“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
How much brighter today will be if rather than thinking of our lack we think of our abundance. How much more peaceful our relationships when we are grateful for the joy they bring, rather than their imperfections. It is not naivety or weak submission to take some time off from “striving for more”. There is always time for discontentment, but we rarely make space for fulfillment. Ingratitude numbs our senses – it prohibits us from seeing or hearing anything but the negative.
My family recently moved into an older home. While we remodel the downstairs, my husband and I and our five small children are all sleeping in two rooms upstairs – five beds on the floor, one bathroom, and a sink and microwave for a kitchen. Despite my attempts to make this into a fun adventure, a few days ago the stress of our remodel and the discomfort of a hot day in Texas, caught up with me. As I laid in my bed that evening and allowed my jaw to unclench, I looked back on the day. I saw that I had been completely blind to any goodness. I couldn’t see my beautiful children playing so well together, only the mess they made. I didn’t hear the birds chirping in our trees, only the annoying hum of our fans in our AC-less house. I didn’t remember the blessing of finding the home I had prayed for, with land for our children to play. I only saw patches of dead grass and weed overgrowth.
Unfortunately, we are hard-wired to notice the negative. We must use our free-will and seek the positive. It is all around us. Blessings are found even in the darkest day.
“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.”
I was certainly a fool that day. I was blind to an entire day of happiness. I lost it and traded it for misery. For stressed-out mothers, it is easy to do. Often our families lose that day along with us. We must close our eyes of ingratitude and open our eyes of thankfulness. The more we open grateful eyes, the easier life becomes and the more joy we find in living.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
“The perfect woman, you see is a working-woman; not an idler; not a fine lady; but one who uses her hands and her head and her heart for the good of others.”
I adore this painting. It tells the story of our female ancestors. This poor and slight woman is tough. She guards her children cautiously. She works hard all day with them near her side. This is the kind of woman that has held the world together for all of human history. Our female progenitors were anything but weak. They should be honored for their strength, not pitied or seen as a lesser version of our modern “empowered woman”. Millions of women, like the one depicted in this painting, toiled, and loved, and toiled more – so we, their children, can live and flourish. We owe it to them to continue the tradition of hard-working mothers.
We must never downgrade our role as a mother or our capacity as a woman to produce change in the world. The more pride we take in our mission, the more we reject the absurd notion that motherhood stifles our progress- the more we can let go of the judgement of the world and start shifting the culture. We must stop caring what other women or Instagram followers think of us, we must stop worrying how “impressive” we may come off to the world. The only opinions that matter come from those whose love is constant and unconditional – our family and our God.
You, the average mom, can do more to build a better future than any CEO, any politician, any Hollywood star – you hold the key to the soul of the world – children. Your love, work, and intentional parenting are raising the future.
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
Affection is defined as a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. A home filled with affection is akin to heaven on earth. It is a home where you greet your children with a welcoming hug, a home where you wink and smile at your seven-year-old at the dinner table, where you massage your teenage son’s feet after a long practice. Children feel safe here, they know they are loved, they feel it. Physical affection is particularly powerful. When our feelings of love are expressed physically, it unites the spiritual and physical world with a loving touch.
The Potency of Touch
“To touch is to give life.”
We are all seeking happiness, especially the kind that can hold steady in turbulent times. But the nature of life is turbulent and our moods and circumstances make lasting happiness seem like an illusion. However, the longer I am a wife and mother, the more I realize that if there is something to help us cross the rivers of turmoil – it is the loving touch of someone we trust. When our world falls apart, we need to be grounded – pulled back with physical and concrete love – with an affectionate embrace. We have all seen the movies showing a neurotic and over-emotional person being slapped, bringing them back into reality – this I do not recommend, but a loving embrace can accomplish the same feat. Sometimes when pain is stuck in the body, we need to use the body to release it. The physical reality of love can plant our feet on the bridge Overcoming.
Last summer my husband traveled a lot. I had no break from the noise and chaos of a house full of little children and I usually ended the days with my nerves frayed. One night, after putting them all down and relaxing on the sofa, I heard my 8 year-old girl get out of bed and ask for water. She didn’t realize that my “noise-bucket” had been overflowing for hours and I quite angrily told her to get back in bed. Almost immediately, I felt guilty. I knew I had to apologize. But I was so worn out from noise and the hard day that I really didn’t know how I would approach it without allowing my stress to betray itself again. As I walked into her room, I did not say anything, I just went into her bed and laid beside her and held her. It is incredible how those five minutes of affection renewed my spirit. I thought I was doing it for my daughter but instead I felt my own stress melt away. As I left I said, I love you; she said, Mom I love you too.
I can’t tell you how many times in motherhood I have come into a potentially hostile situation with my children with no idea how to properly resolve it. Perhaps we want to do what’s right but our emotions are getting in our way, or the proper course of action is not clear, or we just don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. When this is the case, I usually opt to arm myself with affection. If I put my arm around my son – our previous animosity will melt away. If I rub my husband’s neck as he drives, it helps him release his work-day stress. We should never use touch to manipulate – but it can help us fill in the gaps of our weakness. It is the mortar that holds the family together. Without physical affection the home becomes sterile and unforgiving.
The Decline of Physical Touch
Unfortunately our world is increasingly becoming just that, sterile and unforgiving. With human interactions at an all time low, is it any wonder we find ourselves less compassionate of others? Touching another person makes them real, they are no longer an image on a computer screen or a voice on the other side of the phone but a living soul, deserving of empathy.
I worry that even when this pandemic passes, we may retain the norm of “social distance”. I hope this is not the case. Physical affection between friends, and even strangers, can tie communities together and prevent strife and misunderstandings. Children, especially, need to be free to express themselves physically and receive affection from friends and teachers.
My children go to wonderful schools and I am grateful for their loving teachers. However, I am increasingly concerned about the “institutional” nature of schools. My daughter was reprimanded in kindergarten for hugging her friend at recess. In many schools teachers are not allowed to touch the students. It is easy to see why such restrictions may be put into place – schools are attempting to reduce their own liability. But there is no doubt that these “institutions” are destined to be cold and unloving places. Combine this with the worry brought on by the COVID epidemic, sending our kids to school may soon feel like admitting them into a sanitized hospital. We mothers need to make adjustments. If we choose to send our children into schools, the increasingly sterile environment must be counteracted by increased affection at home.
The Science of Touch
When a mother is affectionate with her child she is building her child’s social networks, improving their ability to fight infections, and building a bond that will last a lifetime. Premature babies that are touched thrive, while babies who aren’t are much more likely to die. Studies done on Romanian orphanages show the power of human touch in brain and social development. Alternatively, children who are raised without affection are much more likely to be violent and have mental health issues.
Some scientific findings on the power of touch:
-Researchers have found that children touched more frequently by their mothers developed more neuronal networks in their “social brain” – resulting in more empathy. Children touched less are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial.
-Preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment.
-You have likely noticed the constant rear slapping and high-fiving between teammates in NBA and NFL games. Turns out they have good reason for this. Studies reveal that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games.
–Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion.
