I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lisa Hendey and Danielle Bean on the Faith & Family Podcast. I always look forward to these conversations because I walk away feeling empowered and encouraged. I learn so much from these wise, faithful women. I hope you will, too.
On this particular episode we talked about hobbies and the importance of downtime for moms and for their children. Then we moved on to asking for help and why so many of us moms have such a hard time accepting assistance from others. We also briefly touched upon how what might be helpful to one person – let’s say occasional help with the littles like I’ve recently solicited – might not be the best fit for you.
We ran out of time before I could stress the importance of looking at your own needs and limitations and determining what would help you be the most joyful mom. That’s why I’ve had to ask for help. I was missing out on some of the joy of being a mom. The chaos and exhaustion was leaving me completely depleted. I’d have a good day perhaps (or even a perfect week at the beach), but then I’d be back to feeling overwhelmed.
I haven’t been writing about some of my recent struggles much because I’d rather not focus on the gook and because there are (almost) always rifts of light breaking through darkness. All that said, I’ve had some tough moments in the trenches of motherhood over the past few months.
The beach gave me respite. And, yes, there was grace. There always is. But there was also more sleep on vacation. Upon our return, my dad and I were joking and started singing, “Amazing Sleep. How great thou art.” Forget the grace. Give me a night of uninterrupted sleep when none of the littles cry out or jab me in the ribs (or jab me in utero), and I’ll be one gloriously happy (and gentle) mama.
A month or so ago there was one night where I cried to my own mama that I just wasn’t enjoying motherhood like I once did. I hesitate to make this admission; it feels hopeless or selfish or annoying or something bad to say something so negative about the most sublime vocation of all. Yet, I believe most moms have been there – when our spirits feel crushed and our kids, while we know they are blessings and we love them like mad, feel like burdens that we just don’t feel strong enough (or well-rested enough) to shoulder.
Maybe there are some moms who haven’t ever felt that way – God bless you! However, one of the hallmark symptoms of burnout in my own mothering life is a lack of joy in being a mom.
When mothering stops being fun, something is amiss. When you feel like all you do is serve your family instead of enjoy them, something is amiss.
Sure, being a mom is exhausting, challenging, and requires ample self-donation, but it’s also supposed to bring you joy. It’s not supposed to suck all the happiness out of you. When the joy seems out of reach, you’re probably burnt out or depressed or not carrying His yoke or not following His will – or a combination of all these things. At least this has been my own experience. I probably shouldn’t speak for others. We all have signs and symptoms that suggest something is out of whack spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and/or physically.
I remember another dark night when I was crying to my husband and I questioned why I couldn’t handle things the way others mothers could (or the way I thought they could), and he reassured me that I was not weak. He reminded me of the ages of my children. He reminded me of the demanding nature of his work that meant I was frequently on my own in the parenting trenches. He reminded me of my own temperament. I was not less holy than other moms. I was me with my own life, interior struggles, and children with unique personalities. I needed to give myself a break. I needed to make decisions based on what would help me – not somebody else – to be a more joyful mom. And to always, always remember that what is important is what is good for me, not just what is simply good.
Having college students come in a few times a week to play with the kids while I write or rest or just grocery shop alone has been a real blessing. But I’ve needed to reassess some other things, too. During the podcast, I feel like I kept throwing the word “homeschooling” out there – like I was testing it out for the first time. (“My babysitter was homeschooled,” I threw out there. Um, your point is? Actually, she mentioned her mom was feeling burntout, but she’s been at it for 17 years!!! I can’t imagine that.) Never mind I began researching homeschooling before I was even pregnant when I worked on-staff at a parenting publication. With Lisa and Danielle, I also briefly mentioned that I’d recently been discerning homeschooling and reevaluating if this really was the right calling for my family or just some ideal I wanted to live up to because I felt like it would somehow make me holier or more like Mrs. So-and-So whom I admire greatly and see as the paragon of piety. (I know it’s not all about me; it’s about my family, and I have to stop focusing so much on what I can and can’t do, etc.) Homeschooling is good – very good – for a lot of families, but it may not be so good for other people. The question right of the moment is: Is it good for me, for our family, right now? I’ve been asking that question a lot lately.
