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Monday, February 07, 2005

Stay-at-home motherhood: domestic bliss?

I read with interest a recent article at titled, “The Real Life of an At-Home Mother.” (Subtitled “desperate housewives.” Ha ha...yet it rings true, I’m afraid)

Says author Carla Barnhill,

Certainly being home with our children can be deeply satisfying, and I don't mean to suggest that it is hard and frustrating all day, every day. But the beautiful part of motherhood gets talked about all the time, particularly in Christian literature. What doesn't get addressed often enough is that along with the wonder and delight of raising children come intense challenges that can leave women emotionally raw.

Yes indeed.

On the surface, our Christian culture has begun to acknowledge the difficulties of being a stay-at-home mother. A whole new crop of books on the Christian market caters to the stressed-out mother and encourages her to lean on God through this often-trying season of life. But those books never address the idea that perhaps being a stay-at-home mom is difficult for some women because we have heaped an impossible load of expectations on Christian mothers, expectations that are bound to be dashed.

Certainly expectations are part of it. But what of habits in which we’ve been raised? You know – order your life a certain way, keep everything picked up & dusted & vacuumed & cleaned, maintain hygiene, make doctors’ appointments, wash the clothes, make sure the clothes are in decent shape & fit OK, keep the TP stocked, keep the fridge & pantry stocked, cook nutritious meals, etc. etc.... In other words, keep on top of everything, which, if you can’t afford a housekeeper, means run yourself ragged from sun-up to sun-down, especially if you’ve got a “difficult” baby and/or toddlers and no children old enough to help.

Not to mention the “personhood” one has developed – talent-training & schooling one grew up with, including 4+ years at college, probably, and the identity one has found in these things.

Then there are societal, and individual, expectations of an “enlightened” society in which we seek to develop our children’s talents. So commences the mad scurrying to this lesson and that class, to this store to purchase these supplies, uniforms, etc., not to mention the practice time required at home. How can anyone possibly keep up?

Put sleep deprivation on top of that, a breast-fed baby who refuses to fall into a routine and sleeps fitfully or sporadically, and you’ve got a mom who can barely manage bare necessities, let alone look presentable to the outside world & have a house fit to walk around in let alone qualify for the cover of Better Homes & Gardens.

Barnhill quotes a woman names Alana, who says,
"I got blindsided by the responsibility, the emotional ties, the worry, the exhaustion, the discipline issues, and the day-to-day care of children. The reality for me is that motherhood is very draining and tiring and humbling. On a regular basis I feel like a failure as a mom.”

Why does Alana feel like a failure as a mom? Why do moms feel like failures when they’re struggling? Why, when we are dead tired, frustrated, vexed, puzzled, physically miserable, and unable to manage everything on our plates, are we convinced that we’re failing?

Is it because of an unrealistic picture of June Cleaver motherhood? Is it because others reinforce this feeling in us because of their spiffy, suave, working-woman, house-looks-great lifestyles? Because we feel we must be the perfect servants, always attending to every imaginable need and solving every imaginable problem? Because no one likes to talk about the ugly realities of motherhood? Because it’s awfully hard to get help if one doesn’t have family in town, or can’t afford to hire it? Because of lack of support? Because American society values appearance and all its marvelous programs that require people (often volunteers) to run them, which, if everyone stayed home to take care of their families, there would be no to help with? Including all the millions of things that need to be done @ church?

It's undoubtedly hard for many mothers to ask even friends for help when their self and their house are a mess. Because there’s such a societal standard for appearances, it’s awfully embarrassing to be seen looking like a rag heap and needing a shower!

Continues Alana,
My walk with the Lord has suffered since I became a mom. Spending time with God feels like another obligation—just one more person wanting something from me....

I can relate to that over-obligated feeling, but surely this feeling comes from what some person or book has told us we need to do, not from what God actually requires of us. I certainly didn’t have much of an organized “quiet time” or personal Bible study or even regular church attendance when my kids were infants, because I was merely struggling to survive. Yet, internally I still sought God. He knew my heart. He knew my circumstances. He knew things wouldn’t be this way forever; that, after several months or even years, the time would come when life would settle down and get a rhythm back.

Says Alana,
“What most stimulated and satisfied me was often not possible to have in my life.”