– (And highly relevant now) -“In one set of studies, touch was shown to boost the immune systems of people who had been exposed to the common cold. For two weeks, researchers monitored a little more than four hundred adults, asking them, not just about their social interactions, but about how many hugs they’d gotten over the course of each day. Then the subjects were quarantined in rooms on an isolated hotel floor, where the researchers proceeded to expose them to a cold virus. The virus was quite effective: seventy-eight percent of subjects were infected, and just over thirty-one percent showed signs of illness. But not everyone was equally susceptible. The people who had experienced more supportive social interactions, battled infection more effectively and exhibited fewer signs of illness—and, when you tease apart the effects of social support and hugging, touch, in itself, accounted for thirty-two percent of the reduction effect.” (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
“The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”
Maria Konnikova (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
The truth is that often it takes courage to touch. For example, imagine after an argument with your husband it feels like a gulf has opened up between you. Days pass and the chasm grows bigger. You believe that the simple act of reaching over and grabbing your husband’s hand can bridge that chasm – the tension can melt and you will be free to resolve your issue. But that initial touch takes courage, you are reaching into the dark hoping he will take your hand- it will take the full use of your free-will to overcome your pride and fear. But the outcome can be healing and unity.
Touch as a symptom of the relationship
We cannot easily pretend with touch. A good indicator of the strength of relationships is how comfortable we feel with affection. If touch is awkward and uncomfortable then the relationship needs work.
“One mother, after hearing a discussion about how mother’s should supply love to their children, determined that before her fourteen year old son went to school in the morning, she would give him a hug. She wanted to prove to him and to herself that she was a good mother. That next morning, as she tried to hug him, he rejected her. But she was determined to give him a hug, and she chased him around the kitchen table and even out the back door. He ran away from her- down the driveway, down the long sidewalk, and around the corner beyond her sight. She stood abandoned in the driveway, crying. She was so frustrated that she went into the house and called the school counselor and told him the whole story, how her son was mean to her and rejected her when she had tried to love him.
The concerned counselor called the boy privately out of class and tried to talk to him. He asked the boy why he had acted that way towards his mother. The boy looked at him quizzically, then he said, “Mr. Jones, do you know the difference between a hug that gives and a hug that takes?” The counselor, who was not a very sensitive person himself, replied, “No” And the boy said quickly, “That is what I thought.”
This is a perfect example of doing things for the wrong reasons. The counselor did not call the boy in to find out how the boy felt, but rather to scold him for not making his mother feel better. And the mother had not wanted to hug the boy because her heart was filled with love for him, but rather to prove to herself that she was doing her job as a mother according to specifications.”
Excerpt: Sterling Ellsworth, Getting to Know the Real You
We cannot fake physical affection. We have to build a relationship worthy of its display. We have all had the experience of receiving a hug from someone that is cold and distant – done out of obligation. The soul is betrayed in our physical interactions. We must not misuse touch or it can become a dark thing. Men and women who were sexually or physically abused often have difficulty giving and receiving physical affection for this very reason – honest and loving affection was replaced with something ugly and false. We must always strive to ensure our touch is unselfish and done with an attempt to build stronger relationships. When touch does not come naturally; it may be a symptom of an underlying issue within ourselves or the relationship itself. We must attempt to repair the fracture quickly and then we can honestly display affection for one another.
Some of us are not naturally “touchy” people. Our childhood home may have shunned affection. Some cultures are less physical than others. However, we need to ensure there is a place for touch in our homes. When words aren’t enough, or our pain is too complex to communicate, or when a child feels alone or discouraged – they need to know they can feel safe in our arms.
Some children need more touch than others. If touch is your child’s “love language”, they may not know you truly love them unless you show them physical affection. Ever since I was a small child, I have craved physical touch. My mom said I would give her about 100 hugs a day. Even today, I feel love most not from kind words or gifts – but when someone touches me on the shoulder, or pats me on the back. If I lived in a home that lacked physical affection, I would feel unloved and unsafe.
Touch can, unfortunately, be used as a tool of manipulation. Since we all crave touch, this need can be used against us. My toddler even knows this. A few weeks after taking away all her pacifiers, she was sitting on the couch next to me and I said, “Juliet, come cuddle.” She looked at me sternly and said, “No! Not until you let me have my paci again!”
But withholding affection in an attempt to control others will sour our relationship and hurt our own chance for happiness.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo F. Buscaglia
When I hugged my daughter in bed that night, she forgot about my harshness and instead saw me as a loving mother. Physical touch can help repair damage caused by our imperfections by showing the genuineness of our love. This love can be shown not just for our families and friends but is the natural outgrowth of the empathy we feel for others. There are millions of lonely and confined people in this world that crave physical contact. Just as babies fail to flourish without touch, the elderly in nursing homes, the homeless, and disabled and mentally ill, need touch to thrive.
A few years ago my sister was visiting my brother’s family in New Delhi, India. While there they went on a humanitarian tour of a nearby train station where there was a large population of street boys. I had attempted to take the same tour a few years before. I was pregnant at the time and despite having relatively mild morning sickness – simply standing near the train tracks and seeing the rats, filth, and experiencing the smells caused me to lose my lunch and nearly faint. Thousands of young boys and some girls in India live in these conditions, attempting to survive off food thrown from passing trains or begging from travelers. They usually have no mother to comfort them, no father to encourage them. Rather they are raised expecting the abuse of strangers, arrest by police, and the scorn of passers-by. The only potential for a kind word comes from the rare soft-hearted stranger, or humanitarians who sometimes bring food. But loving touch – that is something these children do not experience from adults.
While my sister was on the tour she saw a group of boys berating a small boy, no more than five. They were mercilessly teasing and hitting him and he was weeping bitterly. The other boys left him in this state of distress. My sister simply could not bear it, she walked over to the small boy and knelt down to sweetly speak to him. He kept weeping and barely acknowledged her presence. She kept trying to comfort him but he would not be calmed. She felt the call of a nurturing mother – to take this poor child into her arms – but also the ambivalence of touching an unknown dirty child. Yet she gently put her arm around his shoulders. He instantly stopped crying and looked into her eyes, astonished. A powerful moment occurred between them. She suddenly knew that this was the first kind embrace this boy could remember. She was astonished by the instant effect her touch had on the boy, it seemed as if God’s love was being poured out to him through her hands. Her touch was speaking to him and hearing him – when words were useless. With anguish she had to leave that beautiful boy there, now calm, in that filthy train station. That experience has had a profound impact on her.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Touch is powerful. It can be the mortar to our relationships. It can bring healing when words are useless. It can develop empathy and bring joy and meaning into our lives. We must bravely use the power of touch often and wisely in our homes and in an increasingly affection-less world.
*If you would like to help a very good cause – feeding desperate migrants in India stranded because of COVID, please consider donating. This effort is run by a trusted family friend in India. 100% of donations go to help the poor. Regular updates/photos are shown in the GoFund Me page. The more they raise the more they will feed. Thank you.
COVID-19 is enough to give even the most easy-going among us worry. This is a big deal, life has changed on a dime. It is not my intention to diminish the importance of this time or the tragic nature of it. I hope we are all doing what we can to stem the tide of this disease. However, we mothers need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we reacting well to this crisis?”
Why is that so important – how could our reaction have any impact on a global pandemic? It is difficult to see how our emotional reactions may ripple beyond our homes, but our primary concern as mothers is for our children.
A Mother’s Eyes
“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But a Mother’s eyes are the window through which young children first see the world. Ours are the eyes they look to for reference. In them they see either safety or danger. Many of our children’s fears and anxieties can unfortunately be sourced from their parents’ emotional reactions. Dr. Peterson explains in the clip below the psychological concept of “referencing”. When a small child sees a mouse run across the room – – they look to their mother’s eyes, or any other adult in the room, to see what it means. If the mother starts screaming, they know- Mice are scary! These early childhood experiences can set in their minds like concrete – mouse scary – world dangerous.= Phobia. If the mother instead tempers her reaction and handles the situation as calmly as she can, the child does not see a mouse as a horrific threat and feels safe in their environment.
“A mother tells you what the mouse is, and her face doesn’t say Mouse – it says, Safe or Danger.”
