Nothing Left to Give

The Cosby Show is a major source of support and inspiration in our household. In the pilot, the Cosby family had four children, but they landed a new, oldest child by the time the first season began, and of course we love that she was at Princeton. I like the Cosbys because they are New Yorkers, because they introduce interesting cultural figures, and most of all because they have realistic, sometimes difficult, family interactions, and the parents are my role models. They get angry in just the right doses, they are madly in love, they joke with their children, help with homework and respect the grandparents. It is wonderful.

One of my favorite episodes is when Claire is swamped at her work as a lawyer and comes home each night to endless questions from the children. Cliff does his best to cover for her and find space for her to relax, but some things just have to go through mom. At the end of her rope, Claire tells her husband, “I have nothing left to give.”

Our own JM is in that mode right now. She’s not “Juris” mater for nothing, and tonight she is working on legal papers while caring for sick children and juggling some volunteer work into the mix. She has nothing left to give, and so she won’t be blogging tomorrow.

I, on the other hand, have no significant excuses for the fact that I am blogging at 10 pm on my day, rather than drafting the night before or first thing in the morning. “Nothing left to give” has become the default mode of my life this fall.

There is something slightly off about the rhythm of our household lately. I feel like I am working, in one way or another, from before 8 am to after 9 pm every day.

An awful lot of that has to do with food. When people learn that I have 5 boys they often say “oh, wait until they are teenagers, you won’t be able to keep up with the food.” Well, that seems to have come early, and it is no wonder, as the preteen is already 5’7″. No matter how much food I make, people seem to be always hungry. We use a full dishwasher after every meal. I cannot seem to buy enough groceries. It feels like I am hosting Thanksgiving several nights a week.

In between those huge meals, we have laundry, homeschooling, helping with piano, helping with homework, caring for the baby, routine appointments with doctors and dentists, driving here and there for activities and a few errands, baths and bedtime stories, straightening up, and it takes all I have!

Most nights I drop into bed at 10 pm, sleep like a rock until 6 am, and get up to start it all over. If I’m lucky, I will have a few hours of recovery during some point of the weekend. I think that each weekend my husband and I both need a nap, a workout and some personal time (together as a date or alone). If we don’t get at least that, burn out is on the way.

There are moments in there which are flat out wonderful. When I pull out a book and my baby knows to come over and sit in my lap, and I lean in to his soft little head and smell his baby shampoo, I feel incredibly close to God.

When I run around a field with my four and five year old in the fall twilight while waiting to pick up a big brother, and we have to stop, doubled over with our lungs burning from chasing each other around in the cold air, and then somebody points out the first star, I feel absolute joy.

When I walk into the kitchen and find that my ten year old daughter has decided to just do the dishes while I was bathing the baby, I feel blessed and so grateful.

When I watch Princeton score touch down after touch down to win with 59 points on Yale football. (sorry, that snuck in, it has nothing to do with my family, but it was a big thrill).

I hope that those are the important moments, but I also wonder about a life that seems to take so much of me every single day. Is this how everyone feels? Is this how it is supposed to be?

At the end of the “Nothing Left to Give” episode (spoiler alert, in case you missed it in 1984), Claire winds up finding enough left to help little Rudy with her history homework. This is a better ending than having her scream “you are stealing my prime!” at her entire family, which is what I sometimes feel tempted to do, but thankfully I too stop short and usually just dig down and give a little more. Anyway, what else would I be doing with my prime?

  • Kat0427

    I love this post, Mary Alice! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it, and for putting it all so beautifully. More tomorrow :)

  • Maggie

    I’m sorry you’re going through a rough time. I know it’s tempting to think that if you just work harder everything will be alright. If you’re really drowning, though, things might not get better unless you either reduce the number of tasks you have to do, or get some more help in doing them.

    Reducing the number of tasks might mean reducing your kids’ extracurricular commitments, or thinking about sending more children to school. Getting help could mean training your children to do more chores, or even paying older children for regular help with major tasks like laundry. Maybe you need more hired help, even if it’s a major budget sacrifice. My mom used to hire a woman who cleaned houses in the morning to help us from 3-6 everyday. She drove us to all our activities, ran errands, and cooked and tidied with any leftover time. I hope things get better soon!

    • Mary Alice

      Maggie, I do think that you are right. They’ve said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and I do go to bed almost every night thinking “I’ll do it better tomorrow!”

      My kids are in surprisingly few activities, but I do think that I could continue to train the middle ones at home to help more. The big issue is that sending my oldest two to school has changed things for me in a different way than I expected — instead of lightening my load with homeschooling, I feel like I have lost my helpers, and I also now have to fit other things around their schedules and deadlines, as well as help with homework when it might not be convenient. With homeschooling, you don’t tackle a difficult math concept on a day when the baby is teething, that is one of the luxuries!

