This morning my sweet 2-year-old boy delicately cupped my chin in his dimpled hands, widened his bright, brown eyes, and said to me, “Do laundry. Make dinner.”
I have to admit I was expecting him to profess his unfettered love to me, not give me a to-do list.
I laughed at this unexpected moment but if I’m completely honest, my heart felt an ounce heavier, too.
Lately I’ve felt like my life has been reduced to a list of menial tasks. Many of my friends have careers outside of the home or they at least work part-time. I’ve drastically cut back on the amount of freelance work I do. I have one chapter of the novel I say I’m writing, and it’s not a very good chapter either. When I homeschooled the older children, I at least felt like that was my job. I was a teacher. I was imparting great wisdom to these impressionable souls gifted to me. These days I feel like I am simply the person who cleans up spills, folds clothes, and makes sure permission slips are signed and returned to school.
I don’t write much. I blog sporadically and am always apologizing for my vapid posts. I don’t run (still resting…and hurting. Sigh). I don’t homeschool. Here’s what I do do: I clean. I nag. I wipe snotty noses. I schlep kids around. I worry that I’m doing it all wrong, that I am ruining my kids. I feel like no one notices all that I do. I feel taken for granted, used, and ignored. Wah, wah, wah. Please tell me you have felt this way before, too.
A friend of mine texted me a few weeks ago and asked me if I ever feel invisible. Um, yes. All of the time. I’ve wondered what would happen if I slipped quietly away. Of course, the world would still turn. But my household? It would be even more chaotic and discombobulated than it is now. I remember reading Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler before I had any children and being miffed with the heroine’s selfish behavior. In the novel, 40-year-old Delia Grinstead strolls down a shoreline and just keeps walking, abandoning her husband and three older children. The decision is not a premeditated one, and there was no big fight or breaking point that forced her to walk away from it all. She leaves more on an impulsive whim because she is tired of feeling like a “tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges.”
I didn’t get it then. I could not empathize with Delia. Today I have more insight. Today I sometimes feel like that gnat, too, that everyone is swatting away and doesn’t want around to bug them about picking up dirty laundry off the floor or being kind to their siblings.
I’ve taken two pregnancy tests recently (both were negative), not because I really thought I was pregnant (it would have been a miracle) and not even because I am desperately longing for another baby, although I would certainly embrace a new, little life if one was given to me. It was more out of a need to feel useful, to have a sense of purpose, and duty, to be more than a pesky gnat. I’ve written before that babies, while certainly physically exhausting, are beautifully simple to me. Their needs and wants are one in the same. I nurse them when they cry, and they are at least briefly satisfied. They want only mama. I have an excuse to “do nothing” except care for my baby. People allow you that when you have a newborn but when you have older kids, you need to be team manager for the soccer team and make homemade snacks. Or there’s the pressure – real or perhaps just perceived – because you’re “just” an at-home mom.
Lately I’ve found myself pining for those simple, early days of motherhood when it was just my baby and me in a cathedral sort of calm, cloistered off from the rest of the world and to-do lists. The miracle of what happened within my body – the laborious process of growing a human – was obvious as I held the baby in my arms. When I had that pregnancy bump, it was a visible sign of sacrificial love. Those first smiles were big returns for my investment. I felt needed. I had a great purpose. The babies needed my womb to house them. As newborns, they needed my milk and arms to comfort them. As my kids grow older, I feel more like a glorified waitress and maid. My job is to serve (and serve again) and pick up after them, and I’d better not forget to send water bottles with them to school or soccer practice. Sure, there are plenty of bigger teaching moments. I know mothers do far more than keep house, but I do struggle with this dying to self and all this quiet, unnoticed work. There has been a longing in my heart for little ones to nurture – as if I don’t still have young children underfoot (my oldest isn’t even 9 yet, but she’s getting very close!).
I could blame my internal struggle on society and the push for women to do it all. It’s easy to feel like a slacker when you only have four kids whom you no longer homeschool, and you don’t work outside of the home, and your husband even hired a house cleaning service to help you out for a bit. I mean, what exactly do I do all day?
I don’t watch TV. I don’t squander hours on Facebook. I do go to library story time with two littles. I read lots of books. I search for MIA shoes and socks. I bake muffins with sous chefs at my side. I make sure soccer cleats and shin guards are in their place for practice and that soccer balls are round with ample air. I meal plan. I wash dishes. I wipe counters. I kiss boo-boos. I encourage. I tickle. I wrestle wiggly toddlers into diapers.
But too often I am focused on all that I don’t do and on all that I lack. Or I look at my work and think it’s so mundane and useless. What’s the point? Many times I dwell on all that I do wrong: How I may have handled the emotional, raging child the wrong way, how I bark orders too much in the morning to ensure we make it to school on time, how I bite my nails, or ply my kids with Goldfish instead of making homemade crackers from the recipe I found when I was pregnant with my first. (I’m already forgetting about the homemade, healthy pumpkin muffins we made just this week.)
Then I discover notes like this: A “just because” note that should remind me that all this work I do – the routine stuff and the more important stuff too – has meaning that transcends hazardous waste removal.
Those little people do notice and they do love you even when their actions, their hurling of phrases like “I hate you” pierce your heart and cause you to collapse into a heap of self-doubt (or maybe that’s just me).
And you’re probably doing a better job than you think like this must-see video reveals. (Do watch it when you get a chance. My babysitter sent it to me recently, and it was just the pick-me-up I needed.)
I’m traveling through a rough patch right now. People said it would get easier as my kids grew older. I feel like it gets lonelier. I feel more powerless than ever before. There are all these unique people in my midst who have strong wills and their own ideas of how to live their lives. Pregnancy, nursing, babywearing – these were all more obvious signs of love. Now I am more hidden. And so is my work. Being a mom deals far more with that which is invisible. Love cannot be quantified, counted, or priced. It can only be given. Sometimes it’s given in more obvious ways like when you hold a tired child. Sometimes it’s doled out in meal after meal you serve day after day. Sometimes love is offered in a “no, you can’t have an iPod touch even if every other almost 9-year-old in the world has one.” When you give that love, you’re only given rejection and anger in return. Your work is hard. It’s tireless. It brings joy, but it hurts a lot, too. There’s nothing extravagant about it. I am not building skyscrapers. I am not piecing together perfect prose. I’m not saving lives as my husband does on an almost daily basis. There are occasional love notes and hand-picked flowers (thank God for those gifts of gratitude), but there are no raises, promotions, great accolades, and I’ll certainly never be up for a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, or even finish number one in a race. No podium climbing for me, but there’s another ascending, a drawing closer to Love itself. Motherhood is surely a path to sanctity, especially if we give our work – even the most tedious tasks a greater purpose.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wisely stated, “It is not the nature of our work, but its consecration that is the vital thing.”
All that I have and all that I do, the visible and the invisible – from the bum-wiping to the limit-setting – is not only for my family but for the greater glory as well.