Daily prayer: From building a habit to cultivating a relationship

In the weeks after I had my baby last June, I didn’t pray much beyond desperate pleas for sleep. It felt difficult to do anything else with my fatigue, brain fog and being completely thrown off my routine. I knew, though, that in order to cope with having a new baby, I needed to pray more.

Using the reminders app on our phones, my husband and I had recently put together a list of “daily activities” for our daughter (walk, music, tummy time, reading with Mommy or Daddy, etc.), more to help us organize our days than anything else. I decided, in preparation for my husband’s return to work and due to my need to bring some order into my life, to do the same for myself.

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The checklist was thorough; it included everything from freelance work and checking emails, to exercise and both spiritual and fiction reading. I also decided to put prayer on the list. I added the prayer for strength from the little booklet of “Prayers for Mothers” by Aquinas Press that I’d received from my parish after a blessing for children in the womb. I also put the Rosary on the checklist (“or as much of one as possible,” I wrote, trying to set a realistic starting goal for myself).

I felt a little weird about putting prayer on a checklist. Shouldn’t prayer be spontaneous, loving communication with God? Shouldn’t I want to pray for the sake of praying rather than the satisfaction of checking a box on a list?

Well, yes. But for a beginner, especially one in an emotional and physical state like postpartum, maybe starting with a checklist is OK.

Why do to-do lists work?

In an interview for The Guardian, psychologist David Cohen gave three ways to-do lists can help us: by providing structure, by lessening anxiety, and by showing us what we accomplish during a given time frame. My to-do list certainly provided these benefits: It helped me organize my chaotic, unfamiliar days; it helped reduce my postpartum anxiety (which was really just my normal anxiety flaring up under stressful circumstances!); and it helped me feel productive at the end of the day (although, arguably, productivity should not have been my goal at that point).

There’s an important caveat here: Do not use the number of boxes you’ve checked off at the end of the day as a measure of your “success” as a mother or as a Christian. One thing I’ve grappled with as a new stay-at-home mom is shedding my desire to evaluate my day based on how productive it was — meaning, how many tasks I accomplished. Some days, my daughter doesn’t nap well and demands more of my time, and because I enjoy my freelance work and believe it’s important, it’s tempting for me to look at all of the tasks I didn’t check off and see my day as a failure. But, as my husband keeps reminding me, our goalposts have moved now. Is my daughter healthy? Is she happy? Are my husband and I (and, someday, my daughter) striving for holiness? Then my day was a success, and I was exactly as productive as I needed to be.

The temporary checklist

It was important for my “daily activities” checklist to be a temporary solution. I still have to-do lists in my planner, but that daily reminders list is gone. I deleted it from my phone when I realized that I was praying the Rosary (almost) every day because I wanted to, not because my phone was telling me to. Now, I just have a couple of daily reminders on my phone, one of which is a daily Marian consecration renewal prayer that I hope to delete once that prayer also becomes something I say in the morning as a matter of course.

If you’re married, you likely don’t put “talk to husband” on your to-do list. You don’t have to, and you probably wouldn’t want to. Similarly, we should always be striving to cultivate a meaningful relationship with the Lord. Prayer should come easily and naturally, but for many of us, it doesn’t — yet. There’s no shame in using a tool like a to-do list to help you start developing a prayer habit. Just don’t stop there. Cement that daily prayer habit, and then go deeper, building your relationship with God with the same fervor (more, even) with which you build your other relationships. We’re all a work in progress, and so is our relationship with God. Open yourself up to his grace, cut yourself some slack, and use a reminder or two to help yourself out.

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