Burnout occurs when we are out of sync with God. It happens when we shoulder a yoke that is not His. Some of you have been homeschooling for several years, following a prescribed educational plan that is not the right fit for their families. Some are just begin to educate their children at home. Readers in the first category might be finding themselves in the throes of burnout. Readers in the second category are eager to avoid it.
A few years ago, I had a two-year experience which taught me a great deal about burn out. I want to share the lessons learned in this chapter. At the beginning of my journey, we sold and bought a house in what our realtor told us was the most chaotic, brutal real estate transaction he’d ever witnessed. We moved into our new house and my husband started a new job which required him to work sixty-hour weeks and travel every weekend. Five months pregnant and determined to be perfectly settled by the time the baby came, I unpacked by myself.
In August, I jumped into a very kid-friendly, hands-on curriculum with both feet.
I started a unit study coop with five other families and volunteered to teach the first five weeks.
In October, I had a baby.
In January, our dog died.
In February, I had a brutal case of pneumonia that lasted forever.
In May, we adopted a puppy. This puppy amazed my vet with the variety and intensity of intestinal parasites he tormented us with before he was housebroken.
In July, My husband, now totally exhausted from working sixty-hour weeks and traveling every weekend spent several days in the hospital with a mysterious illness that resulted in the loss of his appendix.
Late in August, three days before school was to begin, I called every Catholic school within reasonable driving distance to see if anyone had kindergarten and third grade openings.
By the end of the day, I recognized that I had no good options. For the first time since our firstborn was an infant, I didn’t feel like I was choosing to home educate—I felt like I was being forced to because I had no alternative. But I also felt certain that home education was the will of God for our family. And God knew that I was burned out. So I took a leap of faith and begged God to help me turn things around. And I trusted that he would.
What is burnout? In her bestseller, Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach writes:
It’s burnout when you go to bed exhausted every night and wake up tired every morning—when no amount of sleep refreshes you, month after weary month. It’s burnout when everything becomes too much effort: combing your hair, going out to dinner, visiting friends for the weekend, even going on vacation. It’s burnout when you find yourself cranky all the time, bursting into tears or going into fits of rage at the slightest provocation. It’s burnout when you dread the next phone call. It’s burnout when you feel trapped and hopeless, unable to dream, experience pleasure, or find contentment. It’s burnout when neither the big thrills nor the little moments have the power to move you—when nothing satisfies you because you haven’t a clue what’s wrong or how to fix it. Because everything’s wrong. Because something’s terribly out of whack: you.
I know that my experience with burn out is not an isolated one in this community. We are women who give until it hurts. Catholic homeschooling mothers are women who embrace sacrifice and offer it up. In this community are women who spend an entire decade or more either pregnant or postpartum. There are women who have not slept through the night—any night—in ten years. There are women who, when the neighbor ladies leave the bus stop in the morning to share a cup of tea together, hunker down in their own dining rooms with their own small band of children to begin the school day. In this community are women who spend all day every day meeting the needs of small, medium and large children—sometimes all at once. In this community beat the hearts of women of extraordinary faith who are laying down their lives for their families.
While that sacrifice to fulfill Christ’s mission for this life is wholly appropriate, sacrificing at the altar of perfectionism, over commitment, and disorganization most decidedly is not.
You must take care of yourselves as well as you take care of your families. We need your hearts to keep beating. Your children need you healthy, whole, and sane. Your mission needs you. And your mission is so very important because your children are the future of the Church and the brightest hope for a troubled world
If you are burned out, there is a faint flicker of hope stirring in your soul. You want to recover. Where do you begin? As with every undertaking, small or large, you begin with prayer. Set aside fifteen minutes at the beginning of each day to be alone to meditate. Do whatever it takes. Barricade your door. Pray in the shower. Go for a walk. Just be sure that you do it every day and that you are alone with your Lord. Put yourself in the presence of the Holy Spirit and ask him to help you heal your charred and weary soul and body.
Pray for inspiration and listen to His whisperings with complete confidence that there lies the power to battle back from burnout. Remember that the power that you are seeking is the same power that created the universe out of nothing; it is the same power that parted the Red Sea. It is the power that conceived a savior in the womb of a virgin.