      This has happened to be an unexpectedly busy fall for my husband as well. I do think that something has to give eventually, either more help at home or maybe the current baby will go to preschool next year. That is a long way away, but I can limp along until then. Another possibility, frankly, is just lowering of standards, particularly with housework. More frozen pizza and less cooking, paper plates from time to time, might help us out in small ways.

      • Mama A

        Your post makes me feel so much better! I’ve been struggling with having one child in full-day kindergarten this year, and two (soon to be three!) at home all day…I feel like I am constantly waking up the current baby to go pick up my daughter at school in the afternoon, and the idea of committing to any activity in the evening during the school year is just out right now. If my little crew doesn’t go to bed by 7:30, the next day is a train wreck, because we all have to be out the door to school! I was so spoiled last year, when riddled with morning sickness with baby #3, I could put PBS kids on for the first hour of the morning and we could just all snuggle on the couch.

        Sheer curiosity: Are people in your community willing to carpool? We are about to jam four carseats in our minivan this winter, and I’ve noticed that since I only have room for one extra kid, no one really wants to carpool with us, lol. My husband works late and travels too, so I’m pretty much on my own with after school activities – which have been severely limited, because the thought of being eight months pregnant and keeping two toddlers off of the soccer field this fall was enough to give me a panic attack ;) I’ve also encountered an attitude of “this is why I only have two children” from other mothers – so that they can get everyone where they need to go without getting overwhelmed, or without dragging the rest of the gang to dance lessons, etc. I’m starting to see why big families homeschool! Hubby thinks that would be too overwhelming for me (and I value his opinion!), but I’m wondering if it’s more overwhelming the other way….I guess there are no perfect options, but thank you for all of your thoughts!

        • Mary Alice

          In some ways homeschooling is easier, but I think that there is actually more pressure to get your kids to some activities, because they don’t have gym, art, music at school.

          We have had good luck sharing rides with our close neighbor for ballet, which may be a reason that we have stuck with that activity, but otherwise not much carpooling. Your kids are really little though, I think that there is more carpooling as kids get older because people don’t really want to send their 6 year old to soccer alone, but by the time he is 9, they will be happy to share rides.

          We are much, much lighter on sports than other families, in part because starting in December we will go away and ski every weekend, so keeping our fall weekends light has been a high priority.

          I find the schedule for rec sports to be the most difficult on a family. In past years we have been very devoted to Little League, and the schedule is really hard. I try to embrace the fact that it is summer, so we can at least enjoy the time outside and let the little ones stay up late playing in the park. When I do it right, we have really loved it. This past year, however, between two boys with conflicting schedules we had baseball 4 nights a week plus Saturday, and that was a tipping point for me. It also requires some volunteer time for parents, and it hard for me to keep score at a little league game when I am the only adult there with my six other kids!

          So, there is a long list of things that my kids don’t do: soccer, Nutcracker, fall baseball, winter swimming, etc, etc.

          Once again, I think it is important to remember that your kids are REALLY LITTLE! I would try to do one thing, just one, after school, maybe a swimming lesson, and that is plenty. Some years, I have been able to get the little ones in to a lesson all at the same time, and other years I have had to pace the pool deck, but I can handle it for 45 minutes.

          We were intense about 7:30 bedtime for many years, but now it has shifted as the kids have grown. Take it one day at a time, one season at a time.

  • http://www.buildingcathedrals.com/ Kellie

    This was a beautiful post very much capturing the feelings I have, and I think we all have! I remember you writing some time back about how there are sweet spots and hard times and we have to just ride with it. I think that is generally true. But I also think this parenting thing is a marathon, and while marathons are full of the great joys, they are also painful and hard and very, very long. We have to somehow learn to embrace the length, embrace the tough stuff, and really enjoy the rest. That is very, very, very, hard to do, and takes a lot of grace.

  • Kat0427

    Mary Alice, even though this post is entitled “Nothing left to give,” my sense as I’m reading is that there is a lot of joy in your tone, and that is beautiful. I have recently felt the same way, and I attribute it to a few things:

    1) Having children in two different school and one at home is challenging logistically and emotionally – you have the same situation, except you have 5 at home and you are homeschooling them! For me, this means lots of driving and lots of volunteering in different communities, and while it is all a blessing, it can be difficult.
    2) Having children that span age groups – again, this is even more pronounced in your family, and it poses challenges.
    3) No matter how well I plan, I can’t control when my kids get sick, when I get sick, and when there are things going on outside of our family that require more of my and my husband’s time. As we get older and as our children get older, more of these situations are popping up, and we want to be available enough to jump in when needed.