This was very hard for me. Leave the “often” part out. There was virtually none of that when my children were babies. I mean, not even basic things like being able to take a shower, trim my nails, use the bathroom without a baby hanging on me in a sling, have the house even marginally kept, have a conversation without constant distraction or interruption, follow through on anything, have a thought to myself, keep up with mail, phone calls, bills, car repairs, laundry, shopping, have basic physical, mental, or emotional comforts, etc. etc. etc.

I mean, sure, I got a few of those, few and far between. But my tank was so low, it was barely enough to get any mileage off of.

Even the delight I wanted to share with my children when they were babies/toddlers was difficult to enjoy because of constant struggles. Never mind the extreme sleep deprivation; how many times did I finally get started off to the grocery store only to have to turn around and go home because the baby wouldn’t stop screaming? How many times did my son’s diaper fall off because I couldn’t hold him down & change it properly at the same time? How many times did I take him out in public in his PJ’s because getting him dressed was impossible?

How many days on end did I wear ancient sweatshirts/sweatpants, covered with stains, spit-up, diaper leaks, you name many times did I put in VeggieTales videos for my toddlers just so I could appreciate the jokes meant for parents? How many times did I near-to-die just to be able to savor a Starbucks latte? It sounds ridiculous to ask that, and pathetic, and even selfish, but if you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I mean.

Despite all this, I did enjoy the enjoyable things about my babies, and there were plenty of those. But what was difficult was that I was completely wrapped in that motherhood bubble, and it seemed like the rest of the world was somewhere out there & I had no idea what was going on in it. I started to find it difficult to even have a normal social conversation; it was like I had moved to another land and spoke a different language.

But I did (and still do) savor every positive moment I could get with my children; I cherished their babyhood and treasured them beyond compare. And I gave my all to deal with the challenging moments appropriately and prayerfully. I tried to look to the future, persevering in the hopes that it would all pay off. And, I can say it has already paid off, though I claim little credit.

Continues Barhill:
These are the women sitting in our churches, the women who are doing their best with very little rest or support. These are the women we are telling to do more and to do it better. And we are killing them.

Sadly, so many of us hide our sense of disappointment and our discontent with our lives as stay-at-home mothers because we've been taught that this is the life God wants for us, that to want something more is selfish and worldly. We are afraid to admit that our lives aren't what we hoped for because to do so would be to reveal some deep moral flaw. That fear isn't irrational. Unfortunately, it gets reinforced on a regular basis.

Yep. Although I think there may be moral flaw involved. It can be terribly difficult to draw the line between having a reasonable hope for a relatively held-together life and a selfish, worldly wish. I sure had trouble discerning that line during those years when my kids were really little.

Rather than puttering and gardening and cooking being the keys to our happiness, they are, for many women, the bane of our existence. If anything, we put too much emphasis on creating a perfect home complete with handmade centerpieces and memory books filled with theme stickers and cropped pictures of the kids at the beach. There is tremendous pressure to prove to the world that we are capable of caring for our families if only to show the secular culture that this is the life that comes from living obediently. To fail at this is to fail at God's plan. (emphasis added)

Yes! It’s a version of the “prosperity doctrine:” all goes well for those who do all the right things. Wrong wrong wrong!

Stay-at-home motherhood truly is a mission, one into which not all of us are led—those, for instance, who need constant support and opportunities for respite.

Oh, no Carla – why is it a matter of “leading”? I wonder if, for the mothers who need constant support and opportunities for respite, God didn’t purpose for others to help them out!!

What we need from the church is not a set of unreasonable expectations but encouragement and prayer that God will keep giving us endless reserves of patience, compassion, wisdom, and love. [and sleep] We need other adults in our lives who are willing to listen when we need to vent, who will take the kids at the drop of a hat, and who will occasionally ask our opinion on something other than potty training.

Or, not ask us about something that we haven't even thought about in months and months... :-)

We need to know that we are free to listen to God's voice and follow God's leading—whether that is into our homes or into an office.

Well, maybe. But the fact is, women, including mothers, have physical, mental, and emotional limitations regardless of whether their own or society’s expectations are realistic or not. Society needs to get down and dirty with the realities of motherhood, and help these heroes of our civilization out! (Not that I consider myself a hero...but I recognize the importance and value of motherhood.)