It is the power that raised the Messiah from the dead.
Engrave Philippians 4:13 upon your heart; it is your motto for battling back: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
If you do not have one, buy a planner. January is a great time to begin. Go tomorrow—planning is key. I like the Seven Habits planner put out by Franklin Covey.
Right now, the first rule of use for your planner is “accept no new commitments.” Learn to say, “No, I’m sorry. I have a prior obligation.” Because you do. You have an obligation to yourself and your recovery. Used properly, the Covey planner forces you to sit down weekly and commit to paper at least one thing that you will do in each of four areas—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual—to nurture yourself. Covey likens this to sharpening the saw. You can cut wood with a dull saw, but it is an arduous task. How much better would it be to take the time to sharpen the saw?
Using the Covey planner, you will be forced to chart a compass for your journey to full recovery from burnout. Once you have sharpened the saw, you are to define the roles you play and to set goals for each of them. Finally you are to commit to paper each week how you meet those goals. You absolutely must organize your time. This plan will become your prescription for healing. This is a gold mine, my friends. Permission to take care of yourself.
If you are recovering from burnout, I am going to take the pressure off by suggesting appropriate goals in each area to aid your restoration.
First to sharpen the saw:
Chances are, for the first few weeks, your physical goal should be to get more sleep. Find a way to take a nap every day and then make sure you do it. Be creative; there is a way. And it is of utmost importance.
In her classic, the Reed of God, Caryl Houselander writes:
One of our commonest natural experiences of the sense of loss is tiredness: it empties us out; it is almost as if we had let the infant fall from our tired hands.
It is useless to flog a tired mind, useless to reproach a tired heart; the only way to God when we are tired out, is the simplest wordless act of faith.
In the fall, when I was trying to discern what had gone so wrong that I was left burned out a friend reminded me of the way I take care of myself when I’m pregnant. She said, “You eat perfectly-no sugar, nothing refined, no caffeine. You measure protein in grams to be sure you get enough every day. You take really good vitamins and you never miss a day. You nap daily without apology. You exercise daily and enjoy it.
You ask for help. You do this because you know that to take care of yourself well is to take care of your baby well. Then the baby is born and you push your needs aside to meet the needs of the baby and all his newly displaced siblings. You would be better able to meet the needs of that baby and the rest of the family if you could recognize that to take of yourself postpartum and throughout their childhood is just as important as taking caring of yourself during pregnancy.”
It’s like the old analogy of the plane crash. If the plane is going down, put your oxygen mask on before you help your child. You can’t help him if you pass out.”
I am giving you permission today to take care of your physical well-being every day from this day forward.
Perhaps your mental goal will be to get outside everyday. How is this a mental goal? The outdoors will clear your mind. God is so present in nature. Every day, every day, take the children and go outside. Walk in the rain, in the snow, in the early morning sunshine of a hot July day. Early in my battle back from burnout, someone suggested I “let Mother Nature nurture.” Honestly, I dismissed this suggestion as a new-age, hippie slogan. However, it came to mind most readily when I was teaching religion to a group of small children a few weeks later. We were discussing Creation and I was telling them the story in sequence, reading from Genesis and commenting as I read. When I got to the sixth day, I stopped and pointed out to the children how the world was created and waiting in all its splendor for God’s greatest creation. We looked at pictures of mountains and oceans and animals and plants. They were impressed that God made all those beautiful things for them to enjoy.
Over the next few days I reflected upon how little time I spent outside. I spend lots of times caring for four of God’s most beautiful creations but most of that time is spent indoors (or in the car). Suddenly, I had an urge to hike in the mountains, to visit a farm, and to plant flowers.
When we moved, I thought we were moving to the country and I envisioned a slower pace in a nearly rural setting. Instead, it seems that half the world moved with us and our little town isn’t rural at all. We moved to “the country” but I spent much time driving east, toward the city. Not exactly an antidote to stress.
I discovered that I can just as easily drive west and be immersed in God’s country. The mountains are beautiful and the farms as picturesque as a postcard. It is so easy to see the hand of God in the beauty and majesty of the natural world. It is also much easier to pray when one escapes the busy motion of city life.