When my husband started his residency, Madeline wasn’t even two yet, but I somehow hooked up with a great group of homeschooling moms (a group called Totus Tuus). Gunner that I am, I went ahead and joined their homeschooling co-op, not because Madeline needed immense erudition (or any academics; she was learning through experiences and playing; she still is) but because I needed companionship and mom mentors. I was blessed with these things. I met some amazing women. Because I admired them and saw them as holy and wise and women I wanted to be like when “I grew up,” I started piecing together this formula for sainthood based on their lives. It went something like this: At least half a dozen kids + homeschooling = near-saintliness.
I can write that now and see how limited my formula was. There are plenty of women whom I admire for their kindness and faith and mothering aptitude who don’t homeschool, never did homeschool, and likely never will. Nor do they bring forth enough children to field a baseball team (my awesome mom being one of them). Then there are people who are called to the single life (my godmother being one) who serve others differently than I do. I have a wide range of friends who inspire me by living beautiful, peaceful, and holy lives, but the way they do that varies greatly.
Then there are the miscellany of saints: knights, hermits, nuns, mothers, intellectuals, farmers. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself: That it’s not following some prescribed formula that will guarantee living a grace-filled, joyful, and Godward life. God calls us all to holiness but in different ways. It’s recognizing that God has a unique plan for me and then bending my own will and desire to try to follow it. It’s not doing what others do or don’t. It’s not trying to live up to some ideal I’ve created in my perfectionist psyche. It’s taking a deep breath, praying, facing my own limitations, asking myself (over and over): How can Katie Wicker become the best version of the person God created her to be?
So, yes, I’ve been discerning sending my oldest to school. Actually, discerning isn’t really the right word. That would suggest some balance and a certain level of emotional and spiritual maturity that I seem to be lacking right about now. What I’ve really been doing is agonizing over it. I’ve started biting my nails again. I wake up almost every single night to start weighing the pros and cons. I’ve consulted homeschooling friends and non-homeschooling friends (thank you, Kris, Dorian, Nana, and Julie K.). I’ve met with the principal and office staff of our local parochial school. I’ve visited a Montessori school. I’ve talked and talked and talked to my husband and my parents. I’ve cried buckets of tears, feeling like I’ll amount to a BIG, FAT failure if I quit homeschooling just because I’d made some silly promise to myself to stick with it. (Please note: I do not think anyone else is a failure if they never homeschool or decide to quit homeschooling. I only hold myself to these ridiculous standards. Like so many women, I am by far my own worst critic.)
My dad recently told me jumping into cold water is never easy because it’s going to be jarring. It’s going to take awhile to get used to it. “No matter what decicion you make,” he said, “It may not feel great or ‘right’ at first.”
But he and a good friend also reminded me I’m not making some permanent, lifelong decision. We can decide something for today and then prayerfully change our minds tomorrow.
It’s just that I want to be comfortable. I want my kids to be comfortable. I don’t want any of us to feel any aftershocks or to feel like we should have never jumped into the water in the first place.
But I no longer want to feel like I’m always treading water either, just barely keeping my head above the surface.
What I do want is the perfect education for my child – one that’s flexible, brimming with faith, enlivens her natural curiosity, gives her time to run and be wild as is her nature but also plenty of time to be with her sisters and her mommy and daddy. Can someone please start a Catholic Montessori school in my area? Oh, that would be an absolute dream come true. So long as we’re talking wish lists, I also want a toddler who starts napping again like she used to for two blissful hours each day and a preschooler who doesn’t fall apart in the afternoon and use her hands to hit rather than her words to speak. I want my oldest to be happy, to thrive. I want my whole family to thrive – myself notwithstanding.
How do I make that happen? I don’t. Not on my own, anyway. It’s not all on me or up to me. Still, there are decisions I need to make along with my husband.
Madeline recently attended an all-day camp, and my gregarious girl did thrive off all the perpetual activity and interaction with others. I missed her tremendously, but I admit I also enjoyed the slower pace I kept with my little ones. So that got me seriously thinking about school. (I’d considered it before, but I’d always quickly pushed it aside and been fairly content with our decision to homeschool.) I don’t like busy work, but this busy bee of mine might be happy with busy work. She’s certainly happy keeping busy. All. Of. The. Time.
People who know my big girl well said she’d love the school setting. I know they’re probably right. But what about our family as a whole? What is best for us? How will I be able to squeeze any school in with a 2-year-old, 4-year-old, 6-year-old, and newborn? Am I trying to do too much? At the start of our first year of homeschooling, the answer was definitely a yes. I look back at the ridiculous grid I created with every block of time mapped out. There would be weekly tea parties, daily narrations a la Charlotte Mason, picture study, afternoons listening to classical music, poetry Fridays, arts and craft time, weekly chunks set aside to immerse ourselves in nature. Have we done some of these things? Oh yes! But on a weekly basis? Ha. No way.
