Dismantling the Totem Pole of Selfishness

What do you mean I can’t go running six days a week? Can’t continue my quest to read all the Bronte Sisters and Charles Dickens? If I am being honest, these are the selfish questions that, all too often, creep into my young mother psyche.

I used to chalk all my quasi-deprivation feelings up to the fact that I must have the wrong disposition for motherhood. Especially the brand of motherhood I have chosen (large family, homeschooling). Why don’t I get excited about sewing bibs and curtains and redecorating the nursery? But, now I have come to see this frustration in a clearer and more proactive light.

First, the clarity. From my armchair sociologist point-of-view, I see now that I am the product of my upbringing. Growing up, I was allowed a very selfish existence. My dual working parents hired nannies and housekeepers and it was considered enough of me if I was getting straight As and excelling in varsity sports. But really, how selfish were those pursuits! I got to stay up late reading books, I got to run miles and miles in the sunny suburbs of Virginia every day after school – wearing the latest running shoes and chatting with my close friends. At the time, I carried a certain sense of self-entitlement.. “of course my room was messy, I was too busy studying or working out.” But, as I have grown, and tried to maintain our familiy’s home for the first eight years of marriage, I have realized what a disservice this attitude was to me. Truly, if my parents had expected more help from me around the home, perhaps I wouldn’t be as disgruntled or shocked by the sheer amount of domestic work and lack of personal time required of a mother of young children. I look on with admiration at my friend, a mother of seven who was raised doing hard work on a farm, and she has a much easier time accepting the amount of time it takes to run a home sucessfully.

Furthermore, as I look around at my peers, I see that we are all victims of the same generation of moms who became total bad asses outside of the home, but never had the time to show us what things would be like if they ran the home as their sole occupation. Our mothers broke barriers, crashed glass ceilings, and encouraged us to do the same. A combination of the extra income they earned and the shift in attitude about the importance of domestic tasks left us totally ignorant. We are shocked by what is asked of us when we make the radical 21st century choice of keeping our Ivy League educations in our pockets and meal-plan, potty-train and try to vacuum once a week – who am I kidding? month. Ah.

Secondly, the proactivity. My human nature alone cannot conquer my selfish desires. I still feel resentment and jealousy bubble up when I see fit women out on a long jog, or someone enjoying a novel on a park bench. But prayer is the answer. Prayer and deliberate living. If I start my day with a morning offering — offering my day for God’s greater glory — then it is a lot harder to become sullen and resentful. I then have to remind myself again, midday, of the purpose of life, of my vocation, of giving it my all because God gave me so much, and then as I lay my head to the pillow I painfully look back at my failings of the last 16 hours. I often have to say a prayer of contrition for my selfish outbursts, my lack of patience with an undeserving child.

So, as a thirty-year-old, I am slightly more grounded, focused than I was as a 21-year-old. Breaking apart my tall, brightly painted totem pole of selfishness is going to take years. But, when I am done, I hope for a statue that is closer to the ground, but much more beautiful and precise than the haughty wavering one of external accomplishments on which I embarked on marriage.

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  • I feel like I have been having the same revelation as I try to get my housekeeping in order. My mom did stay at home, but did everything for us. So, shifting to doing the housework first and then enjoying other pursuits instead of the opposite has been quite a struggle. But, little by little, I take a breath and am getting there.

  • Bethany “B-mama”

    AWOL, you get at so many different themes here that touch close to home for me. I have been dabbling with the thought of homeschooling my brood lately (we currently send them to public elementary and preschool) and the #1 thought that stands in my way is a selfishness of time (at the gym, grocery, etc.) I like my freedom way too much and most likely because its the type of existence I’ve been living my whole life! I, too, was able to focus all my time outside the home growing up–if only I had started learning to cook, sew, tend back then… We haven’t made any major decisions regarding schooling, but the exercise of thought and discernment has been a healthy one.

  • AWOL Mommy

    So, Becky, do you try and involve your children more in the household tasks than your own mother did?

  • AWOL Mommy

    So, B, one really positive thing that I have discovered about the apparent dearth of personal time that comes with four children and homeschooling is that it forces me to communicate my needs and schedule with my husband. If I want the “early morning slot” for a run, I let him know the night before and he is happy to serve up cereal while he shaves and tries to keep things in order for me until I get back. I think when both parents work, your schedule is more your own, instead of there being one large family schedule on which everyone must cooperate. I know you and B-Papa are already good at this type of organization and planning, so I have no doubt you will still fit in your workouts and grocery runs if you do choose to school the kids at home.