We have a modern epidemic of anxiety. Where is this coming from? Anxiety, at its root, is about fear- fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in our ability to handle the unknown. If a child continually sees in their mother’s eyes the evidence of fear or uncertainty, they see the world as an unsafe place. This a recipe for an anxious child and teenager. This does not mean that every anxious child or adult is the product of their mother’s reactions. Some people just have highly neurotic personalities; some children have life challenges that are not easily overcome – no matter how stoic their mother may be. But tempering our reactions to difficulties can only help our children.
Outsourcing Emotional Stability
Even as adults, we tend to outsource our emotional responses to others. We simply mimic what others are doing. A few months ago at church, the fire alarm suddenly went off. I noticed that none of the adults in the room moved; instead they just looked at everyone else, trying to gauge what kind of action was appropriate. We were searching for the level of fear in other’s faces. Since no one got up quickly or acted frazzled, we all stayed calmly in our seats. Eventually it was confirmed that a child had pulled the alarm (and, of course, that child was mine!).
Here is another embarrassing confession. I inadvertently became one of those horrible panic buyers. About a month ago, in the very early stages of COVID-19, I went to Costco for my bi-weekly trip. I was surprised to see that everyone was getting multiple packs of toilet paper. I had no idea that this was the thing to do, and to be honest, I thought they were probably silly to do it. But I figured I had better buy some too. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I’m not going to lie, now that all the stores are TP-less, I’m glad I did. When something unexpected happens, psychologically we don’t know how to react – so we react the way others do. This gives a lot of power to over-reactors. If one person has an inappropriate response – perhaps built-up because of childhood trauma or anxious parents – then they can start the chain-reaction of anxious and worried reactions. (I am not saying that is the case in the COVID crisis but simply a psychological observation).
“Part of what you are doing all the time is imitating other people. It’s mass imitation, and that is really a huge part of social structure, we are constantly imitating each other.”
It is sad to consider that in many childhood traumas, such as medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc…, the reaction of the adults around the child can be more traumatic than the actual incident. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, experts on childhood trauma, write,
“The importance of an adult’s calmness cannot be overemphasized. Your calmness is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked or scared, too. Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with anger, which can further frighten the child. The goal is to minimize – not compound – feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment, and guilt the child is likely to experience already. The best antidote is to respond to your own reactions first. Allow time for your own body responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child. Experiences with adult clients in therapy confirms that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents reaction! The younger the child, the more he or she “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
For example, let’s imagine a small child is climbing on some playground equipment and falls. She cries but is not hurt. An over-reactive mother may scoop her up and fuss over her – ensuring she is okay and reprimanding her for doing something dangerous. She keeps her close to her side or leaves the park. This child can learn from this that the world is dangerous and she is not capable of certain things.
Instead, the mother could calmly go to the child and assess if she is badly hurt, give her some physical comfort (immediate physical affection is important in mitigating trauma) and tell her to try again. The mother stays close until the child feels confident in the attempt. When she is successful, the mother praises her and slowly moves farther away. Eventually the child will have mastered the task and will have forgotten the fall. There is wisdom in the old cowboy adage to get back on that horse that bucks you off. At times our culture prioritizes safety as the ultimate virtue – but our civilization wouldn’t have gotten far if men and women had been unwilling to “get back on the horse”.
Mother’s must resist the impulse to “freak out”. This is difficult for those of us with passionate temperaments. I, for one, am quite enthusiastic and excitable. I happen to think it is wonderful to be passionate, it makes life an adventure. “Freaking out” over good things is great. When my husband got a promotion, I was jumping up and down. When my sister told me she was having another baby, I screamed. When I stood in front of Hagia Sophia, I gasped in amazement. This is part of amplifying the good, since we know negative tends to be more potent. But when times are tough, we need to turn down our “freak-out” dial.
A few weeks ago my seven-year old son threw a rock through the back windshield of a car sitting in a parking lot. It completely shattered – he has a strong arm. I was angry because I had just told him not to throw rocks. However, as I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was truly sorry, but unfortunately I saw something else – fear. Fear of his mother, of the harsh scolding he might receive. I really didn’t like seeing that in my sweet son’s eyes. I don’t want him to be afraid of his mother’s reaction. I literally bit my lip and calmly reprimanded him but did not go overboard. (I did not let him get away with disobedience. He is slowly working off his window-debt.)
The owner of the car, an older woman, was actually sitting in the car when my son threw the rock. She was extremely upset and shocked by the incident. She came out and began crying. I apologized profusely and promised we would pay for it all. It was fixed and paid for within 24 hours. She later called me and apologized for her emotional response. She said she didn’t know why she was so overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps she had an over-reactive mother:)
If children have a mother that is an over-reactor, they have two choices – either to join their mother in her reaction and develop anxiety and fear as a result- or to discount their mother’s reactions and choose not to share anything with her that might “set her off”. Often, we discover our children lie to us out of fear. We find something broken in the house and, upon interrogation, discover all our children are innocent. When they become teenagers, there are worse offenses to be hidden. One of the main motivations to lie is avoiding the reactions of the parents. Does that mean we can’t be upset when our children make bad choices? Of course we will be, and they must realize that their actions have consequences, including emotional reactions. However, we don’t want our over-reactions to keep our children from feeling safe speaking to us about things. One example is the modern plague of pornography. Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to porn. This can be extremely destructive to young minds. However, when a young boy sees porn for the first time, he may feel shame and hide it from his parents. If his mother, through years of over-reaction, has convinced him that she is not “safe” – if she becomes angry or disappointed in him for small offenses – he is much less likely to share the experience with her. Then his shame and deceit will continue, for fear of what the parents will think of him. This is the road of addiction. (I hope to do a longer post on teaching and preparing kids for the dangers of pornography.)*
Discussing COVID-19 with Kids
It is important that we don’t over-react to the current crisis in front of our children. In extreme cases this could cause the development of phobias or generalized anxiety in them. We don’t need to lie to our children. However, we must consider the age and maturity of our children when discussing difficulties. We also can’t trust that the voices they hear on the news or from friends will be stabilizing messages. Dr. Levine gives some good advice about how to talk to our kids about fearful events:
“Because the media uses graphic fear as a selling point, it is important to minimize children’s TV news exposure – particularly during dinner and before bedtime. Of course, it is best to watch the news after they are asleep. Kids three to five years of age may ask questions about things that they have heard or seen on TV. At these ages, children are beginning to be able to put feelings into words and you can let them know that it is okay to have these feelings….(it may be helpful to tell) stories where the hero/heroine has overcome difficult situations and been made stronger by meeting and mastering an ordeal.
For older children, six to twelve years of age, more direct discussions can be held. It may be important to find out where they got their information and what their specific fears are. Then you can have the family brainstorm ideas for things that they can do to help the people who have been affected…Mobilizing helpful activity, rather than being a spectator, can make a big difference.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
It is our reaction to this crisis that will do the most towards stabilizing our children. We can look for the rays of hope on the horizon – rather than the dark predictions or negative takes. If we feel our children are mature enough to discuss some of the difficult facts of the virus, ask them how they can help make this time easier and more productive. Rather than focusing on death tolls or worries about transmission. Teach them how properly washing hands or wearing face masks can help prevent contraction and spread. Talk to them hopefully about the future – if you find yourself unable to see the hope – seek out positive voices, pray to God for peace, and rely on stress-relievers such as outdoor walks. As they see us facing the crisis with faith and problem-solving, they feel safe. The whole experience can make us all more resilient. Our children can get through this – guided by the hope in their mother’s eyes.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
P.S. I would greatly appreciate any shares/tweets/emails of this article to those who may benefit. Thank you so much for your support and Good Luck out there – or “in” there!
