Jenn Monroe is another "Wheatie" (i.e. person who attended Wheaton College) who graduated before I did. We didn't know each other at Wheaton, but when we both attended the Regent College Family Group 2 years ago, we recognized each other. We were both spouses of Regent Students, and stay at home moms. I guess once a Wheatie, always a Wheatie because we realized we had a lot in common and became fast friends. Jenn now lives in New Mexico with her husband Kurt and three kids Ian, Anna, and Calum. You can enjoy her motherhood musings (and laugh out loud on a regular basis) on her blog: Jennifer's Super-Fantastic Old-Time Blog-O-Rama
How to be a Stay-At-Home-Mom Without Loosing Your Mind: Tell the Truth
Have you ever heard of the concept of “flow”? It's a term invented by psychologists to describe what happens to us when we're fully and completely immersed in a task, so much so that the world around us almost disappears and we are caught up in the sheer joy of doing a task for the the task's sake. Here's a bit more of what wikipedia has to say about the concept: “In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task, although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.” I would venture to say that most of us have felt this at some point or other, perhaps in the midst of an art project or figuring out a tricky algorithm, while playing a musical instrument or out for a long run. Suddenly you realize, or perhaps you only realize in retrospect, that you have been experiencing flow, an incredible, intimate sense that I was made for this. I have experienced flow many times in my life: while teaching English, while writing, while leading worship, while kneading bread, while working on a sewing project, even in the midst of an intensely intellectually-challenging conversation, and in prayer.
I have almost never experienced flow while doing my job as a mom.
More often, my job as a mom is characterized by fits and starts, frustration, aggravation, and disappointment. I flounder more than I fly. Heck, it feels like I flounder pretty much all of the time. And if we're honest about it, that's the way most jobs go, right? Most people don't wake up every morning thinking, “Gee I'm SO glad I get to go to work today. It's going to be so awesome!” Most people, if they're fortunate, have jobs that they often can tolerate, occasionally enjoy, and in rare moments, they can feel that ineffable sense of flow, of profound joy, of alls-right-with-the-world-ness.
In my job as a high school English teacher, I think it would be fair to say that a lot of the time I felt like I struggled, some of the time I really liked it, and a few times it was just pure glory. Even with those kinds of percentages, though, I feel like I enjoy my job as a mom way less and the moments of glory have been way fewer and father between.
I get really frustrated when I talk to moms who have chosen to work outside of the home who say things to me like, “I don't know how you do it. I just don't think I have it in me to spend my whole day with young children;” or “I don't feel fulfilled at home. My job is really such a part of who I am;” or “I'm just not the stay-at-home type.” When I'm feeling very charitable, I imagine that people say these things because they think that I do love spending all day with young children or that I am fulfilled by “just being a mom,” or that I am that “type.” What I want to tell them is “Frankly, I don't think this is 'me' either.” When I gave up my job as a teacher and then as director of worship at a church, I did not do it with a sense of relief, like I was finally going to get to focus on the thing I had always wanted to do. For me, giving up my jobs was a wrench, a real moment of self-emptying sacrifice. I loved those jobs. I loved knowing when I was doing them well. I loved working with adults on projects that really felt like they mattered. I loved getting positive feedback and having someone occasionally say, “hey, you're doing a good job.” I loved using my brain to solve problems that felt like they had real weight. I loved it.
Now, please don't jump in here to reassure me that, of course, the job I'm doing here at home has weight and significance, that raising children is the only work that eternally matters and that being a mom at home is as important as being a productive member of the workplace. I know all of those things are true. Really, I do. When I finally made the decision to quit teaching completely, the women I worked with did a really lovely thing and had a surprise party for me, celebrating my decision. At the party, one of the women talked about the fact that being a mom and raising kids is a lot like being a medieval stone mason or wood carver, working on one tiny part of a cathedral that would never be completed in his lifetime. Mothers spend endless amounts of time and energy on a project that they never get to see come to fruition, completely. That woman gave me a beautiful book of European cathedrals that I treasure as a reminder of this beautiful image. I get it, really I do. The fact still remains, there is a significant difference between knowing a thing to be true and feeling like it is true most of the time. Much of the time my job feels about as significant and rewarding as the money I make doing it. Not every difficult moment has an “ah ha” that follows. Not every frustration has a silver lining. Not every terrible day has a latent sermon illustration about grace lurking around the corner. There are some days when I feel like the person I was before I became a mom is lost forever, and I don't even know who I am now.