  • Juris Mater

    AWOL, all this is so totally true, wonderfully described, and I will be thinking it over for days. Thank you. Do you also find that you haven’t quite embraced in your heart of hearts the truth that being a stay-home mom is the most important thing you could be doing? Or have you? I ask, because I have a DEEPLY ingrained sense that professional accomplishment is the most important and worthy, and a woman is a double bad-ass if she can have kids at the same time, but JUST having kids is sub-excellent. I am realizing how much this gets in the way of my total gift of self, moment-to-moment, in my vocation at home. Why expend that last bit of energy, go beyond the amount of what I have to give, if it’s all a little pitiful anyway? I am praying that God will uproot this completely, soon, because it’s not something I can just decide to overcome, and there’s no longer any room for this attitude amid the intense demands of my days.

  • One thing that interests me is that we all worked very, very hard in high school and college, so in some ways it is hard to understand why this work ethic does not naturally transfer to the work of motherhood. I see that my husband works extremely hard at his job, which is not related in natural ways to what he did in school, so he has been able to transfer the work ethic which his parents taught him, to his professional work. I think that the problem is that we do not view what we do in our homes as professional work. We don’t have the feedback and recognition that we might get at a job, and, frankly, when we do it poorly, no one knows and we won’t get fired!

    However, recently a friend (with advanced degrees) who is a homeschooling mother told me that her reminded her “this is your JOB. To dress your children, to educate them, to feed them (and your husband). To keep your home well. When you had a job, you were great at it. You need to be great at this.”

    This was absolutely life changing for me.

    I think that a further problem is that we would be REALLY Really frustrated and unfulfilled in a job for which we were not trained. I don’t like to clean bathrooms because I don’t know how to do it well, and so while I am doing it, I feel like I am wasting time. As homemakers, we can seek out training in these areas and do them better. When we do so, we will be more fulfilled in doing the work AND we will be more efficient, so there may be some time to read Dickens at the end of the day after all!

  • Bethany “B-mama”

    JM, I probably have seeds of this mentality you mention here as well. Should I be surprised that by having a measly two tutoring students during the week that I have a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment (beyond mothering)? Yet part of me questions whether this is a bad thing. GG (hubby) would say that it is a wonderful thing to use one’s brain and play a role outside the norm–he has seen much goodness come of it… And I think I like contributing to our home and budget in a variety of ways. I guess, though, the line has to be drawn as to how we are deriving our satisfaction–it ultimately needs to come from a closeness with God and a an acknowledgement of our need for Him.

  • Kathleen

    I would second AWOL. I homeschool as well, but running is vital to both my physical and emotional help. So my husband works out at 5 am so that I can get a work out or mass in. For me, homeschooling would not be possible if I didn’t have a regular babysitter come twice a week to let me grocery shop, work out decompress. Homeschooling mom need to budget help in some way for it to work! Good luck with your discernment. And just remember, neither homeschooling and regular school will be perfect, each have positives and negatives.

  • Jennifer

    I have always wanted to ask this question. What is more important to you builders, as mothers raising daughters: to raise them to attend college or to raise them to be homemakers like yourself? Of course, you can do a bit of both, but in the end, what is your priority? Do you want your daughters to be prepared to be good wives, mothers, and homemakers, or do you want them to be prepared for the wider world of higher education, careers, and global adventure?

    Just curious.

  • Harmony

    Mary Alice, this is so challenging and helpful. I’m currently working in my professional capacity also, but I need to not give home life the short shrift because no one pays me to do it or gives me a lot of feedback–which is more important, some job that someone else can do or my children’s nurturing and husband’s needs being met? Thanks so much for this, and thank you AWOL for the excellent original post!

  • Kellie “Red”

    It’s more important to me that my daughters are prepared for the wider world you describe, with some training in homemaking skills, as I have no idea what their vocation will be. Not to be rude to my current homemaking vocation, but it doesn’t take a lot of training to learn how to clean a bathroom! Cooking, sewing, cleaning, and running a home are not rocket science. Most of my homemaking skills have come from learning as I do them, and I don’t think anyone in my family has suffered too greatly from my inability to sew or bake the finest cakes!

    I think the hardest things about homemaking are the lack worldly praise/feedback AND the mindless nature of most of my tasks. It is the daily grind and the daily death to self from serving the needs of little people that is difficult. Scrubbing a bathroom, cooking dinner, getting a schedule going for laundry–these are not difficult things that require extensive training.

    My daughters will pick up basic domestic skills from watching and helping me, but I plan to emphasize their education and “wider” skill set, because, to be quite frank, it takes a lot longer to learn math and be an educated person than it does to learn how to do basic cooking that feeds a family. And the best way to learn how to run a home is to actually do it.

    It is not my job to choose a vocation for my daughters, but rather it is my job to prepare them for whatever vocation God chooses for them. If I teach my girls to be disciplined people, and to love learning, and to put others before themselves, they will do just fine with whatever vocation God has in store for them. And some of them just might marry a man who is called to academia, or civil service, or some other job that doesn’t make enough money to support their family. They will then be asked to work outside the home in a professional capacity, and I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t provide them with the necessary tools to succeed in the wider world.

