My conversation in the comments some posts back with Enbrethiliel and others has got me wanting to write a book. I don't know what I would call it. It would be something about how mothers can't just be Martha all the time, how we also have to be Mary -- in short, how love doesn't mean working yourself to death.
But in the interests of fulfilling all my Martha-duties (ugh, dishes) and all my Mary-duties (like snuggles for the kids), I don't have a whole lot of time for book-writing and I've got at least three on the queue to write already! So instead of writing a book just now, I'm going to throw out a couple thoughts and maybe come back to elaborate later.
When I wrote about mother-guilt, I was talking about a truth that seems to absorb women everywhere, and not just mothers: when we love greatly, and when the needs are infinite, we run the risk of emptying our entire self into the infinite gulf .... and still feeling guilty because there isn't more of us to go into it.
I don't know the solution for nuns, women in careers, and so forth, but the solution for it for mothers is a complicated business. I usually call it mother zen, but it's really a lot of different things. I figure these rules could be the chapter headings of my hypothetical book.
First Part: the philosophy
#1 You are the emotional center of the family. If you are the mother and you stay home, odds are everyone comes to you when they need something emotionally. If you aren't careful, this is going to result in you feeling drained and resentful. It's the worst when no one appreciates that giving emotional energy to them is actually work. When a friend calls to tell you their woes, or your husband tries to hug you, sometimes you have the impulse to scream "Not another person with NEEDS!" And they don't always see it as taking something from you .... they just want to be with you. And yet that, too, feels like (and is) a service you do for them.
#2 A wellspring doesn't work unless it's fed. If everyone is coming to the well with buckets, but there's never any rain, the whole thing will dry up. If you're the emotional center of the family, you have to be refilled sometimes. There are three things that can refill you: God, others, and yourself. Don't think that any one or two of these are sufficient.
#3 There's a difference between selfishness and valid needs. It is not selfish to advocate for your needs. It's not a virtue to burn yourself out. You are useless to anyone if you do that.
#4 What your family needs is YOU, your talents, your interests, your vibrancy, your joy. They do not need a faded, bitter simulacrum of you after you've sacrificed everything that made you come alive.
Part Two: the rules
#1 Find your bliss. What recharges you? What makes you feel happy, alive, most yourself, ready to give to others? Don't let other people dictate what that is for you, or let yourself get talked into spa days or girls' days out if that's not it for you. For some of us, it's getting out of the house; for others, it's getting some peace and quiet. You might not be able, with all the demands on you, to have things exactly as you want, but what can you make a part of your life? Is there a craft you can do with the kids around? Can you take a peaceful moment to breathe and center yourself while the kids are playing outside? Can you leave the dishes till morning so the evening can be your quiet time? Do you have friends with kids who would like to form a weekly playgroup with you? Prayer should be part of this, but it can't be all of it. Even nuns have recreation!
#2 Be as gentle with yourself as you would with others. You know you can't expect the best of your kids if they don't get enough sleep -- why do you imagine you will be able to handle it? Do what you can to take care of your needs, readjusting the family's schedule if necessary, just as you would if you found one of your children had a true need. And when that isn't possible, give yourself grace. Don't expect to be able to have a spotless house when you just had a sleepless night. Learn to apologize to your kids if you get grumpy. You aren't perfect any more than they are, and it won't traumatize them to learn this.
#3 Learn to ask for and receive help. Who was it that told us we would be failures if we ever needed help? It's so easy to resent not receiving help, but never ask for it because that would imply we needed it, which would imply we are not handling everything on our own, which would imply we are failures. Why not admit that we do need it, because households weren't meant to be run with zero help, and ask specifically for what we really need? Some husbands aren't as good at service as others; but it is your duty to teach him, because you can't do it all on your own forever. And seek out what support networks you can. It is a crime that there is not more available for us; that it isn't just part of our culture to have lots of older ladies and young unmarried sisters and maiden aunts who can swoop in and help. But sincerely ask yourself who could be helping, and then tell them specifically what you need. It's hard to do, it's humbling, and you just have to do it.
#4 Monitor the energy that leaves your home. Are you spending all your time on Facebook debates that leave you frustrated and drained? (Guilty!) Does your husband have a million voluntary activities evenings and weekends? Do your kids have a zillion activities that leave no one any downtime? Be ruthless in paring down these things. You do have the right to tell child X that the family has no time for him to be in soccer this year. You do have the right to tell your husband that you really need him on Saturdays and ask him to choose between his activities to make sure there is time for him to be home. If the family is truly the most important thing, then other things have to be sacrificed so the family as a whole can prosper. Don't make it always be your things.
#5 Cultivate peace in your home. Plan moments when everyone is relaxed and quiet, when you can snuggle with the kids, listen to what's on their minds, watch how they interact. Learn sometimes to set the tone for the family, and other times learn to
be a passive listener and let them show you what they need and where
they want to go. Kids' problems can be big puzzles, especially when they're young and not very good at explaining. It sometimes takes a lot of quiet watching, a lot of asking questions, and a lot of reflecting on your own before you understand what's going on with them. Then once you know, the answer might be to spend time snuggling with or focusing on that child. If your time is tightly scheduled from sunup to sundown, when will you be able to do that? Leave things as loose as you can, with empty space for taking care of needs that arise, and be willing to shelve other projects you wanted to get done if your kids just need your quiet presence. I'm a believer in schedules, but they have to be able to flex a little, or they aren't good schedules.
#6 Prioritize. Not everything urgent is important. Some things are going to fall by the wayside, and there will always be someone ready to condemn you because you aren't making healthy food, or homeschooling, or volunteering the same priority as they do. Some people seem to be doing it all -- guaranteed, they are skipping something, perhaps that very thing that you and your family couldn't get by without. Those ultra-fit moms .... perhaps exercise fills their cup and drains yours! You don't need an excuse not to accomplish everything they do. It can help to write your priorities down somewhere: "Number one is that we all live in peace with one another and are kind and respectful. Number two is that we are happy and emotionally fulfilled. Number three is education. Number four is keeping our bodies healthy. Number five is social opportunities." That can be useful to refer to when you need to decide that today is the day to have PBJ for dinner because your children desperately need attention and snuggles; or that you have to turn down that great co-op invitation because you already feel overwhelmed.
#7 Be tough. Sometimes being a Mary actually takes some real backbone. You have to stand up to critics, insist your husband pitch in, say no to things that don't work. Sometimes your kids need a snuggly teddy bear .... other times they need a lioness who isn't afraid to say and do things that will cost her, if it's what the family needs. Mothers don't have the luxury to be shrinking violets; our kids demand whole, strong women who can advocate for them.
I could go on, with each of these points, till I actually had a book! But when I monitor the energy in our house, it does not have enough to spare for a book right now. Someday, perhaps. In the meantime, what else would you add? How do you keep yourself from burning out? What do your family's priorities look like?