Monday, September 28, 2009

The joy of motherhood

At first glance, there's nothing wrong with this advice from our First Lady:

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama says women should do what makes them happy, a lesson she says she learned after realizing her two children, her husband and her physical health feed off of her good moods.

In an interview appearing in the November issue of Prevention magazine, Mrs. Obama discusses the meaning of good health, aging and her exercise, diet and beauty routines. She sat for the interview at the White House in late July.

Like I said, nothing wrong with that, right? Pretty innocuous, puff-piece fodder. But then it gets a little interesting:

Mrs. Obama says she learned "what not to do" from her mother, Marian Robinson, who now lives at the White House.

"She'd say being a good mother isn't all about sacrificing. It's really investing and putting yourself higher on your priority list," Mrs. Obama said. She said Robinson put her own two children first, sometimes to the detriment of herself.

"She encouraged me not to do that," Mrs. Obama said.

The first lady said there are many facets to good health — physical, internal, emotional, diet — and all are intertwined.

"Throughout my life, I've learned to make choices that make me happy and make sense for me. Even my husband is happier when I'm happy," Mrs. Obama said in her first interview with the women's health monthly. "So I have freed myself to put me on the priority list and say, yes, I can make choices that make me happy, and it will ripple and benefit my kids, my husband and my physical health."

"That's hard for women to own. We're not taught to do that," she added. "It's a lesson that I want to teach my girls."

Now, I'm not trying to focus unnecessarily on Mrs. Obama. Lots of women are saying this sort of thing these days; it's a relatively new trend for moms to schedule time for themselves, or, in Mrs. Obama's parlance, put themselves higher on the priority list. Last year (and maybe before), the buzz phrase was "me time," and that was something moms didn't have enough of, and needed to make sure they got. And certainly, there's nothing wrong with the idea that moms need some time for "mom care," which in an ideal world is something that dad should be providing on occasion.

But I sometimes wonder what the women of a harder time period would have thought of these phrases. "Me time?" "Priority list?" "Scheduling time for mom?" Sure, except that the laundry, even with the minimal amounts of clothing of the past, takes two days to wash and iron, and then there's the baking and the cooking and the gardening--not frivolous flowers, but serious food--and housework that involves hauling the rugs outside and beating them, and...but you get the picture. Nobody had time for "me time" except the wealthiest people, and it never seemed to do them much good.

True, mothers really do need some time, though. Any of us knows what it's like to have the kind of day where we seem to be at the beck and call of others from early in the morning to fairly late at night. So what, if anything, bothers me about the way Mrs. Obama--and others--sometimes put it?

I think it's not so much the idea that moms need some time to themselves, as it is the concurrent idea that all those old notions about motherhood meaning sacrifice are just so much hooey. Granted, not everybody says that, and those who do often qualify the statement; but underneath, I get the sense that the connection between motherhood and sacrifice, or motherhood and vocation, is weakening under the strain of modern ideas.

And that's too bad, because I think it sets young women up with a highly unrealistic notion of just what motherhood really is. They see motherhood through the rosy glow of baby-products advertising, where Mom is always perfectly dressed, baby is always cooing charmingly, and the household purrs along so smoothly that Mom can drop baby off at a grandmotherly sitter's house, work a full day at a fulfilling job in an exciting career field, break for a soothing lunch at a trendy restaurant, swing by the grocery store or the dry cleaner's on the way back to the sitters, and still have time to play educationally relevant games with a smiling and happy infant while a healthy, well-balanced meal is cooking in her spotless kitchen. Priority list? Check! Me time? Check!

But motherhood isn't at all like that, as moms know. Whether the baby never goes to a sitter (or, more likely, a depressing and institutional-looking daycare center) because somewhere between the sleep deprivation and the hormones kicking in mom decides that she just can't, ever, trust anyone but herself to look after her child, or whether mom crawls back to work and spends the next two years falling asleep intermittently during staff meetings; whether lunch is a spatter-pattern of pureed vegetables or a greasy drive-thru stop on the way back from a diaper run; whether errands on the way home become errands with baby on the way home, which take three times as long and always involve something being forgotten somewhere; whether the "educational games" devolve into a session with a big purple dinosaur followed by a big purple wave of mommy guilt; whether the healthy, well-balanced meal cooking in a far-from-spotless kitchen is the sort that's made by the Healthy Frozen Food Company and flung willy-nilly into the microwave while the baby ramps up for Day 87 of full-voiced colic--motherhood just isn't motherhood if it isn't about sacrifice.

And that's why, I think, the Church talks about the vocation of wife and mother, understanding motherhood to be a call to service, a service that sometimes calls for the mother to dig even deeper than she ever thought possible into her reserves of patience, strength, cheerfulness, and wisdom. If motherhood is truly a vocation, though, as I believe it is, then true happiness for each woman living that call will always be found amidst living that vocation to the fullest, not in escaping from it. This doesn't mean that mother is an automaton who never needs a break; but it does make me question the approach that apparently puts mom's happiness ahead of her family. There are all kinds of happiness, after all. We might sometimes choose things that are somewhat shallow and oriented more toward our own comfort than our true happiness, given the choice; worse, we might define those things as happiness, and miss out on the best path for happiness we can have in this vocation to motherhood.

I think we need to be honest with the young women of the next generation: motherhood is sacrifice, much of the time. So is fatherhood, and so is the vocation to the priesthood or religious life; we take up our crosses, not our priority lists. But in embracing the sacrificial way of life to which God has called us for our salvation and His greater glory, we will, paradoxically, go beyond mere happiness, and find joy.


Todd said...