A modern, romantic young woman imagines her future. She sees before her limitless opportunities and potential. She considers the foreign lands she will explore, the intellectual truths she will uncover, the suffering she will prevent. As her mind wanders, she passes a young mother pushing a fussing baby in a stroller. Suddenly she visualizes that unconsidered possibility: becoming a mother. Images flash through her mind of what that life might look like: a life of making sandwiches, driving children to soccer, weight gain, and cleaning up throw-up. A repressive feeling descends on her. She is made for so much more than that. She shudders at the idea of wasting her passion and talent on such ordinary tasks…she is not the Mother-type anyway. She returns to her dream of a life of influence and recognition.
Generations ago, a romantic young woman imagines her future. She sees before her the path her mother and grandmothers walked. She sees the handsome young man she will meet, who is kind and strong. They will fall in love, marry and eventually have their own small cottage. She envisions her cute and obedient children…she will be more cheerful than her mother; she will ensure her children feel loved. This spirited girl imagines the merry home she will create – with laughter and music. Her husband will hug her as he returns from work and they will tell each other stories in front of the fire while the children play.
Both girls are honest and sincere in their desires. Their dreams are largely a product of their time and culture. Both will find that reality will not match their imaginings. The first girl has opportunities the second could never imagine. The second girl will face hardship and limitation – but those limitations bring a focused purpose that is easily lost in the first’s sea of potential.
Each woman throughout human history is a product of her time, but also distinctly unique, with varying talents, interests, and passions. Yet all women share one commonality. We are able to create and renew humanity. The perspective individual women hold of Motherhood determines the course our society will take.
I want to focus on the first women’s perception of motherhood – one common among young women today. The idea that motherhood is a “limiter” is widespread in our modern affluent society. With the invention of birth control, for the first time in history, motherhood is now a choice, not just the natural byproduct of life. Rather than inevitable-motherhood being the driver of decisions – today it is often an afterthought. Increasingly, women are choosing against it.* Women point to many reasons for forgoing motherhood, and I hope to elaborate on many of those reasons in the next few posts, but a primary rationale is the oft stated, “I am not the Mother-type.”
The Imaginary Good-Mother
A recent post on Facebook featured the complaints of one typical young mother. She said, “Motherhood does not come naturally to me…people criticize my lack of knowledge in motherly things like cooking…I don’t really enjoy kid’s activities, I feel my soul gets sucked away with kids’ day to day demands and activities.” The problem is not that this woman is not suited to motherhood, it is that she has adopted a vision of it that she could never enjoy.
“Often what is refused is a straw-man caricature of Motherhood, raised for the purpose of rejection. Marriage and Fatherhood inevitably follow a similar fate.”
Being a “good mother” has nothing to do with “liking kids activities.” I doubt Mary spent much time playing hopscotch with the young Jesus. Marie Curie didn’t play dress-up with her kids. Mary did nurture and guide Jesus in light and truth. Marie Curie did train her future Nobel-prize winning daughter. She used her God-given passion and intellect to bless the world not only through her own work, but through her children’s.
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
The stereotypes of mothers doing crafts, fussing over hairstyles, and continually running their kids to sports or dance lessons are modern-day inventions. Throughout human history, women have not had time for such distractions. Generations of children got along without these luxuries. In the past, women didn’t ask themselves if they were the “Mother-type”. Instead they asked, “Will there be enough bread?”
We are fortunate in our lives of comparative ease to be able to focus on the emotional, social, and intellectual areas of our children’s lives. We have the opportunity to be more mindful and intentional in our mothering than any previous generation. Having more time to play with our children is wonderful. We are fortunate if we happen to have interests which line up with the demands of motherhood – such as homemaking. However the shallowier aspects of practical mothering are not what defines motherhood anymore than the church choir represents the gospel.
Our culture has narrowed Motherhood down to such an inadequate definition that it is no wonder young women are shunning it. Constrained motherhood has never been, never could be, and never should be reality. The opposite is, in fact, reality. Good Mothers must be as diverse as the unique spirits born to them.
“You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.”
Cookie-Cutter Angel Moms
When I was a little girl I remember being upset by angels. I somehow extrapolated from various sermons and lessons that if I was a good person, I would someday become enough like Jesus that I would go up to heaven and become an angel. I imagined a heaven full of clone-like angels, all reacting and conversing in the exact same manner. Being an independent and head-strong girl, I didn’t like this, and I even told my mom that I didn’t want to be an angel. I had worked out in my young mind that if we were “righteous” we would all unite as cookie-cutter angels. Even as a child, I was aware of my strengths and weaknesses, I rationally extrapolated that the old me would be gone forever, replaced by a perfect person, foreign to my current self.
My mother attempted to correct my misinterpretations but I think, unfortunately, this false idea of “common goodness” remained with me. Part of the reason I initially was apprehensive about my new seemingly all-encompassing role of mother is that if I tried to do it right, which was my desire, I would find myself on the assembly line of “good mothers”. I feared a loss of self. All my opinions, experiences, and idiosyncrasies would be lost to the “higher calling”.
I had an underlying belief that motherhood would be a means of controlling my nature. I saw my opinionated and strong-willed personality as an impediment to becoming a good mother; now I see how these attributes have aided me. Motherhood does not control us into submission. Motherhood allows us to use our gifts to their most worthy ends.
Unity of Mothers
We want mothers to feel a sense of common purpose and unity. This unity is not found in the expectation that we will arrive at the same place, but the knowledge that we are rooted in a common one. It is not in our interests, or our personalities, or how we raise our children that unite us – but our motherly love and the divine desire to raise our children well.
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre rather in a world where every road, after a few miles,forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level, life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.”
Our natures should not change because of our new position, they should be fully engaged in aiding us in our new calling. Rather than feeling like clones of a good mother, we can create our own unique form of motherhood.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord.
1 Corinthians 12
If we feel inadequate or out-of-place in motherhood, we might be holding ourselves to some idealized version of motherhood that we created. We need to mother in a way that feels natural and utilizes our gifts. There is not one way to be a good mother, there are as many ways as there are mothers.
We should not judge other women, or “mom-shame”. Realizing the utility of diverse perspectives among women should help us resist questioning other mother’s methods . However, just because motherhood takes many forms does not mean everything goes; subjective thinking is a dead-end. Validating statements like, “We are all doing the best we can,” are not accurate or helpful. A more honest assessment is that none of us are doing the best we can, we do the best we are willing to do. However, it doesn’t follow that we are all worthless mothers because we fall short of perfection – but we do need to continually attempt to be worthy of the title “good mother”.
“Bad” mothering has nothing to do with discordant talents, interests, or personalities – but everything to do with their underlying philosophy. (Hence the name of the blog). Improper philosophy (motivation and reasoning towards a purpose) is at the heart of our society’s misconceptions of motherhood. What should be a mother’s underlying purpose? To raise resilient and capable children. What is her motivation? Her innate love for her child and selfless desire to maintain a good relationship. In good mothering the child comes before self. When we sideline the best interests of our family to be “true to our self”, we have veered off course.
Don’t Sacrifice Your Soul…
Yes this philosophy requires some sacrifice. If we aren’t blessed with an innate love of cooking and organization, we have to adapt and do our best at developing those skills. The first five years of a child’s life, particularly, require moderation of our own desires. But this reality should not be “soul-sucking” as the woman on Facebook suggested. Our soul can remain intact while doing things we don’t want. If we frame motherhood around purpose, and the areas where we are able to utilize our innate gifts- we begin to enjoy it.
