Betty Duffy

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Dissertation and a Sermon on "Just Being a Mom" (because I believe in blog freedom, which includes the right to post very long essays.)

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.” When I had only one infant, and all my most pressing problems could be cured by offering my son the breast, I too had such simple epiphanies.

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 educated women who stay home with their kids. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the desire to parent my kids this way, and the nagging feeling that I am also wasting some part of my best self. 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.

An interesting discussion has been taking place over at “The Husteds” about how my sisters, girlfriends, and I don’t feel well represented by what we 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.

And now it’s time for a Sermon of Parables and Platitudes…

Because there is a little truth in most essay formulas, including that epiphany one I mentioned earlier:

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.


Emily said...

When asked at writing class the other day to tell what I was good at, I thought about saying "eating humble pie" because I have to do it every day. Only I still haven't gotten very good at it. In fact, I could only think of things that I used to be good at but have gotten worse at (like knowing where to hang those dangling prepositions...).

Elizabeth said...

lovely. and now i need a kleenex as i rehash my similar identity crisis for the millionith time since hmmm...march of 2002 (when i discovered, yes indeed, i am a breeder.) the journey has led to so much more than that ridiculous statement though. when i see grace walk through the door, it comes bearing the face of one of my children, usually, and my it explodes with what seems the purest most gorgeous love, i am left speechless. true enough, this is not everyday but when it does i am filled until the next round of inner struggle. thank you for helping me see grace today.

Shawna said...

Regarding your thoughts on contributions to society, I thought you might enjoy this quote: "Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society." Benjamin Franklin US author, diplomat, inventor, physicist, politician, & printer (1706 - 1790)

As for Sarah Palin, I had never even understood her appeal a little bit, so I was happy to have read why she is interesting to you. This is not meant to be snarky--I don't even know that you support her, just are impressed that she recognized an opportunity as a gift and took it--but I wonder if this blessing from God can be reconciled with her hate and fear mongering regarding a large portion of the world (i.e. Muslims and Arabs and those of a certain complexion)? Very curious about this since I am "all of the above."

As an at-home mom, this post really speaks to me. I think it is beautifully written. And I certainly have my weeks where with only two kids I feel tied to the floor by the ropes needed to hang a circus tent, but I keep myself busy with my faith and my blogs. I also constantly remind myself that cleaning my house/kids' butts/whatever doesn't mean I'm wasting my talents. Sure, I'm forgoing another lifestyle, but I'm still optimistic enough to believe that I can be something outside my home while dedicating myself to those tasks inside it. I just have to keep my ego in check. (We have also forgone birth control, but for reasons of the body rather than reasons of faith.)

Frankly, just that fact that you can write something so meaningful and beautiful that glorifies God the way you see him but still surpasses the boundaries of faith impresses me. Quite an achievement!

A new memoir project for you: Confessions of a Bored Mom. Just give it some subtitle that reflects the journey you took from your past to your present. Something like, "How I Earned the BA Just to be a Bidet." Have it include a mini-manual on diaper-changing technique. :P

Kaighla said...

This blog really touched my heart. I am a single mom to a beautiful 3-month baby boy and I love him with all my heart. But I never wanted kids. and I definitely didn't want to be a single mom. I got pregnant while in India, supposedly doing missions work. yeah.....and, so. My life was over. I cried and cried and screamed and cried because I had this identity as a "missionary" and now I was going to be nothing but a single mom. everything about me died. today I am but a shell of the woman I was before and had hoped to become in the future. I dont know how or when I will ever be ok with "just being a mom". I am almost 22 and I feel old and decrepit, bound for a lonely, miserable life the rest of my days. and sure the "God is your husband" lines feel ok for a minute- lofty, really- but truth be told, God doesnt bring home the bacon or hold me at night or wipe Ekundayo's butt when I have homework to do. and now, when the fact tht at yes, I will die someday or yes, my son could die before i do...pretty much I cant handle it. who am i if not Ekundayo's mommy? how could I live a day without him? and I mean that in a very selfish way. what would I do with myself? I hide behind the master status of being a mommy on a regular basis. it is my excuse for not looking quite attractive always, not cleaning my car out enough, not doing the dishes everyday, not doing all my homework right on time, always looking like i didnt get any sleep the night before...because I didnt. how could I explain my offensiveness to society if I didnt have a little bundle of joy to raise. because after that identity crises when i learned that no, i would not spend the next ten years traveling around asia...after that, there is no sunshine when he isnt around.

all that to say I dont feel so alone now after reading this

JenX67 said...

This is such a very well-written post - very intelligen - begging an answer or comment that is neither pat or trite. I have no way to wrap it up and stamp it pretty. I appreciate all you have said. I worked for 20 years - had children late in life. I am now. It's hard, but going to work every day with three children, though physically easier, emotionally, it was devastating. This week, I talked to a woman about why stay at home moms are so resentful of working moms. The conversation depressed me. I can't even write about it. There is a big secret about working moms that nobody writes about or ever considers. I can't write about it. But, it's out there for anyone to discover. I nearly went crazy this summer changing so many dirty diapers. Somedays, I want to go mad vaccuming up goldfish and cheerios with the dustbuster. and, oh, that comment that idiot made about usefulness to society. clearly, this guy didn't know why God created us! i could ramble on forever in this comment box. I love your blog!

swaying mama said...

I get it. I absolutely get it. I've only done the intense butt-washing attachment parenting thing for 6 years and felt like I lost myself during that time. I can only imagine what it would be like to add 6 or 12 more years (with additional children) on to that number. I am sure the glamor would be lost on me. I am now about a year out of that period of mothering intensely and can say that I am beginning to find myself again. That is no help at all for those who still have children under 3 or who expect to have many more children under 3.

The feminism that I appreciate is the one that gave me the opportunity to get an education, and work experience, and then chuck it all to raise children.

I have no answers, but just wanted to say this speaks to me as well.

Betty, you could write articles, this is certainly publishable...
Hugs to you.