    I do not get the sense that you over-schedule your children. I also had the impression that your children are very helpful around the house, and that you are reasonable about asking for the outside help that you need around the house. You and several of the other Builders have always been a good example of this for me. I think that sometimes, no matter what you do, the days and weeks are going to be packed. This is why family vacations, couples trips, and personal retreats are so important.

    • Juris Mater

      I agree with Katrina–Alice, your joy and confidence in what you’re doing are my take-aways from this. Bravo.

      You have the MOST “significant excuse” for feeling slammed–you are nurturing 9 bodies AND souls every day, meeting their needs, coordinating a massive operation that is the life of your family, and as a backdrop dealing with the emotional and spiritual stakes of that. It’s so many full-time jobs wrapped into one, except it’s more than that because your heart is always on the line too. That’s why everyone says “I don’t know how you do it”!

      Where do you get Cosby episodes?

      • Kathy

        Try youtube for possible episodes.

      • Mary Alice

        We have DVDs of season 1 and 2, which were a Christmas gift.

  • AWOL_Mommy

    So, I am in no place to respond constructively or positively to this because I am in over my head every single day. That being said, I think that some of the “you are stealing my prime” temptation comes from the fact that we have been presented all the immoral choices to even keep children out of that prime. You know what I mean? Wouldn’t this all have been a tad easier psychologically when all women were getting married and then producing babies close in age to one another? The children arrive in your life and you simply nurture them to the best of your ability and no one is pinteresting to bug you, or wearing stylish suits and getting on the subway to go to work with your husband every day. Wow, I sound like nutball. I am a nutball.

    All that insanity now spewed, I will say that what keeps me at home, homeschooling my totally unruly band of consta-eaters are those in-between moments you described so beautifully. When my 5-year-old boy walks through the house midday clutching his action figures, I grab him and ask him to load the plates and silverware after I rinse them. He does it without complaining and the helter skelter look of the dishwasher when he walks away gives me a huge kick. I think we underestimate how many women get to run through fields with their kids, read books and even eat meals with them. It IS beyond exhausting, I have never scored a nap without my mom being here, and my hours are even more horrible than yours because I am disorganized, but we stay the course and focus on the prize of heaven with our whole crew in tow.

  • CatherineS

    I love your honesty, Mary Alice, which always makes your posts so great. My days sound very similar to yours, and I often wonder if it’s “supposed” to feel this way, whether something’s wrong–should we not be homeschooling, not be doing this or that activity, or should we be scraping together more money for help around the house, etc. Sometimes big changes are in order, but usually not. Usually the key for me is remembering to turn all the undone things over to God and then try to get more sleep. But I hear you. I crash at 9:30pm and then the toddler, who hasn’t yet adjusted to the time change, gets me up at 5:30!

  • Bethany

    Rah, rah, Mary Alice! I nodded my head through this entire post. Yes… yes… I couldn’t agree more with so many of your thoughts here. This is undoubtedly a season of busy life, in a busy world, with more kids than most families in this world. The outcome? Mom is stretched to the limit. So is Dad in a different way. You are both tired and needing to refuel often without an appropriate way to do so.

    I cling to my faith. God is like the center hub, ordering all the other “little” things. I also cling to my fitness–it is my daily dose of endorphins that I need to feel good and overcome the grind. I know you are doing both of those things. And you are also reaching out to find others like you who can say, “I know how you feel.” There is something so powerful when we unite with others in common experience. We feel less alone, less victimized–we’re part of a larger group, doing something wonderful and ordinary and profound, all “together”. You’re doing it, girl. And doing it well. Bravo to you!

  • Karen M

    We just discussed a great talk during a homeschool moms’ meeting. The link is below. The talk was great to listen to after the kids had gone to bed. It is a bit of a slow start (I actually nodded off, but I am 13 weeks pregnant…so hopefully it wasn’t due to sloth! :) and the priest has an interesting way of speaking, but at the end he has great examples of how to avoid his definition of sloth: “not doing what you’re supposed to be doing when you’re supposed to be doing it.” This is very different from sheer laziness–it includes escapism (internet, too much small talk, searching outside the house for “meaningful” distractions from your main vocation) and workaholism–focusing solely on work/busy-ness instead of God and caring for the people in your life. It presents how you need to make time in your day for the main parts of your vocation (prayer, husband, children) and then considering how you may be able to do other things in “leftover” time. It was very insightful for me. When I’ve been tempted to go on fb or check email for the 4th time today, I reminded myself, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing when I’m supposed to be doing it? Which priority am I replacing with this unnecessary distraction?” Talk about time management!

    http://www.audiosancto.org/sermon/20130621-Sloth-The-Vice-of-Homeschoolers.html

  • Michael Cummings

    I had thought that was mrs Huxtable and enjoyed the article. Glad to hear I was correct, and the description of the cosby show was accurate though sadly not a “typicle” show, certainly not in this age. God bless your hard-working and giving friend btw.


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