So, If I don’t go into labor in the next 24 hours, I’ll be induced early tomorrow morning (January 8). On that note, I continue to piggy-back off of other writers here at Patheos. Calah, of Barefoot and Pregnant continues to suss out the challenges of stay-at-home motherhood, and I thought I might dredge up an old post from when I was in the thick of it, almost five years ago–with lots of little people in diapers–not because it contains much wisdom, but because it might just be another commiserating voice, if a dated one. In the meantime, is it possible I’m looking forward to a return to diaper and baby-land? I believe it is.
Fat and homey, pregnant, writing a bit, not reading at all, keeping a happy home, hugging my children, cooking meals and tasting them as I cook, keeping the laundry clean, the dishes washed, the children bathed, rooms tidy, husband laid. It’s a tidy, tidy life and not tortured or artistic in any way.
And now here’s the reason that I suspect I am not a very good Christian: I hated my day. There was no movement of my story forward. Nothing happened. And nothing would happen apparently whether I fulfill my duties or not. Even if I communicated with friends, changed three poop diapers, enforced the completion of homework and made certain of many disciplines—even still—nothing moving or changing would have happened in my life. My “story” seems to have ended years ago, and that bugs me. Sometimes I want to tell God he can have it all back—I’m going to France to do the Can-Can.
I was reading an article today by a lovely young mother who just had her first baby, and in the quiet days that followed, she began to ask herself if it was enough to “just be a mom.” She had been an opera singer. She was beautiful. She had always wanted to pursue photography.
There’s nothing I hate more in an editorial or testimony than sniffing out the formula: “But then I had this epiphany (fill in epiphany) and I could think differently about all my problems,” or this formula: “Being a mom is hard, but when I see my kids smile, I realize it’s all worth it.” Well, as expected, this former singer realized that it was enough to just elicit the smiles of her new born son with a song. Hence, yes, she was ok with “just being a mom.”
I don’t say this to negate the experiences of women who have few or no children, but my first child made me feel like an expert. He responded to all my cues. He followed my direction. I never let him cry, and I felt that I had motherhood mastered. Each one of my subsequent children has brought me to a deeper and more complex experience of my womanhood and my motherhood. Not only have I been schooled in just how little I know, I find that even my responses to my triumphs and failures cannot be predicted from one day to the next. I am grateful for the absolutes by which I have chosen to live my life, because I don’t think I could handle the ambiguity of a less certain moral and spiritual outlook in addition to all the ambiguity my life experiences have wrought.
And one of those experiences I’ve had is a long, slow deadening to the daily loveliness of “just being a mom.” If you ask God for donuts and one day he gives them to you, you say, “Thanks God for the donuts.” But if you have to continue eating donuts for every meal, for the rest of your life, donuts lose their appeal. Even the Israelites, first blessed with the gift of manna from Heaven, eventually said after eating it for many years, “We are tired of this disgusting food.”
I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately with other women who got the college education but stay home with their kids. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the desire to parent my kids this way, as well as with the nagging feeling that I am wasting some best self that was supposed to surpass this kind of a life. I look back on my college years sometimes and think about what I was supposed to have accomplished by now (not that those aspirations were even close to the nobility of being the only mother my children have). But even on a spiritual level, my year in the convent was supposed to be my springboard to spiritual greatness, the launch-pad that would send me rocketeering through life ever upward on the path to holiness.
I have been in these trenches of motherhood for a long time now though, and I have long since given up trying to document my upward trajectory. I just keep getting deeper and deeper into the confusion, loneliness, at times stagnancy, at times difficulty of this vocation. And there are no clear answers. How do I move from hating 90 percent of what I do each day as a mom to loving it? Because even though I want to do God’s will, even though I am being obedient to what I see as my current vocation, I still don’t like or enjoy a hefty portion of it. I don’t believe for one minute that this life is meant to be one long dreary dark night of the soul. I know this is exile and all, but that doesn’t mean that it has to totally suck all the time. And just knowing that my vocation has value does not make me suddenly love everything that I do.
My friend, Pedge, told me that one candidate currently running for political office, when interviewed on Oprah a year or two ago said, (and this is paraphrase) that a person’s life should be valued on merit of its “usefulness to society.” And please, if someone has this direct quote, I would love to see it word for word. I’ve been googling and unable to find it, but I want to be proven wrong because I think it’s a ghastly assertion. If a vast majority of my generation agrees with it, I’m very concerned.