I have also noticed that my children are much more peaceful in the big outdoors. They love to climb trees, jump creeks, and go “mountain climbing” (hike on very tame trails in mountainous parks. We all come home rested in mind as well as in spirit.
Does Mother Nature nurture? Not exactly. But the gentle hand of God touches us all as surely as the afternoon sun and the gentle summer rain tenderly kiss our faces.
Get outside; clear your head. In no time, you’ll be thinking good thoughts. My time outside was my first taste of the Charlotte Mason homeschooling lifestyle that I know God intended for me.
Your emotional goal absolutely should be to find time to be alone. If you will bear with me, I have found a lengthy quote I think is important enough to read in full. In her new book, The Charlotte Mason Companion, Karen Andreola writes:
Before she marries, a young lady does not imagine a herself facing the difficulties of managing the complicated workings of a household. Untried responsibilities come upon her as soon as she does marry. And, perhaps, just as she is grasping the situation, her first child is born and fills her whole heart. Then, not only her own health but that of another’s depends on how she manages her life. The question of child training and how to bring up children becomes a new study and practical concern.
Another child is born who eventually becomes a sunny companion for the first. But it seems that with each passing year, a mother’s job description is revised. The desire for her husband’s love and friendship is still strong, but a careful division of her attention is given up to the various aspects of maintaining a happy, well-managed home. Time alone with her husband now seems to have to be either previously planned moments or stolen ones. There are holiday celebrations to arrange, extended family parties and visits, church functions, occasions for neighborly hospitality, etc. In the center of it all is one little woman—wife, mother, mistress all in one: As the children approach their years of more formal education, there is the organization of the home schoolroom, and thus she walks over new ground again.
Is it a wonder she feels overspent: She wears herself out. In her efforts to be dietitian, laundress, nurse, hostess, teacher, taxi driver, wife, mother, and mistress, she forgets that she needs a little time for herself. And it is then that she stops growing spiritually and mentally. Physically, she feels ragged and drags through the day until, without being able to mark the hour it began, she lives with depression. Her mind is in a drifting fog when she wants it to think clearly and efficiently. With the distractions of her multi-faceted duties she is unable to follow a train of thought. She considers herself hopelessly behind in everything. Her feet are in quagmire. It takes an incredible effort to keep up appearances, to wear a winsome countenance. The last straw is the guilt she feels that she is lukewarm in the Lord.
Karen goes on to suggest spending time alone reviving yourself. Among her personal favorite ways to spend time are: field trips for mom, time spent in a museum, enjoying good art or time at a concert, immersed in good music; time spent gardening, time engaged in stimulating conversation with other adults; time spent in prayer. Another suggestion is to keep three books going, in addition the Bible: a stiff book, a moderately easy book and a novel—always take up whichever you feel fit for. She calls this time “Mother Culture” and Charlotte Mason referred to “Teacher Culture.” These times are necessary for the teacher to bring a freshness and perspective to education.
I am not suggesting large chunks of time away, particularly if you have children under three—just a few stolen hours here and there with Dad or grandma or a willing godparent to hold down the fort. This is the most difficult of all goals for me to fulfill. I am very attached to my family and have trouble separating. Yet I know that our Lord has provided the example of time alone and I know that ultimately it benefits my family.
Your spiritual goal for the entire recovery period will remain the same. Bookend the day with prayer. Begin with the meditation time I already spoke of and end with a time to reflect. What went right that day? What went wrong? Make an earnest act of contrition and ask for grace to right the wrongs. Open your planner at day’s end and glance over what you accomplished. Transfer the uncompleted items to the following day if appropriate. Then, on the page of the day that is ending, write down five things for which you are grateful. This is not a lengthy journal entry, just a short five-item list. Here are two day’s examples from my own journal; each reflects a different attitude:
1. Aaveeno baths
2. Aveeno lotion
3. herbal tea
4. donut man videos at two a.m. when nothing else will distract from the itching.
1. Bible study with the neighbors
2. Good kids during Bible study
3. Christian’s smile and Paddy’s eyes
4. freshly laundered sheets
5. Time alone with Mike after everyone is asleep
This discipline fosters gratitude. Over time, when you know that you are to be accountable to your gratitude journal, you begin to look for things to record. Slowly you nurture a grateful heart.