I hate cooking. With five hungry kids I have to cook a lot. I remember coming to the horrific realization that this would be a never-ending task. Once I finish one meal another is coming right up on my heels. This is a duty of motherhood I have to just buck-up and do. It is an area of growth and progression, that’s OK. I do the best I am willing to do. I don’t believe magnificent meals are integral to a healthy childhood. I distract myself from the mundane nature of this task by listening to a podcast or reviewing spelling words with my kids. I am blessed to have a daughter who enjoys cooking, she is my chef-in-training. (Talk about the blind leading the blind). I am hoping she is my path to an early retirement. What’s interesting is that if I look back on the last week I can’t easily remember one meal I have cooked. I guess it isn’t important enough to me to store in my long-term memory. If we really don’t enjoy an aspect of life, that doesn’t mean we don’t do it – but we also don’t waste a lot of brain energy and emotion dwelling on it.
In motherhood it is best to focus on the positive. Let’s fill motherhood with things that are meaningful and engaging for us and drop or minimize what isn’t. We don’t have to be the source of all things for our children. My kids aren’t learning art from me, that’s what their aunt is for.
…Use Your Soul
The trick is to combine the pursuit of our interests with raising our children. My artist-sister, rather than isolating herself in a quiet studio away from the distractions of kids, has made creative apprentices of them. They go through a ream of paper a week at her house, the walls are continually plastered with artwork. Her teenage daughter, trained at her mother’s hip, is now an incredibly talented artist. (She recently surprised me with this pencil drawing of my daughter.)
My own mother loved to learn. She was particularly fascinated by psychology and the brain. After reading a book, she would excitedly tell us all she learned, regardless of our age. She always managed to relate it to our level. I remember her explaining Freuden slips to me at the tender age of six – after I began a prayer, “Dear Heavenly Candy…” My mother was able to use her interests and talents in the medium of mothering. Despite being a very intelligent, educated, and serious-minded woman, my mother never saw raising her seven children as hindering her talents, but rather the most important place in which to apply them.
But what of the second young woman from years past? There is no doubt that she lacked the opportunity and choice of our modern young woman. That is certainly a shame. But let’s not underestimate this woman’s eventual contribution, poor and unappreciated as she may have been. She would use her talents, interests, and energies in raising her future children, she had little else to give them. And for millions of mothers, that has been enough.
Perhaps our first “modern” young woman could reconsider her narrow vision of Motherhood. Instead she could imagine the limitless opportunities to be found there, the chance to expand and utilize her gifts towards a noble purpose. She could refuse to define herself by what mother’s “should” do, and decide instead to be fully engaged in sharing her love and gifts with her child. She may discover she is indeed, the Mother-type.
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There are a lot of conflicting reports on parenthood and happiness. As I researched this topic, I found studies showing differing correlation, but the data is too complex to show causation. However, it seems the trendy view is that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The Young Turks, a left-leaning outlet geared towards young adults, has a video entitled “Proof Parenthood Destroys Your Happiness”. This bold claim is based on short-term evidence from a single study in a first-world nation. However, despite the limitations of the study, one of the commentators said the results were enough to convince her to never have children! So is parenthood really that detrimental to happiness? For the sake of this article lets take the prevailing view and assume it is, at least in the short-term. Does it necessarily follow that the best choice is then to forgo having children? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our potential babies with the unhappy bath-water, at least before giving it some careful consideration.
Jordan Peterson gave some great insight on this subject that summarizes the short-sightedness of the “Unhappy Parent” perspective (4:36).
At church on Sunday I noticed a young man standing in the back bouncing his newborn baby girl. He was in his 20s, good-looking, and well-dressed in a white sweater (color choice was a dead giveaway to his rookie status). His new daughter was fussy and he seemed stressed as he tried to calm her down. I had to chuckle as I noticed that his baby had spit-up on his sweater. What a shame. A previously confident young man with his whole life ahead of him – forced to frantically try and calm an inconsolable child. He could be relaxing at home playing Madden Football. With our modern aspirations for a life free of stress and worry, this scene can certainly be seen as a tragedy.
Maturing from Fun to Happiness to Suffering
Kids have their finger on the pulse of happiness – or as they like to call it “fun”. “What are we doing fun today?” “This isn’t fun!” As adults we don’t ask about fun anymore – that is childish. Instead we focus on happiness. “I am just not happy.” “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Are these really that different? Have we really matured beyond our six-year-old self’s demands? The truth is that the constant expectation of happiness, perhaps exasperated by a fun-filled childhood, can create a feeling of discontent.
The transition the young father will go through in the next few years will likely not be the “happiest” time of his life. There is pain as we change from a me-focused mindset to an other-focused perspective. This is called maturing. This is the shift from a life driven by happiness to a life driven by meaning. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs.* This young man’s fatherhood is forcing him to find a new path to joy, a less selfish path, and a path sure to include distress. Calming an upset infant is not easy! “God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.” William Nicholson.
Happiness is Selfish
Happiness is simply an emotion; it is dependent on what happens to us, and how satisfied we feel in the moment. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” researchers on happiness write.*
There is a place for selfishness, and I hope there is a big place for happiness – but orienting our lives to maximize the realization of our selfish desires is a recipe for destruction. As the Stoics understood thousands of years ago, Viktor Frankl exclaimed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” Because of the selfish nature of happiness, its pursuit often negatively affects relationships. Ask the new mother whose husband plays video games until 3 am. Or the kids whose mom ran off with the “love of her life” fitness trainer. (Fascinating clip hyperlinked here by C.S. Lewis on the supremacy of Sexual Happiness). Striving for happiness is our natural inclination, but put in a place of prominence it can become pathological. It can obscure your long-term concerns for yourself and any concern for the feelings of others (mania and psychopathy). In the clip below Jordan Peterson explains how positive emotions must be balanced with necessary negative emotions.
Selfishness and a focus on personal-satisfaction can certainly be a motivation to choose a childless life. Kids severely limit your options; they are a constant source of work and stress. However, as Erin explained so well in her post last week – the limiting of our options may in fact open us up for more depth and potential.** I am not saying all childless couples are selfish. People have various, and often justified, reasons for not having children. However, if their justification is solely based on the prospect of unhappiness, I would urge them to reconsider. Opening yourself up to the world of “others” and self-sacrifice can bring profundity and meaning to your life. “If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you will become deep, and life without depth is, by definition, shallow and meaningless.” Jordan Peterson.
Happiness is Judgemental
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Marie helps people order their lives by throwing out most of their belongings. A few years ago I read her book and threw out ten garbage bags of stuff. It was awesome. One of her recommendations is that you hold everything in front of you and ask “Does this spark joy?.” I asked myself that question 300 times or more as I went through my house. I can certainly see the utility in that. However, I can also see some pathological perfectionism in that statement. It is sterilizing life. When you look in the background after Marie Kondo has done her tydinging magic, the room can look fake and unsettling. Maybe it is the slob in me talking, but is a house swept of imperfection cozy or charming? Does it have character? We can judge our possessions selfishly – our shoes won’t be offended if we dump them at Goodwill. However, do we sometimes have a similar mindset when examining the people and experiences we have in life? Do we sometimes wish we could discard other things/people impeding our joy? Should we “Kondo” our family? How about our duties? Is sparking joy the ultimate measurement of worth?
When I was a 27-year-old mother with 2 little kids, I had a tough time in the transition to maturity. I acted like a spoiled brat sometimes when my husband got home. “I clean the house up and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home; I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” I complained because I believed that happiness should be the default of existence therefore something was wrong if I wasn’t happy. I judged whether each moment was in-line with my expectations. Constantly observing my unhappiness only added to it.