Barhill concludes by telling of a stay-at-home friend of hers who she admires greatly. She says,
What's interesting about Jill's involvement in running (marathons) and in organizing the Bible study (in home) is that neither activity is directly connected to her children. But for Jill, devoting some of her time and energy to these pursuits teaches her children something valuable. She says, "I feel like both of these areas—the running (exercise) and the small groups (fellowship)—are good for my kids to witness and emulate themselves as they grow. I feel like I'm modeling a lifestyle, not just doing what I want."

I was interested to read this because I’ve felt this way about the activities I do that are not directly related to my children. I also feel that children need to learn not to expect Mommy to be directly attending to them constantly, nor instantly meeting their every need, i.e., that they are the center of the universe. Not that I believe this so much for when they are very little, but, once they are capable, I think it’s healthy for them to learn it. It’s what may have been referred to as teaching “independence” in the olden days, though I dislike that concept; I don’t think children should be taught “independence” as much as resourcefulness, patience, and fortitude.

Anyway, I would like to see dialogue continue on the subject of the realities of motherhood, and to see more effort made toward truly embracing all of its aspects by mothers, families, churches, and society alike.


  • Bonnie,

    I am not a mommy ;-), but can I jump in here? :-)

    Highly thot provoking piece. Your "mommy posts" are by far my favorites.

    Unlike 99 percent of the working dads out there, I work at home ... and, we homeschool ... and, we have four children. I get to see my wife in action as mommy a lot. I am amazed at the constant demands from sun-up to sun-down. The sentiment you express and Carla expresses ring true. My wife expresses them too. Interestingly, one that I hear from wifey when she is at the end of her rope is "you get to go escape into your blog, but where can I go?"

    I try to encourage her to have little escapes. She likes that, until she comes back to the house and it looks like the "Cheaper By The Dozen" house after mom has been gone a week ;-) We are working on that.

    The thing that made me squirm about Carla's sentiment was the stuff about "God's voice, and leading". That is a very subjective, emotion driven way to make important life decisions. Unless God is speaking to you audibly, I really think you should consult the Bible to draw principles to live by. The heart is deceitful (Jer 17), and I fear that women that follow Carla's "only if you are led" advice may reject stay at home motherhood because God spoke to them. This opens the door wide open for "me-ism" baptized in religious lingo. By all means, take it to the Lord in prayer. But open your Bible and read it too. Seek godly counsel from people you respect and are not afraid to tell you the truth.

    The answer to a lot of mommy-stress, as you allude to, is in having support. The enormous demands of raising children and running a home call out for us to die to self ... especially husbands ... and be others oriented. The secondary support of a covenant community is huge too. We are meant live in a community of faith ... where we are willing to be inconvenienced by one another to help one another. We are asked to lay down our idols of comfort and convenience and act like the body of Christ. We need to live real lives, not wear masks showing that we have it all together or masks of victimhood. Just be real, authentic, needy at times, and willing to help one another. And one thing I always long for is to find a church that really, really practices Titus 2. I long to see women minister to women intergenerationally. What I usually see is the older women go hang with the older women, while the younger women drown. Ok, enuf blathering on my part.

    Ok, a question for you Bonnie. Have you even noticed the amnesia phenomenom among our mothers? My mom raised four children at home and seems to have few negative memories about it. She simply cannot recall that many hard times ... she does have a few stories, but the preponderence of memories bring smiles to her face. My wife's mom is the same way. Is this God's gift to mothers? Have you ever observed this? Your thots?

    By Blogger The Dawn Treader, at 7:23 AM  

  • Hi Bonnie!

    Molly at wrote an article about your post, but can't comment here because no anonymous comments are allowed (she's at blogdrive, not blogspot).

    Wanted to let you know. I'm really glad she linked to your great blog! :)

    By Blogger Kristen, at 5:39 PM  

  • I used to think about what it would be like to have real family--a mom who doesn't work, aunts, sisters, mother-in-law, etc--women who come together and help and teach and encourage. How wonderful would that be! How can we today encourage this for the next generation? I seriously can't wait for grandchildren so I can do all those things I longed for someone to do for me. For instance, dropping by to help my daughter catch up on housework not just to 'hold the baby.' (Most days my babies didn't want someone else!)