When gratitude meets prayer at the end of the day, truly remarkable things begin to happen. To bring a list of things for which we are grateful before the throne of the One who created the universe is to truly give thanks. When we develop a habit of thanking the Lord for the blessings He generously bestows, we become ever more aware of those blessings and of God’s magnitude and his generosity. It really is a beautiful, grace-filled world.
To rest more and to take scrupulous care of your physical body.
To spend some time outdoors daily.
To make time to be alone.
To begin your day invoking the power of the holy spirit and end it with heartfelt gratitude.
Now let’s look at the roles you play and how they have fueled the fire of your burnout. Covey’s planning sheet provides space for seven roles. For a homeschooling parent, those goals are pretty well defined. Since you are burned out and it hurts to think, I am going to suggest some appropriate goals for each role for the next few weeks.
Your first role is that of a Christian, walking in a personal relationship with Christ. This role is separate from that of an apostle. I have found that our roles are interlaced—we don’t stop wearing one hat when we don another but it does help to artificially separate them for the purpose of clearing our vision. In order to nurture your relationship with our Lord, you must spend time with Him. Read scripture and meditate upon it daily. Do it early in the day so that you can reflect upon it as you go about your daily round.
Seek the Lord in the sacraments frequently. I suggest this with some trepidation. The idea is not to fill your calendar with more to-dos when you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. The winter I had pneumonia, I bundled four children up daily and hustled off to 9 o’clock mass. Once there I had to hold my 22 pound 4 month old the entire time while my chest burned and my head pounded. By the time I got home I was too tired to begin school and it was only 10 o’clock. Practice prudence. Ask the Lord for solutions. You need the sacraments but if you are truly burned out you do not need extra physical and tactical burdens. In hindsight, I think I should have settled for one daily mass during the week when I could duck out and leave my little ones with a neighbor.
I also strongly recommend that you seek spiritual direction. The crushing fatigue of burnout makes one vulnerable to spiritual nonsense. A competent spiritual director can show you how God plans to create good from a situation that appears very bad indeed.
Trust that, if you seek Him, God will shed light on your current darkness and he will make your recovery from burnout a time of tremendous personal growth.
Your next role is one of a wife. Share the definition of burnout with your husband. Talk to him about your needs for recovery. This is something I highly recommend. I think it is an absolute requirement if you are to recover. In his book, Men are From Mars Women are from Venus, John Gray writes that women need to be nurtured; they want someone to come alongside and take care of them. Conversely, men need to nurture. They want to be protectors. So why isn’t this the perfect match?
Because a woman waits until she is exhausted and frustrated before she blurts out every need that isn’t being met in an angry tirade or flood of uncontrollable sobbing.
This outburst of helplessness and hopelessness frightens and overwhelms a man so that he cannot meet her needs.
How much better it would be to plan to sit down and discuss in a rational manner where we need help—practically, spiritually and emotionally.
Marriage is the complete joining of two lives. If one of you is burned out, you both suffer terribly. To the men who read this article: chances are you are reading because you suspect your wife is burned out. I am so glad you are here because you can really help turn things around. You need to read this article. She needs you to read this article. But you also may be reading because you too are burned out. You truly are one body. My husband and I discovered that we both had crashed and burned and that we were handling it differently.
The night I shared the definition of burnout with my husband, he looked at me with eyes that said, “You understand. Finally someone knows how I feel.” Truthfully, this was about two months after I had discovered the definition and was working in my own life to recover. His case seemed more serious at the time and it wasn’t until much later—after he quit that job and had had time to recover—that I asked him to help me.
Women who homeschool seem to have very independent natures. We don’t easily ask for help. We don’t easily articulate our needs to the men in our lives.
We must cultivate that skill. It is important to our health and the health of our marriages. This is a journey we travel together. We need to help each other navigate.
You are not weak or inadequate if you need your husband’s help to care for your family or educate your children. You are married.
The best weeks in our household are the ones where my husband and I sit down together and look at our roles and goals and our plans to meet those goals. We help each discern what is important and what is not and how we can work together to achieve the ends we desire.
