Monday, May 14, 2007
There was a poem I loved in college, most of which escapes me now except for the first line: I am the keeper of unusually small spaces. The meaning I originally assigned to that phrase was probably wrapped in allegory, but now I find the literal interpretation to be understatedly beautiful. My entire world is encompassed within 2000 sq ft. The borders of my kingdom are invisible on a map, or on the pulse of current cultural trends declaring what is relevant and worthwhile. But the unusually small spaces that I keep, as anonymous and unglamorous as they are, I guard with ferocity. These spaces provide the soil in which my children will develop roots and blossom, according to the nutrients provided. As their keeper, it is up to me to tend to my tiny slice of earth with diligence, and a firm conviction that no other profession in the world is of greater importance.
I will never forget the claustrophobia I felt when the walls initially began to close up around me. My husband, Troy, was heading back to work for the first time since Elijah was born. He kissed me on the forehead, and walked through the door to join the human race. I watched him out the window from the rocking chair motherhood had nailed my backside to, and fought back tears of loneliness. During my last few weeks at work I had daydreamed about that moment (me in a peaceful, quiet house with my newborn baby). In my softly lit imagination, I was completely tranquil for the first time in my life. I hadn’t realized that the stress of going, going, going, had come to define me, had become the context out of which I most naturally functioned. Up until that point, stillness was something I had enjoyed immensely doled out in small pieces at a time. I splashed around in it for refreshment, and then headed back to the quicker pace I was accustomed to. But this kind of stillness, one without borders, was like being dropped in the middle of an ocean with no view of land in sight. My only choice was to start treading water or to drown.
I always loved the mornings. Freshly brewed coffee and daylight signaled new beginnings as Elijah and I snuggled close and listened to the radio. In the morning, my head was swimming with ideas and hopefulness. It was later in the day, when the sun’s rays felt stale and stifling, and when the hours till evening stretched on for miles, that the panic would set in. My ambitious plans for organizing, getting in shape, and baking from scratch crumbled under the stop and go pace of bouncing, washing, and changing the baby. How was it possible that absolutely nothing was getting done, that one tiny child could take up so much of my time and energy? I would dream of getting out, of wearing jeans and make-up. The night before a scheduled excursion, I could hardly sleep from excitement. But when I stepped back into my old world, I felt like the girl who went on vacation and came home to find her best friend had replaced her. I was a third wheel now, struggling to maneuver my stroller through aisles designed for pedestrians only, and folding my arms over the circles of leaky milk saturating my carefully chosen sweater. Things had sure changed since I’d been gone.
No matter how much you thought you hated your job (of course, it's worse if you loved it), there are aspects of being in the workplace surrounded by people that make staying at home a real adjustment. Getting up at the same time each day, taking a shower, putting on clothes with zippers and buttons, leaving the site of an unmade bed behind, occupying your mind with projects, deadlines, and phone calls: all of these things became as familiar as a well-worn glove, and their absence makes life feel strangely bare. By removing conversation from my daily routine, that which prevented my thoughts from turning inward, I suddenly became aware of previously hidden aspects in my character. This experience was very disorienting.
The stillness surrounding stay-at-home motherhood represents in this day and age a “road less traveled.” Our modern society encourages speed and constant busyness. By occupying our minds, bodies, and senses with outside stimulants, it is possible to avoid for a lifetime thinking even once about the state of our souls. For instance, I would have never listed impatience as one of my many character flaws until I discovered how easily unglued I could become over spilled juice, a distracted three-year-old, or a needy infant. Every responsibility we have as mothers is a priority. Whether it be cleaning the house, making meals, nursing the baby, reading to a preschooler, doing laundry or yard work, or keeping up with friendships. Wanting to accomplish all these tasks in a single day is commendable but hopelessly impossible.
When your six-month-old has a cold or fever and needs the security of her mother’s arms, you sit with that stillness for hours on end comforting your child, an act of love for which you will never be publicly commended. Quieting those voices in your head, berating you for getting nothing else done, takes great courage and mental tenacity. Most stay-at-home mothers do not have the luxury of pacifying their internal restlessness with a movie, shopping, or a lunch-date whenever the impulse presents itself. Instead, when at the peak of our frustrations, we have one choice: to either stew in our anger or evolve into a more flexible and forgiving individual.
There are many acts of bravery that can characterize an individual as being strong. Staying home to raise a child requires most of them, but these are performed without accolades, medals, or standing ovations. A mother who can endure the stillness—accept her doubts, come face to face with her biggest fears and not look away—must watch her world unravel. She will find out she is not perfect, she has limits, and her love alone will not guarantee the safety and happiness of her family. Accepting weakness requires bravery and great faith. It forces us to enter into each moment, task, and conversation with a prayer for guidance. Stillness teaches us, through self-sacrifice and humility, to let go of expectations, unclench our fists, and open our hands and hearts to a broader reality and a bigger purpose.
Yes, many of our maternal tasks seem mundane. Our battles can feel small and trite when compared to those doing more “worthwhile” work—like fighting hunger, defending freedom, or protecting the poor. There are days you will want to scream, “This is pointless, useless, a waste of time!” But this is where real courage begins! We quietly sweep the floor, braid ponytails, pour the milk without complaining, and to the best of our ability send a silent message to the little eyes always watching that they are more than worth every effort we put forth on their behalf. In her autobiography The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day writes, “most of our life is unimportant, filled with trivial things from morning till night. But when it is transformed by love it is of interest even to the angels.”