  • I also get a lot of fulfillment and a big boost from my small share of “work” outside the home. I was a ski instructor, but this year I have been working in the office, since I cannot ski. I was worried that I would be unhappy, since I thought that the boost came from my love of skiing, but it turns out that I have had a great time learning about marketing, so clearly it is just the change of pace and a little bit of space to myself which helps me.

    My job is what I call a “win-win” because I enjoy it and it has a small financial benefit to my family. If you can make enough tutoring to cover childcare during that time and have a little bit left over, but it feels like a break for you, it falls into the same category.

    I don’t think that this need to be of service and use our talents in different ways is unique to SAHMs, though, as most of the instructors at my program have careers, but they still choose to teach skiing on the weekends.

    What I call a “lose-lose” is the volunteer commitment which you stresses you out and requires hired child care — your family is having to spend money so that you can do it, and at the end you are a worse wife and mother because you are distracted or tired! However, I see many moms caught in this trap, and it is a terrible waste of time and energy.

    As to running and grocery shopping, these would fall differently into the cost benefit analysis — you might be willing to get up early to run, or use some babysitting money to run, but if that leaves you better off for the tasks required of you, it is clearly worthwhile.

    Lately, I have found that it is not so bad to bring along all of my kids and have them participate in the grocery shopping (more on that later this week), so it would not be a good use of babysitting money to go shopping. However, when I have a nursing baby, I might feel differently, because I might not have the patience required to help at three year old select produce!

  • JMB

    I’ve been home with my children for almost 17 years now. I have learned how to run my house, I’ve successfully potty trained, sleep trained, learned how to cook more than broiled chicken and mac and cheese, how to fix a vacuum, operate our furnace, run the pool, program the thermostat, clean the windows, schedule maintenance repairs, I’ve hired sitters, part time nannies, dog walkers, landscapers, paper hangers, painters, plumbers, electricians, what not. I’ve negotiated bills, dealt with doctors, specialists, orthodontists, dentists, carpools, sports teams, dances and school plays. I’ve done it all. I’ve been library lady, art docent, class mom, playground volunteer, book fair lady and secretary for our parish’s Mom’s Group. I was even a girls’ lax coach for a season!
    All these things I’m proud of. What bothers me, and I have to be honest about this, is that to many of my friends and neighbors who hold full time jobs, I live in a bubble and I’m not worldly enough to know what’s going on the “real world”. In fact, I had a semi *heated* discussion with a neighbor over the weekend who accused me of this in a subtle yet demeaning way. And of course, as I was going over the exchange in my mind the next morning, I thought, why didn’t I say this: “Why is it that a person who gets on a train 5 days a week to commute to the same spot each day, work for 10 hours with the same people, do the same job day in and day out, is considered more worldly and sophisticated than I?”
    My advise to all you young moms is pray for courage in your vocation. You will need it, although you may be surprised how and when you will be confronted with the opposition. You’d think after 17 years I wouldn’t care what my “friends” think of me and what I do all day long. Apparently not so!

  • I think that what is really required here is a question of character training, rather than specific vocational training. As Red said, we will not choose our daughters vocations for them (at least I hope not to try to do so), but if we give them the basic tools for learning and of good character, they will be prepared for a life of service whatever they are called to do.

    I would like for ALL of my children to be as well educated as possible for a variety of reasons: First, I believe that a solid foundation in the liberal arts helps with the sort of character training that I have in mind. Second, if they do marry, I would like them to marry other well educated people. Third, I want my grandchildren to have a well read and educated parents. Fourth, I think that an education is a civic responsibility in a democratic country, we are the ones who select the leaders, so we need to be able to read well, know when data is being manipulated, etc. Fifth, I would like for them to career opportunities which allow them to find meaningful work which can financially support their family and the church. Sixth, if they are called to a celibate life of service, I really think that an education will make them much more useful to the Church, missions, or whomever they serve.

    There may be stages in my children’s lives when they do not work for pay, such as young mothers or retired people, but I hope that they will always participate in a life of service in some way. I know retired people who are doing great and good things, big and small, because the fact that they are over 65 and financially secure does not mean that they have nothing left to give. I know retired people, including those “retired” from SAHM work, who are surprised to find that things did not work out financially and are now in the workforce.

    However, all of that said, I took the LSAT, got a high score, got pregnant with twins, and decided not to go to law school. It did not make good sense for me or for my family to spend $100,000 on further education, plus the cost of child care for 3 years, when I could look ahead and see that I was likely to want to stay at home with my children for the next several years.