Your next role is that of a mother. This is separate from your role as a teacher. My goal for you in this realm is a very simple one. Be a friend to your children. Treat your children, no matter how young, as if they were your best friends. To some of you, this advice will seem too liberal and a sure prescription for poor parenting. Please let me explain.
When your first baby was born, chances are you treated him with the utmost kindness and careful respect. I’m willing to bet that child never heard you yell for the first few years. But as he grew and you added to your family, as the pressure to meet the needs of many individuals mounted, you became a taskmaster. The focus in your relationship shifted in subtle waves over time. Now, you are utterly exhausted and those relationships you hold most dear have deteriorated.
We are in authority over our children. God put us there. That does not mean that we must be tyrants. That does not give us license to berate, belittle, or scream at them. That does not allow us to excuse our own weakness and impatience. Remember: Charity, above all. Be a friend your child. Listen with interest. Speak with courtesy. Think of him as a friend. When he behaves in a way that would not be desired in your best friend, speak the truth in love. Must you correct or admonish? Of course you must. For this is a child. And while he is your friend, he is still growing. You must shape him so that he is a good friend.
Shortly before he died, Col. Mike Pennefather, who was widely known as an exemplary father and a wonderful friend to the homeschooling community, wrote an article where he referred to his grown children as his “best friends on this planet.”
What an incredible tribute! With that simple phrase—best friends on this planet—he speaks both of the beauty of their relationship and of the integrity and worth of his children.
Think of working toward that goal. Yes we need to form our children. We want them to be worthy and loving friends. And we need to nurture and cultivate our relationship with them. We need to be good friends to them so that they learn how to be good friends.
What does this have to do with burnout? Everything. When you treat your children as treasured friends, so much of the tension that has built in your household will dissipate. You will begin to relax and enjoy your role as a mother. You will recapture the exuberance and innocence of those early days. You will once again delight in the humorous antics and refreshing sweetness of little children. You will savor long and interesting conversations with a young teenager who is just beginning to make sense of the world.
Mama will be happier and so will her children. You will find that you are more patient; you explain your requests more completely and the compliance necessary for the smooth running of your household will follow naturally.
Now let’s talk about your other role with your children—that of teacher. Find support. You don’t need a giant group as much as you need one other mother who can lift you up. Be careful that this person does not allow you to wallow in self-pity. The best support person will offer empathy, encouragement, humor, and a spiritual kick in the pants. Maybe not all at once but certainly over time. Practically speaking, you need to have someone with whom you can leave your children during school hours when you occasionally need time to yourself—for a doctor’s appointment, to spend time alone in church, or to spend several hours de-junking your house.
E-mail support is wonderful. You can read and contribute according to your time and energy and there is a vast diversity of ideas to be tapped. Share freely. Glean wisdom wholeheartedly. You need someone to share homeschooling ideas and resources with. But be careful. No matter how much you love and respect your homeschooling buddies, you must keep your eyes on your own work. Design your educational environment to reflect your philosophy and the needs and aptitudes of your children. To do anything less is to shortchange yourself of one of the greatest joys and blessings or home education. The curriculum must serve you and your children, not the other way around. This takes soul searching. You need to really take a good long look at your learning style, your children’s learning styles, your teaching style and perhaps most importantly your lifestyle. For years, the former classroom teacher in me kept trying to recreate the perfect kindergarten in my own home.
Because of the nature of my husband’s work, we have one of the most unpredictable schedules I know. I’m also not a high energy, extremely mess tolerant person. Heavy preparation, high activity, super messy curricula fed my burnout. On the other hand, a highly structured packaged curriculum would inspire perfectionism and feed my burnout. It has taken years, but I have found a comfortable learning and teaching style that suits our family. For the first time, I am approaching the fall of a new home education year with relaxed anticipation. It feels great.
So what’s my style? It is a Charlotte Mason education, approached prayerfully, and tailored to my children. But my style isn’t what is important to this article. What is your style? Don’t buy another book, another manipulative until you take a good, long, prayerful look at yourself, your family, your home, and your goals. What approach suits you? You have your pick. Choose wisely.