    I do think that is what the problem is. The network is gone. Moms who stay at home are isolated and alone and are on their own. Thankfully I have a husband who steps in to help me get time to fill my tank.

    By Blogger Lyn, at 10:43 AM  

  • Hi Jeff, thanks so much for your comment! It’s great to hear from a daddy :-)

    I am with you on the “God’s leading” stuff. To me, God’s leading is about examining one’s heart alongside God’s teaching and truths, as you said. We need to take each moment or each occasion and ask, “what should I be doing about this,” or, what should I be doing at this moment?”

    (I wholeheartedly agree with your so-called “blatherings,” I could’ve blathered them myself!)

    On your question about the amnesia phenomenon: yes, most definitely I have noticed it. Not just in others but even in myself. Let’s face it; most women, if their memory of labor stayed full and present, would never have more than one child!

    I suppose this amnesia could be looked at as God’s gift to certainly is a gift! But I think it’s similar to what happens with any traumatic situation; over time, the worst of it wears off. And obviously, no one wants to remember the “bad” stuff; it’s not very pleasant! I think that mothers treasure their children more deeply than they can possibly express, which really makes them want to maximize the “good” and minimize the less-than-pleasant (unless they fall into victimhood, as you said).


    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:53 PM  

  • Lyn, I am right there with you. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Even now, I wish that one of my friends would call me in the middle of the night so I could go and walk her baby from, say, 2 am to 6 am, and she could get some sleep! It would do my heart tremendous good to be able to do this.

    The network most definitely is gone. How can we get it back? Boy...well, probably someone needs to write a book, and then it needs to catch on (“Purpose-Driven Motherhood,” maybe?), and be used as the basis for sermons, Sunday School classes, church women’s group meetings, etc. Let’s start praying!!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:58 PM  

  • I have always missed my family in Indiana, even though I never lived near them. My parents moved away, but all my other relatives live in a small town and have that sort of community that includes drop-in visits and helping out.

    I have taken steps to recreate that community with my friends. I have a small group of about 7 women on whom I can count on to help out at the drop of a hat. We meet together one morning a week to sing worship songs and pray together. One friend came over this week to help me clean my house because I felt overwhelmed. Another friend dropped her afternoon plans to help one woman who had locked her keys in the car and needed a ride home for a back-up set. We cook for each other, cry for each other and celebrate for each other. I can't begin to tell you what a blessing that group is.

    I hope mothers who feel lonely and isolated will take time to form such a group. It can't be too difficult to find other mothers who feel isolated and schedule 2 hours a week to gather in a dirty living room among the laundry for prayer. (The important thing is to warn people that cleaning up ahead of time is forbidden!)

    Blessings to you all.

    By Blogger Jan, at 10:01 PM  

  • That is awesome, Jan. I'm so glad for you and the other mothers in your group, and appreciate very much that you shared about it here.

    I would've done anything to have a group like that. You wouldn't think it should be so hard to get one together, but honestly I didn't actually find a group of girlfriend/mothers until about a year and a 1/2 ago.

    (I think it may have to do with the fact that people in this area kind of keep to themselves, in general...or seem wrapped up in their own lives.)

    Sometimes I wonder why...why didn't God "deliver" me when I so badly needed it? The only thing I can think is that He wanted to show me some things, and maybe also wants me to be an empathizer and a spokesperson on behalf of struggling mothers.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:38 PM  

  • I don't mean to sound harsh, but women who stay home should count their blessings. You have husbands who support you in being the primary caregiver. If you have never worked outside the home while trying to raise children, esp in a VERY demanding job, you have no idea the WHOLE OTHER WORLD OF stress that you DO NOT deal with! I would just about die to stay to home with my daughter, but it is not an option right now. My husband is self employed and I have the primary bread winner for years. I manage more than 50 employees and I can't sleep at night because of stress at work, worrying about my daughter, etc. I am up at 5 AM and in bed at 10 PM and I never sit in between. I work 45+ hours a week at the office and take care of daughter all the hours before and after. I have to deal with people thinking I leave "early" when I leave at 5 PM and other women in my family thinking I am a bad mother. I am praying that this will change in about a year. Until then, please ladies, thank the Lord that God gave you a man who provides for you and that your stress is at least in one area. My daughter may wake me up in the middle fo the night, but then I can't fall asleep because I am thinking about that report I need to do, that raise I need to give, that person I need to fire, the millions of dollars I need to generate in revenue for the company, did I make her doctor appointment, when should we plan for the next baby, can we afford another baby, how will I take care of 2 kids and work these hours, did I respond to that email...etc..etc..etc. You all may be tired, but trust me, it is exhausting trying to do 2 jobs and please dozens and dozens of people. Again, kiss your wonferful husbands for going out there every day and providing for your family so that you can do the MOST important job in the world. And trust me when I say that employees are also like children...I often can't go to the bathroom at work, get a bite to eat, get a minute to myself...there is NO ME TIME at all. My heart rate is always through the roof and I have to take sleeping pills (rarely do b/c don't want to get dependant) to get just 6 hours of sleep. It ain't easy on this side of the fence either.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:49 AM  