The problem with evaluating your life based on “joy-sparking” is it’s not a fair judgement, it is only taking into account one thing – happiness. It doesn’t ask if it is the right thing to do, or the necessary thing to do. If I used this method I would never do laundry again! When people forgo parenthood because they don’t think having children would “spark joy,” they are using happiness as the judge, and who made “happiness” the best judge of life? “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3. Life must be seen for all its complexity and should not be reduced to happy or unhappy.
Happiness is Not the Standard
Underneath our judgments of life is an underlying belief that life is “supposed to be happy”. A school of philosophers called Existentialists reject this view of the world. Instead they remind us of the intrinsic difficulty of life. Jordan Peterson is an existentialist – like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky before him. Growing up in the military, I traveled the world and saw that poverty and hardship were commonplace. Life seemed so arbitrary and unfair. When I was a teenager I read The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky portrays suffering as intrinsic to the story of human experience. However, he shows that as we accept the fragility of life we can live life more fully. We can take upon ourselves the responsibility of relieving the hardships we see around us. We can accept that pain and disappointment are part of the package, along with joy and happiness. We can be more grateful for happiness when it comes because we know it can be fleeting and must be worked for, rather than expected. Dostoyevsky’s work shaped my worldview. There is much joy and meaning to be found when you let go of expectation of constant happiness. As Mike Rowe once put it, “Happiness is a terrific symptom, it is a terrible goal, because it’s a sucker’s bet.”
The ultimate reality is death. Accepting life as temporary can help us prioritize our lives. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” By choosing to accept the tenuousness of happiness and the harsh realities of life, we lose our naive desires and seek a higher purpose.
Life is For Meaning
Researchers studying the effect of meaning in a person’s life, found that the things that makes life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy.* The study showed, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment.” When my husband and I decided to have a large family we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure, and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress five kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the difficulty of raising a large family I might not have done it (I am pretty selfish). The joy we experience and inexpressible love we have for our children far outweighs the daily difficulty of raising them.
Living a meaningful life is necessary for the kind of happiness I would call joy – a happiness that does not fade. Not the “sparking joy” kind we experience when we wear our favorite shirt – but deep joy stemming from a life well-lived. Meaning comes from making a difference in someone’s life. This is what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” This may be why studies show that parents who feel they are doing a good-job have much higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.***
Parenthood as Purpose Throughout Human History
Human life has continued because people have children – because that is just what people do. That is what life is, it is what makes life and continues life. Until recently, children were considered a precious gift. Cultures and society were set up largely for their benefit. The Psalms says, “Children are an heritage to the Lord, Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them.” So why are so many millenials choosing to remain childless? Is it partly due to our over-emphasis on the “happy life”?
Even today, most people worldwide (especially in developing countries) take having a family as obvious and unquestioned. When I was 18, I went on a University “Field Study” with my Geography Department. Another girl and I were dropped off in a remote village near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for four months. Many children in the village had never seen a white person; very few spoke English; there was no running water or electricity. My friend and I stayed in the one brick building in the village – the small home of a Catholic priest (who had many children by the way). With our limited Swahili we quickly became friends with the locals. These friendship have helped define my life. The women in this village were tough. They worked hard all day for their husbands and children. They cooked their meals over a kerosene stove or a fire. They walked to the nearest well for water. If I had asked one of these women, “Did becoming a mom make you more or less happy?”, they would have started at me in bewilderment. What does happy have to do with anything? They did not have the luxury of such emotional questioning. My Tanzanian friends laughed, they cried, they had misfortunes, and they had blessings – as all of us do. They did not stop in front of every scenario and ask if it was sparking joy. They lived life unimpeded by selfishness and judgement of every situation.
Some might say that just because having children has been the norm does not mean it is the best path forward. Why not pave a new normal? There are a lot of problems with that idea – but the one that strikes me most is rejection of humanity and life itself. Is life not worth preserving? Do we not have something to pass on? Is there no value to the role of children in society? Dostoevsky said, “Through children the soul is healed…”
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is,” Viktor Frankl. As we build strong relationships with our children and help them grow into healthy adults, we get to experience not only our own life filled with happiness, pain, and all that life is – but also our children’s’ happiness and pain – that is living life, and living it more abundantly. If we give up on children because it may momentarily impede our pursuit of happiness, we may be denying ourselves the prospect of a life filled with meaning and love.
Joy is Found in Love
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” C.S. Lewis
We often sacrifice relationships on the selfish altar of happiness. Children bear the brunt of the selfish choices of their parents. Psychologists’ offices are full of people traumatized in childhood by self-centered adults. These adults put their own happiness above maintaining a loving relationship with their families. Perhaps if our culture shifted and we stopped saying, “Do whatever makes you happy”, fewer children would be traumatized and more people would find meaning.
Harvard recently did an 80-year study detailing the factors influencing the formation of a happy and healthy life.**** The results surprised the researchers, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Family is where these strong relationships are most easily found, the blood and experience that tie us to our family is not easily replicable. We don’t get to choose our children’s temperament, adapting ourselves to preserve meaningful relationships with them develops our character and resilience. (I do believe people can and have built lives full of meaning and love without children as they focus on others).
A New Perspective on Happiness
When that handsome young man in the spit-up covered sweater was bouncing his precious child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with his daughter. This journey will have “seasons” filled with diverse emotions and experiences. It will be an adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of it. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness, but if he keeps his mind focused on developing meaning and love, he will be glad he made the choice.
Let’s let go of a naive and selfish view of life as simply the pursuit of happiness. As we embrace the challenges and pain necessary to build a life of meaning and love, we can find the strength to risk unhappiness for lasting joy. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Postscript: Happiness Comes in the Letting-go of It
Dostoyevsky said that “with love one can live even without happiness.” But I don’t want to give up on happiness just yet. We don’t actually have to throw out the unhappy bath-water, we may be able to cleanse it. In order to obtain more happiness we need the foundation of the existential idea that things haven’t necessarily “gone wrong” when it is absent. I plan to write a series of posts in the next few months highlighting the ways we can more happily live in meaningful marriage and family.
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This story is for independent women out there: the ones who think travel and new adventures are the height of fulfillment, that wanderlust is a deep-seated craving that must be fulfilled. You may not picture yourselves in a traditional role, ever—it would be too constrained, too much of a sacrifice, too much boredom and compromise. You are too unique to be confined by such a small, conventional model.
That was exactly my mindset…. and why shouldn’t it have been? The picture of a traditional feminine role is nowhere glorified. Try it yourself—do a Google image search for ‘drudgery’. Even without prompting from other keywords, the most commonly recurring image is a worn out woman, surrounded by housework.
I am from a liberal, progressive-values family and a liberal, progressive-values city. My family was, however, somewhat traditional; parents never divorced, bills got paid, the kids played sports, we all ate dinner together. That was about it for family culture, though. We had no organized religion (that was for people who couldn’t think for themselves), no larger community involvement, no large family tree. We were, well, nuclear.
Both my parents worked full time. To me, this was perfectly normal—but I point it out to mention that I did not have a mother who stayed at home with children. My mother did everything well, or tried damn hard. She had a career, a beautiful home. She was, and is, a creative. Everything she makes—food, art, clothing, floral arrangements–puts Instagram to shame. She was the epitome of the Martha Stewart feminine, where women can and should do everything and do it well. She used to iron the sheets….…yet I also remember that she didn’t want to play. She was tired. Most of the time her craft space was filled with stuff that needed sorting, laundry, bags of junk. She was on hold, while she raised us, worked full time, and made everything appear lovely.