    Will I go to law school someday? I don’t know, but I think that, in a funny way, as I stay at home, homeschooler, I have found my passion as an educator and am more likely to pursue that profession if and when it is time for me to work outside the home.

    I would also like for ALL of my children, male and female, to have some basic domestic skills. I agree with Red that we can get along fine without being able to sew or bake a fancy cake – these are hobbies more than necessary skills for a homemaker. But, I think that all people should know how to read a recipe, cook a few wholesome meals, do their laundry, organize a to-do list of less pleasant tasks and crank through them, make mindless tasks like picking up your room more fulfilling by offering them in prayer and/or putting on music, and how to entertain or get along with babies and toddlers, and throw a simple, gracious party.

    Red, you say that these things are not rocket science, and it is true that a smart person with an attitude of service can teach themselves many things — from domestic arts to bike repair — but I also know people who literally cannot even make scrambled eggs. To learn to cook when you have so little skill or exposure would be very difficult, and to do so while all of the sudden in a family way would be a lot of pressure. My skills have gradually improved, as they would in any career, as my responsibilities have increased, but at least as a newlywed I could make a few meals.

    Also, I think often of my boys in this area — if they have a single vocation they will likely have to “make” their own homes, so I want them to have these skills, and better gift could I give my daughters in law than a young man who is happy to do some cooking and cleaning?

  • BMM

    Both my husband and I work – he is in residency and I’m an attorney. I do quibble with this statement: “I think when both parents work, your schedule is more your own, instead of there being one large family schedule on which everyone must cooperate.” Both of us work very hard during the day so that we can maximize our time at home with the kids – which means no break in the day for exercise, gorcery shopping, etc. I’m not complaining – I’m lucky to have an employer who is flexible. If my work is done, she doesn’t care where I am (hard to find in this field), but that means I need to be laser focused on my work when I’m outside the home. It’s not my own schedule because I’m hyper aware that every minute I waste is a minute I could be home.

    I find my husband and I have to communicate more than we did when I was home full time because I can’t always be the default person to do the doctor’s appointments and all the other things I got done because I was home. He has always been super helpful in the house, but there’s no doubt about it he has to help more now than he did before and he doesn’t always know how to help.

  • BMM

    Red/Mary Alice: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these posts.

    Will only add that in addition to all those other good reasons for boys to learn how to cook and clean, my husband said (of our own son) “and so if he marries and his wife stays at home to care for the children, he understands the value and difficultly of her work.” 🙂

  • BMM

    meant to say “work outside the home”

  • maryalice

    I think that this must depend a lot on the community that you live in. We happen to live in a place where just the opposite is true – the working mothers seem to be constantly apologizing, as though they feel that they are not “really” fully mothers because they are working. I don’t think that we who stay at home think any less of their parenting, or mean to imply that we do, and yet I think that because they are doing something different than most of the moms in the neighborhood, they feel more conflicted. When I go into my husband’s workplace, the women with babies absolutely glorify what I do, saying that they could never do it. This could be just lip service, but I think that they mean it. I appreciate their respect, but I also couldn’t do what they (or my husband) do all day — they spend a whole day in a suit and crunching numbers while dealing with hostile people on the other side — I don’t think I would make it through the first hour!

  • maryalice

    I totally agree. I think that, in my marriage, for the one person who works out side the home, his schedule is SOMETIMES more his own — he can make a doctors appointment, get a haircut, and go to the gym more easily than I can. However, he also sometimes has to cancel plans on the weekends because of work, and he does have to get up and be there every day, whereas I can blow it all off and go to the park on a gorgeous day.

  • Juris Mater

    I’m glad to hear you all say it’s OK to enjoy working. It adds so much to my life when I have 15 hours of legal work a week–I love the work I do, I love the self-esteem boost from using my skills, I love having the extra money to hire help and the excuse to go to Panera from 6-9pm and bill time while my husband tames the bedtime beast.

  • “Do you also find that you haven’t quite embraced in your heart of hearts the truth that being a stay-home mom is the most important thing you could be doing?”
    This hits the nail on the head for me. Ten plus years in and I am stil trying to embrace it! Pride keeps bringing me down! I can easily convince myself that I could be doing more for the world, the faith etc. than what I do as a mother. YIKES! I think part of the problem is that society at large views moms at home as very replaceable and a woman’s worth is now very much calculated by how much she can produce outside the realm of marriage and family. That’s why I love the idea that this IS my vocation to holiness now- diapers, dishes, schooling, carpooling- this is my path to sancity. p.s. love the new site ladies

  • texasmommy

    Great post, AWOL! I do think, along the lines of the discussion that Red and MaryAlice brought up about character training, that if you decide to homeschool you will not necessarily find yourself to be less selfish as a result of a decision to homeschool without serious prayer. To be honest, I still sometimes find myself more selfish as a result of the lack of personal time! Still working on that over here…