Mother Love and the Pursuit of Happiness

I have never been a traffic cop, a test pilot, or a lion tamer.

But I have been a full-time, stay-at-home mom. I think that qualifies me to be any of the above.

The Mommy Wars have raged ever since Betty Friedan told us about the “problem with no name.” Her apt description of the ennui of the enforced stay-at-home-momism of the mid-twentieth century was enough to launch a sociopolitical movement. It was also the first shot fired across the bow of full-time, stay-at-home mothering as a profession and way of life.

We haven’t stopped squabbling since. Gallup Polls recently added kindling to the fire with a survey that they say shows full-time stay-at-home moms are unhappier than their working counterparts. I could show you tables and data, but I think I just summarized the whole shebang in the previous sentence. If you’re a data wonk, just follow the link and enjoy.

The central question for me is why we as a society have latched onto the premise that personal satisfaction of the moment is the key to good living and the value by which we judge everything we chose to do with our lives. Why, in short, do we think that our own little personal momentary happiness trumps every other value or outcome our behavior might create?

This is a salient question for parents. Having babies isn’t always easy. Contrary to what they told us back in the pre-sex-education age, we don’t find them in the cabbage patch. It takes months of nausea, bloating and achy backs to make a baby. They are the sweetest little things that ever was, but babies are not always easy to come by.

Once we get them here, they’re also not always easy to raise. One of the goofier new words we’ve pushed into our language in the last few decades is “parenting.” What is that? I understand “raising” kids. But parenting? Nope. Doesn’t resonate.

I raised my kids. And as I said, it wasn’t always easy. To begin with, they cost money. Since I quit my job to stay home with them, this added expense came at a time when we’d just halved our family income. In addition to the money thing, raising kids is not an 8 to 5 job. You can’t just park them somewhere and go home to child-free life. A parent is a parent from the moment their baby is conceived until said parent crosses out of this life into the next. Maybe after that. I’m don’t know. But I do know that you never, so long as you live, stop being a parent once you’ve become one.

Nothing gets you out of it. If you kill your baby in an abortion, if they die through illness or accident or war, they are still your child and you are still their parent. I have friends who’ve lost a child, and they will tell you, “We have nine children; eight here and one in heaven.” That’s how they think of it. That’s how it is.

It is a relationship that neither time nor circumstance can sever. Nothing; not divorce, abandonment, adoption or medical chicanery can change this. If you participate in the conception of a human being, you are a parent. And you always will be.

I fear I’m making child-rearing sound like it’s some sort of punishment that we should sentence criminals to in hopes of ending recidivism. In truth, my years as a full-time, stay-at-home-mom were the best, most rewarding years of my life. I am grateful to the bone that I had them. They were also my most challenging years.

Raising children full-time is harder than any job I’ve ever had. It took every bit of ingenuity, grit and strength that I could muster. I learned to pray, really deeply pray, when I was a full-time mom. I also learned everything about humility that anyone ever needs to know.

I’m not surprised that a random survey that snapshots stay-at-home-moms in the now shows that they are not as “happy” as their working-mom counterparts. As hard as holding down a job is, it’s still a breather from the much harder and more demanding work of raising little children. Add to that the fact that mothers don’t get any respect, that stay-at-home-moms are almost universally dissed, insulted, talked down to and scorned, and you have a recipe for disgruntlement.

I don’t quarrel with the results of this survey. What I do disagree with is the way we all seem to think that momentary happiness for its own sake is the primary goal of life and that it trumps every other consideration. I have a news flash for those who are interested: Anything worth doing is going to be hard. Anything you do that makes the world a better place, that involves commitment and self-sacrifice and love of others more than yourself is going to also extract some pain, angst and work.

The irony is that if you make happiness your goal in life, you will end up in a pit of ennui that makes “the problem with no name” that Betty Friedan talked about look like deep fulfillment. The only way to be happy — to find contentment and inner peace — is to give yourself away.

That’s what being a Christian is. You give yourself away. You stop living for yourself and begin living for Christ and through Christ, for other people. Nothing in this life comes as close to the love of Christ as a mother’s selfless giving herself away to her children. I experienced it from my mother and I gave it to my own kids. My hope is that my grandchildren will know the same love.

I am not writing this to advocate for mothers to stay home with their kids. I have friends who worked while their children grew up and the kids did great. The reason is that these mothers gave themselves away to their kids just as any other mother does. You can work and raise your kids successfully. You can also stay home with your kids and have a great career later. I’m proof of that.

But whether you stay home with them full time or you go out to work to support them, you will fail as a parent if you make pleasing yourself and living a life that chases after some transitory bubble of happiness as your goals. The way to be happy is to forget about yourself and love other people enough to care for them, stand by them and be there for them.

Backwards as this sounds, when you give yourself away, that is when you find yourself for real.

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