We’ve had some really good days lately. Very, very good days, in fact. Yet, I haven’t been worried about schooling at all. We’re taking a break. So it’s easy to blame homeschooling for my feelings of being overwhelmed since I’ve felt the joy of motherhood again not having to have that stupid grid taunt me about everything I didn’t accomplish.
Gosh, it feels good to just enjoy your kids and to not have any shred of anxiety about if they’re learning enough. Life is learning. I’ve always believed that, but I try to cram too much into life too often. There’s often no room for learning, just rushing. Or at least that’s the way I sometimes feel lately.
I’m dreaming of meeting our newest baby. He/she kicks. I feel a thud inside that’s getting stronger by the day, and I know it won’t be long. My midwife says given my history of premature dilation, I’ll likely have this baby in nine or ten weeks. I smile. My hand drifts to my belly. Then I panic. I’m barely treading water now, remember. How in the world am I going to take care of all these littles and educate my oldest while still squeezing in some ABC time for my preschooler? I start to consider unschooling – how beautiful, how simple! But Type Aers like me don’t know how to unschool. We don’t know how to UN-anything.
My goal for this pregnancy has been to avoid the bedrest sentence I had to answer to my previous two pregnancies; yet, sometimes I find myself pining for time spent in the horizontal position (providing the baby would still come out not too early and be perfectly healthy). Of course, I know if I am put on bedrest, I’ll be kicking myself for ever thinking that I wanted to to be on my side all daylong watching others manage my home and feeling helpless when my little ones needed their mama.
Where am I at now? After many prayers and tears and nail-biting and long talks with my amazing, supportive husband, we’ve decided to homeschool for at least one more year but to really, really take a good, long hard look at the parochial school in our area and if it might be a positive possibility for our family down the road as well as the explore and weigh all of our options. And as my husband keeps reminding me: Aren’t we so lucky to have options? I admit, too, that hearing my oldest break into sobs at the thought of having to leave the newborn baby (Madeline could hold babies all daylong; this is one activity that does seem to keep her still) did have a bit of influence on our decision.
So I’ve dipped my toe into the water. It is cold. It’s dark. I don’t know what’s beneath the surface. I’m scared. Terrified, really. I don’t know how a fourth baby is going to affect our homeschooling rhythm. I’ve never liked schedules; I’ve always preferred to have a rhythm to our day. But it’s felt out of whack lately, and we don’t even have a little, wakeful newborn around here yet.
Still, I feel better now that a decision has been made. My nails are growing a tad longer again.
As for parenting joy, I’m happy a lot of the times. I do notice all the little yet remarkable things that make mothering such a gift. I do love writing journal entries to my girls where I pause and tell them about the details of our days, what I notice about them at that moment in their growing and changing life. However, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t feel overwhelmed a lot, too. Is it just me? I’m tempted to think so, but that’s foolish. Most moms are overwhelmed at certain points of their lives. Maybe we have different stressors and triggers, but this all-consuming mothering gig brings us to our knees, doesn’t it? We can’t do it alone. I have to stop trying so hard to just that.
I also have to make a daily downtime a requirement. My 2-year-old has stopped napping, but I’m making daily quiet time for all of us – even Hopping Cricket Madeline – non-negotiable. (This was something I’d once been very strict about, but it had fallen by the wayside since we moved last summer.) So much of my restlessness is rooted in my stubborn refusal to rest. I’m grateful for the amazing summer babysitter we have right now who paints outside with my kids and sprays them off with the hose and gives them messy moments that their hot and tired and very pregnant mama just can’t say yes to right now. I’m grateful for any rest I can get. (But I don’t really want to be on bedrest. Not that it’s my choice.)
I’m also reminding myself that my worth and measure as a mom, a Catholic, a wife, and simply human being is not dependent on any particular decision I make for my children. As far as homeschooling is concerned, I’m taking it year by year, child by child. That’s always been my motto. And right now I’m focusing on my daily plan, my daily graces, and my daily trust. Give us this day our daily bread. No marathon running for me at this season of my life (metaphorically or not). Baby steps. Small steps walked at my own pace with my own gait. Slow and steady. Grab the grace, a friend recently tweeted to me. Grabbing fistfuls of it now.
Thanks for listening. :-)