At 17, I left for college and hardly ever returned. I wanted nothing to do with the security of ‘home sweet home’. I exploded into freedom and adventure after adventure. I wanted to try everything and go everywhere, read everything, and never be held back. I worked outdoors for the US Forest Service in the summers, traveled in fall and winter, then enrolled in school just long enough to qualify as a student for rehire the next summer. I backpacked alone, road-tripped to Central America, jumped out of planes, ran a marathon, met a goal and then picked another and tried to reach it.
I was concerned with ideas too—traveling showed me a very different world than I had been raised in and I became interested in inequality, environmental problems, governmental corruption, and global politics. I was busy having fun, but I wasn’t a hedonist. I wanted the world to be better and I was willing to work at it.
However, I really struggled to curb my enthusiasm for all things and pick one. I was worried that I would have to leave things I loved behind and that I would lose out on new or better opportunities. Jordan Peterson has a brief clip on what that feels like—the process of moving from pure potential into a being that is disciplined. He equates it with moving from childhood to adulthood, where, after a period of ‘narrowing’, the sky opens again and your transformed being can accomplish much more than it could as an unformed entity. You become ‘somebody’ rather than potentially ‘anybody’.
When I was 21 I was married for the first time—rather impulsively. I fell in love, and believed that was the key to a successful relationship. I dropped out of school and moved to follow my husband’s career. I was isolated though, and quickly unhappy—we lived on the far edge of an island in the middle of the Pacific. He worked sometimes 16-hour days and had our car all day. I paced the apartment, then the bit of beach nearby and the tiny strip mall. I had no job, no friends, no purpose.
I found out I was pregnant and when I told my husband, he just said—no, we can’t. Years later I still don’t quite know how to understand that, but I relented and scheduled the procedure. (It may sound I am glossing over the fact that I had an abortion- it’s a point in my life I have tried very hard to forget, or maybe to not see, so I apologize if I sound distanced. It is not because I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t wanted to let myself for so long.
That marriage ended rather quickly in divorce. I was treated more as a roommate and not as a wife. There was no priority it seemed to make a life together, only to have fun. He did not want children yet, and so I returned to college. I realized that my intellectual needs were not met, and that it was already as good as it was going to get. There was not room for growth. I thought I could do better, and at 24 I certainly had time to look around. And it seemed to me that before I was married, before I tried to rely on someone, I had done more, had been more of a real person. I felt invisible after a few years of marriage
I initiated the divorce by having an affair with a close friend of his. Because I was a rather modern lady, and relativistic in my thinking, I thought that breaking social conventions wasn’t that big of a deal. I was very wrong. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of suffering I caused, not only to others but to myself. Peterson has been ripped in the press for discussing an idea called ‘enforced monogamy’ and he takes pains to clarify that he means ‘socially enforced monogamy’, not legally enforced monogamy. It is the idea that we reinforce the social codes through our reactions to others when they break them. I can tell you firsthand that this is a real thing, and if you break social conventions, at least one of the big ones (think Ten Commandments), you are going to pay.
It was the first time I saw that the code of social norms was a real thing, that I couldn’t simply make up the rules and ignore the ones I didn’t like. Once you’ve transgressed in a big way—you can’t just shrug it off. You inhabit a different mental space than other people, and your encounters with the social world are colored by that transgression as well—you are handled differently, even by those who love you. There were only two people who treated me the same despite my behavior, and knowing that someone thought I was redeemable absolutely carried me through that time. It was the first time I ever considered the notion of redemption, or that I might need to be forgiven to be able to clear my own head and heart and move forward.
Not only did I feel myself separate from the social fabric, I had somehow also proven to myself that the conventions I had followed weren’t useful– love doesn’t conquer all, marriage is a trap where your soul dies, and if you try to escape and manage it badly, you will suffer all the more. I couldn’t see a way to move back into anything like a traditional lifestyle–it didn’t make sense to try and make something work that just, didn’t work. I would try to live outside the norms instead.
I reasoned that I would be better off if I stayed unattached romantically. I spent the next five years being ‘free’: traveling, moving, seeking, studying, saving nothing, planning never farther ahead than the next few months, and living in a sort of amoral wilderness of my own making. Marriage had proven unreliable, so maybe ALL the conventions of dating and loving another person were up for examination, Maybe they could be discarded. I dated serially but never wanted to commit to anyone. It just didn’t seem safe. I might lose myself again.
I moved around a lot, to different apartments, different towns. I drove up and down the coast and studied at different libraries just to escape. I finished another degree. I studied literature, but what I recall most were heaping doses of critical theory, postmodernism, deconstructionist thinkers, etc. I mention the imposed philosophical leanings of my time at university because I believe they entrenched my sense of being lost even further. I was steeped in the idea that no version of a text, or a life, was better or more valid than another–and that truth claims were just patriarchal voices drowning out those they had colonized.
It was an elaborate study in nihilism and the unraveling of western culture’s belief in itself. For someone already existing on shaky ground, this was not a good footing. Literature had seemed a place to find an historical exploration of big ideas, of truth. But then, under postmodernism’s gaze, nothing was objectively true. I couldn’t claim that I found anything true or good at all: my job was to dismantle the text, to criticize the writers for their withered attempts and point out the obvious class divisions, the sexism, racism, etc. After I finished my master’s I walked away. I didn’t read another novel for six years.
I lived in different states and two different countries, traveled here and there, and just could not find a way to rest my head or be found. I loved cities, I loved the country, I loved people, I had a great time. But I was lost. I was using the serial shift in spaces and in relationships to cover the fact that I was not okay. Yet I don’t think that I ever gave the impression of being unhappy in a deep way. I appeared to others as a free-spirited wanderer, a lifestyle highly prized by modern cultural standards. I don’t think anyone looked at me, ever, with pity. Most of my oldest friends would comment that I had all the fun, while they worked, stayed in one place, lived more conventional lives.
My ‘last hurrah’’ was still rather interesting– I was living in New York City, in the middle of endless options for fun. I was working multiple part-time jobs, having crazy adventures, and I even had a plan. I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school. My application essay was on my goal to be an immigration lawyer and offer clinics and services in the US and Southern Mexico, so that families who had loved ones trapped in the legal system in the US could make sense of what their options were and how to navigate the immigration process. I had many close friends from Mexico who struggled with immigration issues and was truly passionate about my plan.
I was offered an interview for a chance at a full ride scholarship and I got it. And when I received the offer letter, I was thrilled. But then something just felt wrong. I did a quick bit of mental math that had honestly never occurred to me before. I was 29. If I started law school in the fall I would be finished at age 32. I would need to prove myself at a firm or establish my own, find capital for my project, dedicate myself to it for at least 3-5 years just to get going. That put me at 35-38. I realized I would probably never have a family. Was that what I wanted? If I became a successful lawyer, would it matter to me that I never had a family? I sent a thank you email and declined the offer.
In this short clip, Peterson discusses the shifting priorities of women who DO find success as lawyers and professionals. Once they become mothers, they focus on parenting rather than climbing a ladder. Even highly competitive, career-minded women who choose to become mothers prioritize that role.
A few months later I packed up a rental car, quit everything and moved home to my parent’s basement. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I just wanted to start from a sense of the known. I still was having trouble ending my wandering patterns and didn’t have a way of orienting myself. Often I felt like a worldly, educated failure.
I went online and wrote a dating post and kept it simple and honest. I am looking for a partner- not just fun, not serial dating. I want children, I want goats, I want acreage. That was about it. The first person I went on a date with was my husband of now going on 7 years. We have three children, 60 acres, goats, sheep, and projects from here to eternity.
