these unnecessary obligations they’ve been putting on themselves and feel free to be the unique individuals God created them to be.

CWR: Two phrases that you revisit throughout your book are “put love first” and “wholeness of vision.” While appreciating that all Christians are called primarily to love, do you think that “wholeness of vision” is something women have a particular affinity for?

Fulwiler: Yes. I think that’s part of the “feminine genius” that St. John Paul II spoke of. To me, having a “wholeness of vision” is having an understanding that the love we give and receive is the most important thing in life. I think women tend to have more of a natural understanding of this (even though it took me a long time to clue in to it myself).

About Catherine Harmon 571 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.

13 Comments

  1. A great story, but the catalyst being a super star mom will be hard to follow. Having six children is wonderful if a woman can say that she is a good Shepard of mother Earth. A term recently used by Pope Francis who has championed protection of Earth resources.

    Doesn’t the church preach the “one-size-fits-all standards”? Then you say “Thanks to having a large family, I accept inconveniences and setbacks and not getting to do things my way”. Having a “large” family isn’t available to every woman. Having acquired God’s gift calls for being humble; not flashing that gift. My first wife wanted a “large” family, but because of health reasons had to settle for two. Children are very expensive… if I can’t afford my weekly tithing should I continue to have children?

    • There is no tithe unless your parish has a convenience only fundy pastor who is zealous for the Old Testament.
      How is he on stoning wizards. Catechism ccc 2043… “ The fifth precept (“You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.” Each according to his own ability….say it thrice. The topic drives me nuts because many parish pastors herein ignore the catechism and have a sudden love of the Old Testament which they normally avoid like the tide tables for Boston harbor. The Old Testament Jews were promised affluence and no miscarriages and health if they obeyed hundreds of laws given by God. Christians are promised none of those three because we are given higher realities but some form of cross…..Your modern income taxes include charitable giving that did not obtain then. Your modern property taxes may also so in relation to schools tak8ng in illegal migrant children etc.

      • This is why so many Catholic parishes are embarrassingly shabby compared to the churches of our Protestant neighbors. Without guidance, people drop the same dollar into the collection plate, regardless of ability.

    • I think there lies the problem in our thinking : children are very expensive.

      When we start looking at human beings as gifts and not as expense, then we get God’s thinking and open our hearts to His grace.

      • True, but it isn’t really right to think of children as “gifts” given for your own fulfillment either. Children are beloveds of God who deserve all the nurturing and attention they can get. If they’re just trophies to prove how open to life you are, or they’re just accessories to your own ego, or they’re just along for the ride as you follow your own bliss, then you’re not doing right by them.

        As a mom, sure, we can “have it all”, but not all at the same time!

        I highly recommend that every mom read just the first part of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” and witness Mrs. Jellyby. Don’t be Mrs. Jellyby. My years as a youth minister showed me this so clearly: when parents don’t dial back their pursuits, the kids know full well they’re not a priority. I saw this exhibited so many ways: the kids who joined a gang because mom or dad remarried and they weren’t part of that new family (every one of my gang members had this same family structure, as well as many of my kids who were having sex or doing drugs); mom has a great career and her only child shows up high to Confirmation class; mom is following her dream of nursing school and one daughter is found drunk in a park, the other develops a porn addiction and becomes an atheist, one son flunks out of high school and the other is a father in 11th grade; mom who is homeschooling and having a baby every other year has a high schooler who can barely write; parents who volunteer for everything at church have a son who is slipping into trouble; i could go on. It’s all the same thing: the kids aren’t the priority.

        Your kids must KNOW they’re the priority. They’re not a burden, they’re not a cross, they’re not a trophy, they’re your number one priority, before your job, before your hobbies, before your dating life, before your fame. This is what is so scary about the big family with the superstar mom phenomenom going on now. As a homeschooling mom myself, i looked at a lot of these blogs a while back and thought “wow, how do they do it?” As i read more, i learned that they have carpet beetles, or rats in their couches, and joke about how they don’t really take their kids’ schooling very seriously, and generally gripe about how hard and out of control it all is. Is this what we want Catholic momming to look like?

        I do like Jennifer Fulwiler and have been reading her for some years now, but i find myself wishing, for her family’s sake, that she waited a decade or so to do what she’s doing. I think that what we really need to do is encourage moms that momming is enough, so we can pour ourselves into mothering in all the invisible ways that matter so much (such as cleaning and teaching our kids how to).

        • As I have been following Fulwiler’s promotion of this new book, it strikes me as weirder and weirder, and honestly, more and more narcissistic. Her family exists to prop up *her* dreams? What if even one of her kids has their own dreams – what if one has a gift for music or sports that’s going to require her or her husband to take kids to practices, support them, guide them. Everything in Fulwiler’s public persona right now is about MY DREAMS and how MY FAMILY DOESN’T GET IN THE WAY OF MY DREAMS – ISN’T THAT GREAT? Don’t get me wrong – social media shows happy kids – but like you said – in ten years, they’ll all be ready to pursue their own dreams – will the seeds have been planted to do that in a healthy way? I also just don’t like using family as marketing and social media props. I remember not too long ago when people were hesitatant about putting their kids’ images online – the Catholic blogging mommies have certainly shoved those concerns aside.

        • Yes! Thank you Theresa, being a mom is enough. I have had times in my life where I have been distracted by other pursuits. Trying to do the supermom thing doesn’t work for most moms. The reality is there are only so many hours in the day and when we take on more and more responsibilities other things have to give. For most women the things they let go of are actual virtues we should be living and teaching our children. The little things are important and I’ve finally made peace with them being my job.

    • Having six children is wonderful (but there must be) protection of Earth resources.

      First, the very term “resources” is a human-centric one. Nothing is a resource until a human being finds a practical use for it. God is good. As the late Julian Simon pointed out, people each come with a mouth but they have twice as many hands as mouths in order to be productive and feed themselves. But best of all, noted Mr. Simon, each person also arrives in this world with an incomparable human brain that can turn the useless into new resources.

      I say thank you to Jennifer Fulwiler and her wonderful husband for being open to life and may they and their family enjoy the blessings that God gives to those who are open to life.

  2. Nice, but is this the Gospel? It strikes me as very Joel Osteen-ish and not really reflective of “Take up your cross and follow me.” And what about the other family members who might not be keen about being corralled into you following your dream? Seems like the landscape is littered with Preacher’s Kids whose parents took them on that journey of “this is God’s will for our family” and barely escaped with their individuality intact. What if you have a kid who has his or her own dreams that require a lot of time? Bottom line, though – it can work and it’s not terrible, but Fulwiler’s message is disconnected from Catholic spirituality and reflects more 21st century values of self-fulfillment. She’s obviously getting a big response, but I wonder if that’s more because she’s flattering people’s sense of their selves more than anything else. There’s actually something noble about sacrificing your “dreams” for the good of others.

  3. She forgot Step 4: Marry a lawyer or similarly high earning professional.

    Many of the prominent Catholic moms of many are married to professional men who can easily support a family on one income.

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