While you are considering curriculum, look at the rhythms of daily life in your house. Plan, as much as possible, a logical sequence of daily events. I am not talking about an airtight schedule. Airtight schedules where you feed the baby for thirty minutes at the top the hour then play for ten then put him down for a nap and read to the toddler and the four year old for twenty minutes, then set them playing quietly for the next twenty minutes while you teach long division are just going to set you up for failure. Don’t be a slave to your schedule or your clock. Instead, work with the natural rhythm of life in your household to set up comfortable, logical, manageable routines. I am talking about taking the stress out of the things that are to be repeated everyday like meals, dressing, school-time, and chores by seeing where they fit together and then helping your family to find its rhythm. The rhythms and routines of daily life provide comfort and security to the entire family. They remove the need for constant decision making over things that should be habits and are the oil that lubricates a well-run homeschooling household.
Now, onto your role as homemaker. If you are a veteran of these conferences, you have heard the famous clutter talk. You have heard the meals in the freezer talk. You have heard how chores shape character and keep your house clean. You know that home educators have to be efficient homemakers. If you missed those talks, borrow them from a veteran. They are full of wise advice. I once heard that there are only two kinds of large families: very well organized ones or hopelessly chaotic ones. With many children there is no middle ground. I think we can take that a step further. In homeschooling households, large or small, where children are home all day, every day, there is no middle ground. We must be efficient homemakers. You have responsibility to educate yourself regarding the management of a household. I highly recommend Denise Schoefield’s books for this purpose. But don’t read them this week or next. Give yourself some time to recover first. You don’t need a huge project right now. Later, read and implement them as necessary.
But I want to address to the burned out mom who has read all the books and listened to all the advice and tried to do it all efficiently and is exhausted.
It always frustrates me to hear experienced mothers advise novices to train their children to clean the house. They outline the merits of chores and character training. Then they spend the next forty-five minutes extolling the virtues of eight, ten, and twelve year olds who are extremely capable, competent and virtuous. It is all true. It is all wonderful. But it is no consolation to the mother of five children who are seven and under and needs help now—this year. If this is your situation, no matter how well you train them, you are going to have to bear the brunt of the burden yourself.
This reality has really came home to me last summer. We had a ten-year-old boy from Belfast living with us this summer. He was a delightful child and became a fast friend of my nine-year-old. He also was capable of cleaning the kitchen, running the vacuum efficiently, and doing any other chore that was previously reserved for nine-year-old Michael to do alone. Suddenly, I had two sets of children: the older and the younger. The older could put the kitchen in sparkling order while I bathed the younger and put them to bed. The older could be trusted to efficiently tidy and clean the basement while I nap with the younger. It didn’t take them long. It wasn’t an unfair burden dumped on one child. It was a relatively quick, simple task.
Then he went home. And it was business as usual for me—battling the fatigue and nausea of the first trimester of a new pregnancy—and my one older child. We returned to an unequal balance of competent help to mess-makers.
Here are some potential coping strategies for those of us who are still primarily responsible for housekeeping:
Hire help. The first time I heard this, I laughed. Who can afford to hire help? But as Ginny Seuffert writes in Catholic Home Schooling:
This is also the time to point out a fact that many hard-working Christian women are hesitant to admit: there is no disgrace in hiring domestic help. The year I began home schooling, I used the money we had been spending on tuition and had a cleaning lady come in two or three times each week.
I could have kissed the page when I read that.
I could not have a cleaning lady two or three times a week, but we did hire help twice a month for a few months last year just to get us past the roughest spots.
I have a friend who had her fifth baby just before her oldest turned seven. On the morning before Christmas, two cleaning ladies appeared at her front door and explained that they would return every other week. Merry Christmas! Love, her husband. There is a man who understands burnout. There is a man who is close to the heart of his wife. These are not people of great means, but he looked at the cost effectiveness of cleaning help and found it a reasonable investment.
When we had three little children and a smaller house, my husband would take the boys, pick up his father and go to the grocery store once a week, detailed list in hand. Grandad, Daddy and the boys usually stopped for donuts on the way home, visited with grandma for a while and had a grand time. What was I doing? Speed cleaning. I’d load the stereo with Amy Grant and blitz through that house, reveling in the time alone. I enjoyed putting things in order, making things shine. I found peace in my well-ordered home. Mike would return home, we’d have a full refrigerator and pantry, the boys were happy, the grandparents were happy, the house was clean and I was feeling fine.