The problem is that in evangelical Christian culture, there is not a lot of room for a mom to admit that she can actually dislike her job. Perhaps its a push back against the feminist movement or perhaps it was always there all along, but it seems like what John Eldridge, James Dobson and others of their ilk have done to Christian women is make them feel as though staying at home with their kids is the only Christian option, and not only that, but it must be done with joy and thankfulness, all the time. Now, I have to say, I do believe that there are some people out there who truly do love most parts of motherhood, who are so eager to begin that they can hardly wait until they have children and who then feel as though they are living impossibly blessed lives from the moment of their fist child's perfectly natural at-home birth onward. Or at least, that's what their facebook updates and blog posts would lead you to believe. But I have come to terms with the belief that this state of mind says more about these women's particular personalities, rather than about the state of their faith or the level of their Christian commitment.
Ironically enough, one of the greatest pieces of encouragements I have recently gotten about being a stay-at-home mom came from a documentary I watched on PBS about the “independent women” in modern television shows. The show highlighted the changing role of women on TV, from the June Cleaver days right through Mary Tyler Moore and up to Nurse Jackie and Sex and the City. One of the shows on which it focused was Desperate Housewives, a show which, in some ways, parodied the role of the perfect happy homemaker, and in other ways made some pointed observations about the conflict between our culture's embrace of the feminist movement (which freed women to do anything that they darn well pleased with their lives) and our reluctance to give up on the idealization of motherhood. One of the creators of the show described his shock when, at a high school reunion, one of his former classmates responded to the question, “So, do you just love being a mom?” with a flat but honest “No.” Marc Cherry described his surprise, saying, “I didn't know women could say that out loud.” He then describes a moment in the show when one of the characters has a breakdown, completely overwhelmed by the pressures of being a mother, and is comforted by some of the other women who admit to feeling the same way. “But why don't we talk about this?” she asks, the fear and shame of admitting it shaking her to her core.
There is a lot to be afraid of in admitting that your life as a mom is not quite everything you would like it to be. Not only could you be incurring the scorn of secular culture who thinks that any woman who chooses to stay home when she could be in the workplace is either less intelligent and capable than her professional counterparts or somehow laboring under the tyranny of an old-fashioned, male-dominated archetype (nothing, in my case, could be further from the truth). On the other hand, admitting our real frustrations is to invite criticism from a Christian culture which would question our womanliness and commitment to faith and family in the first place (again, not the truth). We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Marc Cherry acknowledged that when he started shopping his idea for Desperate Housewives around, he met with significant resistance from female network executives who were convinced that no women would ever want to watch the show. He described their attitude as latent prejudice against the idea of a woman choosing to stay at home and raise her children, in spite of all of the reasons not to. He then made the following statement, which I found somewhat astonishing: “I find any woman who wants to be a wife and mother and devote her life to creating a home, I find there's something quietly and beautifully heroic about that.”
That line, “quietly and beautifully heroic” has stuck with me, and I've been seeing more and more of you quietly and beautifully heroic women popping up all over the place. You refuse to write what one writer has described as “evergreen mommy blogs” but rather on your blogs and in your real-life conversations you wrestle and reveal and repent in very public ways. You are woman enough to acknowledge that you are not a victim, that your husband or society or any other male-dominated hegemony did not force you into this, but that you chose this life, in spite of the fact that there are many other ways of going about it. You don't regret your decisions, not one iota, but you also are frank about the fact that not regretting it doesn't mean that it hasn't come at a very high cost. You are not masochists and you are not crazy (though at times you might have your doubts), but you know that to preserve what sanity you have you must simply be honest about your experience doing the job that, for this moment, you have been called to do. You celebrate the good things (and of course, there are so, so many good things) without allowing yourselves to fall into the trap of pretending that there are only good things. You are not self-absorbed whiners, not really anyway, but you refuse to try to live up to someone else's idea of how you should feel. You are triumphant, heroic truth-tellers, risking criticism and pigeon-holing and contempt.
And now I'm proud to be one of you.