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