  • This is a great post, but what I really want to jump in here to respond to is the last comment by Anonymous. Hon, I understand you have a lot on your shoulders, a lot more than I could imagine (as a stay at home mom myself), but you have a lot of verve posting the way you did. It is one thing for us to encourage each other to be thankful for our blessings (and yes, I know I have a lot of them!), but your 'be thankful' looks to me like putting religious clothing on trying to out-complain someone. Babe, you're having a pity party. True, the original post was about the harder (hardest?) parts of stay-at-home motherhood, but both the original article (based on what is quoted above) and the OP were careful to keep it from becoming an in-the-gutter pity party, IMO.

    Your comments remind me of someone telling a woman who's miscarried how thankful she should be that she didn't have a stillbirth. Not that the troubles of stay-at-home moms are the equivelent of a tragedy by any stretch, but it's this one-upmanship that says one persons troubles don't count if yours are worse. It's horribly insensitive.

    HOWEVER, we all need to vent sometimes, and perhaps you just needed that. I hope it let some steam off. Do try to consider whether there may be a better forum for that in the future, than raining on someone's stay-at-home-mothering-is-hard-but-worth-it parade.

    Question (no need to respond): Has your husband EXPLICITLY forbidden you from quitting your job? Have you considered approaching him with a plan to gradually scale back your hours while adjusting your budget, trying to save on groceries, etc.? You do say that you are praying that things will change in about a year, but you don't give any indication of what that actaully means- such as whether your husband is expecting the same change you are and this is a joint hope/plan, or you are staying silent but hopeful, or what. I just wonder if this situation is ENTIRELY unavoidable. I know there ARE exceptions, and I am not trying to beat you up or anything, but generally if we regard something as essential (such as mothering our own children rather than delegating that responsibility) then we make it happen. Of course, this may indeed be part of the issue. The way you say you would 'die' to stay at home with your daughter, it sounds like you see it as a luxury. I can see that perspective, especially in your situation. But you don't mention anything that indicates you see it as a necessity- as in, "If there were ANY other way, I would be at home raising her myself."

    All the above is conjecture, simply put forth for you to think on and certainly reject what doesn't apply. You don't give enough info in the post for me to be sure about any of the things I bring up, but then, that probably wasn't your intent.

    Now, for the thing that BURNS me up... You say that in the middle of the night, you worry about two things (among others): 1)when should we plan for the next baby, and 2) how will I take care of 2 kids and work these hours. Wow! I really, literally can't believe you!

    The answer to these questions is simple, in my mind. 1)You should plan to concieve (not birth) the next baby AFTER you are no longer working outside the home. Not only do your children need your full attention at this age, but that kind of stress is NOT good for a pregnancy, and DOES affect a child permanently. It would be one thing if you and your husband were convicted not to use birth control, but since that obviously isn't an issue for you, how could you even think of bringing another child into your chaos?!? 2)You can't! You shouldn't even try! If you mean keeping them fed, clothed and under a roof, sure, but if you mean providing for all the things their little souls need, there's no way. They need YOU. Little ones are made to be cared for by their MOMMIES. Period.

    I am not trying to rake you over the coals here... I want the best for you and your babies. I strongly believe that means you being at home to raise them. I hope you will consider my words. If you are still reading (even if you think I'm a flaming idiot or entirely cruel) you may be interested in reading Parenthood by Proxy by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. If she broadcasts where you are, you might want to listen to her show as well. It's entertaining, and educational. :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:27 AM  

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