Take a look at your assets. That solution worked well for us because Mike is good at grocery shopping and actually enjoyed taking the boys to do what most consider a burdensome task. At that point in our lives, I would have rather clean the house by myself, my way, than sit down with him and divide chores.
If dad is unavailable to take the kids out, can you hire a young teenager to play in the yard for an hour a couple of times a week? Can you trade off with another homeschooling mom?
You must clear out the clutter. You must streamline and simplify your homemaking. Not today. Not tomorrow. But someday in the near future. We need time to order our environments.
There, amidst the unceasing demands of little ones, unwavering deadlines, and the stress of daily life have been moments, many moments, when I have wished I were living in a monastery. Wouldn’t it be simpler to be more prayerful, more contemplative, more peaceful in the quiet and order of a hermitage instead of being in the midst of a large family? Strangely enough, as I leafed through a monastery cookbook looking for a recipe that could easily be quadrupled, I stumbled upon this quote from The Long Rules of Saint Basil:
“In the midst of our work we can fulfill the duty of prayer, giving thanks to him who has granted strength to our hands for performing our tasks and cleverness to our minds for acquiring knowledge, and for providing the materials.”
This concept appeals to me enormously: to pray unceasingly through the work of my ordinary days, to consecrate the little things and so to live joyfully in the continual presence of God. I am not new to the idea of doing more than one thing at a time. Early in my mothering adventure, it was an idea suggested to me often. Experienced voices sung the praises of cleaning the bathroom while supervising a child’s bath, making a phone call while emptying the dishwasher, and my favorite, listening to books on tape while doing the housework. I even have a postpartum exercise book that suggests the following:
“Start your plies in the bathroom as you finish your bicep curls—then go to the bathroom. Go to the sink and do the wall push and the triceps extension while continuing to work your legs...Do the kinetic pushups standing up. Now do your calf raises while brushing your teeth. Then wash your face and continue with the plies and some kegals. Next turn on the shower and while it’s getting hot, do twenty-five to fifty controlled crunches. Take a shower.”
One can see how the idea of dovetailing can easily get out of hand. One morning, as I was brushing my teeth and supervising a youngster in the tub, I tried to answer the phone and make the bed. It didn’t work. After finishing at the sink, concluding the phone call, and toweling and dressing my son, it dawned on me that I might be taking efficiency a bit too far. In my effort to do as much as possible with a day that seemed too short, I was missing opportunities to sanctify the moment.
If we shatter time into tiny fragments we cannot be fully present in it. We cannot be conscious that our work is a prayer and find the sacred in the ordinary. We cannot feel the presence of God. To go even further, if we bustle along at this pace, we are not readily available to the people in our lives either. And, finally, we are on the short track to burnout, the inability to see, or hear, or feel, or sense the joy that is abundantly present in everyday life. We are simply too tired, too stressed, too preoccupied.
Returning to the ridiculous exercise quote, my most fruitful prayers are ones I pray while walking in the early morning. The rhythm of my feet and the wheels of the stroller in front of me, the quiet of the morning and the sounds of God’s creation in nature all work in harmony to bring together a blending of body and spirit. But this requires full time and attention to the purpose of my walking meditation. It is entirely different from cramming in as many crunches as possible before the water gets hot.
One of the best ways to experience joy in a house full of kids is to pretend you are a monk. Sanctify your movements. All of them. Slow them down. Be aware of your purpose. Give thanks for your chores. Make them holy. Make them happy.
Women need to learn that housework isn’t drudgery, it’s sacred. It’s creative. We need time to create—whether it is a well-cooked meal, fragrant loaf of bread, bright, jewel-colored jars of homemade preserves neatly decorating our pantry, a warm hand knit afghan, a lovely heirloom scrapbook, or a well-tended garden, We need to glorify the Creator and refresh our souls by creative endeavors of abundant homemaking. Get the dreary details under control so that you can live life in your home as abundantly as our Lord intended.