On the other hand, children need to realize the primary relationship within the family is the marriage. It's not only a sacramental encounter in a way that child-rearing is not, but it provides the necessary stability for healthy children. So I can buy the notion that children should not be the number one focus for the family unit.

I'm also less interested in what people say about raising children, and more what they do. To all appearances, the Obamas are exemplary parents. What doesn't appear is more or less MYOB territory.

WillyJ said...

I think it is not by chance that the book of Proverbs ends with a poem on the perfect wife (Prov 31:10-31).
As excerpted from vv 10-11;30-31:

"When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.

Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates."

+JMJ+ said...

In a similar vein, I was writing about sacrifice the other day. and reflecting on the fact that Jesus wasn't about "me" time. He came to serve not be served.

I really liked what you wrote.

LarryD said...

we take up our crosses, not our priority lists.

That's a great line.

Kim said...

Thanks, Erin.

freddy said...

I think Michelle is doing herself a disservice when she talks about "making choices that make me happy" as if service, or parenting, and happiness are two different things. Sure, maybe changing a diaper isn't fun, but it doesn't make me unhappy! It's important for moms to be healthy and happy, but it's not mutually exclusive to good parenting.

And I wouldn't go so far as to call the Obamas "exemplary parents." In spite of what ever wishes they have or precautions they take, those kids have always been very much in the spotlight, and that's not something most families would choose for their children.

MommaLlama said...

Great post, Erin. I personally consider parenting/motherhood a vocation, one in which my life is no longer 'all about me' - but about raising my children in preparation for heaven. The 'all about me' phase was pre-marrage and pre-children. If your life/career should supercede that and is so important to a person then maybe they should reconsider the notion of choosing to be a parent.

Todd said...

I wonder how much children-focused families promote narcissism. In other words, if a child grows up in a family in which adults put aside their fulfillment, does the child learn to do the same, or does the child learn to be indulged.

I wouldn't use the same lingo as Michelle Obama did, but I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that children are the only beneficiaries of sacrifice in a family. Spouses should also be making sacrifices on behalf of their partner. And yes, there are times when children need to make sacrifices for one another. Do they learn by watching parents slave for them, or will they get it when they have to do it themselves?

eulogos said...

Todd, I think you aren't talking about the same sort of thing as Erin is. You are maybe talking about the parent whose child is in three soccer leagues including indoor winter soccer, who goes to every game even though she is not in the least interested in soccer, really, and pays more than the family budget can really handle for equipment and tournaments.
Erin is talking about diapers and getting up in the middle of the night and cooking dinner every night for 20 years, vacuuming, washing, folding and putting away clothes, washing and putting away dishes and so on and so on. You may say kids should help with these jobs when old enough and I agree, but I can tell you from experience that teaching them the job and making them do it right and finish it is a sacrificial task in itself for quite a while before the child's work becomes a positive contribution. As the mother of nine I got up in the middle of the night every night for16 years or more. My babies and toddlers were hardly getting the wrong message because they were fed or changed in the middle of the night. Me time was working in the garden, which also produced food which at some points in our lives was truly necessary, or reading while nursing the baby. At certain points me time was daily mass with just the younger children. This is the reality of the life of the mother of a large family, especially a poor large family. My husband during this same time period was often working two full time jobs...or one job at which he worked 60-80 hours a week. The older kids all cleared the table, swept the floor, washed dishes, folder and put away laundry, cut and split and carried in firewood, weeded in the garden, and did tasks like putting large quantities of applesause or cooked pumpkin through a sieve. Older kids also gave toddlers baths and dressed them in their PJ's, and changed diapers. They knew they were responsible for younger kids when they were playing away from my immediate attention.

There is really enough sacrifice to go around in a large family without "mother me time" being involved.
Susan Peterson

Todd said...

Thanks, Susan, for your clear comment. I also suspect the First Lady and Erin aren't talking about the same thing.

What I read in Michelle Obama's second quote is that mothers can and should put themselves higher than they often do. There was nothing there about making "me" a higher priority than children.

I suspect that if Erin and Mrs Obama sat down and talked it out, they would find more in common than not on motherhood.

Dawn Farias said...

The "me time" advice in all the books and magazines betrayed me...

Anonymous said...

Who's to say that gaining the true promises of living a fulfilling life (in Christ) can't be truly happy for all family members participating in a family-structure that promotes well-being and growth of all members, including the mother, and not accepting that any role is inferior?

Accepting that each member of a family has a role in caring for each other is something that might not have been realized in the past, that nurturing creativity, the soul, etc. of the children is not to be delineated from any other role in the family. Family 'breadwinner' is no longer a role special to one parent (because of the low height of the glass ceiling). And, ensuring all of the child's emotional needs are met is not just the role of the parent not at work outside the home.

Ensuring in our civilized society that there is no denigration of any role in a family allows time for personal growth of all members. Depending on one's definition of happiness, of course, providing for opportunity for all to do one's best, with love, care, and support, would be enough to make me personally happy.

For example, in my career field there are many women who have returned to college for training and education in a choice that allows professional and personal growth, not allowing decades of inadequate health care limit choices. Recall that for many years, access to health care for married women depended on their fertility.

On a slightly different note, in the majority of minority families in the town where I work, the entrance for women into any health care at all is through the OB ward at delivery, oftentimes for a baby lacking inadequate prenatal care. In this population, diabetes is twice as likely to emerge as the majority counterpart (women). Women in this group have higher incidence of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Women in this minority have the highest rates of cervical cancer and second highest death rate due to cervical cancer in the US. Not a member of this minority, I cannot say for sure that lack of access to adequate screening or the family situation in general makes them any less happy. What I can say is that a significant number of these young women are not married, and it is more likely their child will receive more health care than they will.