I have to say, I wonder at the absolute miracle of finding the kind of partner I did from a single dating post. I was looking for a man who was not only responsible enough to have children, but successful enough to be able to support them and me, educated enough to keep me interested, serious about rural living AND capable at it, conscientious yet also open to new things, empathic but also masculine enough to attract me…. and who was ready to have kids RIGHT NOW. Not everyone on a dating site would fit that list. When I met my husband for the first time I liked him, but the impression I most remember is: ‘this is an adult’. I wasn’t even one by my own standards— but that was coming.
Here is a clip of Peterson describing what women at 29 who want families are up against:
Switching over to being a wife and a mother was very difficult for me, because of my own attitudes toward those roles. I was still highly suspicious of conventional life– for years. I refused to get married until our second child was on the way. I was adamant that I would keep my independence, so when I had our first and second child I didn’t quit my job, in fact I ‘leaned in’. I wanted to feel competent and to keep up with my husband’s schedule. I saw the measurement scale of worthiness as one of productivity. I never valued the work I was doing in our home.
The real failure of the model of ‘strong women can be anything a man can be’ is that it reduces the true value of what women as caregivers bring to the table, to zero. Women then internalize that model. People often try to ask if you do something besides parent, or are you ‘just a mom’? I’m not offended by this–I just think it’s time to move on from this standard of measure.
It’s ridiculous to assume that since there is no monetary value there is no actual value to home and child-focused labor. Is there any greater spiritual task than supporting lives with your own? Seriously– no yoga teacher, no trip to Bali or India, will get you to the level of self-awareness that having children can. There is no way not to see yourself clearly- all your faults and limitations- when your child reflects it back to you, or pushes you to your limits, day after day.
My notions of independence crumbled when I left my job to stay home with our kids—once there were three of them. I had been clinging to my identity as a ‘modern female’ through work outside the home. I did not really relate to moms who loved being home all day with their children. It didn’t ‘fit’ me. I liked my kids, I loved them. But I did not love monotonous days of food prep, clean up, poop, bathing, laundry, etc. It felt, often, like I was suffocating, like I was dying a bit today, and a bit the next, and that every day was going to be like that.
I felt powerless and started to act strangely—lashing out and starting fights with my husband for seemingly minor issues. He would bring home groceries on his way home from work to help me out and I would loudly criticize the brand of lunch meat he’d purchased (So sorry honey). To him it was just ham, to me I had lost control over every part of my life. All of a sudden the food I put into my body became a war for the last thing I had any control over.
It sounds Cray-zy. I know. I did seek counseling soon after. Then we went to counseling together, and then we worked out a basic schedule that went like this: Tuesday night was date night, Wednesday was mom’s night out, Thursday was dad’s night out. We both started to get some freedom back, and our kids still had a set schedule they could rely on.
I know now that the dying a little every day was true. It was the formation of someone else coming into being. I was narrowed, limited, feeling that old self losing out to someone who was more patient, less willing to run from difficulty. I could stand to do something day after day for a longer term payoff, for another person’s well being. My former self just couldn’t exist side by side with the person I needed to become. I hear other moms talk about ‘getting their groove back’ and I’m happy for them. But that’s not how I feel. That lady died. And now I’m here. I don’t miss her life, and she never would have been able to handle mine.
I discovered Peterson’s lectures in 2015, after hearing his first Joe Rogan podcast. When I listened to them, I felt like I had already lived through so many of the psychological realms he explores. Archetypal stories often sound archaic to the modern sensibility–do they even function?? But anyone who has lived through a day with toddlers knows that ‘beating back the chaos’ is very real. Anyone who has watched themselves lose their temper with a tiny person who can’t possibly defend themselves can understand the need to integrate the shadow, and learn to manage their own inner monster.
There was a lot I already sensed, the magnitude of the shift for example, yet he could articulate it in a way I hadn’t been able to. I found the lectures on suffering, the lectures on mythology. The Maps of Meaning series totally changed how I see the function of religion. It helped me move from a period of intense re-formation to a point where I could begin to see a bigger arc in my own life, and to talk about it.
A few years ago we sold our farm and moved across the country to live nearer to my husband’s family. We found a small church we love. We reorganized our priorities. The sense of life as drudgery has lifted as the kids have become a bit older and I can see the enormous potential of what we can make of our lives, and the self respect that comes from shouldering a heavy load.
We bought another farm and are now shepherds, homeschoolers, and run a small plant nursery. We have taken on the animals and the nursery because that fits in with our goals of supporting our community through sustainable farming, and for me of being a (mostly) full-time mom to our children. The nursery is open two months of the year and that two months is electric for me. I get enough adult interaction to counteract that lingering sense of being ‘just a mom’.
I am a creative type and a homemaker like my mother, but it takes last priority after family, farm, and exploring faith. I still struggle with limiting myself to a few tasks, and I often have to re-calibrate and push some things off the table. Long trips, long books, backpacking and brunch still don’t get on the schedule very often. I try not to get so overbooked that I can’t do the first things well.
At the same time we were leaving our other farm, my family went through a particularly difficult time. We lost my nephew just before he was born, and my sister in law was very ill. The gift my nephew gave me was a realization that I was able to carry others through hardship. I found that I was a lot stronger because of the work I had done- the caring for others, the limiting of my own impulsivity and personal desires for a longer term plan. It was incredibly helpful to have heard Peterson’s lectures on the nature of suffering. There is a point, maybe the most important one from that time, where he says something like this: that who you might want to aim to be is the most together person at a funeral. Here is a bit of that lecture:
That time completely changed the landscape and the way I view myself in regards to others. I saw that I could simply do more now, that I had come through fire, that I was tougher. I am no longer outside the social fabric- I create it and uphold it when others need it. Becoming a mom did that–not having a classroom, or a job outside the home. I already had confidence from my earlier life experiences. I had sought my own capabilities but I never found their limits elsewhere. I have never felt more fully capable, or less limited, which is testament to that strange paradox of the narrowing of your potential selves into an actual future self.
Peterson has said that we are at a point where the feminine archetype needs to be re-articulated, where the woman who is not ‘simply a caregiver’, so to speak, must be accounted for. I also think he is sensing it should come from women speaking about it themselves, and has hesitated to attempt it himself. I appreciate having that space to move into. Many women end their thoughts on the feminine at the idea that it has been historically oppressed and requires reclaiming, but then they reclaim it in reactionary ways– hating masculinity, disrespecting women who embrace traditional roles, or justifying their own hedonism in the name of a grand cause; aka chocolate, wine, and shopping as an identity.
There is something else, something deeper than consumerism and a ‘you deserve to have it all’ lifestyle. I’ve offered here a look at what that original transformative process of the feminine might still hold for modern, independent women. It is still valuable to let yourself be narrowed and re-formed, even if you end up at your wit’s end arguing over lunch meat. It is still a valid pathway for women to find challenge, meaning and purpose, and a career is not necessarily an equal substitute. (And how on earth could it be?)
A second look at motherhood, as invaluable for the mother, is necessary before we can modify that archetype. Modern feminism is not helping, proposing models that undermine the traditionally feminine and women who make life choices on that spectrum. It does very little to ‘revivify’ the culture, as Peterson often says, and more often tears at the social fabric in ways I find unsettling.
Thank you so much for reading. I want to thank Ally for inviting me to share some of myself here. After some correspondence we found that, although we agreed on many things, we were coming from two very different backgrounds— I was not planning a traditional family or marriage and ended up with both. I could not have arrived at where I am without the love, trials, and inner searching that was becoming a mother and a wife, even with–and perhaps especially because of– the drudgery of staying at home when I pictured myself as ‘so much more’.