Prayer and housekeeping—they go together. They have always gone together. We simply know that our daily round is how we live. When we clean and order our homes, we are somehow also cleaning and ordering ourselves. We know this by virtue of being human creatures. How we hold the simplest of our tasks speaks loudly about how we hold life itself.
Take this to heart. Go about your daily round with an attitude of service, an air of peace. Homemaking is very creative. It’s hard to think of scrubbing sinks and washing diapers that way, but you can make holy even the most mundane of tasks when you approach them with a spirit of prayer and of love. Love for your Creator, who loves you abundantly and love for your family for whom you are working so hard.
Now, a word about the telephone—that tool which shatters domestic tranquility. My friend Heidi Spinelli has said that when she has a bad day she talks on the phone a lot—or is it the other way around? Look at the phone from the perspective of the people around you. They cannot see or hear the person to whom you are talking, they are not a part of the chatter and the laughter; they are definitely being ignored. Would you have an extended phone conversation with someone else if your neighbor were in your house? Would you chatter with an acquaintance while you held your beloved? Noooo.....
But do you have extended conversations while your children are about, often misbehaving in an effort to get your attention? Do you chatter in the dark while you nurse your baby to sleep? In the end, isn’t this more stressful than not? Wouldn’t it be better just to relax and enjoy some quiet time with that sweet, warm baby? Here again, we sanctify the moment instead of shattering it. Learn to use the answering machine, the caller id and best of all, e-mail Remember, treat your children with the respect and courtesy you would your friends. They will learn the same courtesy.
Finally, you are an apostle. I put this role last because I believe that your role as a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a homemaker comprise your primary apostolate. When you plan apostolic endeavors, remember your primary apostolate. Resist the urge to over-commit to every good and worthwhile endeavor, leaving your children in grave danger of becoming apostolic orphans. Be discerning in your choice of apostolates. Strive for balance.
Pay careful attention to apostolic works you can do from home. These are powerful witnesses to your children. To this end, I gather the neighborhood children twice a week for religious instruction. A great benefit to this is that there no longer exists an artificial separation of church friends and neighborhood friends for my children.
I also offer a Bible study for neighborhood women weekly in my living room. It is mentally challenging and spiritually enriching for me and the women tell me that they have learned more about their faith in last eighteen months than in the previous thirty years.
We are each called to different apostolic works depending on our gifts, our temperaments, our health and the need of our families. When we look carefully at these characteristics we can discern what it is that God wants us to do. He knows those characteristics. For us to ignore them and plow ahead because we consider a cause virtuous is to risk missing God’s whisper.
God does not want you to be ill, exhausted, angry and frustrated. If you are burned out, He is providing an opportunity for you to examine your life and His call.
Remember to sharpen the saw:
Take care of yourself physically as if you were caring a precious child within—you are. That child is you beloved daughter of God.
Nurture your emotional health by spending time alone.
Drink in the beauty of the natural world and thereby clear your mind.
Begin your day asking for the help and grace of God and end it with gratitude.
In your role as a Christian, take time to build a personal relationship with Christ through prayer and the sacraments.
Seek spiritual direction.
In your role as a wife, share with your husband the definition of burnout and your struggles with it. Share honestly how you want him to help you.
In your role as a mother, be a friend to your children.
In your role as a teacher, seek a homeschooling friend to share burdens and joys with. Discern prayerfully what you true teaching and lifestyles are and then make the curriculum work for you. Be sure to take time for teacher workdays alone.
In your role as a homemaker, determine what you can do alone reasonably and then come up with a ways to get help with the rest.
Find the rhythm you need to establish routines in all three goals: mother, teacher, and homemaker.
As an apostle, strive for healthy balance and look for opportunities to serve from your home or with your children beside you. Do not make apostolic orphans of your kids.
Stephen Covey likens living according to your personal compass, such as the one outlined above to taking a plane trip. You will not be on course the whole time. You won’t even be on course most of the time but if you keep coming back to the plan, you will arrive at your destination. The ultimate destination is heaven. Remember that our Lord is your navigator. Consult Him continuously. I wish you Godspeed on your journey.
Copyright Elizabeth Foss 2001. All rights reserved.