My desire to help others has motivated me in the past to volunteer time in an orphanage in Peru, bring meals (sometimes as much as twice monthly) to new mothers, babysit additional children, volunteer for committees, and send little notes and packages to friends and acquaintances who are going through a difficult season of life or who I think might like to read a particular article or book. I admit, sometimes I do these things to excess.
In the months after my second child, Jennifer was born, I realized that I was often doing these things to the detriment of my first responsibility: being a wife to my husband and a mother to my two children. In the midst of doing good deeds for others, chores around the house were not getting done and I was “checking out” of quality time with my husband and children in order to meet the needs of those outside of my family. Something had to change but I did not know what exactly.
While listening to a Catholic podcast, I first learned about the order of charity. Articulated beautifully by St. Thomas Aquinas 800 years ago, the order of charity gives guidance as to whom we ought to serve first when there are competing priorities. Those in our immediate family come first and must have their needs met before others. Only after their needs are met should we then serve the needs of other families in the community (1). This realization has been challenging for me as it means that I now try to choose the harder work of dealing with the frustrations, needs, and problems in my own home instead of jumping to volunteer with this or that project for a charity or individual which may be more instantly gratifying (and simpler). It means that I deliberately choose my husband and children first, and then allow my love for them to flow into the community in natural, important ways. By raising my children to be kind, just, and merciful people, I know I am making a contribution to the world. In small, tangible ways as my children grow, we can find age-appropriate ways to give to other families and the marginalized in our community. We can be light and offer hope and help to others. But first, we must practice love and mercy at home.
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, Q. 26, co. 8.