As a mother, what I’ve done over the past eight years amounts to a heck of a lot of anal hygiene (just throw me into a pen with the senile, the handicapped, young children, and all the other people in the world who don’t contribute to society in any obvious way). I could fluff that up and call myself a “Bidet” or an “Anal Hygienist,” but it wouldn’t change what it is that I do. If I value my life, my vocation based on what I’ve accomplished, there will never be enough accomplishment to fill my bottomless well of wanting. I will keep raising my standards. I already consider butt washing to be an occupation a little beneath my talents. My life does not have value because of what I DO. I can do, do, do a lot of things and have no life in me.
Honestly, I know that as lonely, menial, and at times boring as the tasks of motherhood can be, that it is a valuable service to our society. It is not true that because I have forgone a career in society that I am useless to society. As my brilliant friend, Elizabeth said, “To dispense love in this mad world is more important than (just about anything else).” But neither is it true that because I have chosen to stay home with my kids that I have to nail my hands to the ironing board (My husband is laughing right now. BY NO MEANS do I ever iron, but the metaphor will stay.). I think that God often gives us more freedom than we will allow ourselves. He opens so many doors that I, in turn, close because I prefer some sort of joyless martyrdom, or I feel guilty about betraying that first noble choice I made to stay home with my kids.
I continue to discuss with my sisters and girlfriends how I don’t feel well represented by what I understand to be “modern feminism.” Many of us have ditched birth control, are pro-life, eschew career, and are mothering many children. But we also believe in the inherent dignity of woman as a separate, unique, able and talented being who should be able to take advantage of the advances of feminism to the extent we want to and are able. A valid point was made about how unkind women can be to other women. Of course, I am guilty of this. See how quickly I rejected the epiphany of the opera singer earlier in this note. Women who work criticize those who stay home and vice versa. In my own subculture of Catholic, birth-control ditching (and did I mention sexy?) mothers of many children there is a temptation to pose as super-woman. After all, if we are going to go against the societal grain and have a million kids, we’d better make it look good. We don’t admit that it’s hard. There’s this unspoken assumption that if you’re having a hard time with it, it’s because you’re not praying enough.
In my opinion, it’s more accurate to say that if I’m having a hard time, it’s probably because I have said no to a lot of the opportunities, graces, and freedoms that in his goodness, God has offered me, in favor of a “Martha Martha” style of life. Just because I’m striving not to be “of this world” doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to pre-conceived expectations of what my life is supposed to look like, whether that image is a stiletto heeled executive or a jumper wearing home-schooler. This is one of the reasons that I do find Sarah Palin so inspiring. If a mother of five children, who apparently shares many of my values, has the door to the vice presidency opened to her, she doesn’t say, “Sorry folks, I’ve got to stay home and change diapers.” She’s faced criticism, not only from the left, but from a lot of Christian women too, and it surprises me that people who believe in “gifts from God” would consider this opportunity for her anything but.
Real success in life is “being” not “doing.” My fight on this earth is not the fight up some accomplishment ladder, not even a holiness ladder ( Prayers—check, sacrifice—check, almsgiving—check: Now I’m Holy). Nor is it enough for me just to hang on to the challenges of my life by the skin of my teeth.
Perseverance in my vocation requires a fight, and that fight is to BE who God made me with complete authenticity, and to be that me WITH him.
Being in communion with God means asking for my daily bread and asking for it again tomorrow. I do have to pray more and every day, not to mark it off my list, but to BE WITH him. Then I will be more sensitive to and certain of the doors that God has apparently opened to me. If it is enough for me to “just be a mom” today, then great, but if it is not enough, I need to ask God what specific steps I can take today to move me towards what I feel called to do. The door he opens for me today may be closed tomorrow, but if I ask for my daily bread every single day, then I don’t have to worry about what to eat in a month or a year. I may still be eating the same old boring manna ten years from now, or I may be sipping cocktails.
I have to be simple, and childlike and ask very specifically for my needs. I know that if I ask God for joy, if I ask to be reconciled to this life, if I ask, I shall receive. No father gives his daughter a snake when she asks for a fish. If I keep asking, in time it will come. And in the meantime, I know that what evolves from my suffering and difficulty is in and of itself a GOOD THING. Because I am learning again and again, in all its complexity, what it means to “just be a mom.” And even if my life looks from the outside like a ten year stasis, it has been rich and deeply transforming for me.
It’s also high time I recognize what a sweet deal I really have, and what in many ways is the fruit and gift to me of my husband’s sacrifice (thanks husband). I have the luxury of just being a mom, of staying home with my kids, and fulfilling the irreplaceable role that only I can fill. In addition to that I have the gift of kids who are becoming self-sufficient enough to allow me time to pursue my life-long passion. I have a sugar daddy who loves me, our kids, and who doesn’t complain at all about the grindstone he faces every day. I have so much more than I deserve.